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In Their Own Words

February 15, 1865

Governor Brown Addressed Special Civil War Session

Georgia Governor Joseph E. Brown had called a special session of the Georgia Legislature to convene in Macon (many of the government buildings in Milledgeville had been destroyed by Union troops) on this day; he presented a lengthy address on the condition of the state - excerpts are reproduced below, including his thoughts on arming slaves.

To the Senate and House of Representatives: Since your adjournment in November, the army of invasion, led by a bold and skillful General, have passed through our State, laid waste our fields, burned many dwelling houses, destroyed county records, applied the torch to ginhouses, cotton, and other property, occupied and desecrated the capitol, and now hold the city of Savannah, which gives them a water base from which they may in future operate upon the interior of the State. The army of Tennessee, which contained a large number of Georgia troops, and was relied on as the only barrier to Sherman’s advance, the removal of which left Georgia at the mercy of the enemy, was ordered off beyond the Tennessee river upon a campaign which has terminated in disaster. In the midst of these misfortunes Georgia has been taunted by some of the public journals of other States because her people did not drive back and destroy the army of the enemy. Those who do us this injustice fail to state the well known fact that of all the tens of thousands of veteran infantry, including most of the vigor and manhood of the State, which she had furnished for Confederate service, but a single regiment (the Georgia Regulars,) of about three hundred effective men, was permitted to be upon her soil during the march of General Sherman from her North-western border to the city of Savannah; and even that gallant regiment was kept upon one of our islands most of the time; and not permitted to unite with those who met the enemy. Nor were the places of our absent sons filled by troops from other States. One brigade of Confederate troops was sent by the President from North Carolina, which reached Georgia after her capitol was in the possession of the enemy. Thus abandoned to her fate and neglected by the Confederate authorities, the State was left to defend herself as best she could against a victorious army of nearly fifty thousand of the best trained veteran troops of the United States, with only the Georgia reserves and militia, consisting of a few thousand old men and boys, while her army of able-bodied gallant sons were held for the defence of other States, and denied the privilege to return and strike an honest blow for the protection of their homes, their property, their wives and their children. While the Confederate reserves in other States have been but little of their time in the field on active duty, and the militia, consisting of boys between sixteen and seventeen, and old men between fifty and sixty, and agriculturalists detailed by the Confederate government, have not in most of the States been called out at all, the Confederate reserves, the reserve militia, the detailed men, the exempts from Confederate service, and most of the State officers, civil as well as military, have in this State been kept in the field almost constantly for the last eight months. These troops of classes not ordered out elsewhere, were placed under the control of the Confederate General commanding the department, and have participated in every important fight from Kennesaw in this State to Grahamville or Honey Hill in South Carolina. The important victory at the latter place was achieved by the Georgia militia, the Georgia reserves, the Georgia State line, the Forty-seventh Georgia Regiment, and a very small number of South Carolinians, all commanded by that able and accomplished officer, Major General G. W. Smith, of the Georgia militia. As I have seen no Confederate official account of this important engagement, which gives the credit where it is justly due, I mention these facts as part of the history of our State. If all the sons of Georgia under arms in other States, of which nearly fifty regiments were in Virginia, besides those in the Carolinas, Florida and Tennessee, had been permitted to meet the foe opon her own soil, without other assistance, General Sherman’s army could never have passed from her mountains to her seaboard, and destroyed their property and their homes. He had nearly four hundred miles to march over an enemy’s country; he was entirely dependent upon the wagon train which he carried with him for a supply of ammunition, without the possibility of replenishing after what he had was consumed. Had he been resisted from the start by a competent force, and compelled to fight, his ordnance stores must soon have been exhausted, and he forced to an unconditional surrender. Such another opportunity to strike the enemy a stunning blow will not probably occur during the war. The destruction of this army would have re-inspired our people with hope, depressed the spirits of our enemies, and might have prepared the way speedily for the negotiation of an honorable peace. It could have been done by the Georgia troops if permitted. It should have been done at the expense, if necessary, of the evacuation of Richmond, and the use of Gen. Lee’s whole army thrown rapidly into Georgia for that purpose. No one would regret more than I to see that city, which has been so long and so nobly deended, surrender to the enemy; but it must be admitted, since the devastation of the country beyond, that it is now only a strong out-post of little military importance, compared with the great interior. It must also be admitted that Richmond is rendered insecure by the successes of General Sherman in the interior, and the position he has gained in the rear of that and other strongholds, which were relied on for defence. If his unobstructed movement through Georgia must result in the loss of Richmond, how much better would it have been if we had given the evacuation of Richmond for the destruction of his army. I have felt it my duty to refer to these facts in justice to my State, of which it may be safely said she has had a larger proportion of her white male population under arms for the last eight months, in defence of our cause, than any other State in the Confederacy. On account of the attachment of her people to the cause of State sovereignty and constitutional liberty, and their remonstrances against unjustifiable usurpations of power by the Confederate government, Georgia has been systematically if not wilfully misrepresented by government officials and organs, who give circulation to the most reckless and unjust comments upon the conduct of the people of the State and her government, without the magnanimity or common honesty to publish the facts when laid before them, which show their statements to be without any real foundation in fact. As an instance, I mention the fact that it has been industriously circulated that I, as Governor of the State, have kept fifteen thousand men out of service under the exemption acts. I corrected this misrepresentation by a published statement, which showed that I had put into service classes of persons not ordered out in other States, and that the whole number of State officers in Georgia who have been held by me under the legislation of the State to be exempt from military service, was only 1,450, of whom a large proportion are over military age. This correction was passed in silence by many who had given publicity to the groundless charge, which was intended to be injurious to the Governor of the State, to the persons exempted by her laws, and to the character of her people. I am satisfied, however, that impartial history will do justice to the government and people of Georgia, as well as to the conduct and motives of her assailants, who have stripped her of her strength and left her to the ravages of her foreign enemies. … ARMING THE SLAVES. The administration, by its unfortunate policy having wasted our strength and reduced our armies, and being unable to get freemen into the field as conscripts, and unwilling to accept them in organizations with officers of their own choice, will, it is believed, soon resort to the policy of filling them up by the conscription of slaves. I am satisfied that we may profitably use slave labor, so far as it can be spared from agriculture, to do menial service in connection with the army, and thereby enable more free white men to take up arms; but I am quite sure any attempt to arm the slaves will be a great error. If we expect to continue the war successfully, we are obliged to have the labor of most of them in the production of provisions. But if this dificulty were surmounted, we can not rely upon them as soldiers. They are now quietly serving us at home, because they do not wish to go into the army, and they fear, if they leave us, the enemy will put them there. If we compel them to take up arms, their whole feeling and conduct will change, and they will leave us by thousands. A single proclamation by President Lincoln–that all who will desert us after they are forced into service, and go over to him, shall have their freedom, be taken out of the army, and permitted to go into the country in his possession, and receive wages for their labor–would disband them by brigades. Whatever may be our opinion of their normal condition or their true interest, we can not expect them, if they remain with us, to perform deeds of heroic valor, when they are fighting to continue the enslavement of their wives and children. It is not reasonable for us to demand it of them, and we have little cause to expect the blessings of Heaven upon our efforts if we compel them to perform such a task. If we are right, and Providence designed them for slavery, He did not intend that they should be a military people. Whenever we establish the fact that they are a military race, we destroy our whole theory that they are unfit to be free. But it is said we should give them their freedom in case of their fidelity to our cause in the field; in other words, that we should give up slavery, as well as our personal liberty and State sovereignty, for independence, and should set all our slaves free if they will aid us to achieve it. If we are ready to give up slavery, I am satisfied we can make it the consideration for a better trade than to give it for the uncertain aid which they might afford us in the military field. When we arm the slaves, we abandon slavery. We can never again govern them as slaves, and make the institution profitable to ourselves or to them, after tens of thousands of them have been taught the use of arms, and spent years in the indolent indulgencies of camp life. If the General Assembly should adopt my recommendation by the call of a Convention, I would suggest that this too would be a subject deserving its serious consideration and decided action. It can never be admitted by the State that the Confederate Government has any power directly or indirectly to abolish slavery. The provision in the Constitution which by implication authorizes the Confederate Government to take private property for public use only, authorizes the use of the property during the existence of the emergency which justifies the taking. To illustrate: In time of war it may be necessary for the Government to take from a citizen a business house to hold commissary stores. This it may do (if a suitable one cannot be had by contract) on payment to the owner of just compensation for the use of the house. But this taking cannot change the title of the land, and vest it in the government. Whenever the emergency has passed, the Government can no longer legally hold the house, but is bound to return it to the owner. So the Government may impress slaves to do the labor of servants, as to fortify a city, if it cannot obtain them by contract, and it is bound to pay the owner just hire for the time it uses them. But the impressment can vest no title to the slave in the Government for a longer period than the emergency requires the labor. It has not the shadow of right to impress and pay for a slave to set him free. The moment it ceases to need his labor the use reverts to the owner who has the title. If we admit the right of the Government to impress and pay for slaves to free them we concede its power to abolish slavery, and change our domestic institutions at its pleasure, and to tax us to raise the money for that purpose. I am not aware of the advocacy of such a monstrous doctrine in the old Congress by any one of the more rational class of abolitionists. It certainly never found an advocate in any Southern statesman. No slave can ever be liberated by the Confederate Government without the consent of the States. No such consent can ever be given by this State without a previous alteration of her Constitution. And no such alteration can be made without a convention of her people. …

Source: Journal of the Senate of the Extra Session of the General Assembly, of the State of Georgia, Convened by Proclamation of the Governor, at Macon, February 15th, 1865: Electronic Edition.