“Impetuous Charge of the First Colored Rebel Regiment"

November 5, 1864

Frank Bellew

“Impetuous Charge of the First Colored Rebel Regiment"

Black Americans; Civil War, Confederate Policy; Civil War, Enlistment; Wars, American Civil War;

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As early as 1863, a few voices in the Confederacy had called for the enlistment of black slaves into the Confederate armed forces, but most remained opposed to such a policy, which would have violated the predominant assumption that blacks were racially inferior.  However, as the military situation worsened for the Confederacy in the fall of 1864, the controversial idea resurfaced with greater force.  That September, Union newspapers published a letter confiscated from Governor Henry W. Allen of Louisiana in which he urged the Confederacy to arm “every able-bodied Negro.”  A few weeks later, the influential Richmond Enquirer expanded the suggestion to endorse emancipation and equal treatment of black soldiers in return for military service to the Confederacy.

Both the governor’s letter and the newspaper editorial are excerpted in the featured cartoon’s caption.  In contrast to those statements of confidence in black loyalty to the Confederacy, the illustration envisions the “First Colored Rebel Regiment” gleefully seeking genuine freedom by crossing the battle line into Union territory, where a black Union soldier welcomes them.  The federal Congress had approved the use of blacks in the Union military in July 1862, and their recruitment began in earnest after the Emancipation Proclamation of January 1, 1863.  Almost 200,000 black men served as soldiers, sailors, or laborers for the Union armed forces during the Civil War. 

The first major proposal for arming slaves and free blacks in the Confederacy was the “Cleburne Memorial” presented by General Patrick Cleburne, an Army of Tennessee division commander, to an officers’ meeting on January 2, 1864.  By that time, there was a serious need to replace the dwindling number of servicemen in the Confederate military, which was about a third of the size of the Union forces.  Cleburne told the assembled officers that the Confederacy was losing because of the lack of soldiers and that slavery, which had been a source of strength at the beginning of the war, was now a detriment to survival.  In order for the Confederacy to defend its independence, it would have to give up slavery and arm black men. 

The Cleburne Memorial was notable because it was made by a well-respected military leader, not a politician or journalist, and it went beyond any previous proposal to urge complete emancipation, rather than conscription without emancipation or emancipation only for servicemen.  Cleburne’s commanding officer, General Joseph E. Johnston, refused to forward the memorandum to the Confederate government in Richmond, Virginia, but an angry fellow general, W. H. T. Walker of Georgia, did, along with his vehement protest.  President Jefferson Davis ordered the suppression of the proposal and any discussion of it, although it continued to be debated acrimoniously among Confederate officers.  Cleburne stayed out of the fray, but was passed over for promotion three times during the following eight months.

In February 1864, the Confederate Congress did authorize, at Davis’s request, the use of 20,000 free blacks and slaves (who remained the legal property of their owners) in noncombatant roles, such as cooks, laborers, nurses, and teamsters.  In September 1864, Atlanta fell to the Union, General William T. Sherman began his March to the Sea, and the Confederacy suffered other military setbacks.  At that point, some Southerners became more vocal about the need to consider the use of black troops.  Besides Governor Allen, a group of six other governors endorsed a “change of policy” concerning the use of slave in the “public service.”  The Richmond Enquirer’s approval of arming the slaves was echoed by the Mobile Register and other journals. 

On November 7, 1864, President Davis unveiled a surprise in his otherwise predictable address to the Confederate Congress.  He argued that the use of slaves in noncombatant roles for limited periods had not worked as well as expected, so he asked the Confederate Congress to purchase 40,000 slaves to be used for extended tours of noncombatant duty.  The “due compensation” for the increased hazards and commitment should be emancipation at the end of their loyal service.  Davis did not request authorization to use the slaves as soldiers, but he held out that possibility if the only alternative was “subjugation” of the Confederacy.  The Confederate Congress did not act on the plan, but the issue of arming the slaves was thereafter debated vigorously until the end of the war.

Opposition to arming the slaves remained strong, led in the press by the Richmond Examiner and the Charleston Mercury, and in the political arena by Congressman R. M. T. Hunter of Virginia, speaker pro tem of the Confederate Senate, and Governors Zebulon Vance of North Carolina and Joe Brown of Georgia.  Howell Cobb warned, “If slaves will make good soldiers[, then] our whole theory of slavery is wrong.”  On the other hand, most of Davis’s cabinet supported the policy, although Secretary of War James Seddon was unenthusiastic.

As the Confederate military situation went from bad to worse in the winter of 1864-1865, President Davis sent Confederate Congressman Duncan Kenner of Louisiana, a long-time advocate of arming slaves, on a secret diplomatic mission in late January 1865.  In a last ditch effort to convince Britain and France to issue formal recognition of Confederate independence, Davis was willing to offer emancipation of the slaves.  Through indirect channels, Napoleon III of France deferred to Britain, whose prime minister, Lord Palmerston, resolutely refused.  Although disappointed by the outcome of the Kenner mission (which had become publicly known), it was the failure of the Hampton Roads Peace Conference in early February—a final attempt to secure Confederate independence and a negotiated end to the war—that amplified the call for arming the slaves.  Mass meeting were held across the Confederacy at which, amidst a general show of Southern patriotism, the radical policy was supported.

On February 10, 1865, Ethelbert Barksdale of Mississippi introduced a bill on the floor of the Confederate Congress to arm the slaves.  Within days, General Robert E. Lee, commander of the Confederate armed forces, endorsed the measure and the Davis administration put its authority behind the bill.  Former foes in the press, like the Richmond Examiner, now switched their editorial position to favor arming the slaves.  The bill passed on March 13, but with opposition still substantial (winning by just a vote in the Senate) and without rewarding the armed slaves with emancipation.  However, on March 23, the Davis administration’s executive order to implement the act added the stipulations that a slave must agree to enlistment and that his master must consent in writing to grant him, “as far as he may, the rights of a freedman.”  The executive order also required that the black soldiers receive equal treatment with their white comrades.

The recruitment of black Confederate soldiers began, with the first black company formed in Richmond on March 25.  The Confederate capital fell just over one week later, and General Lee surrendered to the Union commander, General Ulysses S. Grant, on April 9, 1865.  To most white Confederates, the arming of black slaves and their promised emancipation was a desperate measure taken out of military necessary in the final days of the Civil War.  It did not offer emancipation to all of the slaves, nor did it abolish slavery as an institution.  The latter was accomplished after the war by the Thirteenth Amendment to the U.S. Constitution in December 1865, with much reluctance on the part of white politicians in the South.

Robert C. Kennedy

“Impetuous Charge of the First Colored Rebel Regiment"
May 29, 2024

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