Black Confederates

Today we are pleased to welcome back guest author Sam Smith

The Civil War was a fiery prism at the center of American society. Every life entered the prism at its own angle and was refracted in its own way.

The lives of Southern black people changed immeasurably during the war years. In the midst of a see-saw struggle that promised freedom as well as desolation, these men, women, and children made difficult and highly personal decisions in extraordinary circumstances.

Many Southern slaves took advantage of the fog of war to escape towards freedom. Before the Emancipation Proclamation was officially adopted, these escapes usually meant congregating around the Union armies that were operating in Southern territory. Vast columns of escaped slaves followed almost every major Union army at one point or another. These people, sometimes called “contrabands,” as in “confiscated enemy property,” frequently served as scouts and spies for the Union soldiers.

When the Emancipation Proclamation took effect on January 1, 1863, Union forces had regained control of large swaths of the South. Although many now claim that the Proclamation was effectively useless because it established policy for a foreign nation, the practical reality is that the Union, by force of arms, had every necessary power to establish policy in its occupied territories, just as Confederate armies exercised their power to capture and enslave free black people during their brief occupations of Northern territories.

After the Proclamation, the refugees in the contraband camps, along with free black people throughout the North, began to enlist in the Union Army in even greater proportion than Northern white men. After some time in legal limbo, many Southern black men took up arms against their former masters and distinguished themselves on campaign and on the battlefield. By the time the war was over, black soldiers made up 10% of the Union Army and had suffered more than 10,000 combat casualties.

Some black Southerners aided the Confederacy. Most of these were forced to accompany their masters or were forced to toil behind the lines. Black men were not legally allowed to serve as combat soldiers in the Confederate Army–they were cooks, teamsters, and manual laborers. There were no black Confederate combat units in service during the war and no documentation whatsoever exists for any black man being paid or pensioned as a Confederate soldier, although some did receive pensions for their work as laborers. Nevertheless, the black servants and the Confederate soldiers formed bonds in the shared crucible of conflict, and many servants later attended regimental reunions with their wartime comrades.

This is not to say that no black man ever fired a gun for the Confederacy. To be specific, in the “Official Records of the War of the Rebellion,” a collection of military records from both sides which spans more than 50 volumes and more than 50,000 pages, there are a total of seven Union eyewitness reports of black Confederates. Three of these reports mention black men shooting at Union soldiers, one report mentions capturing a handful of armed black men along with some soldiers, and the other three reports mention seeing unarmed black laborers. There is no record of Union soldiers encountering an all-black line of battle or anything close to it.

In those same Official Records, no Confederate ever references having black soldiers under his command or in his unit, although references to black laborers are common. The non-existence of black combat units is further indicated by the records of debates in the Confederate Congress over the issue of black enlistment. The idea was repeatedly rejected until, on March 13, 1865, the Confederate Congress passed a law to allow black men to serve in combat roles, although with the provision “that nothing in this act shall be construed to authorize a change in the relation which the said slaves shall bear toward their owners,” i.e. that black soldiers would still be slaves.

Active fighting ended less than three weeks after the law was passed, and there is no evidence that any black units were accepted into the Confederate Army as a result of the law. Whatever black combat service might have occurred during the war, it was not sanctioned by the Confederate government. Even beyond the Official Records, there is no known letter, diary entry, or any other primary source in which a Confederate mentions serving with black soldiers.

There are, however, a number of documents in which Southerners explicitly reject the idea of black soldiers in their ranks. One of the most telling comes from Confederate Secretary of State Robert Toombs, who claimed in 1865 that “the worst calamity that could befall us would be to gain our independence by the valor of our slaves, instead of our own….The day that the army of Virginia allows a negro regiment to enter their lines as soldiers they will be degraded, ruined, and disgraced.”

In the years shortly after the war, hundreds of prominent Southerners wrote and spoke about “the Lost Cause,” a vision of the war in which the South was fighting to secure state rights and in which slavery was a secondary concern. None of these Southerners ever mentioned black soldiers fighting for the South, although it would have been a good time to present such evidence if there was any truth behind it. The notion of widespread black combat service has only arisen within the past 25 years or so, long past the life-span of real veterans from either side, who would have immediately denied its legitimacy.

The modern myth of black Confederate soldiers is akin to a conspiracy theory—shoddy analysis has been presented, repeated, amplified, and twisted to such an extent that utterly baseless claims of as many as 80,000 black soldiers fighting for the Confederacy (which would roughly equal the size of Lee’s army at Gettysburg) have even made their way into classroom textbooks. It is right to study, discover, and share facts about the complex lives of 19th century black Americans. It is wrong to exaggerate, obfuscate, and ignore those facts in order to suit 21st century opinions.

This entry was posted in Antebellum South, Armies, Civil War Events, Common Soldier, Lincoln, Memory, Politics, USCT and tagged , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

24 Responses to Black Confederates

  1. Bravo! This is an excellent fact-based summary of a subject prone to mis-information and outright lies.

  2. Bruce Grant says:

    There were 2 regiments of blacks soldiers in picture who were training but we’re not deployed because the war ended. There were many free blacks who volunteered to serve when the government was at Montgomery, AL. There were many free blacks who sent money to Montgomery saying” this is our country too”.

    I do not concur with your accessment. The north may have wanted to free the slaves but they did not want them to come up north and get their jobs. The NY riots in July 1863 is proof of that.
    Read Arthur Freemantles book on his
    Observations in “My three months in the confederate states”.

    • Sam Smith says:

      Thanks for reading. I don’t think I mean to morally defend the North in this assessment. Could you post a link or citation for that picture?

  3. Mark Stevens says:

    Excellent article. Facts and math, do not study history without it!

  4. Drew Gruber says:

    Sam,
    Great post! Can you provide a citation for the following: “Black men were not legally allowed to serve as combat soldiers in the Confederate Army…” I’ve never thought to pursue the legal end of the discussion outside of the March ’65 legislation and I am engaged by this aspect of your post.

    Additionally, perhaps for a followup you could address the claims of armed black Confederates at Amelia Springs? I’ve seen this referenced several times now but never to a degree which satisfied my curiosities.
    Drew

  5. Greg Eatroff says:

    Robert Durden in The Gray and the Black (LSU Press, 1972) presents evidence that an understrength company or two of black infantry organized in Richmond in March 1865. A March 27 article from the Richmond Examiner reported “the company now numbers thrity-five members, all uniformed and equipped.” About a dozen of these men were free. (p. 275)

  6. Yeah, with their lines stretched to the brink, inflation rampant, and even disabled clerks sent back into service, the Condederate government, out of sheer desperation, did raise a regiment of black troops in the late winter of 65. Their effective function was more of a “home guard” for the city of Richmond though, and I don’t believe they were ever engaged in battle. Must have looked, really, really strange for those Richmonders to look out their windows and see those fellas marching in a column wearing the gray.

  7. BorderRuffian says:

    “on March 13, 1865, the Confederate Congress passed a law to allow black men to serve in combat roles, although with the provision ‘that nothing in this act shall be construed to authorize a change in the relation which the said slaves shall bear toward their owners,’ i.e. that black soldiers would still be slaves.”

    The Confederate War Department issued orders that no slave would be accepted unless given his freedom.

    “Active fighting ended less than three weeks after the law was passed, and there is no evidence that any black units were accepted into the Confederate Army as a result of the law.”

    There was a battalion of black troops organized by Majors Thomas P. Turner and James W Pegram in Richmond, VA, during March 1865. This unit saw action during the Appomattox Campaign. Another battalion was organized from hospital workers and served on the front lines around Richmond.

    “Even beyond the Official Records, there is no known letter, diary entry, or any other primary source in which a Confederate mentions serving with black soldiers.”

    Keep looking. You will find them.

    • Greg Eatroff says:

      Turner’s “battalion” was 35 men strong, and only a dozen of them were free, according to a March 27, 1865 article in the Richmond Examiner, quoted on page 275 of Robert Durden’s The Gray and the Black (LSU Press, 1972).

      I’ve heard claims that Turner’s men saw action during the Appomattox Campaign, but no one who has made the claim to me has ever provided a primary source confirming it. If you have access to such a primary source, BorderRuffian, please share it with us.

      • BorderRuffian says:

        GE-
        “Turner’s “battalion” was 35 men strong, and only a dozen of them were free, according to a March 27, 1865 article in the Richmond Examiner, quoted on page 275 of Robert Durden’s The Gray and the Black (LSU Press, 1972).”

        The March 27 issue of the Examiner called it a company. The last issue (April 3) called it a battalion.

        “only a dozen of them were free”

        I would interpret that as 12 were already free prior to enlisting.

        GE-
        “I’ve heard claims that Turner’s men saw action during the Appomattox Campaign, but no one who has made the claim to me has ever provided a primary source confirming it.”

        See Like Men of War by Noah Andre Trudeau (pages 412-413) for sources.

      • Sam Smith says:

        Thanks for reading fellows. BorderRuffian please check out Kevin Levin’s coverage of that misleading Trudeau quote (which still doesn’t directly reference black soldiers fighting) http://cwmemory.com/2013/03/31/black-confederates-at-appomattox/

      • BorderRuffian says:

        Sam Smith-
        “BorderRuffian please check out Kevin Levin’s coverage of that misleading Trudeau quote (which still doesn’t directly reference black soldiers fighting).”

        I don’t see anything misleading. The Doswell account plainly calls them “soldiers.” He describes them as being armed and going into formation prior to being attacked. That doesn’t sound like teamsters (Levin’s interpretation).

  8. I think that the author may be confusing total casualties with those killed in battle by writing that, “black soldiers made up 10% of the Union Army and had suffered more than 10,000 combat casualties.”

    Reliable sources indicate that some 10,000 Black soldiers died from battle wounds during the war.

    Wikipedia certainly has this fact wrong, stating that the “USCT suffered 2,751 combat casualties during the war, and 68,178 losses from all causes. Disease caused the most fatalities for all troops, black and white.”

  9. Bob Huddleston says:

    I do know there were African-Americans who served in some capacity or another in the PACS. But how many were combat soldiers? An impossible number to find since, if they were properly enrolled in the Army, their presence was illegal and the enrolling officers were subject to dismissal for false muster.

    Let’s let Bob Krick, who knows more about the officers and men of the Army of Northern Virginia than Robert E. Lee ever did, make a stab: Krick has studied intensively the records of 150,000 of the men who served in the ranks of the ANV, and has found “fewer than a dozen were black. … ‘Of course, if I documented 12, someone would start adding zeros.’” (WSJ, 8 May 1997). BTW, the same article quotes Ed Bearss as saying the idea of BCs is “b.s., wishful thinking.” Jar Heads tend not to mince words!

    In another context, Krick has estimated that “a few more than 1 million men wore Confederate uniforms.” He goes on to say that there were about 2.25 million Yankees. (Robert K. Krick, “The Power of the Land: Leadership on the Battlefield,” Aaron Sheehan-Dean, ed., _Struggle for a Vast Future _, Oxford, U.K., Osprey Publishing, 2006, p. 62.)

    Multiply Krick’s dozen in the ANV by 7 and you get about 80-90 Black Confederates.
    A few years ago, Dr. Tom Lowry posted a bet in _Civil War News_, offering $50 for each authenticated BC. Since it was his money, he set some guidelines. I don’t have the original letter to the editor, but he wanted documentary proof, in government records, that the BC was a duly enlisted soldier. I am guessing based on his $50 prize that Dr. Lowry expected to pay out for a few dozen BCs. And I expected he would have to. To my surprise, and I suspect to Dr. Lowry’s, no one could come up with a genuine BC. Most of the nominees were word of mouth or some Yankees claiming to have seen hundreds of BCs.

    In any event, against a hundred, or maybe less, BCs, there were the 186,000 United States’ Colored Troops, almost all of whom were residents of slave states, and, indeed, most were former slaves. Another 15-20,000 African-Americans served in the United States Navy during the Civil War. And there were something on the order of 100,000 white men, residents of the seceded states, who chose to wear Union Blue.

  10. Jim.H. says:

    Bob Huddleston. Great post. Thank you for sharing,

  11. Jim.H. says:

    Excellent post Bob! I hear about the same unsubstantiated Black Confederates at every civil war battle I attend. Since there are no facts supporting Black Confederates, I think some people have an emotional need (hidden agenda) for them to exist because they NEVER change their mind regardless of what evidence you present.

    I guess you can’t save them all!

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  13. Sam, thank you for your post, it was an excellent article! it inspired me to finally write my post.

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