How Robert E. Lee’s army treated black soldiers

Robert E. Lee, the statist warrior, is endlessly celebrated at anti-state, anti-war It has often been claimed (either from ignorance or dishonesty) that the slaver Lee [vigorously opposed slavery][] and (by implication) that the Confederate cause shouldn’t be identified as a war for slavery or white supremacy. Here is how Lee, and the Confederate soldiers under his command, treated black Union soldiers.

Northern emancipation also led, by the beginning of 1863, to the recruitment of black troops into the Union army, nearly two hundred thousand men by the end of the war. While the Confederacy lost irreplaceable white manpower, the enemy army expanded, in considerable measure from the ranks of escaped slaves, who formed the vast majority of that new black Union soldiery—a dramatic Union gain that was at the same time an indisputable Southern loss, both symbolically and materially.

Blacks in arms fighting for their own freedom against their former masters were anathema to slaveholders, violating their deepest belief concerning black inferiority, of the sort Lee expressed, for example, when he discussed the endless dependency of the Custis slaves. White men ought to have sole possession of military weapons and martial honor—the very core of manhood. To enlist and arm black men was indeed to turn the world upside down.

In his few comments on black Union troops, Lee expressed the normal Confederate contempt for them. For example, on September 20, 1863, Lee warned Jefferson Davis about the gathering in Union-occupied Norfolk of negro troops and cavalry, said to be preparing for a raid on the Weldon railroad junction. I do not apprehend that these negro regiments will prove a very formidable body, though unopposed they might do us great damage, Lee concluded. To give another example, on June 26, 1864, Lee proposed to Davis a lightning clandestine attack—what later generations would call a commando raid—into Maryland to free the thousands of Confederate prisoners at Point Lookout. I have understood that most of the garrison at Point Lookout was composed of negroes, Lee argued. I should suppose that the commander of such troops would be poor and feeble. A stubborn resistance, therefore, may not reasonably be expected. A crack company of real and true white Confederate troops ought to be able to achieve the liberation of prisoners who were guarded only by inferior stock. Davis ignored this extremely risky proposal, which was based more on contempt for the black sentinels than on the likelihood of success of a raid so far behind Union lines. Perhaps it was Lee’s racial antipathy that led him to suggest such an audacious plan, one far more characteristic of his thinking before Gettysburg than this late in the war.

Confederate hatred for black troops spilled over most lethally on the issue of treatment of prisoners of war. In several instances, Confederate troops shot down black troops rather than accept their surrender. In the two most fully recorded cases—at Poison Springs, Arkansas, and Fort Pillow, Tennessee—several hundred blacks were slaughtered after throwing down their arms; many instances of killing of smaller groups and of black retaliation went unrecorded in official reports. As for Lee’s army, recent scholarship has described the massacre of black troops attempting to surrender at the battle of the Crater, on the Petersburg front on July 30, 1864, in which many Confederate soldiers participated. As North Carolina major Matthew Love described the scene in a letter to his mother, his regiment refused to take prisoners and such slaughter I have not witnessed upon any battlefield anywhere. Their men were principally negroes and we shot them down until we got near enough and then run them through with the bayonet. … We was not very particular whether we captured or killed them, the only thing we did not like to be pestered burying the heathens. If General Lee knew of this significant incident, he did not respond to it.

The capture of black troops, which occurred more frequently than their murder, led to the breakdown of the prisoner-of-war exchange cartel, which had been a system of returning prisoners rather than imprisoning them. This policy shift, inaugurated by the Confederates, which led to the horrors of Andersonville and Northern prisoner stockades late in the war, injured the South far more than the North, because captured Union soldiers could be otherwise replaced—often by blacks—while the Southern manpower pool was nearing exhaustion. The reason for the breakdown was the Confederate insistence that ex-slaves were not free and equal prisoners. If they had escaped from bondage to join the Union army, they would be returned to it when captured.

In the fall of 1864, Robert E. Lee articulated this policy in an exchange of letters with U. S. Grant. On October 1, Lee wrote grant that with a view of alleviating the sufferings of our soldiers, he proposed an exchange of prisoners to the two armies operating in Virginia, man for man … upon the basis established by the [prior] cartel. Grant immediately inquired about the status of black United States troops. Before further negotiations are had upon the subject I would ask if you propose delivering these men the same as white soldiers? Lee responded that I intended to include all captured soldiers of the United States of whatever nation or color. Deserters from our service and negroes belonging to our citizens are not considered subjects of exchange. Grant would not accept this, and he told Lee that the United States government is bound to secure to all persons received into her armies the rights due to soldiers. This being denied by you in the persons of such men as have escaped from Southern masters induces me to decline making the exchanges you ask. Grant then asked for further clarification from Southern legal officials, and soon Lee made it crystal clear: I have no objection to … exchanging prisoners, man for man, negroes included. Recaptured slaves of Confederate citizens will not be exchanged.

Grant insisted that by becoming Union soldiers, escaped slaves had become persons to be treated equally with all other captured troops. After he had been fully briefed by the Richmond authorities, Lee argued back to Grant, quite to the contrary, that Negro slaves who through compulsion, persuaion, or of their own accord leave their owners and are placed in the military … service of the United States [remain] a species of property. … The capture or abduction of a slave does not impair the right of the owner to such a slave, but that right … attaches to him immediately upon recapture [and] will be restored like other recaptured property to those entitled to them. Lee wrote that he would treat free black Union prisoners just like white men, thus asserting a kind of color blindness. However, as for escaped slaves, the rights of property—the nonpersonhood of black slaves—superseded any consideration of them as Union soldiers. This belief led Lee to employ captured ex-slave Union soldiers in digging trenches around Petersburg, to which Grant responded by putting white Confederate prisoners at the same risk reinforcing his trenches. While arguing that he had not exposed black prisoners to fire, which was not precisely true, Lee withdrew them, without abandoning the proposition that he had every right to use them this way.

In response, Grant then withdrew Confederate prisoners from such dangerous duty, and wrote Lee that

I shall always regret the necessity of retaliating for wrong done our soldiers, but regard it as my duty to protect all persons received into the army of the United States, regardless of color or nationality. … All prisoners of war falling into my hands shall receive the kindest possible treatment … unless I have good authority for believing that any number of our men are being treated otherwise. Then, painful as it may be to me, I shall inflict like treatment on an equal number of Confederate prisoners.

In effect, Lee had conceded that he would not use escaped black Union prisonrs as he used other slaves, but neither would he send them back as prisoners of war: things they had been; things they remained. Because of this impasse, the exchange cartel was never repaired and tens of thousands of prisoners of war, on both sides, mainly white, died of cholera and typhoid fever in hellish prison camps.

— Michael Fellman, The Making of Robert E. Lee (2000), pp. 203-208

You should bear in mind that this was a war fought over independence (declared for no reason in particular), and maybe the tariff, too; certainly not, in any case, over slavery or white supremacy. You should also bear in mind that the Lost Cause of the Confederacy was led by honorable Christian cavaliers, fated to a noble defeat in the face of an overwhelming and rapacious Yankee horde.

8 replies to How Robert E. Lee’s army treated black soldiers Use a feed to Follow replies to this article

  1. Dain

    It’s too bad that some of the LRC types have ruined Civil War revisionism. But of course, they still have a point at the Yankee end of criticism, and over here in California it’s beyond the pale to question the orthodoxy of the Civil War and WW2, so it’s all the more important to critique them especially.

  2. Rad Geek

    Well, sure. Honest and principled criticism of bayonet-point Constitutionalism, Mr. Lincoln’s War, etc. are important and desperately needed. The problem is that the Lost Cause nostalgia and euphemistic dishonesty popularly employed by Dixie revivalists are worth less than nothing to that end. From the standpoint of intellectual clarity they distract from the real issues by lingering over a completely mythical Confederacy, and from the standpoint of intellectual acceptance they serve to discredit good people doing serious work.

· August 2006 ·

  1. John Beth

    Maybe you should do more research on how freed slaves were treated by the Union Army as well, seems to me this would be reasonable if you are truely trying to be objective. I think you will uncover some truely disturbing facts on the attitudes and practices of the “liberating” Union armies. And let us not forget the attitudes of such men as Sheridan, Grant,and Sherman in regard to the subjugation of Native Americans during the Indian Wars.Ever hear of Wounded Knee?

  2. Rad Geek


    The treatment of freed blacks by Federal troops varied widely between different parts of the army, and also over time from the beginning to the end of the war. The Emancipation Proclamation and the enlistment of black soldiers both made substantial differences. So did the rapid changes in racial attitudes throughout the North toward the end of the war. But Federal troops certainly were rotten to freed slaves at many points.

    And I’m certainly well aware of the genocidal wars against the Plains Indians and the Indians in the Southwest that followed the end of the Civil War.

    My question for you, though, is how does this relate to the question of how Robert E. Lee’s army treated black soldiers?

    As far as I can tell, it does not relate to the question at all. Which is odd, because that question is the question my post was about. In fact, you could have found that out by reading the title of the post, which was: How Robert E. Lee’s army treated black soldiers.

    The point of this post was to mention some things that Lee did, and some things that were done by men under his command. It was also to point out the sort of attitude towards race and slavery that these actions reflected. Objectivity on that question requires a sober examination of the facts. It does not require changing the subject to comparative racial attitudes among all 19th century American men. And it does not require dragging in, higgeldy-piggeldy, every racialized atrocity ever committed under American military colors (which would be quite a long digression indeed).

  3. Dana G.

    The Civil War was about slavery, not independence. Black slaves were the economic backbone of the confederacy. As more states joined the union, the power balance in congress (between slave and non-slave states)shifted precariously, to the point where the southern states said ‘no more, we’ll do what we want!’ Hence secession. Their economic livelihood was threatened, and they reacted accordingly.

    Imagine a world wherein the confederacy had won. Two countries would exist, probably with a long, armed border between them. And there might well have been a second, and perhaps a third Civil War.

    Robert E. Lee never imagined such an outcome, because he couldn’t. His mind was of a bygone era. His mindset was to kill the enemy, but always speak courtiously. Invade the north, but be a gentleman about it. Don’t kill too many women and children.

    I see him as a short-sighted, deeply prejudiced military man, fighting against the tide of history. A man committed to holding on to the past, unable or perhaps unwilling to even glimpse a better and more just United States

· September 2006 ·

  1. Tim

    Dana G, the War Between the States was, like all wars, economic and political in nature. The Union, contrary to modern revisionism didn’t start out with the idea of emancipation. The issue initially was whether the abominable practice of slavery would expand or be confined to the areas it was already in. This was nothing more than the continuation of the Bleeding Kansas/Sumner events on a much larger scale.

    In the 1830’s and 1840’s, for each state admitted to the United States that allowed slavery, one was admitted that did not allow slavery. There was a balance between the proslavery and the antislavery sides, with neither capable of becoming strong enough to neutralize. As the northern states began to grow more politically powerful because their economies were doing much better, they sought to end the expansion of slavery.

    Morality aside, the economics of the issue is very simple: if the slaves immediately set free, the economy of the southern states would have been ruined. How would we accept legislated economic ruin today? Would we go quietly or would we take action? Despite the fact the Republican Party said that it didn’t want to end slavery, which it didn’t have the power to do at the time, the politically powerful in the South chose to end the Union preemptively stopping any further action, or so they thought.

    Prior to the War Between the States, individuals didn’t identify themselves as Americans, in the sense we do today, they identified themselves as their state: everyone was a New Yorker, Maine man, or Virginian. And that is precisely how GEN Lee saw himself.

    It is very disingenuous to attempt to study history through the lenses of modern morality. If one attempts to study history in that manner, the underlying reasons for why events actually occurred become lost, and worse, it opens the door to other kinds of revisionism. Orwell describes this best with the lines “We are at war with Oceania, and we have always been at war with Oceania!”

    Your comment implies GEN Lee to be a static, unchangeable man of flawed character. I think GEN Lee’s later life shows he did adapt and was far from being a prejudiced fanatic. His example of reconciliation and acceptance of the loss prevented years of guerrilla war that would have scarred this country to this day. It also implies that the northern forces and people were making a superior choice. I somehow doubt it: they rioted in the streets and didn’t want to go fight and die to “make the black man free.” (New York Draft Riots – which are rarely covered in detail.)

    All this said, GEN Lee’s army did violate the accepted laws and customs of land warfare from time to time, and he, as the commander was ultimately responsible. The Union army also violated those laws – when wars are fought within a people, a civil war, the atrocities are much worse and without remorse. The term for no prisoners was “to fly the black flag.” And both sides did it.

  2. Sergio Méndez


    You say:

    The Union, contrary to modern revisionism didn’t start out with the idea of emancipation

    And I agree. But then. the claim Diana made was that:

    The Civil War was about slavery, not independence.

    And yes, the civil war was in great part about slavery. Not because the north wanted really to abolish, but because the south feared it will happen. You even admit it!

    Now, you claim that history should not be UNDERSTOOD by our prsent morality is true, but only half true. It is true that the historian may miss th real motives for people in certain time to behave the way they did, by missing the set of values these people hold. But that doesn´t mean we shouldn´t bring judgment to history nor accept the values people hold during any time in history. When you write:

    Morality aside, the economics of the issue is very simple: if the slaves immediately set free, the economy of the southern states would have been ruined. How would we accept legislated economic ruin today? Would we go quietly or would we take action?

    The only thing I can think is “fuck you”, and “fuck the southern economy”. I don´t give a damn if the economy got ruined cause they lost their labor work, slave labor work. Nothing justifies people being held as slaves, period. It may have being the cause the south was affraid of losing the institution of slavery, but it hardly means it was right, nor in 1864 nor today.

  3. Rad Geek

    Sergio has alrady said most of what I wanted to say in reply to the comments above. Just a few more details for the benefit of those who may not be familiar with some of the other writing on these topics.

    First, on the question of motives. One of the constant mistakes that people make in talking about the American Civil War is to try to figure out the one thing that the war was about, assuming that whatever issue the Feds went to war over must have been the issue that the South seceded over, and vice versa. So pro-Confederate types will provide (more or less convincing) evidence that the Feds did not go to war in order to emancipate Southern slaves, but rather to keep the South under the political control of the central government. And pro-Union types will provide (more or less convincing) evidence that the Confederates seceded in an explicit effort to preserve and expand race slavery and white supremacy.

    In fact, as Jeffrey Rogers Hummel has argued in his study Emancipating Slaves, Enslaving Free Men, both of them are right, but each draws an unwarranted conclusion: the Stars-and-Bars set fallaciously infers that the Confederates must not have been seceding over slavery if the Feds didn’t go to war to free the slaves. And the bayonet-point Unionism crowd infers that the Feds must have gone to war to free the slaves if the South was seceding over slavery.

    But, on the one hand, Lincoln stated clearly, in an 1862 letter to Horace Greeley, that My paramount objective in this struggle, is to save the Union and is not either to save or destroy slavery. If I could save the Union without freeing any slave, I would do it; and if I could save it by freeing all the slaves, I would do it; and if I could save it by freeing some and leaving others alone, I would also do that. Meanwhile, on the other, the secessionists were quite explicit about the fact that protecting and expanding slavery were the chief reasons for seceding—besides this article and Hummel’s book, see also GT 2001-05-28, Frank Vandiver: A Life for the Confederacy; my first and second comments on this thread thread at Right Reason; the declarations of secession for South Carolina, Georgia, Mississippi, and Texas; Confederate Vice President Alexander Stephens’ Cornerstone Speech, etc., etc., etc. The historical record clearly, and unfortunately, shows that both governments fought the war for the worst reasons attributed to them. As Lysander Spooner put it in No Treason No. 2, The result – and a natural one – has been that we have had governments, State and national, devoted to nearly every grade and species of crime that governments have ever practised upon their victims; and these crimes have culminated in a war that has cost a million of lives; a war carried on, upon one side, for chattel slavery, and on the other for political slavery; upon neither for liberty, justice, or truth.

    Second, Dana, I can see no reason why there would need be a second or third war between the Northern and the Southern states if the Confederacy had been allowed to go in peace. I do think that the white slave-lords of the South would eventually have been swept away by an internal revolution, by revolting slaves and possibly also by poor white farmers, who made up the non-slaveholding majority of the white population, were largely anti-Confederate, and bitterly resented the domination of Southern politics by the wealthy slaveholders. But such a war would be far less destructive than the scorched-earth total war and starvation blockade that the Feds imposed on all Southerners, both rich and poor, white and black. It also would likely have resulted in far more genuine liberation for Southern blacks, instead of the long terrible years of Jim Crow that emerged from the post-War compromies and reconciliation between the Northern and Southern white elites.


    The claim that the Southern economy would have collapsed without massive slave labor. In fact, the overwhelming majority of people in the South — black slaves and poor white farmers — would have been much better off if all slaves were emancipated and able to take up free labor wherever they liked. This is true for three reasons: (1) because the ex-slaves would no longer have the fruits of their labor stolen from them by idle masters, (2) because the poor farmers would no longer have to compete with the artificially large farms and artificially cheap goods that the slavocrats were able to produce using slave labor, and (3) because the economic incentives involved in free labor encourage far greater productivity from workers than those involved in slave labor do.

    The only economy that would be ruined by emancipation would be the fortunes of the idle white slavocracy, who by and large had never done a lick of honest work in their lives. And I see no reason why anyone should give a tinker’s cuss about that.

    In any case, as Sergio says, even if it were true that the Southern economy would have worsened after emancipation, it would still not give any Southern white the right to a single person for even one hour longer, no matter what the results they could get from it. Nobody has the right to enslave other people to ensure a better standard of living for themselves, their families, their friends, their neighbors, or their compatriots.

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