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On the use of Negro Soldiers
Speech of Representative Thaddeus Stevens,
in Congress, February 2, 1863

 

Page One

   The House having under consideration the bill to raise additional soldiers for the service of the Government -- 
 

   Mr. STEVENS said:

    Mr. Speaker: In the course of this protracted debate, no gentleman has expressed his opinions with more candor than the gentleman from Maryland {Mr. MAY} who has just taken his seat. He avows his hostility to this bill because he is opposed to the war. I do not expect any gentleman who will avow himself opposed to the war to vote for this bill, because I am quite sure that the bill itself is a very efficient engine for carrying on this war. Hence the gentleman from Maryland cannot be expected to vote for a bill whose beneficial effects on the war are so evident. This bill has been opposed on various grounds; by some true and loyal men, whose prudence, however, generally degenerates into timidity; by others on that side of the House whom I am not at liberty to deem disloyal, but whose arguments and acts compel the belief that they are strong sympathizers with their "wayward sisters."

    It is said that we have already so large an army that we have no need of more soldiers, and that this will cause a needless expense. It will require some three or four months to raise one hundred and fifty thousand. By that time, about June, the time of the two years men of New York, and of the nine months men, will expire. They will take from the Army, I think, at least three hundred thousand men. How are you to supply their place except by colored soldiers? It is said by our opponents that in the present temper of the country you could not raise in the whole North fifty thousand men by voluntary enlistment, and that to enforce conscription is out of the question. It may be so; and if it be, it is useless, perhaps, to inquire what has produced this condition of the public mind. No doubt the unhappy management of the war, and want of successful battles, have done something toward it. An unsuccessful war is always unpopular.

    Another great cause is the conduct of partisan demagogues. The Democratic leaders -- and when I speak of Democrats in these remarks, I beg to be understood as not including those true Democrats who support the war and give their aid to the Administration -- the Democratic leaders, I say, have been busy for the last year in denouncing the war and the Administration.  They tell the people that this is an abolition war, a war for the Negro, and not for the Union; that our southern brethren have been injured, and that we ought to lay down our arms and compromise. During the last electioneering campaign throughout Pennsylvania, and I suppose the whole North, when the new volunteers were called for, Democratic leaders traveled everywhere and advised that no Democrat should volunteer, but stay at home and carry the election and regain power. The masses followed their advice; scarcely any Democrats joined the volunteers.

    Another thing that has cooled the ardor of the people is the rivalry among the officers, and the evident sympathy of a large portion of them with the rebels. Our armies have been in the hands of men who had no heart in the cause, and who have demoralized the Army; and such demoralization has been transferred to their friends at home. Hence, if we are to continue this war, we must call in the aid of Africans, slaves as well as freemen.
    The gentlemen speak boastfully of the power of the white men of the North, and that we have a million men in the field, and need no other aid. Sir, I have as high an opinion of the valor of northern men as any man can have; but, instead of having a million, I do not believe we now have half that number of effective soldiers. Sickness, the sword, and absenteeism have taken half our troops; and in four months one fourth more will be taken by the expiration of their time.

   But suppose we could recruit our armies by white volunteers, is that any argument against employing blacks? Why should our race be exposed to suffering and disease, when the African might endure his equal share of it? Is it wise, is it humane, to send our kindred to battle and to death, when you might put the colored man in the ranks and let him bear a part of the conflict between the rebel and his enfranchised slave? Why should these bloody graves be filled with our relatives rather than with the property of traitors slain by their own masters, who in their turn, would fall by the hands of the oppressed? I have but little respect for the northern man who would save the rebels' property at the expense of the life of white men.

     We have heard repeated the usual slang of Democrats, so freely and falsely used by them to prejudice the minds of the people, that Republicans are trying to make the black man equal in all things to the white. The distinguished gentleman from Kentucky {Mr. WICKLIFFE} and his allies from Ohio have talked of Sambo's commanding the white men. Sir, the bill contains no such provisions. They are to be employed only as soldiers or non-commissioned officers as is provided by the original bill and by the amendments as now proposed. I do not expect to live to see the day when, in this Christian land, merit shall counter balance the crime of color. True, we propose to give them an equal chance to meet death on the battlefield. But even then their great achievements, if equal to those of Dessalines, would give them no hope of honor.  The only place where they can find equality is in the grave. There all God's children are equal.

    But it is said that our soldiers would object to their employment in arms. It would be a strange taste that would prefer, themselves, to face the death-bearing heights of Fredericksburg, and be buried in the trenches at the foot of them, then to see it done by colored soldiers. I do not believe it. My colleague {Mr. WRIGHT} said that he had heard some of our officers say that if we thus used them they would lay down their arms and retire from the Army. In God's name let them go. They are rebels in heart, and ought to be in the confederate army rather than ours, to demoralize our soldiers. My colleague ought to report their names to the proper Department, that they may be tried and inexorably shot.

    The gentleman from Kentucky objects to their employment lest it should lead to the freedom of the blacks. He says that he fights only for the freedom of his own white race. That sentiment is unworthy the high reputation of the friend and compeer of the great statesman of the West [Henry Clay]. That patriotism that is wholly absorbed by one's own country is narrow and selfish. That philanthropy which embraces only one's own race, and leaves the other numerous races of mankind to bondage and to misery, is cruel and detestable.  But we are not fighting for the freedom of the slaves; we are fighting for the life of the nation; and if in the heat of such strife the chains of the bondsman are melted off, I shall thank God all the more. The distinguished, and, I would fain believe, the learned gentleman from Kentucky exclaimed, "when before did any civilized country call on slaves to fight their battles? When did Sparta, or Athens, or Rome?" I must attribute this interrogative assertion to lack of memory.

    I ask, when did any civilized nation refuse to use their slaves in the defense of their country when its exigencies required it? Never! All have used them, and uniformly given them their freedom for their services. Sparta and Athens on many occasions armed their Helots. They were always their armor-bearers. That I may not be suspected of speaking without authority I will read a few passages from Roman history. In Arnold's Rome, it is said:

     “The other consul, Tiberius Sempronius, was to have no other Roman army than two legions of volunteer slaves.” – Page 175.

     “A graduated property tax was imposed for the occasion. They were required to furnish a certain number of slaves and seamen; to arm and equip them,” &c. – Page 192.

     “The slaves, also, were again invited to enlist, and two legions were composed of them.” – Page 192.

“But there is no reason to doubt that Gracchus gained an important victory; and it was rendered famous by his giving liberty to the volunteer slaves, by whose valor it had mainly been won, Some of these behaved ill in the action, and were afraid they should be punished rather than rewarded, but Gracchus first set them all free without distinction, and then sending for those who had misbehaved, made them severally swear that they would eat and drink standing, so long as their military service should last, by way of penance for their fault. Such a sentence, so different from the  usual merciless severity of the Roman discipline, added to the general joy of the army. The soldiers marched  back to Beneventum in triumph, and the people poured out to meet them, and entreated Gracchus that they might invite them all to a public entertainment. Tables were set out in the streets, and the freed slaves attracted every one’s notice by their white caps, the well-known sign of their enfranchisement, and by the strange sight of those who, in fulfillment of their penance, ate standing and waited on their worthier comrades. The whole delighted in the generous and kind nature of Gracchus; to set free the slave and to relieve the poor, appear to have been hereditary virtues of his family.” – Page 205.

    How different was the heart of the pagan Gracchus from the heart of the Christian Kentuckian! How different the feelings of the noble Roman people from what is, I believe falsely, alleged to be the feelings of our brave soldiers! As the speech of the gentleman from Kentucky is not yet published, I beg respectfully to suggest whether his reputation does not require that he should correct its history.

    But we are told that Kentucky will resist; that our recruiting officers will be driven pell-mell from the State; that the proclamation is unconstitutional; and that we and the President are doing mischief and aggravating the South. Sir, that sounds so exactly like what I was accustomed to hear from that side of the House some years ago, when those seats were occupied by those who are now officers in the rebel army, that I am fain to inquire whether their spirit has not been left behind them.

    It is in vain to deny that the Democratic party as now organized, having received into their embraces the border State men, are using every effort to obstruct the war, to embarrass the Administration, and thus compel us to lay down our arms and submit to peace such as Jeff Davis shall dictate. I say the old slaveholding Whigs have become a part of the Democratic party. If I am rightly informed, the distinguished gentleman from Kentucky {Mr. CRITTENDEN} last summer wrote a letter into his district in favor of the re-election of the gentleman from Ohio, {Mr. COX.} I hardly expected to see the day when that distinguished leader of the Whigs should become the subaltern and train to the command of the gentlemen from Ohio, {Messrs. VALLANDIGHAM and COX.}

 

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