Robert E. Lee And The Twenty Nigger Law

Bizzarely lionized at the anti-state/anti-war lewrockwell.com, statist warrior Robert E. Lee was in fact the prime mover behind the first federal conscription in American history:

Seeing no way of preventing the disorganization of the army except by conscription, Lee made himself an opportunity, even during the crisis that followed the landing at Old Point on March 23, to review the subject fully with the new lawyer-member of his staff, Major Charles Marshall of Baltimore. Lee maintained, said Marshall, “that every other consideration should be subordinated to the great end of public safety, and that since the whole duty of the nation would be war until independence should be secured, the whole nation should for the time be converted into an army, the producers to feed and the soldiers to fight” — a principle that in 1917 America wisely adopted.

Marshall was directed by Lee to draw up the heads of a bill providing for the conscription of all white males between eighteen and forty-five years of age. The finished paper Lee took to the President, who approved its principles and had it put into shape by Mr. Benjamin. Introduced in Congress, the bill was amended and mangled. Provision was made for the election of officers in re-enlisted commands, and most of the other useless paraphernalia of the bounty and furlough act were loaded on it. The upper age-limit was reduced from forty-five to thirty-five years, and a bill allowing liberal exemption was soon adopted. The press had applause for the object of the bill and sharp words on its weaknesses. In the army, those who had intended not to re-enlist on the expiration of their terms grumbled and charged bad faith on the part of the government,18 but those who were determined to carry on the war to ruin or independence rejoiced that those who had stayed at home were at last to smell gunpowder. In the well-disciplined commands, men who went home at the expiration of their twelve months and returned as conscripts soon settled down to army routine. The election of new officers resulted in the defeat of many good soldiers and in the choice of “good fellows” in their places, but, on the whole, the elections wrought less evil than could reasonably have been expected.20 For his part Lee realized the danger involved in reorganizing the army to the accompaniment of Federal bullets, but he read in the law a promise that recruits would ere long fill the regiments which passed down Main Street that day, and for that promise he must have been grateful. It probably never occurred to him that chief credit for the conscript act was his own.

Confederate conscription was soon known by another name, the Twenty Nigger Law:

Although many soldiers despised the way they were treated in the army, they
took heart in the fact that they were volunteers, freely giving themselves to their
country. In 1862 the Confederate government threatened their volunteer status by
turning them into long service soldiers. By late 1861 volunteering dried up as a
source of new troops. With many units’ enlistments about to expire in the spring and
summer of 1862, the Davis administration scrambled to hold the armies together.
On April 16, 1862, Congress passed the first conscription act in American history
by a surprising two-to-one margin. The act enabled the government to replenish the
ranks by drafting all able-bodied men between the ages of eighteen and thirty-five.
Those already mustered into Confederate service had their terms extended an
additional three years. The act granted established regiments the privilege of
reorganizing and reelecting their officers. A thirty-day grace period before the draft
took effect allowed men to volunteer and avoid the stigma of being conscripted.

Volunteers applauded that part of the bill that put rifles in the hands of
reluctant southerners, but they railed against the provisions that kept them in the
army beyond their original terms of service. Many people angrily condemned the
government for breaking a contract with its soldiers. J. W. Reid spoke for many
when he surmised that “the bill will pass, for Jeff Davis recommended it, and it
seems that he is a dictator…. If [C]ongress can constitutionally … force the balance
to remain three years they may just as easily keep them ten years. What is the
difference?” If this “infernal bill…. passes all patriotism is dead, and the
Confederacy will be dead sooner or later,” predicted Reid. Another soldier believed
“the bill will prove very unpopular with the army. When we hear men comparing
the despotism of the Confederacy with that of the Lincoln government — something
must be wrong.” The soldiers’ fears were correct. In 1864 their enlistments were
extended for the duration of the war. Soldiering began to look like involuntary
servitude to the state. Only a crippling wound or death released soldiers from their
commitment to the army.

Substitution and exemption, the corollaries of conscription, generated their own
controversies. Substitution allowed men to avoid service by hiring a replacement,
as long as the stand-in was not eligible to be drafted. Since the price for substitutes
typically ranged from $1,500-3,000, it provided an escape hatch only for the
wealthy. The exemption act caused an even greater controversy. The bill exempted
overseers on plantations with twenty or more slaves. Nonslaveholding soldiers and
their families perceived the bill as class legislation and derisively dubbed it the
“twenty-nigger” law.

If you think I’m unfairly picking on one old piece on Lee at LRC there are plenty more for you to peruse. If your search LRC for articles which mention both Lee and conscription you’ll find conscription deplored, Lee treated reverently, and no connection noted between the two. Rockwell has even encouraged voters to consider casting their ballot for Lee: “It could be the proudest vote you ever cast!”.

10 thoughts on “Robert E. Lee And The Twenty Nigger Law”

  1. What’s even more noteworthy than LRC’s fetish for the Confederacy is the reaction of the average movementarian to anyone who dares point that fetish out: an attack on the messenger.

    In this case, it’s the back-handed Kinsella-esque accusation that everyone who criticizes Lewrockwell.com is simply throwing around unsubstantiated charges of racism like some dot-net Jesse Jackson. That’s a neat trick because it tends to put most folks back on their heels, defending themselves against the not-quite-laid charge of being (gasp!) Politically Correct. The problem is that NT is farther out on the fringe and thus isn’t interested in political correctness or most importantly (for an uber-hip libertarian movement type) having the proper lack of political correctness.

    Further, since we don’t care about our image, the utter transparentness of the attempt is ripe for a counterattack. Given that the only reason for an attempt at discussion trashing is to avoid the subject at hand (namely, Lewrockwell.com’s fetish for the Confederacy), we can deduce a number of things.

    First, the would-be discussion trasher is embarassed by said fetish;
    Second, the WBDT doesn’t have any good defense for the object of his embarassment;
    Third, the whole subject has him about )( that far away from going on tilt.

    So Stefan, why so touchy about LRC’s fetish for the Confederacy? It’s plain as day that Kennedy hasn’t called either Rockwell or Hoppe racist with this piece, so why’d you bring it up? Surely you can come up with a defense for Rockwell’s odd little predeliction for lauding slaveholding tyrants.

  2. So Stefan, why so touchy about LRC’s fetish for the Confederacy? It’s plain as day that Kennedy hasn’t called either Rockwell or Hoppe racist with this piece, so why’d you bring it up?

    I don’t think you’ve been keeping up with the discussion threads recently.

    Surely you can come up with a defense for Rockwell’s odd little predeliction for lauding slaveholding tyrants.

    Well if I had to I would say that Rockwell’s zeal for freedom and justice and the right of individuals to secede has blinded him to the failures of people like Robert E. Lee. But I’m not particularly interested in defending him.

    So Stefan, why so touchy about LRC’s fetish for the Confederacy?

    It sometimes seems like it’s all you guys talk about. Can’t you trash Cato or maybe the FSF once in a while?

  3. Well if I had to I would say that Rockwell’s zeal for freedom and justice and the right of individuals to secede has blinded him to the failures of people like Robert E. Lee.

    And Saddam Hussein.

    It sometimes seems like it’s all you guys talk about. Can’t you trash Cato or maybe the FSF once in a while?

    Looks like we’ve mentioned Cato a few times. As for the FSF, I have no beef with them. Richard Stallman’s a Commie, but so what? He approached his problem from the market individualist standpoint, namely since he doesn’t like software copyrights he went out and wrote a boatload of free stuff. gcc alone has done far more good than his malign little web page has done bad.

  4. Stefan,

    Feel free to argue any point I make but you needn’t bother to tell me you don’t like what I choose to blog about because I *really* don’t care what you think about it. And I hope you know what you can do to protect your delicate sensibilities.

    Have you thought of getting a blog?

  5. Such disproportionate double standards are a sure indicator of irrational prejudice. When both A and B share fault C, but B has it worse than A, and someone spends most of their time criticizing it in A and hardly ever criticizes it in B, then you know that the person in question doesn’t really care about C, they just hate A.

    Ergo, Rockwell doesn’t really care about conscription, per se, he just hates the Union and loves the Confederacy. I wonder what he would say about the movie “Cold Mountain,” which is about the dark side of how his beloved War of Southern Independence treated his beloved Celtic-American brethren – like cannon-fodder for the slaveholding elite, of course.

  6. Tim Starr wrote:
    “Such disproportionate double standards are a sure indicator of irrational prejudice. When both A and B share fault C, but B has it worse than A, and someone spends most of their time criticizing it in A and hardly ever criticizes it in B, then you know that the person in question doesn’t really care about C, they just hate A.”

    Either that, or the person criticizing A is just a bit (or very) ignorant about B.

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