150 Years Ago This Week: The Confederacy enlists slaves to fight

March 1865

The fighting in North Carolina intensified between the Confederates under Gen. Joseph E. Johnston and the Union troops under Maj. Gen. William Sherman. Gen. Braxton Bragg, commanding the Confederates on the coast, fought a two-day battle with Federal forces under Gen. Sherman at Kinston; Gen. Bragg was forced to withdraw as Union troops under Maj. Gen. Henry Slocum approached the Confederate rear from the coast.

Trying to assemble a Southern force strong enough to strike a blow against one of Gen. Sherman’s divided columns of troops, Gen. Johnston tried to buy some time by ordering Lt. Gen. William Hardee to take his 6,000 Confederates to block Gen. Slocum’s strong brigades. At Averasborough, south of Raleigh, Gen. Hardee’s troops entrenched, where on March 16, they fended off Gen. Slocum’s repeated attacks. Late in the day of some severe storms, Gen. Hardee realized he was greatly outnumbered; he withdrew his troops towards Gen. Johnston’s positions northeast of Raleigh. Union casualties numbered 682 while the Confederates sustained 865 casualties. Though far from a major engagement, the fighting at Averasborough proved the Confederates were once again opposing the Union invasion.

After much debate, the Confederate Congress at Richmond approved the use of black slaves as soldiers in the Confederate armies. President Jefferson Davis immediately signed the bill. The president was authorized to call upon owners to volunteer their slaves, and it was generally understood though not specifically stated in the law, that any slaves who fought for the Confederacy would be freed by action of the states. The law was too late to be of much value, but several troops of slaves were raised and trained; by late March, black Confederate soldiers were seen marching in the streets of Richmond.

A new theater of operations opened on Friday, March 17: Union Maj. Gen. Edward R.S. Canby began moving some 32,000 Federal troops against Mobile, Alabama. One column of his troops moved northwest from Pensacola and another north from Mobile Point on the east side of Mobile Bay. Brig. Gen. Robert Gibson commanded some 2,800 Confederates defending the city.

Concerned over increasing sales of arms and munitions to the Indians in the Southwest, resulting in increasing depredations against the settlers there, President Lincoln directed that “all persons detected in this commerce will be arrested and tried by military court-martial.” In a speech he gave to the 140th Indiana Infantry, Lincoln said, “Whenever I hear any one, arguing for slavery, I feel a strong impulse to see it tried on him personably.”

On Saturday, March 18, at the Capitol in Richmond, the Confederate Congress ended its session, which proved to be its last, in a fit of contention with President Davis. Many essential war measures were left unpassed, and for the last few days its main business had been to argue with the president over whether he or the Congress had delayed action, and was responsible for some of the difficulties facing the Confederacy.

In North Carolina, Gen. Johnston attempted to concentrate his forces against the Federals advancing towards Goldsboro. Overburdened with general officers, Gen. Johnston’s troops were a makeshift army in organization. His plan was to try to strike one column of Federal troops at a time, but the Confederates did not stand a chance with some 20,000 Southern soldiers gathered at Bentonville against the combined forces under Gen. Sherman of some 100,000 Federal troops.

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Arthur Candenquist
About Arthur Candenquist 193 Articles
A long-time historian, researcher, lecturer and author, Arthur Candenquist serves as secretary-treasurer of the Rappahannock County Sesquicentennial Committee. He can be reached at AC9725@cs.com.