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.)


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