The panic of the Confederate Congress(?): a call for the conscription of free blacks

Posted on February 9, 2014 by


Early in February, 1864, there was a small piece in one of the Staunton newspapers about the Confederate Congress considering the conscription of free blacks. No, not as armed soldiers, but as “teamsters, cooks, & etc.” Understand, however, the objection was not because they were “people of color”, but because conscripting these folks would have a negative impact on the production of… you got it… stuff necessary for the production of food and forage. That said, however, I think back to the story of John M. “Jack” Dugans, that this was not the first time that free blacks were “pressed” into service.

Nevertheless, John B. Baldwin specifically took issue with the proposal (please pardon the gaps as the actual newspaper clip was incredibly difficult to transcribe):

J.B. Baldwin

J.B. Baldwin

Mr. Baldwin [illegible] that in no exception law that had been passed by Congress was there any provision for the producing [illegible] of the country. The solitary exemption made in favor of the [illegible] class was passed on the idea of police. Agricultural interests were conducted by whites and free negro laborers, although it was a slave-holding community. He could state on reliable authority, that the late bill repealing exemption by substitution would be the… closing one thousand farms which had hitherto produced a surplus of supplies for the army, and restricting them to a sufficiency for the support of their… Whatever may be the… effect of the measure… in driving into the army those who have been skulking a just duty to the country, it had swept like a tornado through the district, leaving desolation in its track. Farmers are hiring out their negroes and dispensing of their personal property, with a view of being compelled to go into the army. The slaves had escaped to or been entered… by the Yankees, and to avoid the hardships of that many had employed free negroes to work on their farms and relieve the pressure on the farming interests. Under the circumstances the proposed bill would result in serious injury to his district, at least. In some districts, if the white men and free negroes are taken, the women would superintend and conduct the operation of the slaves, but circumstances already attended to, rendered it impossible in the district he represented.

Even more, it was growing ever apparent that this call for the conscription of free blacks raised flags as to the status of the fledgling Confederacy:

It seemed that there was a sort of stampede panic in Congress. It was no secret that the question of the success did not depend on the number of men, so much as on that of the great question of supplies. They are already … enough, and yet it was proposed to make additional… there by this sort of legislation. The cry was “place every body in the army,” but he was unwilling to hazard our success and fortunes on a single effort. He and the people whom he represented had embarked in this war forever, if need be, and intended to continue to fight despite every obstacle and disadvantage. When the Government shall come to the conclusion that the war is to be fought on interior lines, and the plea is abandoned that everything we have is to be dragged back into and staked on a single effort, the confidence of the people will be restored. For one n[illegible] the Government would eschew such and policy, and husband its resources of… supplies for along war.

Despite the objections, in March (from the March 15 issue of Richmond’s Daily Dispatch), this (the matter of conscripting free blacks AND slaves) became a reality…

Adj’t and Insp’r Gen’ls office,
Richmond, Va., March 11, 1864.
General orders, no. 32.–

I. The act of Congress relative to the employment of free negroes and slaves in certain capacities, and the instructions of the War Department relative to its execution, are published for the information of those concerned:

An Act to increase the efficiency of the army by the employment of free negroes and slaves in certain capacities.

Whereas, the efficiency of the army is greatly diminished by the withdrawal from the ranks of able-bodied soldiers to act as teamsters, and in various other capacities in which free negroes and slaves might be advantageously employed; therefore,

The Congress of the Confederate States of America do enact, That all male free negroes and other free persons of color, not including those who are free under the treaty of Paris of 1803, or under the treaty of Spain of 1819, resident in the Confederate States, between the ages of 18 and 50 years, shall be held liable to perform such duties with the army, or in connection with the military defences of the country, in the way of work upon fortifications or in Government works for the production or preparation of materials of war, or in military hospitals, as the Secretary of War or the commanding General of the Trans-Mississippi Department may, from time to time, prescribe; and while engaged in the performance of such duties shall receive rations and clothing and compensation at the rate of eleven dollars a month, under such rules and regulations as the said Secretary may establish: Provided, That the Secretary of War or the commanding General of the Trans-Mississippi Department, with the approval of the President, may exempt from the operations of this act such free negroes as the interests of the country may require should be exempted, or such as he may think proper to exempt on grounds of justice, equity, or necessity.

That the Secretary of War is hereby authorized to employ for duties similar to those indicated in the preceding section of this act, as many male negro slaves, not to exceed twenty thousand, as in his judgment, the wants of the service may require, furnishing them, while so employed, with proper rations and clothing, under rules and regulations to be established by him, and paying to the owners of said slaves such wages as may be agreed upon with said owners for their use and service, and in the event of the loss of any slaves while so employed, by the act of the enemy, or by escape to the enemy, or by death inflicted by the enemy, or by disease contracted while in any service required of said slaves, then the owners of the same shall be entitled to receive the full value of such slaves, to be ascertained by agreement or by appraisement, under the law regulating impressments, to be paid under such rules and regulations as the Secretary of War may establish.

That when the Secretary of War shall be unable to procure the services of slaves in any military department in sufficient numbers for the necessities of the department, upon the terms and conditions act forth in the preceding section, then he is hereby authorized to impress the services of as many male slaves, not to exceed twenty thousand, as may be required, from time to time, to discharge the duties indicated in the first section of this act, according to the laws regulating the impressment of slaves in other cases: Provided, That slaves so impressed shall, while employed, receive the same rations and clothing, in kind and quantity, as slaves regularly hired from their owners; and, in the event of their loss, shall be paid for in the same manner, and under the same rules established by the said impressment laws: Provided, That if the owner have but one male slave between the ages of 18 and 50 he shall not be impressed against the will of said owner: Provided further, That free negroes shall be first impressed, and if there should be a deficiency it shall be supplied by the impressment of slaves according to the foregoing provisions: Provided further, That in making the impressment not more than one of every five male slaves between the ages of 18 and 45 shall be taken from any owner, care being taken to allow in each case a credit for all slaves who may have been already impressed under this act, and who are still in service, or have died, or been lost while in service.–And all impressments under this act shall be taken in equal ratio from all owners in the same locality, city, county or district.

(Signed) Thomas S. Bocock,
Speaker House of Representatives.
R. M. T. Hunter,
President pro. tem. of the Senate
Approved, February 17, 1864.
(Signed,) Jefferson Davis.

II. The Bureau of Conscription will direct the enrollment of all the persons described in the first section of the act aforesaid, east of the Mississippi river, who are not unfit for the service required from them, by reason of physical or mental incapacity or imbecility, and shall assign them to the performance of the duties mentioned in the act, or similar duties in any of the military bureau, or with troops in the field, as there may be any call for such service.

III. Applications for an exemption on the grounds that the interests of the country require it, or because it is demanded by justice, equity or necessity, will be made to the enrolling officer in writing, and will be disposed of by him according to the general directions contained in the regulations published in orders No. 26, under the “act to organize forces to serve during the war.”

IV. For the execution of the sections in the foregoing act, relative to the employment and impressment of slaves, the provisions of orders No. 138, of the 24th October, 1863, will afford the requisite rules for the guidance of the military bureau and the commanding Generals, with modifications hereafter mentioned. 1st That slaves shall not be impressed, when the services of free negroes can be obtained. 2d. Slaves under the age of 18 and above the age of 50 are exempt. 3d. The hire for slaves impressed shall be according to the rates fixed by the appraisers under the act to regulate impressments. 4th. The limitation as to the term for which slaves shall be impressed for service shall be for twelve months instead of the term fixed by said orders, if the exigency shall require it.

V. All impressments for service in the various military bureau under this act shall be by special order upon application to the War Department, disclosing the efforts that have been made to provide other labor specified in the act, the necessity for the impressment, the plan proposed to secure it.

5. The General commanding the Trans-Mississippi Department will superintend the execution of the law for that department.

By order.

(Signed,) S. Cooper, Adj’t and Insp’r

Panic? Considering this was a “necessary” measure at the time, and was also in line with the timing of the 3rd Confederate Conscription Act, it does paint a clear picture of “being on the ropes”. After all, what does it take for a government to wait this long before it takes this sort of action?