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150 Years Ago Today: Confederates Vote to Arm Slaves

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For the next few months, we'll be covering the final days of the Civil War exactly 150 years later. This is the fourth installment of the series.  

March 13, 1865: Confederates Vote to Arm Slaves 

One of the Civil War’s bizarre historical footnotes took place on March 13, 1865, when the Confederate Congress voted to bolster their dwindling forces by arming black slaves. While this idea sounds crazy now, there were some precedents for slave soldiers in history—but it was still pretty crazy. 

Various societies have employed indentured or slave warriors throughout history, but in most cases these were men who served as full-time soldiers and enjoyed special privileges and status in the medieval period, for example the Mamluks of Egypt or the Ottoman Janissaries. By contrast, the Confederate government proposed arming slaves previously engaged in manual labor. 

The idea was first proposed in January 1864 by Major General Patrick Cleburne, a successful Confederate commander who reasoned that Southerners could either give up their slaves or risk losing everything else as well, including “the loss of all we now hold most sacred—slaves and all other personal property, lands, homesteads, liberty, justice, safety, pride, manhood.”

The obvious question was whether the slaves would become free upon entering military service, as Cleburne advocated, or remain slaves. It’s almost impossible to imagine the latter option, since slaves would logically have no incentive to fight to remain slaves, and would indeed have a much better reason to use their weapons against their masters. But what was the point of Secession and the ensuing bloodbath of the Civil War if they were just going to give up slavery in the end anyway?

Plenty of contemporary Southern leaders and pundits pointed out the contradiction, with one Confederate officer raging that arming slaves would “contravene the principles upon which we fight,” and the Charleston Mercury warning on January 13, 1865, “We want no Confederate government without our institutions.” Even after the bill passed, Confederate Secretary of State Robert Toombs (top, right) wrote in a private letter to a friend on March 24, 1865: 

In my opinion, the worst calamity that could befall us would be to gain our independence by the valor of our slaves, instead of our own… The day the army of Virginia allows a negro regiment to enter their lines as soldiers, they will be degraded, ruined, and disgraced. But if you put our negroes and white men into the army together, you must and will put them on an equality; they must be under the same code, the same pay, allowances and clothing… Therefore, it is a surrender of the entire slavery question. 

However, the question was finally settled by the intervention of general in chief Robert E. Lee (top, left), who had already attained mythic status in the South. After President Lincoln rejected offers of a negotiated peace and Congress freed the slaves with the Thirteenth Amendment, Lee and Confederate President Jefferson Davis (top, center) were at last able to persuade the Confederate Congress to take the fateful step, with Lee arguing that it was “not only expedient but necessary,” adding, “We must decide whether slavery shall be extinguished by our enemies and the slaves be used against us, or use them ourselves.” 

Incredibly, the law finally passed by the Confederate Congress on March 13, 1865 didn’t actually free the slaves. Instead, it merely authorized President Davis to “ask for and accept from the owners of slaves, the services of such number of able-bodied negro men as he may deem expedient,” and Lee to “organize the said slaves into companies, battalions, regiments, and brigades.” In fact it explicitly stated, “nothing in this act shall be construed to authorize a change in the relation which the said slaves shall bear toward their owners, except by consent of the owners and of the States in which they may reside, and in pursuance of the laws thereof.” In other words it was left to the slave owners to decide whether they would free their slaves when they became soldiers. 

Unrealistic as it was, the measure ultimately came too late as well: even if they could persuade slaves to fight with vague promises of freedom, the military situation had deteriorated so far that there was no longer enough time to give them even cursory training. Nor would arming the slaves do anything to fix the basic problems of severe shortages of food and ammunition, not to mention collapsing morale. 

In an even stranger historical footnote, a small number of black slaves had actually been working with the Confederate army from early in the war, under the command of none other than Nathan Bedford Forrest, the future leader of the Ku Klux Klan. Forrest promised to free his male slaves and their families if they would first agree to work as teamsters driving supply wagons for his cavalry regiment, and at least 30 took this deal; Forrest apparently kept his word, specifying in his will that his slaves should be freed if he was killed in combat. 

In addition to his role founding the KKK, Forrest is widely condemned for the Fort Pillow Massacre in April 1864, when troops under his command killed over 300 black Union soldiers who were trying to surrender. However some historians have defended Forrest, claiming he never ordered his troops to massacre the enemy soldiers.

See the previous entry here. See all entries here.

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Library of Congress // Public Domain
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History
The Key to Robert E. Lee's Puzzling Death Might Be Hidden in a Photo of His Earlobe
Library of Congress // Public Domain
Library of Congress // Public Domain

When Confederate Army general Robert E. Lee died five years after the Civil War ended, the cause of his death had doctors stumped. He had been in poor health, but his specific illness was a mystery; there weren't many clues beyond symptoms Lee had described in letters. “The troops are not encamped near me and I have felt so unwell since my return as not to be able to go anywhere,” he wrote to his wife in 1863.

This was before electrocardiograms and x-rays existed. There were no obvious physical findings to support a formal diagnosis, either. Lee’s doctors made some educated guesses based on his gripes and treated him with everything but the kitchen sink: hot mustard plasters and footbaths, doses of turpentine or ammonia, and enemas, all of which were standard medical treatments in the Civil War era. Without a robust medical history to guide them, the doctors diagnosed stroke, rheumatism, and pneumonia in the months leading up to Lee's death.

Now, new research from East Carolina University sheds light on the age-old question of what actually caused Lee's demise, thanks to the discovery in a photograph of a crease running diagonally across Lee’s right earlobe. According to the case study, recently published in the American Journal of Cardiology, the crease is a physical sign that Lee likely died from heart disease.

Richard Reinhart, an emeritus professor of medicine at East Carolina University and author of the paper, says earlobe creases can help detect heart disease. Some previous reports have pointed to heart disease as the cause of Lee’s death based on written evidence, but “until now there hadn’t been an actual physical finding supporting this diagnosis,” Reinhart tells Mental Floss. “His earlobe crease is the only piece of objective physical evidence that helps back it up.”

Photo of Robert E. Lee showing a crease in his right earlobe
Virginia Historical Society

The possible connection between earlobe creases and heart disease was first made in 1973, and there have since been more than 120 studies investigating the link. Scientists aren’t sure why creases appear in the earlobes of some heart disease patients, but researchers have suggested that a heart condition may affect the blood vessels and elasticity of the earlobe in a way that forms a crease over time.

Reinhart, a history buff who has a particular interest in the life of Lee, saw a close-up photo of the general at the Virginia Historical Society one day and noticed the wrinkle on his ear. Aware of the possible link between earlobe creases and heart disease, he began poring through Lee’s personal letters and attending physicians’ notes, as well as previous reports of Lee’s illness, to see if his symptoms jibed with a failing heart.

It turned out the symptoms correlated well: Lee initially had an episode of chest pain in 1863, which progressively worsened when he exerted himself and eventually took on characteristics that would be recognized today as heart disease. And in the months before his death in 1870, he began to have chest pain even at rest, which suggests a heart attack was imminent.

“The constellation of symptoms, I believe, are readily explained by heart failure due to progressive coronary artery disease,” Reinhart says.

In an age where advanced medical diagnostic tools weren’t yet in play, a physical feature like an earlobe crease would have been a useful visual cue had doctors known it might signal heart trouble. But even if they had known, could they have done anything to help Lee? One option—a nitroglycerin-based substance called amyl nitrite, which dilates the coronary artery for better blood flow to the heart—had been documented in the British medical journal Lancet in 1867 but wasn’t used much clinically. Salicylate, the precursor to aspirin, which today's physicians recommend for preventing heart attacks, had been around since before the Civil War. But the idea of using it as an anti-platelet drug wouldn't occur for decades.

“Understanding heart disease back then was in its relative infancy, and I don’t think there’s anything that would have turned Lee’s condition around,” Reinhart says. “Even today, I believe the outcome from his final illness—end-stage heart failure—may not have been much better, given that the mortality rates for it are still significant.”

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Show and Tell
Photograph of Jefferson Davis in Women’s Clothing
International Center for Photography, Gift of Charles Schwartz, 2012

On May 10, 1865, Jefferson Davis, the former President of the Confederacy, was captured by Union troops near Irwinville, Georgia. Davis’s capture, about a month after Robert E. Lee’s surrender to Ulysses S. Grant at Appomattox Court House in Virginia, was the effective end of the Confederacy and the four-year war that had left hundred of thousands of Americans dead.

Davis, a true believer in the cause of the Confederacy, refused to accept Lee’s surrender, believing that the South could still wage a guerilla war against the Union (clearly, Lee disagreed). With that cause in mind, Davis and his family fled Richmond, Virginia, the Confederate capital, hoping to make it to Texas, where he believed he could continue to fight. But the Davises would only make it as far as south Georgia before they were found by Union troops.

According to a handful of accounts from the period, Davis was captured while wearing women’s clothes. The story, as it’s generally told, depicts a man desperate to escape and so, with the encouragement of his wife, Varina, he donned her overcoat and shawl and slipped into the Georgia swamp with a female servant (other accounts say he grabbed his wife's coat and shawl accidentally). Union troops spotted the two “women” and, on closer look, realized that one was wearing spurred boots. Given away by his footwear, Davis surrendered to the Union troops.

The story of Davis in women’s clothing traveled quickly to the ears of Edwin Stanton, the Secretary of War. Stanton recognized the story as an opportunity to discredit Davis, who still had numerous sympathizers throughout the country. Historians have noted that the North gendered its victory as masculine and heroic and, in contrast, portrayed the South as feminine and weak. Davis’s flight played into that narrative, portraying the Southern leader as a coward willing to emasculate himself in order to escape. In short, manly martyrs do not wear women’s clothes. (Never mind that numerous eyewitness accounts disputed the story, including two by members of the First Wisconsin Cavalry, one of the units that captured Davis and his party and another by Davis’s coachman.)

Nevertheless, Stanton planned to exploit the account to the Union’s full advantage. But there was a slight hitch in his plan—namely, the look and style of Varina Davis’s overcoat and shawl. Mrs. Davis’s overcoat was essentially unisex, and bore a striking resemblance to the raincoats of Union soldiers. Furthermore, the shawl was also worn by many men in the mid-19th century, including Abraham Lincoln. The original plan foiled, Stanton encouraged the rumor that Davis had been captured wearing women’s petticoats, earning Davis the derogatory nickname “President in Petticoats.”

The rumor proved incredibly popular. Historian Gaines Foster writes, “Northerners delighted in the accounts of how the Confederate chieftain had tried to escape in female disguise.” Indeed, even P.T. Barnum couldn’t resist the spectacle: The circus king exhibited what he claimed to be the very clothes Davis was wearing at the time of his capture.

Boston Public Library via Flickr // CC BY 2.0

Numerous prints circulated of Davis in petticoats, and photography—a relatively new medium at the time—took up the theme as well. In this combination photograph (up top) produced by the Slee Brothers of Poughkeepsie, New York, and now owned by the International Center of Photography in Manhattan, Davis is depicted in the petticoats of a woman, his head, taken from a separate photographic portrait, having been imposed on another body. Here, Davis wears bonnet, shawl, and petticoats, a fanciful elaboration on the story of his capture, and the skirts are lifted to reveal his spurred boots. The Slee Brothers were one of many photography studios to use combination printing—the production of a single positive through multiple negatives—to play with the theme of Davis fleeing in women’s clothes.

Other photographs from the period depict Davis’s head superimposed on a body wearing full hoop skirts with large men’s boots also imposed over the body, as well as Davis (again in full women’s dress) sneaking through the Georgia swampland while holding a dagger. In almost all of these photographs, the boots are prominently displayed, noting Davis’s folly and a clear part of the narrative of the North’s victory.

Photography was undoubtedly a powerful tool to disseminate the story of Davis’s and the South’s defeat. Davis himself recognized the importance of the new medium: In 1869, he commissioned a photograph of himself wearing the actual clothes he had worn when captured. But the act was fruitless and, despite his insistence, the “President in Petticoats” is a story that stuck with Davis long after death.

Header image: International Center for Photography

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