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 tiral
With great respect, your ob’t serv’t,
R. E. Lee, General
Source: St. Paul’s Church, Richmond, Virginia, records, 1845-1870. Vestry book, 1864-1870, pp. 69-71
Transcribed by Colin Woodward, 2015 October 27