Please note, this source contains outdated language referring to African Americans. This letter to North Carolina Governor Zebulon B. Vance from Private O. Goddin gives the perspective of a soldier who had to leave his family at home. It also highlights the discrimination farmers in Salisbury faced compared to plantation owners in North Carolina
In April 1862, the Confederate Congress passed the first of two conscription acts, which required men between the ages of eighteen to thirty-five, except men with critical professions and other approved exemptions, to enlist in the Confederate Army for three years’ service or for the remainder of the war. In an attempt to address fears of slave insurrections caused by the Emancipation Proclamation, with so many white Southerners away fighting, the Confederate Congress passed a second conscription act in October 1862. An exemption included in that act that many poor whites came to abhor was called the “twenty Negro law” in which one white male was exempted from conscription for every twenty slaves on a plantation.
Please pardon the liberty which a poor soldier takes in thus addressing you as when he volunteered. He left a wife with four children to go fight for his country. He cheerfully made the sacrifices thinking that the Government would protect his family, and keep them from starvation. In this he has been disappointed for the Government has made a distinction between the rich man (who had something to fight for) and the poor man who fights for that which he will never have. The [Confederacy’s] exemption of the owners of 20 Negroes and the allowing of substitutes clearly proves it. Healthy and active men who have furnished substitutes are grinding the poor by speculation while their substitutes have been discharged after a month’s service as being too old or as invalids . . . Now Governor, do tell me how we poor soldiers who are fighting for the rich man’s Negro can support our families at $11 per month? How can the poor live? I dread to see the summer as I am fearful there will be much suffering now . . .
Citation: Franch, Daniel. “Desertion in the Confederate Army: A Disease That Crippled Dixie” in Explorations: The Journal of Undergraduate Research and Creative Activities for the State of North Carolina, 2014, Volume 9. pp. 17-25. https://digital.ncdcr.gov/Documents/Detail/explorations-the-journal-of-undergraduate-research-and-creative-activities-for-the-state-of-north-carolina-2014-v.9/2934712?item=2966469. Accessed 21 August 2023.
- After reading this letter, what are the differences between the support in which the soldiers were led to believe their family would receive and what they actually received?
- During this time period, Salisbury’s economy was run by small family owned farms. How would the “20 Negro Law” affect the economy in Salisbury in comparison to other areas of North Carolina whose economy was run by larger plantations?
- What can you conclude about the unequal effects of the “20 Negro Law” and the tensions in Salisbury at this time?
Confederate Congress: lawmaking assembly of the Confederate States of America
Conscription acts: first wartime draft of soldiers in American History
Exemptions: ways to avoid service, in this case in the Confederate Army
Emancipation Proclamation: executive order by Abraham Lincoln declaring enslaved people in Confederate States to be free
Abhor: regard with disgust and hatred
Grinding: seemingly without end
Invalids: those who are sickly or disabled