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"Even if the result were to emancipate our slaves, there is not a man who would not cheerfully put the negro into the Army rather than become a slave himself to our hated and vindictive foe. It is, then, simply a question of time. Has the time arrived when this issue is fairly before us? ...For my part standing before God and my country, I do not hesitate to say that I would arm such portion of our able-bodied slave population as may be necessary, and put them in the field, so as to have them ready for the spring campaign, even if it resulted in the freedom of those thus organized. Will I not employ them to fight the negro force of the enemy? Aye, the Yankees themselves, who already boast that they have 200,000 of our slaves in arms against us. Can we hesitate, can we doubt, when the question is, whether the enemy shall use our slaves against us or we use them against him; when the question may be between liberty and independence on the one hand, or our subjugation and utter ruin on the other?"
With their Governor as leader for the Administration, the Virginians found this issue the absorbing topic of the hour. And now the great figure of Lee takes its rightful place at the very center of Confederate history, not only military but civil, for to Lee the Virginia politicians turned for advice.* In a letter to a State Senator of Virginia who had asked for a public expression of Lee's views because "a mountain of prejudices, growing out of our ancient modes of regarding the institution of Southern slavery will have to be met and overcome" in order to Attain unanimity, Lee discussed both the institution of slavery and the situation of the moment. He plainly intimated that slavery should be placed under state control; and, assuming such control,
he considered "the relation of master and slave...the best that can exist between the black and white races while intermingled as at present in this country." He went on to show, however, that military necessity now compelled a revolution in sentiment on this subject, and he came at last to this momentous conclusion:
* Lee now revealed himself in his previously overlooked capacity of statesman. Whether his abilities in this respect equaled his abilities as a soldier need not here be considered; it is said that he himself had no high opinion of them. However, in the advice which he gave at this final moment of crisis, he expressed a definite conception of the articulation of civil forces in such a system as that of the Confederacy. He held that all initiative upon basal matters should remain with the separate States, that the function of the general Government was to administer, not to create conditions, and that the proper power to constrain the State Legislatures was the flexible, extra-legal power of public opinion.
"Should the war continue under existing circumstances, the enemy may in course of time penetrate our country and get access to a large part of our negro population. It is his avowed policy to convert the able-bodied men among them into soldiers, and to emancipate all.... His progress will thus add to his numbers, and at the same time destroy slavery in a manner most pernicious to the welfare of our people. Their negroes will be used to hold them in subjection, leaving the remaining force of the enemy free to extend his conquest. Whatever may be the effect of our employing negro troops, it cannot be as mischievous as this. If it end in subverting slavery it will be accomplished by ourselves, and we can devise the means of alleviating the evil consequences to both races. I think, therefore, we must decide whether slavery shall be extinguished by our enemies and the slaves be used against us, or use them ourselves at the risk of the effects which may be produced upon our social institutions..."
"The reasons that induce me to recommend the employment of negro troops at all render the effect of the measures...upon slavery immaterial, and in my opinion the best means of securing the efficiency and fidelity of this auxiliary force would be to accompany the measure with a well-digested plan of gradual and general emancipation. As that will be the result of the continuance of the war, and will certainly occur if the enemy succeed, it seems to me most advisable to adopt it at once, and thereby obtain all the benefits that will accrue to our cause..."
"I can only say in conclusion, that whatever measures are to be adopted should be adopted at once. Every day's delay increases the difficulty. Much time will be required to organize and discipline the men, and action may be deferred until it is too late."
Lee wrote these words on January 11, 1865. At that time a fresh wave of despondency had gone over the South because of Hood's rout at Nashville; Congress was debating intermittently the possible arming of the slaves; and the newspapers were prophesying that the Administration would presently force the issue. It is to be observed that Lee did not advise Virginia to wait for Confederate action. He advocated emancipation by the State. After all, to both Lee and Smith, Virginia was their "country."
During the next sixty days Lee rejected two great opportunities--or, if you will, put aside two great temptations. If tradition is to be trusted, it was during January that Lee refused to play the role of Cromwell by declining to intervene directly in general Confederate politics. But there remained open the possibility of his intervention in Virginia politics, and the local crisis was in its own way as momentous as the general crisis. What if Virginia had accepted the views of Lee and insisted upon the immediate arming of the slaves? Virginia, however, did not do so; and Lee, having made public his position, refrained from further participation. Politically speaking, he maintained a splendid isolation at the head of the armies.
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The Day of the Confederacy -by- Nathaniel W. Stephenson