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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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Chemung County Historical Society, Elmira, NY
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John W. Jones: The Runaway Slave Who Buried Nearly 3000 Confederate Soldiers
Chemung County Historical Society, Elmira, NY
Chemung County Historical Society, Elmira, NY

John W. Jones was as close to a sinless man as you could find—with the exception of the time he lied to his mother.

It was a late June evening in 1844 and the 26-year-old enslaved man, who lived on a plantation near Leesburg, Virginia, told his mother that he was leaving to attend a party. His real plans were much riskier. Jones slipped outside, grabbed a pistol, and rendezvoused with four other enslaved men. With starlight as their guide, they crept through the Virginia woods. Their destination: North.

The men hiked approximately 20 miles every day, dodging slave catchers in Maryland and crossing the Mason-Dixon Line into the free state of Pennsylvania. Following a major route along the Underground Railroad, they needled through Harrisburg and Williamsport and traced a path along what is now State Route 14. When the exhausted men snuck into a barn near the New York border to sleep, Jones kept guard as the others rested: He sat down, laid a shotgun on his lap, and kept his eyes peeled.

“He was serious about getting his freedom,” says Talima Aaron, President of the John W. Jones Museum Board of Trustees. “He understood the danger, and he constantly took responsibility for others. You’ll notice that was a thread for him—responsibility for others.”

Jones never had to use the gun. When the barn’s owner, Nathaniel Smith, discovered the five men on his property, he invited them into his home. His wife Sarah served the group hot biscuits and butter and cared for them until their strength returned. It was the first time many of them had ever been inside a white person’s home. According to an 1885 profile in The Elmira Telegram, the gesture brought the men to tears.

On July 5, 1844, Jones crossed a toll bridge into Elmira, New York, with less than $2 in his pocket. Unlike most runaways bound for Canada, Jones decided to stay in Elmira. It’s here that Jones would become one of the country's most successful Underground Railroad conductors, one of the richest black men in the state of New York, and the last earthly link for nearly 3000 dead Confederate soldiers.

 
 

Living in the north did not mean Jones had it easy. He could not vote. He still shared sidewalks with former slave-owners. When he asked to receive an education at the local schools, he was denied.

But Jones had a knack for cracking ceilings. After earning the admiration of a local judge, he was allowed to study at an all-women’s seminary, exchanging janitorial work for reading and writing lessons. He joined a church with abolitionist leanings and become its sexton, maintaining its cemetery. Then he became the sexton of a second cemetery, and then a third. The community quickly grew to respect his work ethic and, eventually, Jones had earned enough money to buy a small house—a house that he transformed into a vital hub for the Underground Railroad.

At the time, the Underground Railroad—an informal network of trails, hiding places, and guides that helped slaves escape northward—was under intense scrutiny. The 1850 Fugitive Slave Act had created financial incentives to report runaways living in free states. “Slave catchers from the south could come up to a place like Elmira and claim that a person of color was a runaway slave, and they could haul them back into slavery—even if that person had been born free,” says Bruce Whitmarsh, Director of the Chemung County Historical Society. There were steep penalties for aiding a person’s escape.

Jones didn’t care. Not only did he join the Underground Railroad, he was openly vocal about it, loudly pledging his opposition to the Fugitive Slave Act in a message that was published in abolitionist newspapers across the region: “Resolved, that we, the colored citizens of Elmira, do hereby form ourselves into a society for the purpose of protecting ourselves against those persons, (slave-catchers) prowling through different parts of this and other States.” Jones committed to resisting the law, even at the risk that “everyone of us be assassinated.”

The Underground Railroad in Elmira was unique: Since the town included the only train stop between Philadelphia and Ontario, it actually involved locomotives. Jones communicated regularly with William Still, the chief "conductor" of the Underground Railroad in Philadelphia, and built a cozy network of abolitionists who worked on trains passing through town. He provided runaways with housing, food, and even part-time jobs. “Runaways usually came in groups of four, six, or 10,” Aaron says. “But he had up to 30 at once in his little house.” Jones arranged hiding space for all of the escapees on the 4 a.m. “Freedom Baggage Car” to Canada, as it was unofficially known.

Over the course of nine years, Jones aided the escape of around 800 runaway slaves. Not one was captured.

During the last years of the Civil War, the same railroad tracks that had delivered hundreds of runaways to freedom began to carry thousands of captive Confederate soldiers to Elmira’s new prisoner of war camp. Once again, Jones would be there.

 
 

Of the 620,000 Civil War deaths, approximately 10 percent occurred at prison camps. The most notorious P.O.W. camp—in Andersonville, Georgia—saw 13,000 Union troops, or approximately 29 percent of the prison population, perish. After the war, Andersonville's commander was tried for war crimes. The camp is now a National Historic Site.

Meanwhile, the prison camp in Elmira has been largely forgotten. Today, the riverside site is little more than an unremarkable patch of dandelion-speckled grass; a small, easy-to-miss monument is the only marker. It belies the fact that while Elmira's camp was noticeably smaller than Andersonville's—only one-quarter its size—it was just as deadly: If you were a prisoner at “Hellmira,” there was a one-in-four chance you would die.

Elmira Prison Camp
Chemung County Historical Society, Elmira, NY

Elmira was never supposed to have a prison camp; it was a training depot for Union soldiers. But when the Confederacy began refusing to exchange African-American soldiers—who it considered captive slaves, not prisoners of war—the Union stopped participating in prisoner exchanges. “Both sides started scrambling for places to expand, and that’s how Elmira got caught up in the web,” says Terri Olszowy, a Board Member for the Friends of the Elmira Civil War Prison Camp.

The rollout was ill-planned, Olszowy explains. When it opened in July 1864, the camp had no hospital or medical staff. The first prisoners were already in rough shape and deteriorated quickly. Latrines were placed uphill from a small body of water called Foster’s Pond, which quickly became a cesspool. A shelter shortage meant that hundreds of soldiers were still living in tents by Christmas. During spring, the Chemung River flooded the grounds. Rats crawled everywhere. When authorities released a dog to catch them, the prisoners ate the dog.

The camp grew overcrowded. Designed to hold only 5000 prisoners, it saw approximately 7000 to 10,000 men confined there at its peak. Across the street, an observation tower allowed locals the opportunity to gawk at these prisoners through a pair of binoculars. It cost 10 cents.

It must have been a depressing sight, a scene of men stricken with dysentery, scurvy, typhoid, pneumonia, and smallpox. Many prisoners attempted to escape. One group successfully dug a 66-foot tunnel with spoons and knives. One man fled by hiding in a barrel of swill. Another hid inside a coffin, leaping out as he was being hauled to Woodlawn Cemetery.

It’s said that 2973 Confederate prisoners left the Elmira prison camp in coffins for real. The job to bury them belonged to the town’s sexton: John W. Jones.

 
 

The P.O.W. cemetery in Elmira is unique. The dead at many prison camps were buried in mass graves; Chicago’s Oak Woods Cemetery, for example, contains a plot filled with the remains of prisoners detained at Camp Douglas that is believed to be largest mass grave in the western hemisphere. All 2973 of the dead at Elmira, however, received an individual, marked grave in a special section of Woodlawn Cemetery. Only seven are unknown. Jones's effort to give each soldier an individual grave, as well as his meticulous record-keeping, were a big part of why the federal government designated the P.O.W. portion of Woodlawn a "National Cemetery" in 1877—a status awarded to veterans' cemeteries deemed to be of national importance, and which has only been awarded to 135 cemeteries nationwide.

Jones treated each dead soldier with superhuman levels of grace. Overseeing a crew of 12, he managed the burial of about six soldiers every day, treating each body as if that person had been a member of his own church. He kept detailed records of each soldier’s identity by creating improvised dog tags: Around each person's neck or under their arm, Jones tucked a jar containing a paper detailing their name, rank, and regiment. That same information was neatly scrawled on each coffin. When the dirt settled, Jones marked each plot with a wooden headstone.

“No one told him how to do that job, he did it in the way that he thought was right—even though the people he buried were fighting a war to keep people like him enslaved,” Aaron says. “He even knew one of the young men who had died, and he reached back to the South and told the parents so they knew where their child was buried. That speaks to his compassion.”

According to Clayton W. Holmes’s 1912 book Elmira Prison Camp, “History does not record anything to challenge the assertion that at no prison, North or South, were the dead so reverently cared for, or a more perfect record kept.” In fact, when representatives of the Daughters of the Confederacy came to Elmira at the turn of the century to consider repatriating the remains, Jones’s handiwork convinced them to touch not a blade of grass. Instead, a monument in the cemetery commemorates the “honorable way in which they were laid to rest by a caring man.”

Aaron sees a second moral in the story. “People always talk about the tension between him being an escaped slave and burying with respect and dignity these Confederate soldiers fighting to keep people like him as slaves,” she says. “But to me there’s a subtext: Here is a grown man who escaped slavery, and the first thing he wanted to do when he reached freedom was get an education. Because of that, he was able to keep these meticulous records that later led to this national designation: It became a historical moment because this man, who was denied an education, got one.”

John W. Jones
Chemung County Historical Society, Elmira, NY

It also made a mark on Jones’s bank account. Jones earned $2.50 for each soldier he buried. It wasn’t much, but by the time he had finished burying nearly 3000 Confederate dead, he had become one of the 10 richest African-Americans in the state of New York. With that money, he bought a handsome farm of at least 12 acres.

It was a bittersweet purchase. Not only is it believed that parts of his home were built from wooden scraps of the disassembled Elmira prison camp, Jones had purchased the home when New York state law stipulated that black men must own $250 worth of property in order to vote. His home—today listed on the National Register of Historic Places [PDF]—earned Jones that right to vote.

For the remainder of his life, Jones continued working as a sexton and church usher. In 1900, he died and was buried in one of the cemeteries that had become his life’s work.

Incidentally, his death also marked the end of a local mystery: For nearly two decades, fresh flowers kept appearing on the freshly manicured grave of a woman named Sarah Smith. Nobody knew why the flowers appeared there or where they originated—until the decorations stopped appearing immediately after Jones’s death. Residents later realized that the grave belonged to the same Sarah Smith who, 56 years earlier, had invited John W. Jones and his friends into her home for butter, biscuits, and a good night’s rest.

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Library of Congress // Public Domain
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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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