The growing shortage of white manpower eventually led Confederate authorities to a decision no one could have foreseen when the war began: they authorized the arming of slaves to fight for the South. As early as September 1863, a Mississippi newspaper had argued for freeing and enlisting able-bodied black men. “Let them,” it wrote, “be declared free, placed in the ranks, and told to fight for their homes and country.” But many slaveholders fiercely resisted this idea, and initially, the Confederate Senate rejected it. Not until March 1865, after Robert E. Lee had endorsed the plan, did the Confederate Congress authorize the arming of slaves.

The war ended before the recruitment of black soldiers actually began. But the Confederate army did employ numerous blacks, nearly all of them slaves, as laborers. This later led to some confusion over whether blacks actually fought for the Confederacy—apart from a handful who “passed” for white, none in fact did. But the South’s decision to raise black troops illustrates how the war undermined not only slavery but also the proslavery ideology. “The day you make soldiers of them is the beginning of the end of the revolution,” declared Howell Cobb, a Georgia planter and politician. “If slaves make good soldiers, our whole theory of slavery is wrong.”

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