When we arm the slaves, we abandon slavery

When we arm the slaves, we abandon slavery.

The Escaped Slave in the Union Army, from "Harper's Weekly", 1864




The Escaped Slave in the Union Army, from "Harper's Weekly", 1864


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In the winter of 1864-65, as the war ground down to its dénouement, the proposal to enlist slaves as Confederate soldiers became an increasingly heated matter of public discussion. While proposals to do so had popped up from time to time throughout the war, it wasn’t until the last winter of the conflict that they attracted serious attention by public officials, and the the ensuing debate was rancorous. Robert E. Lee himself reluctantly concluded that the enlistment of slaves as soldiers was an essential move, and endorsed a plan that would reward men who enlisted under it with their freedom. The Confederate Congress finally approved a plan for the enlistment of slaves — though without emancipation in return for their service — in the middle of March 1865, less than three weeks before the evacuation of Richmond. Too little, too late.

Georgia Governor Joseph E. Brown (right, 1821-94) was one of several high-ranking public officials who went on record to oppose any such measure, while it was still being debated in Richmond. In an address to both houses of the Georgia Assembly on February 15, 1865, Brown vehemently rejected both the notion that slaves could be made soldiers, and that the institution of slavery could survive the the resulting upheaval of social and racial order.

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