Michigan War Studies Review
Reviews, surveys, original essays, and commentary in the field of military studies.
20 Apr. 2018
Review by David Carlson, Troy University
Jefferson Davis's Final Campaign: Confederate Nationalism and the Fight to Arm Slaves
By Philip D. Dillard
Macon, GA: Mercer Univ. Press, 2017. Pp. vii, 286. ISBN 978–0–88146–605–8.
Descriptors: Volume 2018, 19th Century, US Civil War Print Version

Jefferson Davis's Final Campaign opens a fresh perspective on the Confederate debate over arming slaves. While other historians[1] have focused on political and military decision-makers or southern slaves, the intended beneficiaries, historian Philip Dillard (James Madison Univ.) concentrates on newspaper editorials and letters to editors to gauge the opinions of white southerners. He demonstrates a shift in attitudes toward the war and concepts of a southern nation in winter 1864–65. The Confederate states began their rebellion to secure their independence and preserve the institution of slavery; they ended it sacrificing elements of slavery to achieve independence. This is not a new argument.[2] The war certainly demanded both temporary or permanent changes in policy, ideology, and tactics. But Dillard sees these changes as signifying something more—a sea change in the way southerners thought about war goals and the Confederacy itself.

Dillard identifies three transitional phases. The first began when Confederate president Jefferson Davis, in an address to the Confederate Congress in November 1864, requested a modest conscription of 400,000 slaves (10 percent of the enslaved population in 1860) to serve in noncombat roles; he also suggested that the time was fast approaching when the government would need to bolster the army's ranks by accepting slaves in combat roles. He challenged legislators to reconsider the relationship between slavery and the struggle for independence. Would the freeing of slaves and creation of slave-soldiers undermine or further the war's purpose? In newspapers across the South, editors and correspondents hashed out the theoretical implications of Davis's request. The consensus of opinion was that the public would consent to use slave-soldiers at some point in the future.

The second phase began with the Confederate defeats at Nashville and Savannah in December 1864, when sobering realities pushed aside theory. As Union soldiers advanced through Georgia and South Carolina, Jefferson Davis asked southern editors and politicians to advance the public discussion of slave-soldiers beyond hypotheticals. Though some resisted, many aired practical questions of timing and methods: was the present the proper time to accept slave-soldiers? If not, what alternative sources of additional manpower existed? The dwindling prospects for Confederate victory accelerated southerners' willingness to conscript black troops.

The final phase began with the failure of the Hampton Roads Peace Conference in February 1865, when it became clear that no peaceable solution was possible and that the Confederacy must rely on black troops to have any hope of survival. Southerners now earnestly discussed the likely effects on southern identity of such a radical policy change. Would the postwar Confederacy be the same one they had fought and died for?

Dillard also divides the slave-soldier debate geographically. In Virginia and Georgia, which had endured military conflict, destruction, and occupation, public opinion swung relatively easily in favor of enrolling black troops. Texans, on the other hand, spared the larger effects of the war and enjoying both vibrant cross-border trade relations with Mexico and a relatively porous Union blockade, remained firm in their opposition.

While the author generally succeeds in proving his thesis, he leaves several nagging questions unanswered. How well, for instance, did newspapers represent public opinion? Did editorializing by papers with open ties to political parties and ideologies shape or mirror public opinion? Dillard hints at this issue in describing Davis's appeals to the local press and politicians, but for the most part accepts that the opinions of a few motivated editors reflected those of large swaths of society. Nor does he explore at any length other indices of public opinion—personal letters, diary entries, official records—as a check against (or confirmation of) his newspaper evidence.

Finally, the book's subtitle implies that nationalism played a major role in the change of attitudes in 1864–65. Aside from a passing mention of Drew Faust's important book on Confederate nationalism,[3] Dillard never pointedly broaches the subject. "Nationalism" does not even appear in his index. One is left to assume that a southern preference for independence over slavery as a war goal reflected a growth of nationalist feelings, an idea unsupported by the existing literature on Confederate nationalism specifically and nationalism more broadly defined. Confederate nationalism could have originated quite apart from the struggle for independence, as Faust argues, in conjunction with it,[4] or because of its failure.[5] The two are related, but are not the same thing.

Jefferson Davis's Final Campaign usefully gives voice to a southern constituency largely ignored in previous studies of the slave-soldier debate. As such, it could stimulate discussion in an undergraduate course on the Civil War. But it poses more questions of fact and interpretation than it answers.

[1] Such as Robert Durden, Bell Wiley, Richard Beringer, Clarence Mohr, and most recently Bruce Levine.

[2] See, e.g., Albert B. Moore, Conscription and Conflict in the Confederacy (1924; rpt. Columbia: U South Carolina Pr, 1996).

[3] The Creation of Confederate Nationalism: Ideology and Identity in the Civil War South (Baton Rouge: LSU Pr, 1989).

[4] See Gary W. Gallagher, Becoming Confederates: Paths to a New National Loyalty (Athens: U Georgia Pr, 2013).

[5] See Anne Sarah Rubin, A Shattered Nation: The Rise and Fall of the Confederacy, 1861–1868 (Chapel Hill: U North Carolina Pr, 2005).

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