The enlistment or outright conscription of black troops by Northern commanders was applauded in the North as they were credited to the State which captured and claimed them. Additionally, the black recruits and their families could not vote so Northern politicians feared no election retribution from constituents who avoided military service.
On the other hand, the South considered black agricultural workers essential to the war effort as Southern armies needed the foodstuffs they produced. But as the Northern armies relentlessly grew from infusions of foreigners and black soldiers, however obtained, the South determined to enlist black men who would fight for their homes and freedom.
Filling the South’s Decimated Ranks
“[Samuel Clayton of Georgia wrote in January 1865: “We should . . . promptly take hold of all the means God has placed within our reach to help us through this struggle – a bloody war for the right of self-government. Some say Negroes will not fight. I say they will fight. The enemy fights us with Negroes, and will do very well to fight the Yankees.”
Judah Benjamin stated . . . “It appears to me enough to say that the Negroes will certainly be made to fight us if not armed for our defense . . . I further agree with you that if they are to fight for our freedom, they are entitled to their own. Public opinion is fast ripening on the subject.”
[Jefferson] Davis in a letter to John Forsythe in February 1865: “It is now becoming daily more evident to all reflecting persons that we are now reduced to choosing whether the Negroes shall fight for us or against us, and that all arguments as to the positive advantage or disadvantage of employing them are beside the question, which is simply one of relative advantage between having their fighting element in our ranks or in those of the enemy.”
The Confederate Congress authorized on March 3rd, 1865, the raising of 300,000 blacks as soldiers. On April the 28th, the major-general commanding in Florida directed ten prominent citizens of Florida each “to proceed at once to raise a company of Negroes to be mustered into the service of the Confederate States for the War.” But Lee and Johnston had already surrendered. The dissolution of the Confederacy defeated this last desperate measure to recruit the decimated ranks of the Southern army.
The black recruit was sought in Florida assiduously for the Union army after the first year of the war. When the Federal forces quit [Jacksonville’s occupation] in the autumn [of 1862] they carried some Negroes away with them. Invasion of East Florida by Negro troops under Colonel [T.W.] Higginson quickly followed. “The object of this expedition, “ reported General Saxton, Higginson’s chief, “was to occupy Jacksonville and make it the base of operations for arming the Negroes and securing in this way possession of the entire State of Florida” – in other words, inciting servile insurrection.
The Federal army failed to obtain many black recruits, but Higginson concluded that black troops “were the key to the successful prosecution of the war for the Union.”
(The Civil War and Reconstruction in Florida, William Watson Davis, Columbia University, 1913, excerpts pp. 227-228)