Black Confederates: Laborers or Soldiers? (part one)

Steward 050716part one of a series

When I first arrived at the Fredericksburg and Spotsylvania National Military Park in 2005, I was very interested in researching black Confederate soldiers. Over the past 11 years, I have read books on this subject, talked with Civil War historians, participated in symposiums, given Civil War presentations, discussed with living historians, and talked with African Americans who believe that their ancestors were soldiers in the Confederate army. I have learned that there were blacks who supported the Confederacy for various reasons.

I noticed that black Confederate soldiers were not mentioned very much until the 1990’s. One of our guest authors at Emerging Civil War, Sam Smith, wrote a post about Black Confederates on May 20, 2015. After all of my research and interactions, I am convinced that there were very few black Confederate soldiers.

I attended the Graduate School of Retail Bank Management summer sessions at the University of Virginia, from 1994 through 1996. During my time there, I bought books and audiobooks about the Civil War, one of which was Black Confederates and Afro-Yankees in the Civil War by Professor Ervin L. Jordan. Jr., of the University of Virginia, purchased in the summer of 1995. This was the first time I had purchased a book that actually mentioned blacks as Confederate soldiers. I did not believe that there were many black soldiers fighting for the Confederacy, so I was intrigued and promised myself that I would research this topic after I retired from my banking career.

I had been to several battlefields, including Fredericksburg, Chancellorsville, Wilderness, Spotsylvania Court House, Gettysburg, Antietam, Petersburg, Richmond, Manassas, Harper’s Ferry, and others, but I had never seen anything nor heard from any of the park rangers that there were black Confederate soldiers. I bought the Teaching Company course on The American Civil War, taught by Professor Gary Gallagher of the University of Virginia. In one of his lectures on African Americans in the Civil War, he discussed the Confederate debates on arming blacks to fight as soldiers in the Confederate army. Blacks were told that they could not serve as soldiers, but they were impressed into labor positions. In January 1864, General Patrick Cleburne wrote a paper on having slaves fight in the army and, in exchange, given their freedom. He discussed it with several commanders and staff in the Army of Tennessee, but the majority of them did not want to see blacks armed. A copy of Cleburne’s proposal was leaked to President Jefferson Davis, who ordered the paper and all discussion about it suppressed.

In January 1865, General Robert E. Lee was in favor of a plan to enlist slaves into the army. However, the Confederate Congress did not approve the law until March 13, 1865. General Order 14 was enacted on March 23, 1865. There were reports of a small group of slaves drilling with white soldiers in Richmond just before the capital fell on April 2, 1865.

My personal journey started when I first started volunteering and then working for the Fredericksburg and Spotsylvania National Military Park, where I would talk with the various park rangers about black Confederates. I was told that there were very few and they did not get into any battles. I spoke the most about this subject with Tom Breen, who managed the battlefield bookstores for the Fredericksburg and Spotsylvania National Military Park. The store carried the books Black Confederates and Black Southerners in Confederate Armies.

I have those two books, and they do include information on General Cleburne’s paper and the debate in the Confederate Congress over the issue of arming slaves. Both state that black soldiers were authorized in March 1865. Many of the stories in these books are about black laborers with the Confederate army. Some of the laborers may have picked up weapons to help their masters and some were ordered to stay by their masters, but that did not make them soldiers. Blacks in the Union army did the same things before they were authorized as soldiers, and they were not considered soldiers, either. Blacks in both armies performed the same duties as laborers, and those men were not considered as soldiers. In today’s army, they would be soldiers doing these jobs; however, from 1861-1865, these duties were performed by slaves and laborers—not soldiers.

I stopped hearing much about black soldiers, except from the occasional Sons of Confederate Veterans members, who would come into the Park and tell me about them. On a few occasions, I would have an African American tell me that their ancestor was a black soldier in the Confederate army. I would look up the ancestor and, if I found him on the Confederate roster, it was as a slave, musician, or other laborer.

That is—until the Sesquicentennial of the Civil War.

To be continued….

14 Responses to Black Confederates: Laborers or Soldiers? (part one)

  1. “Blacks in both armies performed the same duties as laborers, and those men were not considered as soldiers. In today’s army, they would be soldiers doing these jobs; however, from 1861-1865, these duties were performed by slaves and laborers—not soldiers.”

    I’d bet most people today don’t understand the distinction between soldiers and laborers in Civil War era armies. They probably are automatically assuming that if solders today are doing a job, that job was done by soldiers back then.

    1. Your comment is correct, I have talked with many people, some former military, and they believe that when you worked in labor jobs during the Civil War – you were soldiers. However, in that time period, they were not considered soldiers.

    1. You are correct, Professor Jordan wrote about two black men who passed for white and were soldiers in the Confederate army. One deserted and was caught, they were going to execute him, when they found out that he was a mulatto and was not supposed to be in the army. He was not executed and was no longer in the army.

  2. I’m curious about the course by Dr. Gallagher mentioned above. I looked online and found several things but not sure what’s what.

  3. According to the 1860 census, of the 4.2 million slaves, 518,366 were “mulattoes,” mixed blood. Remember the slave census numbers are those reported by the owner. So logically there are tens of thousands of Y2K African-Americans who can claim descent from Confederate veterans, the white masters and sons of masters who impregnated their slaves.

    1. Yes, there are thousands of Y2K African Americans who can claim that they are descendants from Confederate veterans. If I were to look up my family tree, I may find some white Confederates there as my mother’s family is from Virginia and my father’s family is from South Carolina. Both of our families were enslaved, although, my father’s family is listed on the 1860 census and may have been free in South Carolina at that time.

  4. The United Confederate Veterans had standing committees for its reunions so that each host city had to follow the same template in preparing to host these reunions. One of the standing committees was a “Committee on Housing for Colored Veterans and Servants.”

    This says there were “colored” veterans and that the UCV distinguished between “veterans” and “servants.” This does not mean the “colored” veterans were all African American, they could have included Native Americans and Hispanics as well.

    Perhaps the net needs to be cast wider and not limit the discussion to “Black Confederates.”

    1. I have often said that we will probably never know, how many colored men passed for white and served in both armies before they were allowed in. That is why I wrote that there were few black Confederate soldiers. However, I would think that the generals of the armies would have known if they had obvious black soldiers in their ranks. There were too many Confederate soldiers, politicians, and citizens that were against arming blacks in the Confederate army. Even when the law was passed on March 13, 1865 and the Confederate army issued General Order 14 on March 23, 1865, establishing the logistics of black soldiers, there was still plenty of opposition to arming black men. There were Native Americans and Hispanics in the Confederate army and that is documented, as well. However, the percentage of known black Confederate soldiers would probably be less than 1% of the total Confederate army. Plus, the Confederacy impressed over 20,000 blacks and uniformed them and in that law, it showed all kinds of jobs that these men could perform, but the law stated that they could not be soldiers. Again, some probably passed and maybe a few laborers picked up weapons to fight at some point. However, from just about every source that I read, it was stated that blacks were not authorized by the Confederate government to serve as soldiers until March 13, 1865.

  5. Have you explored pension applications for Confederate veterans from the various southern states (eg, Tennessee) where “race” was recorded on the pension application? I vaguely remember a paper given at the 2007 Council on America’s Military Past (CAMP) meeting that seemed to indicate far more black CSA veterans than is generally acknowledged in the published literature…the details of that paper are hazy however.

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