Friday, April 6, 2012

Rep. Wickliffe's Rant on Negro Enlistment

Congressman Charles A. Wickliffe from Bardstown, Kentucky delivered a ranting speech on the floor of the U.S. House of Representatives on January 29, 1863, that must have been something to witness.

Wickliffe was certainly an experienced politician. He had previously served in congress in the 1820s and 1830s, and had been governor of Kentucky. Additionally, he had served as U.S. Postmaster General in the Tyler administration. Wickliffe too was a slaveholder, so his remarks and opinions expressed that day on floor of the House should probably not be so surprising.

He opened his speech with a rambling rhetorical questioning of what had happened to the regiment of slaves raised by General David Hunter in South Carolina, and using its dissolution as just one reason why black enlistments should not be pursued. When other representatives attempted to ask for time to provide an explanation of the Hunter situation, Wickliffe would not yield.

Wickliffe explained that it was a disgrace to resort to African Americans to help beat the secessionists. He asked if the Republicans were willing to "proclaim to the world that our States, with all their resources of population and physical power, with such resources of means for carrying on the war, with a million soldiers now in the field, still find it necessary at this time to blacken our record for the first time by adopting in the Army of the United State the African slave, and making him the equal and associate by legislation, of the gallant [white] soldier who may have distinguished himself in many hard-fought battle..." That was the issue that was truly the matter here...the potential for blacks to claim some measure of equality due to their service in the army.

After getting off subject and being reeled in by the Speaker of the House, Wickliffe again got to his point. "Who believes that these negro regiments will aid us in restoring the Union and suppressing the disunion party or power in the South? Nobody well informed, and who is not blinded by passion and the spirit of revenge. I denounce it as utterly futile that we will have any efficient aid upon the battle-field by these poor, deluded, uniformed creatures. They will not stand the firing of a gun. They will fall upon the ground or run away..."

Rep. Wickliffe again got off topic by claiming that black soldiers were going to be used to remove whites from Florida so it could be settled by blacks, but finally brought it back home to his constituents in Kentucky. "I fear Kentucky is to suffer by the organization of this negro force. An abolitionist is to placed in command of that State. I understand that he has already been sent there - sent there against the pledge of a year ago, that he should not be. These negro regiments, I fear, will be instruments in his hands and the hands of bad men under him to annoy and disturb the peace of the State. They will thieve and devastate the country while doing nominal military good." He again asks if the Union is not able to defeat the South without black help. "Can it be possible that the Government of the United prepared to enter upon its record this day, and let it go to Europe, let it go South, that you admit that with our white population, with our army of a million men in the field, you cannot conquer this rebellion in the to go to the plantations or peaceable and quiet people, who, perhaps, were against the rebellion, stir up these negroes to rebellion, rob these quiet, peaceable, happy homes, and put the torch of conflagration to every particle of property they have? That is the object they [the Radical Republicans] want of these soldiers, as I believe."

The issue of equality again came to the surface as Wickliffe asked how these black soldiers were to be exchanged if captured. On an equal basis with white soldiers? That is, he explains, if Confederates will take black prisoners at all. "Indeed, since the [Emancipation] proclamation, they have shot every negro they have found connected with the Union army. And if they should catch white men who are mean enough to command these negroes, the Lord knows what will be their fate." He goes on to again state black inferiority as soldiers. "I appeal to every man who is familiar with the negroes of the South to support my assertion that you cannot make a negro stand the fire of a gun. They will fight you with stick and knives, but the moment they hear the report of a gun or pistol they skulk away. They cannot stand that." Wickliffe attempted a bit of humor in saying that, "One gentleman on the other side [Republicans]...was in favor of putting the negroes in the front ranks, that they might be shot down first. I wish he may have the command of them."

Wickliffe closed that he sincerely believed that the true reason for proposing and carrying out black enlistments was devious political measure, it was to "stir up an insurrection of the slaves among those unfortunate, deleted States, and the destruction of women and children and property, and everything which and be destroyed."

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