December 1864 – “The employment of slaves in the army should be guarded with the greatest caution”: Arming slaves in South Carolina?

As the last days of 1864 passed, the situation in South Carolina turned ever more desperate.  The “invader” had always been along the coast, as blockaders or the Federal garrisons on the islands.  But with the fall of Savannah, a large army was in position to cross into the state. If even a hope of defense was to be mounted, South Carolina needed troops.  Yesterday I mentioned correspondence between Governor Andrew MacGrath and Richmond, in which the governor stated he was reorganizing the militia.  Running in the Charleston Courier on December 31, 1864 were special orders from MacGrath relating legislation passed in this regard:

The Legislature of South Carolina has declared that all free white men between the ages of sixteen and sixty years, not already in Confederate service, shall be liable to militia service.

The city of Charleston requires for its defense all within its limits who are between these ages. This service is for the defense of our state.  It cannot be declined except by those who are unwilling to defend that State whose forces protect them….

For this service there are no exemptions: none will be allowed except under special circumstances.  Certificates of disability, or other causes, consequence of which exemptions have been hitherto granted, will not be regarded…. If there are company not true to our State, they have no proper place among those who now prepare for its defense.

But the state needed more than just able and willing free whites.  Earlier in the month the State Legislature passed an act revising the system to requisition slave labor for work on the defenses.  This had been a long running issue between the state and military authorities (and as I’ve written before, there were never enough slaves employed for the work required).  The act allowed for impressment of up to one-tenth of the state’s male slaves from the ages of 18 to 50 years.  The term of impressment would last up to twelve months.  While thus employed, the slaves would receive rations, clothes, shoes, and a hat.  The owners would be paid $11 per month.  To comply with this regulation, owners were instructed to transport their slaves to centralized collection points.  The Commissioner of Roads, state agents, and local sheriffs were empowered to enforce this law.  As with previous laws governing the impressment of labor, the state, and not the Confederate authorities, were enforcing the rules.

But there was one measure that South Carolinians remained reluctant to adopt.  Governorn MacGrath had referenced proposals made in Richmond with respect to arming slaves. The Legislature’s Committee on Confederate Relations took up discussion of the matter.  On December 27, their report appeared in the Charleston papers.


The committee reported:

That, in their opinion, the employment of slaves in the army should be guarded with the greatest caution. That this practice has become a regular one in the armies of our enemy, is scarcely an argument for its introduction among us; for it is clear that every slave captured and so employed in the military services of the United States is to them a positive gain, adding to their strength in one department and detracting nothing from their resources in any other, while with us the labor thus secured to one branch of the service is a positive withdrawal of the same amount of labor from the equally important field of supply and production.  And your Committee are further of opinion that it is a matter of very doubtful expediency to intrust the wagon-trains of an army entirely to negro teamsters. …

The committee approved continuing the practice of employing slaves for military projects. But only within the established constructs – impressment with compensation.  Beyond that, the Committee said:

But in thus consenting to the use of negro labor to the extent and for the purpose indicated it is with the distinct understanding that such slaves shall be employed in duties other than those which are the province of the soldier, and that in all such employment their service status shall be clearly and steadily preserved; for your Committee cannot but express their decided disapproval of the plan recommended by the President in his recent message, by which the Confederate Government is to become the purchaser of forty thousand negros, who are to be declared free at the expiration of their term of service.

Emphasis above is mine.  The Committee justified this stance:

Your Committee can find nowhere in the Constitution the slightest shadow of power, either express or implied, to make such purchase or declare such emancipation, and they are satisfied it is in direct violation of its spirit, which wisely and explicitly commits all the social and domestic relations and institutions of the Southern people to the care and charge of the individual States.

The report went on to observe that emancipation under the system proposed by the Confederate government rested “on no principle, and to offer no practical advantages.”  Among the objections raised was the status of freedmen after the war.  “If emancipated as freedmen, they would either have to be employed in the dock-yards, arsenals and other industrial establishments of the Government, or they would have to be remanded to the States whence they were taken.”  So, regardless of what was being said in Richmond, at the state level, emancipation was not an acceptable measure… even with the world crashing all around.

Closing the report, the Committee offered several resolutions, of which three are worth mention here:

Resolved, That if, in the opinion of those authorized and competent to decide the employment of slaves in the army as laborers, servants, hospital attendants, teamsters, or cooks will contribute to the military efficiency of the Confederate forces, the State will cheerfully and promptly furnish the quota which may be required; Provided, That in the discharge of such service, the servile status of the negro be maintained.

Resolved, That this State cannot consent to the proposition by which slaves so employed shall be purchased and declared free by the Confederate Government upon expiration of their term of service, because the creation of such as class would involve the most delicate and dangerous questions as to the rights of the General Government on subjects belonging to the exclusive control of the individual States.

Resolved, That the plan recommended by the President, even if otherwise unobjectionable, confers its privileges unequally and unjustly and would compel, on the part of the State, in departure from the spirit and tenor of its steady and consistent domestic legislation for near half a century.

There you have the Doctrine of States Rights in play.  Be it this Committee in 1864 or the Secession Convention in 1860, the expression is clear – the State’s powers were above those of the central government, Federal or Confederate… and also above any individual, inalienable, rights. There are many conclusions to draw from the Committee’s report. Not the least of which is that Confederate Emancipation was not at any point, in conception or execution, equivalent to that offered by the United States starting on January 1, 1863.

(Citations from Charleston Mercury, December 27, 1864, page 1, columns 2-3; Charleston Courier, December 31, 1864, page 1, column 1.)

Watching for an ironclad sortie at Charleston, Dahlgren hoped to “capture the whole”

With the fall of Savannah, attention in the Department of the South turned to Charleston.  Among some Federal leaders there was concern the Confederates might feel the situation desperate enough to try a “go for broke” attack.

Throughout late November and early December 1864, there was some concern of a Confederate boat attack on Morris Island, along the lines of that proposed by Brigadier-General Roswell Ripley. But when Brigadier-General Alexander Schimmelfennig returned from leave, he discounted such rumors.  Reporting to Major-General John Foster, he indicated all was routine around Charleston.  However, Schimmelfennig did direct repairs to defensive arrangements which had been neglected.  In particular on December 26, he directed “dry brush to be piled up in front of the forts and batteries on [Morris Island] where the ground admits, at a distance of from 200 to 300 yards.…”  This brush, placed out past musket distance from the fortifications, would be set on fire in the event of a Confederate attack.  The intent was, with the brush so far out in front of the works, for it to illuminate the ground directly in front of the works and leave the attackers silhouetted and easy targets.

At the same time, the Navy was concerned the Charleston Squadron, chiefly the ironclad rams CSS Charleston, CSS Palmetto State, CSS Columbia and CSS Chicora, would sortie out of Charleston in an attempt to break the blockade.  After all, the CSS Savannah was preparing to make just such a breakout when Savannah fell.  Shortly after Christmas, Captain Gustavus H. Scott, senior officer on the blockade outside Charleston, suggested to Rear-Admiral John Dahlgren that the Confederates were preparing for a breakout.  In response, Dahlgren took a break from matters at Hilton Head to visit the old front at Charleston.

Dahlgren felt secure the monitors on blockade duty at that time were sufficient to deal with the threat.  But he did remind the Navy Department that several of the monitors had been on station for quite some time.  That in mind, along with the growing possibility of an engagement, Dahlgren asked for replacements, “otherwise there is no small risk that one or two may become unserviceable.”

Coordinating with Schimmelfennig on December 29, Dahlgren downplayed any concerns:

Though I felt no apprehension as to the ability of the force here to maintain control of the anchorage, and even capture the rebel ironclads if they ventured out, yet, as I might be drawn in some other direction at the time, it seemed due to the perfect security of General Sherman’s base that no means should be omitted.  I have, therefore, reinforced the division, there are now seven monitors here, which I think places the question beyond doubt.

Seeking to coordinate for the contingency, Dahlgren related some of his thinking to the commander ashore:

In case the ironclads venture out, my plan will be to draw them as low down this anchorage as they will come, so as to make sure of the capture of the whole by making retreat impossible.

In such an event, will you please cause some of your heavy guns to be turned seaward, and scour the water with grape so as to clear out the torpedo boats which might be troublesome when engaged with the rams.

Having seen the defenses of Savannah up close, and concerned the Confederates might further improve the defenses of Charleston, Dahlgren added:

The rebels will, no doubt, endeavor to increase the obstructions in the harbor, and some grape or mortar shells at night from your guns near Johnson and the Middle Ground would stop them.  The naval battery will assist in this if you think proper.

After seeing the works about Savannah and the obstructions in the rivers (Savannah, Tybee, Vernon, and the Ogeechee), I am satisfied it was impregnable to any force in any direction save where it was assailed by General Sherman.

To Captain Scott, Dahlgren provided detailed contingency plans on December 31.  Scott was told to ensure the monitors and blockaders act in consort in the case of attack, and not as single units.  Particularly, Dahlgren wanted no monitors “separated from the main body before they can receive assistance.”  Altering the normal arrangements, Dahlgren specified that:

At night, if the weather is suitable, four monitors are to be pushed in advance, the other three in reserve at a convenient distance, and two of them may be allowed to draw fire under one boiler at a time to clean and repair, but even these vessels should be made available if an attack is made.

To counter torpedo boats and laying additional obstructions, Dahlgren called for alert picket boats (though without mention of a picket boat captured earlier in the month).  In the event of a torpedo boat attack, the monitors and the land batteries were to “scour the water with grape at intervals.”

In the event the ironclads moved out of the harbor, Dahlgren’s orders to Scott reflected the intentions voiced to Schimmelfennig:

It will be an object to draw them as much as possible under the fire of our land batteries, and to avoid exposing the monitors to their batteries…. The lower down the channel they can be drawn into action the less probable it will be that any escape.  If high up and beaten, they will find protection under their own batteries on Sullivan’s Island, South Carolina.

A sound plan.  But not one that would see a need. The Confederate squadron in Charleston was bottled up for similar reasons the Savannah Squadron had been doomed weeks before.

(Citations from OR, Series I, Volume 44, Serial 92, page 819; ORN Series I, Volume 16, pages 151-4.)

“Richmond cannot be saved if Charleston falls”: Grim assessment from Governor MacGrath

Andrew Gordon MacGrath was among the leading secessionists in 1860.  Having resigned his position as a US District Court Judge after the 1860 elections, he played a role in the South Carolina secession convention.  Later he served briefly as the state’s Secretary of State.  And when the Confederacy was formally established, MacGrath was for all practical purposes re-instated to his judgeship, though for a “C.S.” instead of a “U.S.” district. At a rather ominous moment in the state’s, and the Confederacy’s, history, on December 18, 1864, the South Carolina General Assembly named MacGrath the Governor of South Carolina.

Within days of MacGrath’s assumption of the office, Savannah fell.  And the Federal forces there were poised to move into South Carolina next.  As his predecessor, MacGrath appealed to President Jefferson Davis in Richmond for assistance.   On Christmas Day, 1864, he sent a lengthy letter, by way of Colonel Henry Buist, to the Confederate president.  After opening pleasantries, MacGrath put in perspective what the loss of Savannah meant to South Carolina:

The fall of Savannah has, of course, very much affected the people of this State. The question which naturally presents itself is, why the force which penetrated Georgia cannot penetrate South Carolina. And at this moment it is not an unwillingness to oppose the enemy, but a chilling apprehension of the futility of doing so, which affects the people. I am endeavoring, and I will remove that chill and dispel that apprehension; but upon you must I rely for that material aid which will assist the people of the State to make good their determined opposition. As rapidly as it can be done I am reorganizing the militia; its effective force I cannot yet estimate–I hope larger than has been supposed. If you will send us aid (although for the moment it falls short of effectual aid), if it be that aid which now foreshadows other aid to come, that spirit can be vitalized which when aroused to a certain extent supplies the place of numbers, and is of itself strength.

So, after over three years of war at its doorsteps, South Carolina’s militia was still unorganized for defense of the state?  Recall the correspondence from the previous winter in which authorities in Richmond called into question the state’s practices in regard to conscription and recruiting for state regiments.

Having explained the measures he would take, MacGrath then requested support from Richmond.  Specifically he wanted the South Carolina brigade from the Army of Northern Virginia, and if possible the services of Major-General Joseph Kershaw.  But MacGrath knew the release of those troops was contingent on the list of priorities.  So he advanced is argument that Charleston was the most important of those priorities:

You, of course, are much better informed of the number of troops on our coast and in the city of Charleston than I am. You are also aware of the necessities at other points which may control you; but it is considered that the force on the coast is not sufficient to make effectual resistance to General Sherman. If that is so, Charleston falls; if Charleston falls, Richmond follows. Richmond may fall and Charleston be saved, but Richmond cannot be saved if Charleston falls. If now I urge upon you the concentration of all available strength for the defense of Charleston I will be acquitted of all selfish consideration when I venture to remind you that two years ago, when it seemed as if then a necessity was about to arise in which you would be forced to decide between Charleston and Richmond, I gave you then the assurance of my support, however feeble, in sustaining you in the destruction of Charleston if it would accomplish the end we then desired. Now, however, I presume that, as between these places, there is no doubt that, if unable to save both, Charleston is that which from every consideration we must prefer to save.

Tastes like a cold cup of coffee in the morning for those who’ve grown fond of “Lee’s Lieutenants.” The notion that Richmond was not the cornerstone of the Confederacy?  That it could be sacrificed?  What a difference perspective makes!

MacGrath again pressed for men to defend South Carolina:

To save it we must have troops. It is in this connection that I must bring also to your attention the vital consequence of attending at once to Branchville as a place to be fortified and to which troops should be sent. Its strategic importance I am sure is too manifest to require from me any urgency in bringing it to your notice. There are no works there which are of the slightest consequence. I understand surveys are now making; it is difficult to understand why they were not made before this time. You will not understand from this that I wish to indulge in censure or criticism, but to indicate to you that a position of the utmost consequence is not prepared for resistance to the attempt which may be reasonably supposed will be made to possess it. If that attempt should be successful our future will be greatly clouded.

From that point, MacGrath also picked at an “interfearance” of the Confederate government into the state.  Specifically he noted the number of “detailed men” working in important positions supporting the war effort, and thus except from militia service.

It matters little how they may be, except in this respect: that their absence from all appearance of military service by so much diminishes the influences with which I am now attempting to quicken and excite our people not only to effective resistance, but to that confidence in the success of that resistance which will assist me in my efforts and sustain them in their conduct.

MacGrath asked for a “show.” He wanted the detailed men to appear on public parade so their service was clearly shown to the people.  This, he felt, would undercut criticism and demonstrate no favoritism was in play.

Closing, MacGrath wrote:

These suggestions I make to you with the conviction that you will assist me in every way to develop now all of our resources to aid you in the task that is before you and us. There are other matters concerning which I will at an early day communicate with you.

MacGrath had inherited a problem.  And the nature of the problem was not altered as the office-holder changed.  There was little he, or Davis, could do to forestall the advance that would step forward from Savannah.

(Citation from OR, Series I, Volume 44, Serial 92, pages 986-8.)