Hon. Andrew Hunter
I have received your letter of the 7th inst; and without confining myself to the order of your interrogatories, will endeavour to answer them by a statement of my views on the subject. I should be most happy, if I can contribute to the solution of a question in which I feel an interest commensurate with my desire for the welfare and happiness of our people. Considering the relation of master and slave, controlled by human laws, and influenced by Christianity and enlightened public sentiment, as the best that can exist between the white & black races, which intermingled as at present in this Country, I would deprecate any sudden disturbance of that relation unless it be necessary to avert a greater calamity to both. I should therefore prefer to rely upon our white population to preserve the ratio between our forces and those of the enemy, which experience has shown to be safe. But in view of the preparations of our enemy, it is our duty to provide for continued war, and not for a battle, or a campaign, & I fear we cannot accomplish this without overtaxing the capacity of our white population. Should the war continue under existing circumstances, the enemy may in course of time penetrate our country, and get access to a large part of our negro population. It is his avowed policy to convert the able bodied men among them into soldiers, and emancipate all. The success of the Federal arms in the South was followed by a Proclamation of President Lincoln for 280,000 men, the effect of which will be to stimulate the Northern States to procure substitutes for their own people from the negroes thus brought within their reach. Many have already been obtained in Virginia, and should the future of war expose more of her territory, the enemy will gain a large accession to his strength. His people will thus add to his numbers, and at the same time destroy slavery in a manner most pernicious to the welfare of our people. These negroes will be used to hold them in subjection, leaving the remaining forces of the enemy free to extend his conquest.
Whatever may be the effect of our employing negro troops, it cannot be as mischevious as this.
If it end in subverting slavery, it will be accomplished by ourselves, and we can devise the means of alleviating the evil consequences to both races. I think therefore we must decide whether slavery shall be extinguished by our enemies and the slaves used against us, or to use them ourselves at the risk of the effects which may be produced upon our social institutions.
My own opinion is that we should employ them without delay. I believe that with proper regulation, they can be made efficient soldiers. They possess the physical qualifications in an eminent degree, - long habits of obedience and subordination coupled with that moral influence, which in our country the white man possesses over the black, furnish the best foundation for that discipline which is the surest guarranty of military efficiency. There have been formidable armies composed of men having no interest in the cause for which they fought, beyond their pay or the hope of plunder. But it is certain that the best foundation upon which the fidelity of any army can rest, especially in a service which imposes peculiar hardships and privations, is the personal interest of the soldier in the issue of the contest. Such an interest we can give our negroes, by granting immediate freedom to all who enlist, and freedom at the end of the war to the families of those who discharge their duties faithfully (whether they survive or not) together with the privilege of residing at the South. To this might be added a bounty for faithful service. We should not expect the slaves to fight for prospective freedom, when they can secure it at once by going to the enemy in whose service they would incur no greater risk than in ours. The reasons that induce me to recommend the employment of negro troops at all render the effect on slaves of the measure. I have suggested immaterial, & in my opinion, the best means of securing the efficiency and fidelity of the auxilliary force would be to accompany the measure with a well digested plan of gradual and general emancipation. As that will be the result of the continuance of the war, & will certainly occur if the enemy succeed. It seems to me most desirable to adopt it at once, and thereby obtain all the benefits that will accrue to our cause.
The employment of negro troops under regulations similar in principal to those above indicated would in my opinion greatly increase our Military strength, and enable us to relieve our white population to some extent. I think we could dispense with the reserve forces, except in cases of emergency. It would disappoint the hopes which our enemies have upon our exhaustion, deprive them in great measure of the aid they now derive from black troops, and thus throw the burden of the war upon their own people. In addition to the great political advantages which would result to our cause from the adoption of a system of emancipation, it would exercise a salutary influence upon our negro population, by rendering more secure the fidelity of those who become soldiers, and diminish the inducements to the rest to abscond. I can only say in conclusion, that whatever measures are to be adopted should be adopted at once. Every day’s delay increases the difficulty; much time will be required to organize & discipline the men & action may be deferred until it is too late.
Your Obt servt
R E Lee
Source: The Archives of the Robert E. Lee Memorial Foundation, Papers of the Lee Family, Box 4, M2009.322, Jessie Ball duPont Library, Stratford Hall.
Transcribed by Colin Woodward, 2015 September 17. Copy on file is a hand-written Lee family copy.