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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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The Dangerous History Behind the Word 'Deadline'
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Nowadays, the word deadline is used all but exclusively to refer to a date or time by which something must be accomplished. But over the centuries, the term has been used in a number of different contexts: Among early 20th-century printers, for instance, a deadline was a line marked on a cylindrical press outside of which text would be illegible, while the Oxford English Dictionary has unearthed a reference to an angler’s “dead-line” dating from the mid-1800s referring to a weighted fishing line that does not move in the water.

The modern sense of deadline, however, may be influenced by a much more dangerous meaning. It originated during the Civil War, and came to prominence during the much-hyped trial of an infamous Swiss-born Confederate leader named Henry Wirz.

Wirz was born Heinrich Hartmann Wirz in Zürich in 1823. In his early twenties, a court forced him to leave Zürich for 12 years after he failed to repay borrowed money, and in 1848 he left first for Russia before eventually settling in America. After working a string of jobs at several spots around the country, Wirz married a woman named Elizabeth Wolf in 1854 and moved to Louisiana. After the outbreak of the Civil War in 1861, he enlisted as a private in the Fourth Louisiana Infantry.

One of Wirz’s first engagements in the war was the Battle of Seven Pines on May 31, 1862. He was badly wounded in the fighting, losing the use of his right arm, and when he returned to his unit a few weeks later he was promoted to the rank of captain in recognition of his bravery and service. From there, Wirz rose through the ranks to become an adjutant to John H. Winder, an experienced and high-ranking general overseeing the treatment of Confederate deserters and Union prisoners. In 1864, Wirz was put in control of Camp Sumter, a newly-established internment camp for Union soldiers located near Andersonville in rural Georgia.

Over the remaining 14 months of the war, Camp Sumter grew to become one of the largest prisoner of war camps in the entire Confederacy. At its peak, it held more than 30,000 Union prisoners, all of whom shared an enormous 16.5-acre open-air paddock—conditions inside of which were notoriously grim. Disease and malnutrition were rife, and a lack of clean water, warm clothing, and adequate sanitation led to the deaths of many of the camp’s prisoners. Of the 45,000 Union prisoners held in the Camp at one time or another, it is estimated that almost a third succumbed to Sumter’s squalid and inhumane conditions.

In his defense, Wirz later claimed to have had little real control over the conditions in the camp, and it is certainly true that the day-to-day running of Camp Sumter was a disorganized affair divided among numerous different parties. Incompetence, rather than malice, may have been the cause of many of the camp's horrors.

Execution of Captain Henry Wirtz (i.e. Wirz), C.S.A, adjusting the rope
Execution of Captain Henry Wirz in 1865

In 1865, the war came to an end and Wirz was arrested in Andersonville. He was eventually sent to Washington, and held in the Old Capitol Prison to await trial before a military commission. That fall, more than 150 witnesses—including one of Wirz’s own prison staff and several former prisoners—took to the stand and gave testimony. Many provided damning evidence of Wirz’s harsh treatment of the prisoners (although historians now think some of these testimonies were exaggerated). As accounts of him withholding food and other supplies from prisoners found to have committed even minor offenses were relayed in the press—and as the full extent of the terrible conditions inside Camp Sumter became public—Wirz emerged as a much-vilified symbol of the camp’s inhumane treatment of its Union prisoners.

One of most damning examples of his inhumanity was his implementation of what became known as the Camp’s dead line:

Wirz, still wickedly pursuing his evil purpose, did establish and cause to be designated within the prison enclosure … a “dead line,” being a line around the inner face of the stockade or wall enclosing said prison, and about twenty feet distant and within said stockade; and so established said dead line, which was in many places an imaginary line, in many other places marked by insecure and shifting strips of [boards nailed] upon the tops of small and insecure stakes or posts, he … instructed the prison guard stationed around the top of said stockade to fire upon and kill any of the prisoners aforesaid who might touch, fall upon, pass over or under or across the said “dead line” ...

—Report of the Secretary of War, October 1865

In other words, this deadliest of all deadlines was a line Wirz implemented just inside the inner wall of Camp Sumter. Any prisoner wandering beyond the line would immediately be killed.

Stories like this were all the evidence the court needed: Wirz was found guilty of violating the rights of wartime prisoners, and was hanged on the morning of November 10, 1865.

Widespread press reports of Wirz’s trial and the horrors of Camp Sumter soon led to the word deadline being popularized, and eventually it passed into everyday use—thankfully in a less severe sense.

By the early 20th century, the word’s military connotations had all but disappeared and the familiar meaning of the deadlines we meet—or miss—today emerged by the early 1920s.

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The Confederacy's Plan to Conquer Latin America
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Hulton Archive/Illustrated London News/Getty Images

In the years leading up to the Civil War, many Northerners and Southerners alike wanted the federal government to take a more aggressive approach toward acquiring new territory. In fact, some private citizens, known as filibusters, took matters into their own hands. They raised small armies illegally; ventured into Mexico, Cuba, and South America; and attempted to seize control of the lands. One particularly successful filibuster, William Walker, actually made himself president of Nicaragua and ruled from 1856 to 1857.

For the most part, these filibusters were just men in search of adventure. Others, however, were Southern imperialists who wanted to conquer new territories in the tropics. Abolitionist factions in the North greatly opposed their efforts, and the debate over Southern expansion only increased tensions in a divided nation. As the country drifted into war, U.S. Vice President John Breckinridge of Kentucky warned that "the Southern states cannot afford to be shut off from all possibility of expansion towards the tropics by the hostile action of the federal government."

But Abraham Lincoln's election in November 1860 put an end to the argument. The anti-slavery president refused to compromise on the issue, and war broke out in April 1861.

CONFEDERATE COLONIES, SOUTH OF THE BORDER

Winning the war was clearly a higher priority for the Confederacy than conquering Latin America, but growth was certainly on the post-war agenda. The Confederate constitution included the right to expand, and Confederacy president Jefferson Davis filled his cabinet with men who thought similarly. He even hinted that the slave trade could be revived in "new acquisitions to be made south of the Rio Grande."

During the Civil War, Confederate agents attempted to destabilize Mexico so that its territories would be easy to snatch up after the war. One rebel emissary to Mexico City, John T. Pickett, secretly fomented rebellion in several Mexican provinces with an eye to "the permanent possession of that beautiful country." Pickett's mission ended in failure in 1861, but fate dealt the South a better hand in 1863. French Emperor Napoleon III seized Mexico, and the move provided the South with a perfect excuse to "liberate" the country after the Civil War.

Of course, Mexico was just part of the pie that the South hoped to inherit. Confederate leaders also had their eyes squarely on Brazil—a country of 3 million square miles and more than 8 million people. Prior to the outbreak of the war, Matthew Maury, one of the forces behind the U.S. Naval Academy, dispatched two Navy officers to the Amazon basin, ostensibly to map the river for shipping. Instead, they were secretly plotting domination and collecting data about separatist movements in the region. When the South lost the war, Maury refused to abandon his plans. He helped up to 20,000 ex-rebels flee to Brazil, where they established the Confederate colonies of New Texas and Americana. To this day, hundreds of descendants of the Confederados still gather outside Americana to celebrate their shared heritage of rocking chairs and sweet potato pie. In a strange way, a part of the Old South still survives—thousands of miles below the U.S. border.

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