Thursday, July 6, 2017

Review of Dillard - JEFFERSON DAVIS'S FINAL CAMPAIGN: Confederate Nationalism and the Fight to Arm Slaves"

[Jefferson Davis's Final Campaign: Confederate Nationalism and the Fight to Arm Slaves by Philip D. Dillard (Mercer University Press, 2017). Hardcover, photos, notes, bibliography, index. Pages main/total:283/293. ISBN:978-0-88146-605-8. $35]

Philip Dillard's Jefferson Davis's Final Campaign: Confederate Nationalism and the Fight to Arm Slaves is the latest book to examine the late-war Confederate dialogue regarding the enlistment of armed slaves in the army. The book's introduction offers a brief but insightful survey of studies that have addressed the topic so far. According to Dillard, Robert Durden's The Gray and the Black scrutinizes the debate at length but its perspective is limited to Richmond, and Bell Wiley's Southern Negroes doesn't go much beyond a descriptive account of the process involved in putting blacks into the ranks. In the author's estimation, the Deep South debate over arming slaves is best handled in Clarence Mohr's On the Threshold of Freedom. Like other critics, he finds that Ervin Jordan's Black Confederates and Afro-Yankees in Civil War Virginia considerably overstates the level and character of black loyalty to the Confederacy. The most recent study is Bruce Levine's Confederate Emancipation. In Dillard's opinion, Levine's investigation failed to penetrate Confederate society beyond the elite proslavery ideologues and erroneously concluded that Confederate racial views remained constant to the end and Davis was never serious about emancipation. Dillard's Jefferson Davis's Final Campaign instead argues that an extensive national conversation on the issue occurred. Led by Davis and his allies, the campaign convinced much of the Confederate population (rich and poor) to break decisively with the core of diehard elites resistant to altering the racial status quo. In this view, the successful movement to arm slaves (and the promise of freedom that that entailed) represented a truly revolutionary change in white-black relations in the Confederate states. In the end, Confederate nationalism was redefined as broad swaths of every southern white socio-economic strata declared a willingness to sacrifice the very foundation of their cause for national independence.

Though Dillard cites soldier petitions as well as some diary and letter evidence contained in other published sources in his study, newspapers and letters to the editor overwhelmingly comprise the supporting primary source documentation for his arguments. In order to compile representative views from all parts of the Confederacy, the author pored through eight Virginia, thirteen Georgia, and seven Texas newspapers. Not only does this methodology of selection take into consideration all three major geographical theaters of war (East, West, and Trans-Mississippi), but Dillard's carefully chosen examples also astutely address the localized views and concerns of the different economic and political subregions within those states. Accounted for as well are the widely varying civilian experiences of direct Union invasion and hard war between and within Virginia, Georgia, and Texas.

Dillard usefully divides the debate over arming slaves into three distinct phases. While individuals broached the topic of arming slaves as early as the last half of 1863 (after that summer's twin military disasters at Gettysburg and Vicksburg), the debate reached all levels of society beginning with Jefferson Davis's November 1864 address to the Confederate Congress. In that speech he proposed that 40,000 slaves be taken into the army in non-combat roles in return for which they would receive their freedom. Many newspaper editorials and reader responses endorsed this move, even though it was widely recognized at the time that recruiting blacks to serve as army pioneers, teamsters, and cooks was likely only the first step taken toward eventually arming them. Those newspapers hailing from areas with local economies least dependent on plantation slavery were among the first to respond favorably to the plan. On the other side, there was also significant opposition to Davis's proposal on both constitutional/states's rights and ideological grounds.

The second phase of the debate was prompted by the string of military catastrophes that closed out 1864, most notably the crushing Confederate defeat at Nashville, the shattering conclusion to Sterling Price's Missouri campaign, and the Union capture of Savannah at the end of General Sherman's destructive march through Georgia. Even after being presented with such evidence of impending defeat, many citizens still regarded the military situation during winter 1864-65 as not so dire as to need black reinforcements. However, many other editors and readers in Dillard's sample (especially those in Georgia and Virginia) cast aside their earlier hesitations and openly advocated arming black soldiers in numbers ranging from 100,000 to 300,000. The most radical proslavery adherents continued to object on constitutional grounds and still insisted that making slaves soldiers was tantamount to admitting that slavery was wrong and freeing them was conceding to the North and to the rest of the world that the very foundation of Confederate society (that slavery was the ideal social condition for black welfare in America) was a monstrous mistake. Amazingly, some even referenced ethical concerns over the injustice that would be the lot of black soldiers fighting for a cause that kept their race in bondage. According to these diehard proslavery advocates, redoubling efforts at conscription and convincing deserters to return was the only honorable option for filling Confederate ranks. Others proposed cynically clever measures to address the 'rich man's war, poor man's fight' outcry. In their view, instead of freeing black soldiers for their service, the slaves would be awarded to poor whites in the army, a policy aimed at bonding common soldiers to the proslavery cause while also answering charges that the rich were not sacrificing enough. On the other side, many others (slaveholders and non-slaveholders alike) were rapidly coming to the conclusion that emancipation was preferable to defeat and subjugation, and that Confederate failure to employ all means possible for sustaining army manpower was proving to be a major blunder. Whether they wanted to or not, all sides recognized that employing slaves in the army in the kind of numbers referenced above meant the death knell of slavery.

The third and final phase of the debate began with the rebuff of the Confederate peace commissioners at the February 1865 Hampton Roads Conference, an event that finally convinced everyone in the South that no negotiated settlement with the North that would end in southern independence was possible. By this late date, Dillard argues for the likelihood that a majority of the Confederate population was supportive of arming blacks and trading emancipation for independence. Many soldiers in the Petersburg trenches openly advocated this view. During this end period of the debate, cracks also finally emerged among the proslavery radicals (even those located in faraway Texas), although most still would not concede the necessity of emancipating black veterans. Even though Congress eventually approved arming slaves and organizing them into fighting units, they could not take the final step of approving emancipation. However, President Davis and newly appointed General-in-Chief Robert E. Lee bypassed that part of the law and inserted into army regulations that black Confederate soldiers must be both documented volunteers and also manumitted by their masters. In the end, these measures in the spring of 1865 came far too late and the few organized black companies raised had no effect on the course of the war.

The newspaper evidence provided in the book offers a strong argument that the debate over arming slaves for service in the Confederate army was extensive, open, and sincere. This is contrary to the opinion of those in the field that insist the process was a completely cynical last ditch effort to save both slavery and the country. The study also usefully points out regional and intra-state differences in attitudes and their timing. Predictably, editorial writers and readers residing in those parts of Virginia and Georgia that were most closely subjected to the horrors of hard war were among the earliest supporters of arming slaves. The sustained profitability of plantation slavery (enhanced through readily available international trade conduits) in Texas, combined with the state's comparative isolation from the main seats of war and its limited experience of Union invasion and occupation, meant that its citizens generally lagged behind those of Georgia and Virginia when it came to advocating any kind of altering of the master-slave relationship. Even during the third and final phase of the debate, those Texas proslavery elites that could finally support black enlistment could not bring themselves generally to admit the propriety or necessity of emancipation.

Indicative of the diversity of the debate, and of the earnestness of all sides, is the collection of rather revolutionary proposals that emerged. Some supporters of black enlistment were able to go as far as recognizing slave marriage rights and rewarding black veterans and their families with freedom, homes, and land. Though much rarer, there were even suggestions of citizenship. On the other end of the spectrum, and in the name of saving slavery at all costs, some proslavery radicals attested to a willingness to revert the Confederate states to foreign protectorate status if that meant intervention by Britain and France.

Though the book is skillfully organized in support of its main thesis, the heavy repetition in newspaper rhetoric cited throughout might task the patience of some readers. On the other hand, one might view such extensive documentation and constant reinforcement as vital to conveying the true scale, tenor, and substance of the debate and its progression. On the subject of Texas, it could be argued that the book exaggerates the state's level of immunity from the war's hardships and underappreciates the level of popular engagement in Texas with the war fought elsewhere. Also, contrary to Dillard's assertion, recent books and articles have convincingly demonstrated that the civilian refugee crisis spawned by Union penetration into the Deep South had a rather profound affect on Texans and how they viewed the war.

While the author's desire to focus his efforts on newspaper editorials and reader letters is understandable, a deep dive into diary and letter archives in the three states under consideration would have added even more punch to his arguments. Similarly, while Dillard does specifically cite as a case study one Georgia regiment's submission of a public letter signed by a committee of soldiers who desired to express their support for integrating black soldiers into the ranks, his study might have benefited from a more in-depth examination of the range of similarly-themed soldier petitions issued at the time. By this late period of the war, the army came to embody the Confederate cause like no other institution and their voices mattered to the public.

So, did Jefferson Davis 'win' his final campaign? In comparison to Abraham Lincoln, the Confederate president's flexibility and skills at persuasion are poorly regarded by posterity, but Dillard puts forth a strong case that Davis effectively managed his campaign, judiciously employing emissaries to spread his views among the people and getting what he wanted in the end, even though the debate terms remained contested. Davis succeeded in convincing a large proportion of the Confederate populace (perhaps even the great majority) to accept armed black soldiers and to value national independence over slavery, so in that sense he was a winner. On the other hand, if the practical effect is to be the final arbiter for judging success, then the campaign failed in that it was initiated far too late and did not slow or alter to any appreciable degree the military progress of the war. Jefferson Davis's Final Campaign is the first scholarly study to support, and do so in such compelling fashion, the view that the debate over arming slaves truly represented a paradigm shift in the fighting cause of the Confederate nation and a revolutionary alteration in its social structure. However persuaded one might be by his arguments, Dillard has delivered a well supported and articulately formed alternate interpretation that is richly deserving of consideration by all.


  1. This looks interesting (although, as you imply, it might be skewed by relying on newspapers rather than other primary sources). Given the very late stage of the war at which this discussion ensued, there was little prospect of getting more geographic "diversity", since Mississippi, Louisiana, and Tennessee were all virtually gone. South Carolina (as the "cradle" of secession) is an interesting possible source which seems to have been ignored. The upshot, of course, is that this last-minute discussion was almost certainly not a reflection of any meaningful change in racial attitudes as it was a reflection of utter military desperation. And, to speak up for Levine's well-done study, the "elites" still mattered.

    1. Yes, there is clear separation when it comes to racial attitudes and proslavery ideology. Unlike the latter, the former certainly remained little changed across the population.

      The author does rate Levine's study highly, he just points out its limitations.


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