Letter from J.H. Stringfellow to President Jefferson Davis - February 8, 1865
GLEN ALLEN, HENRICO, February 8, 1865
MY DEAR SIR: Impelled by the perils of our country and the thousand conflicting theories as to the cause and cure to continually have these things before me, I have been amazed to see that no one thus far have conceived, or if conceived had the boldness to present, in my judgement, the only solution of all these perils and difficulties. I address you because you have taken a long stride in the right direction, and because I believe your mind has already reached the true solution, but owing to peculiar circumstances has hesitated to enunciate it. The history of this war demonstrates the wonderful fact that the Confederate States mainly subsists both of the immense armies engaged in the conflict, and actually, after furnishing all the soldiers to one army, contributes about one-half of those making the army of its enemies, and should the war continue for another year the South will probably furnish two-thirds of the army of her foes. These facts which cannot be controverted, show certainly anything but weakness or inferiority on the part of the South; but it does not show that a change of policy in relation to the conduct of the war, and that a radical one; must be adopted or we shall be destroyed. Let us look at a few facts: The Yankees must now have in their service 200,000 of our ex-slaves, and under their next draft will probably have half as many more. We have not one soldier from that source in our ranks. It is held by us that slaves will not make soldiers, therefore we refuse to put them in the service, and I think are correct in so doing; but while we thus think and thus act our enemies are creating. In addition to their white force (which we have found to our cost in the last year to be quite as large as we could manage), an auxiliary army of own escape slaves of 300,000 or 400,000 men. Now, however, we may decry the negro as a soldier, every one knows that if the white troops of the Yankees are numerous enough to hold all ours in check, then this negro army can at will ravage and destroy our whole country and we will be absolutely conquered by our own slaves. We allege that slaves will not fight in our armies. Escaped slaves fight and fight bravely for our enemies; therefore a freed slave will fight. If at the beginning of this war all our negroes had been free does any one believe the Yankees would have been able to recruit an army amongst them? Does any know of a solitary free negro escaping to them and joining their Army? If our slaves were now to be freed would the Yankees be able to raise another recruit amongst them? If freedom and amnesty were declared in favor of those already in the Yankee lines would they not almost to a man desert to their old homes? Would not our freed negroes make us as good soldiers as they make for our enemies? Again, suppose we free a portion of our slaves and put them in the Army, we leave all the rest as a recruiting field for the enemy, from which we cannot get a single soldier, and thus we see one-half of our entire population of no avail to us, but on the contrary ready at every opportunity to join the ranks of our enemies.
Now, sir, Southern soldiers are the best that ever drew a blade in the cause of liberty, but there are some things which they cannot do; they cannot fight our battles against overwhelming numbers, and raise the necessary supplies for the Army and the women and children at home; and yet, sir, this is what they will be called upon to do if this war is protracted for two years longer. I ask, sir, then, In view of these facts, if the prompt abolition of slavery will not prove a remedy sufficient to arrest this tide of disaster? The Yankee Army will be diminished by it, our own Army can be increased by it, and our labor retained by it. Without it, if the war continues, we shall in the end by subjugated, our negroes emancipated, our lands parceled out amongst them, and if any of it be left to us, only an equal portion with our own negroes, and ourselves given only equal (if any) social and political rights and privileges. If we emancipate, our independence is secured, the white man only will have any and all political rights, retain all his real and personal property, exclusive of his property in his slave; make the laws to control the freed negro, who having no land, must labor for the landowner, and being an adequate supply of labor must work for the landowner on terms about as economical as though owned by him. We cannot consent to reconstruction even if they repeal all their laws and withdraw all their proclamations in regard to us, our lands, and our negroes, because they now have, or at any session of their Congress can make, the necessary number of States to alter the constitution in a constitutional manner, and thus abolish slavery and interfere in any other way they think proper. But even if the present Administration should pledge anything we may ask, it binds no one but themselves during their own term of service, which you of course understand better than I do; and suppose they should even promise, and stand by their promise, to pay us for our negroes, lost or to be emancipated, how will they pay us? They cannot by direct taxation, but only in levying an export duty on our products-cotton, tobacco, and naval stores; and this war has shown them and the world, if not us, how much they will bear, cotton commanding $1 per pound, tobacco $3, tar $200 per barrel, $c. To pay their war debt and free our negroes would make a debt of $6,000,000,000 or probably $8,000,000,000, the interest of which at 5 percent would take $4,000,000,000 of revenue to pay, and to raise something additional to extinguish the principal would require an additional $1,000,000,000. Thus, you can see an expert duty to this extent would be levied and could easily be raised upon our products; 20 cents upon cotton, which would make the price about 32 or 33 cents the world would pay, because they must have it and have bought it for much more, would bring an annual income of about $4,000,000,000 without counting the duty on tobacco and naval stores; but even with this most favorable view of the case, we should lose the whole of our own war debt, which is or will, be say, $2,000,000,000. Of course this would be repudiated, and justly, by our enemies if we consent to reconstruction; whereas if we emancipate we save the $2,000,000,000 and we can pay for the negroes $4,000,000,000 more and the export duty on cotton alone (which we should have levied if we go back into the Union) will pay the interest upon this at 5 per cent, and leave $1,000,000,000 as a sinking fund to extinguish the principal in some thirty or forty-years, and the slave-owner have all his labor on his farm that he had before (for, having no home and no property to buy one with, he must live with and work for his old owner for such wages as said owner may choose to give, to be regulated by law hereafter as may suit the change of relation).
And this $6,000,000,000 is not a debt we tax ourselves to pay, but the world pays it. The speculator who buys the cotton and pays the duty makes the manufacturer pay him his 10 or 15 percent net profit on his gross outlay; the manufacturer makes the merchant pay him his 10 or 15 percent on his gross outlay; the merchant charges the retail dealer his 10 or 15 per cent on his gross outlay and so on till the shirt is made, and he who wears it out pays the duty and all the different percentages upon it. Thus we will pay to the extent of our consumption of the exported article when manufactured and returned to us a mere nothing when compared to the immense gratuity, $6,000,000,000, which the world makes to us, and which they so justly should be made to hand over to us for the cold-blooded heartless indifference with which they have contemplated the bloody, inhuman, barbarous, and apparently hopeless contest in which we have been engaged, and which they at any moment could have arrested by a word. By emancipation I think we would not only render our triumph secure, as I have attempted to prove, in and of itself, but in all future time the negro, in place of being useless in time of war as a soldier, and really dangerous, as we have seen to our cost, continues to be an element of strength; and I think we may reasonably hope that the nations of the earth would no longer be unwilling to recognize us, for surely no people ever before struggled so long and under so many difficulties and endure so many privations so uncomplainingly as we have without finding some friendly hand outstretched to encourage or to help; and there can be no other reason than that we are exclusively and peculiarly a nation of slave holders. I think that even amongst our enemies numbers would be added to those who are already willing to go in peace, for we should thus give the lie at once and forever to the charge that we are waging a war only for negro slavery, and the heart of every honest lover of human liberty throughout the world would sympathize with the men who for their cherished rights of freemen would wage such an unequal contest as we have waged and besides sacrificing all their earnest convictions as to the humanity and righteousness of slavery, were willing to sacrifice their property interest of $4,000,000,000 to secure their independence, which might all be saved, so far as the promises of our enemies are concerned by reconstruction. In my judgement the only question for us to decide is whether we shall gain our independence by freeing the negro, we retaining all the power to regulate them by law when so freed, or permit our enemies through our own slaves to compel us to submit to emancipation with equal or superior political rights for our negroes, and partial or complete confiscation of our property for the use and benefit of the negro. And, sir, if the war continues as it is now waged, and we are forced, by the overwhelming odds of the Yankees and our own slaves in arms against us, into submission, it would be but an act of simple justice for the Yankee Government to see to it that their negro allies are at least as well provided for in the way of homes as those who have been arrayed in arms against them. I have always believed, and still believe, that slavery is an institution sanctioned, if not established, by the Almighty, and the most humans and beneficial relation that can exist between labor and capital; still I think that this contest has proven that in a military sense it is an element of weakness, and the teachings of Providence as exhibited in this war dictate conclusively and imperatively that to secure and perpetuate our independence we must emancipate the negro.
P. S. - We should the get rid of the only impediment in the way of an exchange of prisoners, thus getting, 30,000 or 40,000 more men in the field.
I have given you what I conceive to be the only solution to our difficulties. How to effect this is a serious difficulty. Men are reluctant-in fact it might be imprudent to discuss this thing publicly, but we know that in great crisis men think and act rapidly or at least should do so. If Congress would be convinced of the correctness of this course they could, in convention with the Governors of the States, devise some method by which conventions of the States could be held and the necessary measures adopted; first by law of Congress, if necessary, provide for paying the owners for them. I have not found a single slave-holder with who I have conversed but is willing to submit to the measure if deemed necessary by the proper authorities. Indeed, I have no doubts of the power of Congress as a military necessity to impress all of the able-bodied male negros and pay for them, giving them their freedom, and providing for paying for the rest upon the condition of manumission, but the other course would be less objectionable. We burn an individuals cotton, corn, or meat to keep it from the enemy, so we can take his negro man and set him free to keep him from recruiting the enemy's Army.
I have written you this much hoping it may aid you in some way. I have shown what I have written to no one, nor communicated my intentions to any one. If you think what I have written worth anything, make what use of it you choose. If not, just stick it between the bars of your grate. What I have written is with an honest endeavor to aid you in guiding our ship through the perils and darkness which surround her, and from no feeling of dissatisfaction or distrust as to yourself, for you have all my sympathies and all of my trust and confidence.
With difficulties and the warmest admiration and respect, I remain your friend.
J. H. STRINGFELLOW
P. S. - Written very hurriedly and with no effort at arrangement but only as "food for thought."
J. H. S.
I opened the envelope to say that my communication was written before I heard of the return of our commissioners, and that I am more than sustained by their report and the action of the Yankee Congress on the slavery question, and now we have only to decide on or between emancipation for our independence or subjugation and emancipation, coupled with negro equality or superiority, as our enemies may elect.
J. H. S.
Respectfully referred, by direction of the President, to the Honorable Secretary of War.
BURTON N. HARRISON
SOURCE: United States War Department. THE WAR OF THE REBELLION: A Compilation of the Official Records of the Union and Confederate Armies. Series IV, Volume III. Washington: Government Printing Office, 1880-1901.