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The Argument for Black Conscription..

The amount of written request by officers of the Confederate Army and especially Robert E. Lee for the use of Southern Blacks in the Confederate Army (that is archived) is greater in number than I have imagined...this is a very small sample-- it comes during the late summer and fall of 1864.

Series 1 - Volume 42 (Part II), pages 1292-1293, 1260-1261


Chesterfield, September 25, 1864.

Assistant Adjutant- General, Army of Northern Virginia:

COLONEL: I have the honor to report that Colonel Poague fired ninety-four times on Friday, and only forty shots yesterday. He says that the flag-of-truce boat came down to Cox's Wharf and remained many hours; that it would have to cross the line of enemy's fire, and he did not wish to draw the fire on the boat loaded with our returned prisoners. In the meantime, Yankee like, the enemy vigorously push forward their work at the Gap. I have already reported this truce. I now again respectfully call the attention of the commanding general to the facts. Something should be done, some understanding come to. Either another point of exchange should be agreed upon or they should be compelled to desist working while the flag is pending. As the flag visits so frequently and remains so long, it interferes materially with our mortar practice. The firing of Colonel Mayo's sharpshooters has succeeded in keeping the enemy from the bank of the river. A feeble attempt was made to reply with musketry, which soon ceased, and the enemy then shelled the pickets with mortars, of course without effect. The firing of the mortars, Poague's and Huger's 8-inch, has kept the working parties of the enemy very busy dodging, and their dredging machine has come to a stand-still. If they wish to complete the canal they will be compelled to occupy this bank of the river. Any attempt to do this ought to be prevented by the gun-boats. They certainly can and ought to do so, and I should like much if the commanding general would have it so understood, that when time pickets report any endeavor to or appearance of crossing a body of troops in barges, or of laying down a pontoon, that the fleet immediately move down to prevent it. Mayo's regiment is small, but with the defenses which we will soon have, it, with Poague's artillery, will (with the assistance asked for from the fleet) be enabled to hold in check any advance of the enemy till we can be re-enforced. I regret to report four deserters from the Fifteenth Virginia, Gorse's brigade, last night. General C. speaks of them as among the most reliable in the regiment. Also, two from Hunton's brigade. I send his own report in the premises, to show that every effort is being made to prevent this practice. Deserter from the enemy last night (Orders, No. 65), Canadian, says he was kidnapped with a half dozen others, drugged, and forced into service. This is evidently the way in which the quota is made up. The enemy are certainly put to great straits to get men, and by turning in our detailed men and employing negroes we will more than equal them in nerve, if not in numbers.

I am, colonel, very respectfully, your obedient servant,

Major- General, Commanding.



Petersburg, September 26, 1864.

Commanding Confederate Armies:

GENERAL: I cannot impress upon you too strongly the imperious necessity of getting all our men subject to military duty to the field. We should have them with the armies now. The duties of the Enrolling Bureau are the most important in the service, and every facility should be given to it to increase our forces. I think the officers should be entirely relieved from the consideration of exempting, detailing, or recommending for light service. Let their sole object and purpose be to put men into the field and fill up our depleted regiments. Let others undertake their relief and exemption. The enemy are increasing their forces in Virginia, and I presume in other States. I get no additions. The men coming in do not supply the vacancies caused by sickness, desertions, and other casualties. If things thus continue the most serious consequences must result. We shall have no use for the men detailed in other branches of the service, for agriculture, & c., if we are driven from the field. To show the steady increase to General Grants army, I inclose reports from scouts between the 13th and 23d instant. I do not think the transports carry on an average as large a number of troops as the observers state between 250 and 300 in my opinion is nearer the truth. According to this diminished estimate you will perceive that within the times specified about 10,000 men over those he has sent away have been added to General Grant here. If I had negroes to replace the teamsters, cooks, and hospital attendants I could increase each division many hundred men. Unless they are sent to me rapidly it may be too late. General Whiting is also in need of negroes. Will you have orders given in his case also?

I am, most respectfully, your obedient servant,

R. E. LEE,

In one complaint from Robert E. Lee to Confederate Headquarters, he quotes an order by General Kirby Smith, who in his region of control, interpreted the laws of the Confederacy differently and acted on his own to recruit Southern Blacks, and wanted the same authority in his army..

September 20, 1864


SIR: I have the honor to acknowledge the receipt of your letter of yesterday, with reference to the impressment of negroes for work on fortifications, & c., and thank you for the prompt measures you have taken in the premises. I think that the time has arrived when the public safety requires that we shall employ negro labor with the army in all cases where it can be used to relieve able-bodied white men. The teamsters and other laborers employed in the quartermasters department, the laborers engaged in cutting wood for mines and factories, machine shops, & c., and all doing mere manual labor in connection with supplying the armies, can be well taken from this class, and the white men now detailed for that purpose put in the ranks. The accession to our numbers by this means would be great, and I need not repeat what I have said as to the necessity of recruiting our armies. I understood the act of Congress of 17th of February last as designed to clothe the department with this authority, as its title and preamble indicate. The slaves called for in my last letter for thirty days, as I understand the subject, are to be impressed in accordance with a former law, passed to regulate temporary impressment of negro labor. This former law is referred to in the law of 17th of February to regulate the manner of impressment, but not, as I understand it, to limit or alter the powers conferred by the latter act. If I am correct in this view, I respectfully urge the exercise of this power by the Department without delay, to the extent of replacing all detailed men in service with negroes where the latter can be used with advantage, amid all white laborers in Government employ whose work can be done by slaves or free negroes. In addition to thus substituting negroes for whites, I recommend the impressment to be extended far enough to provide a corps of laborers for the army to prevent the necessity of many of those temporary details that are now made to cut wood work on roads & c. I shall require a large force to build roads, cut and transport wood, and make other preparations for the supply and comfort of the troops at this place during the winter mouths. These preparations are absolutely necessary, or the health and efficiency of the army will be greatly impaired by exposure and accumulated labor.

It is impossible, also, owing to the proximity of the enemy, to take the troops from the lines, as was done last winter on the Rapidan, to do this work. Among other things that will have to be done in order to save our animals and procure adequate supplies of fuel, a short railroad will have to be constructed to connect us with suitable wood for fuel, the green pine around us being unfit for that purpose. I trust you will find means to give effect to these suggestions, if I am correct in my interpretation of the law. I inclose a copy of an order said to have been issued by General Kirby Smith, which seems to me to be in accordance with the law in the main, and would recommend that some- thing of the same kind be done at once here. I am informed that there is some legislation by the State on the subject of obtaining negro labor, and the Governor may, if applied to, lend us material assistance. I beg to assure you that it is, in my [opinion], necessary for us to use our negroes in this war if we would maintain ourselves and prevent them from being employed against us. I am confident that our people will contribute this species of property with as much willingness as they have all others, and no time should be lost in procuring the great addition to our resources which the use of our negroes can afford us.

With great respect, your obedient servant, R. E. LEE,

Below is the attachment Robert E. Lee sent to Richmond...


Shreveport, July 20, 1864.

I. In accordance with an act of Congress, entitled An act to increase the efficiency of the Army by the employment of free negroes and slaves in certain capacities, approved February 17, 1864, all male free negroes and other 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 eighteen and fifty years, will be immediately enrolled under the direction of the Bureau of Conscription.

II. The Bureau of Conscription will take the necessary steps through the enrolling officers to enroll immediately one-fifth of all the male slaves in this department between the ages of eighteen arid forty-five years.

III. All free negroes and slaves so enrolled will be sent to rendezvous designated by the commandants of negro labor for the several States, accompanied by descriptive rolls.

IV. Requisitions for negro labor must be made upon the commandants of negro labor of the several States.

V. All officers and agents of the Government. in charge of slaves will furnish monthly, to the commandants of negro labor of the several States to which the slaves belong, correct and certified muster-rolls of those in their charge.

By command of General E. Kirby Smith:
S. S. ANDERSON, Assistant Adjutant-General.

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