PRIMARY DOCUMENT

Letter from Robert E. Lee to Ethelbert Barksdale (February 18, 1865)

SUMMARY

In this letter to the Mississippi congressman Ethelbert Barksdale, dated February 18, 1865, the Confederate general Robert E. Lee discusses whether African Americans should be used as soldiers.

FULL TEXT

Headquarters C.S. Armies,

18th February, 1865

Hon. E. Barksdale,

House of Representatives, Richmond:

Sir,—I have the honor to acknowledge the receipt of your letter of the 12th instant, with reference to the employment of negroes as soldiers. I think the measure not only expedient, but necessary. The enemy will certainly use them against us if he can get possession of them, and as his present numerical superiority will enable him to penetrate many parts of the country, I cannot see the wisdom of the policy of holding them to await his arrival, when we may, by timely action and judicious management, use them to arrest his progress. I do not think that our white population can supply the necessities of a long war without overtaxing its capacity and imposing great suffering upon our people; and I believe we should provide resources for a protracted struggle, not merely for a battle or campaign.

In answer to your second question, I can only say that, in my opinion, the negro, under proper circumstances, will make an efficient soldier. I think we could do as well with him as the enemy, and he attaches great importance to his assistance. Under good officers and good instructions, I do not see why they should not become soldiers. They possess all the physical qualifications and their habits of obedience constitute a good foundation for discipline. They furnish a more promising material than many armies of which we read in history, which owed their efficiency to discipline alone. I think those who are employed should be freed. It would be neither just nor wise, in my opinion, to require them to serve as slaves. The best course to pursue, it seems to me, would be to call for such as one willing to come with the consent of their owners. An impressment or draft would not be likely to bring out the best class, and the use of coercion would make the measure distasteful to them and to their owners.

I have no doubt that if Congress would authorize their reception into service, and would empower the President to call upon individuals or States for such as they are willing to contribute, with the condition of emancipation to all enrolled, a sufficient number would be forthcoming to enable us to try the experiment. If it proved successful most of the objections to the measure would disappear, and if individuals still remained unwilling to send their negroes to the army the force of public opinion in the states would soon bring about such legislation as would remove all obstacles. I think the matter should be left as far as possible to the people and to the States, which alone can legislate as the necessities of this particular service may require. As to the mode of organizing them, it should be left as free from restraint as possible. Experience will suggest the best course, and it would be inexpedient to trammel the subject with provisions that might, in the end, prevent the adoption of reforms suggested by actual trial

With great respect, your ob’t serv’t,

R. E. Lee, General

FURTHER READING

Letter from Robert E. Lee to Charles Carter Lee (January 4, 1831) Letter from Robert E. Lee to Charles Carter Lee (September 28, 1832) Letter from Robert E. Lee to Charles Carter Lee (February 24, 1835) Letter from Robert E. Lee to Hill Carter (January 25, 1840) Letter from Robert E. Lee to Mary Randolph Custis Lee (April 18, 1841) Letter from Robert E. Lee to Mary Randolph Custis Lee (December 27, 1856) “Some Facts That Should Come to Light,” New-York Tribune (June 4, 1859) Col. R. E. Lee’s Report (October 19, 1859) Letter from Robert E. Lee to Henry Lee (December 6, 1859) Letter from Robert E. Lee to Mary Randolph Custis Lee (November 11, 1863) Letter from Robert E. Lee to Mary Randolph Custis Lee (January 24, 1864) Letter from Robert E. Lee to Jefferson Davis (September 2, 1864) Letter from Robert E. Lee to Ulysses S. Grant (October 3, 1864) Letter from Howell Cobb to James A. Seddon (January 8, 1865) [future url="PS_LeeTestimony1866"]Robert E. Lee’s Testimony before Congress (February 17, 1866) Memoranda of Conversations with General Robert E. Lee by William Allan (1868, 870) Memoranda of Conversations with General Robert E. Lee by William Preston Johnston 1868, 1870) Letter from Robert E. Lee to Edward Lee Childe (January 16, 1868) Letter from Robert E. Lee to Robert E. Lee Jr. (March 12, 1868) Letter from Robert E. Lee to Captain Wagner (May 4, 1868) Statement by Francis Preston Blair (April 14, 1871) “General Lee’s Views on Enlisting the Negroes,” Century Magazine (August 1888) Letter from Robert E. Lee to Mary Anna Randolph Custis Lee (December 25, 1861)

CITE THIS ENTRY
APA Citation:
Lee, Robert. Letter from Robert E. Lee to Ethelbert Barksdale (February 18, 1865). (2020, December 07). In Encyclopedia Virginia. https://encyclopediavirginia.org/entries/letter-from-robert-e-lee-to-ethelbert-barksdale-february-18-1865.
MLA Citation:
Lee, Robert. "Letter from Robert E. Lee to Ethelbert Barksdale (February 18, 1865)" Encyclopedia Virginia. Virginia Humanities, (07 Dec. 2020). Web. 27 Nov. 2021
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