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Slave Soldiers

The Illustrated London News, vol. 45, no. 1287, p. 477.

November 12, 1864


There is no more revolutionary agency in human affairs than war. It would be a mere truism to speak of the rapid and violent changes which occur in the physical and material condition of the countries in which war is waged. Despite of modern theories of gentle and tender warfare, conducted on what are called the principles and requirements of advanced civilisation, devastation, rapine, and all their attendant miseries still characterise the movements of belligerent armies. The moral and social effect of this huge evil on nations and individuals may not be so patent, but it is almost as certain. The influence for the worse which a single campaign exercises on the minds, habits, and feelings of persons actually bearing arms cannot be overrated in relation to a disregard of human life and sufferings and a confusion of ideas on the subject of property. But a deeper and wider influence is brought to bear on the social and even the political opinions of communities by the operation of war. No more notable instance of such an operation on the public mind could be adduced than the change which has taken place, socially and personally, so to speak, in the feeling of the American people towards the negro race. It would be useless on the part of the most pronounced adherent of the Federals to deny that in the social scale the negro in the North has hitherto been forced into the condition of a pariah. A system of special exclusiveness was adopted towards the coloured race, which obtained in every public place, not excepting places of worship. Contact with them was an abomination, and even in the remotest degree the taint was sufficient to create and to nourish aversion. But somehow, in the North, in the third or fourth year of the civil war, all this has suffered a change. On the whole, the negro--certainly the negro who escapes from the South--has been promoted to the position of a pet. In a certain sense, the free black is really more of a free man. His name has become another word for a cause. Nay, there are some philosophical naturalists who hold that the only hope of checking an alleged deterioration in the physique of the American race is to be found in an engrafting of the negro upon the white, and miscegenation is a familiar word in the Transatlantic vocabulary. Indeed, so conscious is the gentleman of colour of his rise in the social and physiological market, that a preacher of that particular human family, reversing the once regular notice which was prominent at the entrances of churches and chapels, has ventured to announce that a special place will be set aside in his edifice for such white people as might be desirous to attend his ministrations.

But the most significant fact in reference to the status of the negro in the Northern States is that of his enlistment and enrolment in regiments in the Federal armies. No doubt, in the first instance, this was intended as a stroke of subtle policy, a kind of protest against that slavery which was made the ostensible, if not the chief, motive of the war. Something of the needs of recruiting, and not a little in regard to providing for the safe disposal of runaway slaves from the South, may have been at the bottom of this proceeding; but the privilege that was proclaimed was that of giving the self-emancipated slave the opportunity of fighting against the system of thraldom from which he had escaped. Contrary to expectation, the negro regiments, who were secretly believed to be only food for powder, turned out to be soldiers, equal, if not more than equal, to the average; and now it is the regular custom to specify with laudation their conduct in all the actions which take place. In the case of negroes serving under white officers and brigaded with white regiments, the attrition of war has rubbed down many angles of opposition, and, in many instances, there has been something akin to fraternisa-

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tion between the troops of divergent colours. So far as we at this distance can ascertain, the experiment which bas been made in the Federal armies has been successful, and the negro has made a further step in his progress towards the assertion of his position amongst men--in America.

A proposal which has been mooted for the conscription of the negro in the South bears upon the face of it a still greater importance than is involved in the admission of that race to the armies of the North. The condition of the black--slavery apart--in the South has always been very different to that to which he was subjected in the North. Although in the South his social status was technically more distinctly defined, it is at least a question whether what may be called his relations of contact and intercourse with the predominant race were so marked by the antipathy in which his kindred in the North was held. To be sure, he was a slave, and that comprehended everything which could be held to be degradation; but personally, and with a certain individuality, he was not treated as if he were positively loathsome. He often lived in a sort of household familiarity with whites to which the free negro of the North never attained. And yet there were many reasons why the transformation of a Southern slave into a Confederate soldier would have been a more violent change than that which has taken place in the case of the free black of the North. In the first place, the Southern negro represented so much property, which was put in jeopardy by his enlistment; in the next place, doubts might well exist of the prudence of arming and disciplining a man to fight against a cause which, nominally and even ostentatiously, was put forward as his own by the North; while the services of that which was essentially the labouring population in a country mostly agricultural was too necessary to its requirements, either peaceful or belligerent, hastily to be given up. All these and any other considerations which may have actuated the Confederates in abstaining from recruiting their armies from the negro population appear to be yielding to the inevitable necessities of the war; and we hear that "the time has come to put into the army every able-bodied negro as a soldier;" it is asserted that "he must now play an important part in the war, that he caused the fight, and he must have his portion of the burden." The most striking admission, however, in a manifesto of the Governor of Louisiana from which the above sentences are extracted, is to be found in a statement "that all able to bear arms should be freed and put into the field at once." If this principle is to be carried out in its integrity, the work of emancipation will have begun at the moment the first negro corps is enrolled. It is allowed, as a necessary condition to his becoming a soldier, that the black man should cease to be a slave. Such a stipulation was inevitable, and its result is equally inevitable. The exigencies of the Crimean War forced on the Emperor of Russia the enlistment of numbers of serfs, who, by the act of becoming soldiers of the empire, were emancipated; and it is no strained presumption, but a logical deduction, to assert that the ultimate enfranchisement of the whole of the thralls of Muscovy was the consequence. Out of similar conditions a like issue must be evoked in the Southern States of America.

If this suggestion of emancipation and enlistment be acted upon by a solemn decree of the Confederate Congress, the Slave States will have accepted the principle of the freedom of their negroes. From this point of view, it becomes possible to bring the mind's-eye to dwell on a prospect, more or less distant, of the cessation of the war. It may be that the South would have comported itself with greater dignity if, in the first instance, it had practically ceded the principle of negro emancipation, as will now be the case if the new policy indicated be adopted; but, at any rate, the point of difference which is assumed to be at the root of the contest which is going on will disappear, and at least one great pretext for internecine hostility will have been removed. Doubtless, much may be said with regard to other inferences to be drawn from the proposition to arm the slaves of the South. It may be urged as a proof of a certain exhaustion in the Confederate States, coincident, however, with a stubborn determination to continue the contest by all available means and in all extremities. The rendition of their slaves to the military service of their country would be, unquestionably, a great sacrifice on the altar of patriotism by the proprietors of the South, and it might also do much towards prolonging hostilities. But if by the act of creating a black soldier, a slave is converted into a FREED-MAN, it is undeniable that slavery as an institution is breached, and its ultimate fall is only a question of time. It is not for us in this country to lay down the terms on which the fratricidal war in the States of America should be brought to a conclusion; but we are not to be denied the privilege of being glad to perceive any sign or symptom which points, however remotely, to its cessation. But if, by some happy combination of events, the termination of the war and the extinction of slavery as a principle, in due time to vivify into a fact, should synchronise, nowhere in the world would there be more sincere rejoicing at such a circumstance than amongst the peaceful and free people of England.

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