By the Spring of 1862, the Confederate government was well aware that it
could not meet its military manpower needs through voluntary enlistments. To bolster manpower in the army, the Confederate congress passed a conscription act on April 16, 1862. Under this law, all males between the ages of eighteen and thirty-five were required to serve three years in the military. Those already serving had their three year period begin from their date of original enlistment. – “Conscription” Encyclopedia of the Confederacy, Volume 1, page 396.
The conscript law brought many new recruits into the army, but that in and of itself caused another problem. The flood of men into the military because of conscription meant that there were not enough white males left at home to oversee Mississippi’s slave population.
The possibility of a slave uprising was greatly feared in Mississippi, and with good reason. In 1860 slaves made up 55.2 percent of the population of the Magnolia State. White Mississippians maintained a firm control over their property lest they rise up against their masters. In the years leading up to the Civil War white Mississippians watched their slaves closely for any signs of possible rebellion, and the least rumor of such an act could lead to terrible violence against blacks and any whites accused of aiding them.
With so many men marching off to war, Mississippi was drained of much of its young white male population. These men were just the ones that had always been used to maintain the system of slavery in the state. Particularly after the passage of the conscription act, Mississippians throughout the state worried that the lack of white men in their communities to police the local slaves might lead to disaster.
The Confederate Congress, in an attempt to calm the fears of many large slave owners, passed the “Twenty Slave Law” on October 11, 1862. The Encyclopedia Virginia gives a concise description of this law and the effects that it had on the white Southern populace:
The Twenty-Slave Law, passed by the Confederate Congress on October 11, 1862, during theAmerican Civil War (1861–1865), created an exemption to military conscription for the owners of twenty or more slaves. The law was controversial in much of the South, where it served to exacerbate certain social rifts and led to claims by drafted soldiers that they were fighting a “rich man’s war.” – http://www.encyclopediavirginia.org/twenty-slave_law
The “Twenty Slave Law” was very controversial in Mississippi, where it created a conflict between the planter class, who saw a great need for the law, and the common people of the state, who felt that they were being forced to make sacrifices for the good of the rich.
Fortunately, there is an excellent source of information on the attitudes of Mississippians on both sides of the argument about conscription and the “Twenty Slave Law.” During the war Mississippians from all walks of life wrote to governor John J. Pettus, and many of the letters dealt with their worries about the draft and the Twenty Slave Law.
On December 23rd, 1862, William Henry Calhoun, a wealthy planter from Pontotoc County wrote to governor Pettus and explained how the conscription act was effecting his part of the state:
Verona, 23d Dec. 1862
I write to inform you of the condition of our county & to ask if possible a remedy.
We have to complain that since & before the Federal rade into our country many, very many of our planters have left home taking in many instances none of their negroes off with them. Ours is just now a most dangerous condition, hundreds of negro men have been left in our midst either alone or with a nominal master allowed to do as they please, no restraint put upon them. This state of things will result surely in an insurrections or some other great calamity. Can you not order that where they are thus left that the men be taken charge of by the army & put to state or Confederate service. If you are not the proper person to direct this matter, will you do us the great favor to address the proper authority & have the matter attended to. Gov., act promptly for humanity sake & oblige your friend, W. Henry Calhoun, & many other citizens. – John J. Pettus Correspondence, Series 757, Box 943, Folder 6, Mississippi Department of Archives and History.
Two days later, Pettus received this letter from Jacob McMorris, who lived in Noxubee County. Although his writing was a little garbled, McMorris certainly made clear that the 20 Negro Law was causing problems in his county:
Mashulaville, Miss., Dec. 25th, 1862
Though [a] humble citizen I beg leave to call your attention to what I think is inequality in the militia and as there is beginning to be dissatisfaction now is the time to put in [the] remedy. The drafted militia, I think which took place last summer complain that they are still out, and the balance of the militia all at home. What people thought of equality or a want of equality in the 20 Negro Law caused great excitement and I think many deserters, and the present drafted militia now want and ask for equality only.
– John J. Pettus Correspondence, Series 757, Box 943, Folder 6, Mississippi Department of Archives and History.
In early December Governor Pettus received the following letter from
George S. Gaines, one of the early pioneer settlers of Mississippi, and a very influential businessman and politician in the southern part of the state. While very much in favor of the Twenty Slave Law, Gaines was also perceptive enough to see the need for state aid to the families of the soldiers who were far from home defending Mississippi:
Near State Line Miss.
Gov. John J. Pettus
In obedience to the request contained in your letter of the 7th ult. I addressed a letter to the judge of our probate court, urging that the Board of Police cause the 30 percent tax of the current fiscal year for the relief of indigent families of absent soldiers to the collected with the least possible delay, and that measures be taken for the judicious application of that collected for the last fiscal year as soon as it can be obtained from the Treasury at Jackson.
I took occasion in addressing Judge Napier to regret the unreasonable outcry against the late Confederate exemption law, and submitted such an argument in favor of it as I thought would relieve the members of the Police Court of their prejudices, if they entertained such, and perhaps do some good. I enclose the judges response although a private letter as it may be useful to you to know the opinions and feelings in all parts of the state on matters connected with its weal, and the defense of the Confederacy. The judge, you will perceive, is a clear headed man and doubtless his opinions are properly appreciated by the people of his county.
I have been much grieved to learn from intelligent men belonging to the militia in camp at Columbus, Miss., that complaints against the exemption law above noticed are loud and bitter in camp. I trust that time and reflection and the efforts of patriotic men may have enabled the discontents to take a more reasonable and correct view of the law, and I deem it of great importance at [this] juncture that we should be heartily united in the great work of defending the country.
I have the honor to be,
Respectfully Your Obt. Servt.,
Geo. S. Gaines
The other letter that Gaines mentioned was written to him by his friend Phillip H. Napier, a well-known reverend and judge in south Mississippi. Napier also touched on conscription in his letter, and Gaines felt his views on the subject were important enough to send on to Pettus:
November 28th, 1862
Col. George S. Gaines:
Your excellent letter of recent date – date not remembered – was handed to me by our Sheriff Mr. A. Taylor some few days ago. I heartily concur with your in every sentiment your letter contains, and would most gladly do any thing and every thing in my power to assist our country in this her almost hopeless struggle for independence. But what to do I know not.
The law exempting masters owning slaves (a certain number, twenty I believe) is a good one. It was not a hasty measure, but the result of a calm & a wise deliberation. As you say, the enormous expenses of this war must be paid by the property of the country; and as slaves are by far the most profitable operatives we possess, of course their labour must do the greatest share in defraying the expenses of the war. The slaves must be governed, and who can govern them so well as their masters? They must be worked, and who can work them so efficiently as their masters? Our soldiers must be fed and clad, and the greater part of this tremendous necessity must be met by slave labour. Hence the necessity of the “twenty negro exemption law” as it is termed. The pressing necessity of the law is as palpable to my mind as the noonday sun.
Now if our state legislature would meet and provide for the indigent families of our soldiers, and make it the duty of the representatives to see that the provisional arrangements of the legislature were faithfully carried out in their respective counties, thee would be no just grounds for dissatisfaction, and I think all murmuring and complaining would soon cease. But until this is done our soldiers and their families will be discontented. To see a large portion of the families of our soldiers living on dry bread and a scanty supply of that, when, at the same time, the future don’t promise even bread itself. I tell you sir, it is enough to smother out the last spark of patriotism both at home and in the army.
Look at the few men we have left in the country. The most of them had almost as _____ as go into the service. And why? Because their wives and children are likely to suffer for the necessaries of life in their absence. Who could enter the service with a hearty good will under such circumstances? Our country too is run mad with a desire to get rich by speculating on the necessities of the people. Poor soldiers families are compelled to pay two dollars per bushel for corn and twenty dollars per bushel for salt. Meat and other necessaries are out of the question. Men must be taught by the majesty of legislative enactment that this is no time to _____ upon and grind the faces of the poor, especially the poor soldiers of the country. These are some of the main reasons why the spirits of our people are flagging and the once buoyant hopes of our country are fading and almost dying. Can they, will they be remedied?
I saw all the surviving members of our Board of Police and read your letter to them, and urged the necessity of prompt action upon their part in view of the dangers that threaten the corn producing regions of our country. But what they will do I know not. Whether any thing at all to purpose I cannot promise you, as they did not promise me.
Our legislature must do something for the poor people of Mississippi or scores perhaps hundreds of them must starve. Our Governor ought to convene the legislature upon the spot, and let them make provisions for supplying at least the soldier’s families with corn and salt. A few steamboats might be chartered to bring the salt from the mines so opportunely discovered in Louisiana, to Vicksburg; and then there is rolling stock enough standing idle upon our railways to deposit corn and salt enough at all the different stations for all our indigent families in a very few months. This will look like we intended to maintain our independence, and do justice to our patriotic soldiers and their families. We are well able to carry on this war if all our resources are directed by legislative enactment into proper channels. The very fact that there is such a mania for speculation shows that there is ample resources unappropriated to meet all our necessities. This floating mass of wealth must be converted into proper channels to make it efficient in aiding us to work out our salvation, or it will turn up on us as it is now doing and work out our destruction. How this can best be done is for the united wisdom of our state and national legislatures to determine.
But I will cease to write to you about matters that you have deliberately matured already, and close my epistle by thanking you for the pleasant hours I have spent with you and your amiable family at your pleasant home many years agone, when I was a poor travelling preacher wandering through the pine forests of Perry, Green and Wayne; and asking you to presenting my most respectful compliments to Mrs. Gaines and daughters. Also assuring you I am with the highest esteem yours most respectfully
The letters above are all very interesting, but they were all written by members of Mississippi’s upper class. The following letter, however, was written by M.M. Fortinberry, a simple soldier from Monticello, Mississippi, who was trying to serve his country and care for his family, and finding these twin duties at odds with each other. In the 1860 United States Census for Lawrence County, Mississippi, Fortinberry was listed as 34 years old, living with his wife, Winney, and children Edward, Mary, and Mira. He listed his occupation as farmer, and valued his real estate at $1500, and his personal estate at $1500. – United States Census for 1860, Lawrence County, Mississippi, page 49.
Dec. 1, 1862
Mr. John J. Pettus
Governor of the State, Sir,
I seat myself to write you a few lines to inform you of the condition of the country here in Lawrence County. First we have failed to make a crop poor men have been compelled to leave the army to come home to provide for their families we have corn for bread we have hogs for meat but no salt to save it. Some of us is paroled prisoners got home and found our families with out any thing at all has been out 15 months come home without a dollars and now pay 1.25 cents for a barrel of corn that would make about three pecks to the barrel. I am myself at home on furlough failed to make a crop I belong to Capt. Wilson’s Co. of minite men under Capt. Quin at Mill Dale we are compelled to ask you for protection until we can provide for our families to stay in the army at eleven dollars per month and if we live to get home pay sixty dollars for a sack of salt if we can get it at that and corn at two dollars per bushel. I now have to find my brother and family until we can make a crop and by that time my means are gone. We are poor men and are willing to defend our country, but our families first and then our country. I see volunteers wifes two miles from home in Pearl river swamp calling their hogs and their husbands in Tennessee now there are men enough that has help to provide for their families and asking two dollars per barrel for corn to take our places until we can make a crop as suffer we are bound to if we don’t make a crop there is no use to depend on the charity of our neighbours for they are all in our condition. I no of soldiers wifes to be turned by men that had thousand of corn without any. This is the general feeling of the community in which I live determine to make a crop if we can now we ask you to protect us while we work our farms your immediate attention is invited to this note and an answer returned as we are force to this or starve. Fight we can’t until our families are better cared for. Wives are writing for their husband and they are coming to them on the account of their suffering condition.
Answer soon M. M. Fortinberry
Direct to Monticello, Miss.
– John J. Pettus Correspondence
Series 757, Box 943
Folder 4, MDAH
At the time Fortinberry wrote this impassioned letter to the governor, he
was a Private in Company A, 2nd Mississippi Infantry (State Troops). He enlisted in the state army on August 8, 1862, at Monticello. Fortinberry was a deserter from the army when this letter was written. In his service record it states; “Absent without leave since Nov. 20″/62.” There are only two cards in Fortinberry’s service record, and there is no indication that he ever returned to his regiment. When push came to shove, and Fortinberry had to make a choice, he chose family over country.
– Compiled Service Record of M.M. Fortinberry, 2nd Mississippi Infantry (State Troops) (Quinn’s).
On November 19, 1862, the Macon Beacon published an editorial entitled “The Exemption Law,” and the writer strongly complained about the act, calling it legislation that “discriminates in favor of the rich man and against the poor. This law seeks to make the poor man leave his helpless wife and little children to the tender mercies of an over-taxed community – to go and fight the battles of the country, while the man of wealth is to be left in the ease and luxury of home to reap all the benefit of the hard earned victories of his poorer brother whose family meantime are pinched for the commonest necessaries of life.”
The article went on to make this damning charge against the rich planters in Mississippi:
“We wish to say to the wealthy men of the country – the slave owners – that that species of property brought on this war. Abolish slavery, and we had no cause of quarrel with the North. It is peculiarly and especially a war for slavery. Love of country has made the poor men of the country stand shoulder to shoulder with the rich in defence of their slaves – no sacrifices has been too great for them to make. Now, are the rich to take advantage of the stupidity of law makers and claim exemption on account of their slaves, and leave none but the poor men to fight this war through. If the rich then are tired of this war, and intend no longer themselves to fight, in the name of God let them have the honesty to say so. Don’t seek by your influence and power at home to drive the poor man to the army, to leave his family to beggary and want. But let us all unite and get the best terms that our enemies will give.”
The simple truth of the matter was that Mississippi was running out of manpower. The war of 1861 that few doubted would last more than a few months had turned into a bloody war of attrition by the end of 1862. The South, with its much smaller population than the North, found itself hard pressed to keep enough men in uniform to fight the war, much less police its large slave population. The conflict over conscription and the “20 Slave Law,” continued to divide rich and poor Mississippians as the war went on.