|A speech from March of 1865 can hardly be said to pertain to the causes of a
war that had been raging for almost four years. However, in this
speech, Sen. Hunter reflects upon the relation between the
Confederacy's view of African slaves and the coming of the war.|
Robert Mercer Taliaferro Hunter (1809--1887) had held the same office in the United States Senate prior to secession. He was a member of the Confederate delegation to the "Hampton Roads Peace Conference" in February, 1865. His eldest son died of tuberculosis in May, 1861, and in 1863 his plantation along the lower Rappahannock was raided by the Yankees.
I learned of this speech from reading Bruce Levine's Confederate Emancipation and The Fall of the House of Dixie. The text is taken from my Guild Press/CivilWarAmerica CD of the Southern Historical Society Papers. The recorder of the Confederate Senate obviously was not transcribing speeches word-for-word, which accounts for the third-person nature of the text.
Citation: SHSP, vol. 14 (New Series), vol. LII (Old Series), pp. 452--457, 1959.
Mr. Hunter said that as he had been instructed by the Virginia Legislature to vote against his conviction, it was proper that he should give publick expression to his opinions. Since his first appearance in publick life he had recognized the right of the Legislature to instruct; and upon that body he desired to place the responsibility of the measure should it become a law. Until this morning he had abandoned the idea of publickly expressing his views; but his friends had suggested that justice to himself required that he should do so. He would necessarily have to go over much the same ground as when a kindred measure was recently under discussion in secret session.
When we left the old Government he had thought we had gotten rid forever of the slavery agitation; that we were entering into a new Confederacy of homogeneous States upon the agitation of the slavery question, which had become intolerable under the old Union, was to have no place. But to his surprise he finds that this Government assumes the power to arm the slaves, which involves also the power of emancipation.--To the agitation of this question, the assumption of this power, he dated the origin of the gloom which now overspreads our people. They knew that if our liberties were to be achieved it was to be done by the hearts and the hands of free men. It also injured us abroad. It was regarded as a confession of despair and an abandonment of the ground upon which we had seceded from the old Union. We had insisted that Congress had no right to interfere with slavery, and upon the coming into power of the party who it was known would assume and exercise that power, we seceded. We had also then contended that whenever the two races were thrown together one must be master and the other slave, and we vindicated ourselves against the accusations of the abolitionists by asserting that slavery was the best and happiest condition of the negro. Now what does this proposition admit? The right of the central Government to put the slaves into the militia, and to emancipate at least so many as shall be placed in the military service. It is a clear claim of the central Government to emancipate the slaves.
If we are right in passing this measure we were wrong in denying to the old government the right to interfere with the institution of slavery and to emancipate slaves. Besides, if we offer slaves their freedom as a boon we confess that we were insincere, were hypocritical, in asserting that slavery was the best state for the negroes themselves. He had been sincere in declaring that the central Government had no power over the institution of slavery, and that freedom would be no boon to the negro.
He now believed, as he had formerly said in discussion on the same subject, that arming and emancipating the slaves was an abandonment of this contest--an abandonment of the grounds upon which it had been undertaken. If this is so who is to answer for the hundreds of thousands of men who had been slain in the war? Who was to answer for them before the bar of Heaven? Not those who had entered into the contest upon principle and adhered to the principle, but those who had abandoned the principle. Not for all the gold in California would he have put his name to such a measure as this unless obliged to do it by instructions. As long as he was free to vote from his own convictions nothing could have extorted it from him.
Mr. Hunter then argued the necessity of freeing the negroes if they were made soldiers. There was something in the human heart and head that tells us it must be so; when they come out scarred from this conflict they must be free. If we could make them soldiers, the condition of the soldier being socially equal to any other in society, we could make them officers, perhaps, to command white men. Some future ambitious President might use the slaves to seize the liberties of the country and put the white men under his feet.--The Government had no power under the Constitution to arm and emancipate the slaves, and the Constitution granted no such great powers by implication.
Mr. Hunter then showed from statisticks that no considerable body of negro troops could be raised in the States over which the Government had control, without stripping the country of the labour absolutely necessary to produce food. He thought there was a much better chance of getting the large number of deserters back to the army than of getting slaves into it. The negro abhorred the profession of a soldier. The commandant of conscripts, with authority to impress twenty thousand slaves had, between last September and the present time, been able to get but four thousand; and of these thirty-five hundred had been obtained in Virginia and North Carolina, and five hundred from Alabama. If he, armed with all the powers of impressment, could not get them as labourers, how will we be able to get them as soldiers? Unless they volunteer they will go to the Yankees; if we depend upon their volunteering we can't get them, and those we do get will desert to the enemy, who can offer them a better price than we can. The enemy can offer them liberty, clothing, and even farms at our expense. Negroes now were deterred from going to the enemy only by the fear of being put into the army. If we put them in they would all go over.
In conclusion, he considered that the measure, when reviewed as to its expediency, was worse than as a question of principle. He was not satisfied that the majority of the army were in favour of the measure. The army had been told that the measure was necessary, and they had acquiesced. He did not believe that the heroes of Manassas, Fredericksburg and Cold Harbour were holding out their hands to the negroes to come and save them. He did not believe that our troops would fight with that constancy which should inspire troops in the hour of battle, when they knew that their flanks were being held by negroes. He repeated that he would have voted against the bill except for the instructions which put an obligation upon him. He should endeavour to mould the bill so as to carry out the true spirit of those instructions. He believed it would pass, and hoped that it might not have the evil effects that he apprehended.