Baptists and the American Civil War: March 1, 1865

SlaveryIn Virginia, the faculty of the University of Virginia convene and appoint one of their own to meet Union General Philip Sheridan, whose nearby forces are bearing down on the city of Charlottesville. Their hope is that the Federals will have mercy and spare the university.

Yet not all are ready to give up the fight. Today’s Richmond Daily Dispatch publishes a missive recently penned on behalf of the 26th Virginia cavalry. Disdaining the “fiendish purposes” of U.S. President Abraham Lincoln in placing in “bondage the free and sovereign States of this Confederacy,” the 26th resolves to stand firm in battle “with a firm reliance upon Almighty God, never, never to lay down our arms until we have secured the priceless boon of liberty.”

The South’s view of liberty, as has been voiced tirelessly prior to and throughout the war, is that freedom is the domain only of whites. Blacks are designed by providence to live as slaves in perpetuity, and the Confederacy is the instrument of God for maintaining the just and right social order of the South.

Defiance in the army and on the home front aside, however, the determination of the Confederacy to defeat the Northern enemy has for some months now confronted an irresolvable dilemma. Victory is not possible without more soldiers in the field, yet there are no more able and willing white men to be found. The only remaining able-bodied men in the Confederacy are slaves. To recruit slaves to fight necessitates offering them freedom, which in turn destroys the very foundation of the slave-based Confederacy.

Today’s Athens, Georgia Southern Watchman newspaper reprints Governor Joseph Brown‘s recent speech pondering this very conundrum.

Brown is a Baptist layman and an example of Southern Baptists’ rise to prominence in the South in the decades prior to the war. His frank assessment of the inseparability of black slavery and the Confederacy is a reflection of common political sentiment, as well as a window into the views of Southern Baptist elites.

The administration, by its unfortunate policy having wasted our strength and reduced our armies, and being unable to get freemen into the field as conscripts, and unwilling to accept them in organizations with officers of their own choice, will, it is believed, soon resort to the policy of filling them up by the conscription of slaves.

I am satisfied that we may profitably use slave labor, so far as it can be spared from agriculture, to do menial service in connection with the army, and thereby enable more free white men to take up arms; but I am quite sure any attempt to arm the slaves will be a great error. If we expect to continue the war successfully, we are obliged to have the labor of most of them in the production of provisions.

But if this difficulty were surmounted, we can not rely upon them as soldiers. They are now quietly serving us at home, because they do not wish to go into the army, and they fear, if they leave us, the enemy will put them there. If we compel them to take up arms, their whole feeling and conduct will change, and they will leave us by thousands. A single proclamation by President Lincoln–that all who will desert us after they are forced into service, and go over to him, shall have their freedom, be taken out of the army, and permitted to go into the country in his possession, and receive wages for their labor–would disband them by brigades. Whatever may be our opinion of their normal condition or their true interest, we can not expect them, if they remain with us, to perform deeds of heroic valor, when they are fighting to continue the enslavement of their wives and children. It is not reasonable for us to demand it of them, and we have little cause to expect the blessings of Heaven upon our efforts if we compel them to perform such a task.

If we are right, and Providence designed them for slavery, He did not intend that they should be a military people. Whenever we establish the fact that they are a military race, we destroy our whole theory that they are unfit to be free.

But it is said we should give them their freedom in case of their fidelity to our cause in the field; in other words, that we should give up slavery, as well as our personal liberty and State sovereignty, for independence, and should set all our slaves free if they will aid us to achieve it. If we are ready to give up slavery, I am satisfied we can make it the consideration for a better trade than to give it for the uncertain aid which they might afford us in the military field. When we arm the slaves, we abandon slavery. We can never again govern them as slaves, and make the institution profitable to ourselves or to them, after tens of thousands of them have been taught the use of arms, and spent years in the indolent indulgencies of camp life.

If the General Assembly should adopt my recommendation by the call of a Convention, I would suggest that this too would be a subject deserving its serious consideration and decided action.

It can never be admitted by the State that the Confederate Government has any power directly or indirectly to abolish slavery. The provision in the Constitution which by implication authorizes the Confederate Government to take private property for public use only, authorizes the use of the property during the existence of the emergency which justifies the taking. To illustrate: In time of war it may be necessary for the Government to take from a citizen a business house to hold commissary stores. This it may do (if a suitable one cannot be had by contract) on payment to the owner of just compensation for the use of the house. But this taking cannot change the title of the land, and vest it in the government. Whenever the emergency has passed, the Government can no longer legally hold the house, but is bound to return it to the owner. So the Government may impress slaves to do the labor of servants, as to fortify a city, if it cannot obtain them by contract, and it is bound to pay the owner just hire for the time it uses them. But the impressment can vest no title to the slave in the Government for a longer period than the emergency requires the labor. It has not the shadow of right to impress and pay for a slave to set him free. The moment it ceases to need his labor the use reverts to the owner who has the title. If we admit the right of the Government to impress and pay for slaves to free them we concede its power to abolish slavery, and change our domestic institutions at its pleasure, and to tax us to raise the money for that purpose. I am not aware of the advocacy of such a monstrous doctrine in the old Congress by any one of the more rational class of abolitionists. It certainly never found an advocate in any Southern statesman.

No slave can ever be liberated by the Confederate Government without the consent of the States. No such consent can ever be given by this State without a previous alteration of her Constitution. And no such alteration can be made without a convention of her people.

Haunting words the governor thus offers. The Confederacy, unable to exist apart from slavery, is now destined for annihilation because of its unwavering commitment to the very institution upon which it was founded, the very reason for which it fights.

Liberty is the enemy of slavery, and slavery the enemy of liberty. No nation can long stand that tries to marry the two.

Sources: “University of Virginia Faculty Minutes, March 1, 1865,” Encyclopedia Virginia (link) Southern Watchman, March 1, 1865 (link); Journal of the Senate, State of Georgia, February 15, 1865 (link)