Black Confederates: Laborers or Soldiers? (part two)

They have a United States flag but they're wearing gray and many websites identify them as Confederates
They have a United States flag but they’re wearing gray and many websites identify them as Confederates

part two of a series

In 2010, I went to the Virginia Civil War 150 Signature Conference at Norfolk State University.

This Conference was entitled, “Race, Slavery and the Civil War: The Tough Stuff of American History and Memory.” One lecture was on the “Myth of the Black Confederate,” presented by Bruce Levine. He wrote the book, Confederate Emancipation: Southern Plans to Free and Arm Slaves During the Civil War. His lecture discussed the reasons that there were very few black Confederate soldiers and the fact that they came just a couple of weeks before the war ended. He talked about the bitter and long-lasting debates in the Confederate government about the risks of arming slaves and free blacks.

Then at the lunch break, we had a choice of listening to other speakers not on the main program. I chose to hear Ervin Jordan. He spoke about Virginian African Americans in the Civil War. His discussion included black Confederates, but mainly these men were laborers and supporters of the Confederate government.

However, I took away from this conference that there were a very few black Confederate soldiers and some black people who really did support the South but not as soldiers.

Again, I thought that this topic was settled.

4thUSCT former slavesThen I co-founded the 23rd USCT and started participating in Civil War events in Virginia. We would be asked if we represented Union or Confederate soldiers. Of course, we were in blue Union uniforms with US on our buckles and brass plates; we also have a United States regimental flag. But we were asked that question with much regularity at these events. I guess that shows that our schools are failing to teach Civil War history. The more appearances we did, the more that I got asked about black Confederate soldiers.


Once, when we participated at an event at the Mariner’s Museum in Newport News in 2012, the 54th Massachusetts Infantry, Co. B, and the 23rd USCT discussed with several visitors that there were very few black Confederate soldiers. We were told that there was a black man inside the museum saying that there were 300,000 black soldiers in the Confederate army. At the end of the war, the Confederate government had hoped for 200,000-300,000 black soldiers when General Order 14 was issued on March 23, 1865. According to the Richmond Whig, dated April 29, 1865, 40 to 50 colored soldiers were enlisted in Richmond as a result of the act of Congress.

I attended another event in 2012, with Lou Carter, current President of the 54th Massachusetts, Co. B, in Suffolk, VA, and Gates County, NC. We went to the Sons of Union Veterans program honoring a soldier in the 1st United States Colored Cavalry who had received a new military headstone for his grave. One of the man’s descendants said that while he fought for the Union army, his brother fought for the Confederate army. For some reason, she questioned me about this “fact,” and I informed her that most blacks with the Confederate army were slaves or laborers, not soldiers. She followed me around so much, since I disputed her “fact,” and she got a scrap book of all of her activities with the Sons of Confederate Veterans (SCV). I wrote down a few names of the men that she gave me and one even had a new gravestone, on which the SCV had given him the rank of private. I looked up these men when I got back to work and none were listed as a soldier—not even the one who had the gravestone.

In fact, I have learned from my most recent research that after the impressment laws went into effect starting in 1862, the Confederate government was to pay free black laborers the same amount as white laborers. After February 17, 1864, they were paid at the same rate as privates in the Confederate army. Maybe that is why some of the SCV are giving the private rank to some of the laborers, who were honored by the Confederate government for giving loyal service to the Confederate States of America (CSA).

To be continued….

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

  1. While my wife and I were in Richmond at the Daughters of the Confederacy doing research, one of the women there has done extensive research on Black soldiers. She told us that she goes around to schools and other events to talk about it.

    1. Yes, I have heard from a couple of the members of the Daughters of the Confederacy that there is someone who talks about black soldiers. I have admitted that there were some, however, they were only authorized after March 13, 1865 and the Confederate army issued General Order 14 with the organized plan for black soldiers on March 23rd of that year. From the reports at Richmond, VA, there were a few black soldiers drilling in Richmond, numbers ranging from 35 to 50. There were some black soldiers, who passed as white, who were able to enlist before 1865. At the beginning of the war until March 1865, the Confederate government and army banned black soldiers but blacks were impressed for labor duties.

      1. White Historian love to play the old word game, to downplay the use of Colored Confederate soldiers before during and after the civil war between the North America continent countries of the United States -V- the Confederate States. If we calculate that each white soldiers had at least 2-3 body servants. That means if an all white soldiers unit were 400 strong carrying guns there are 800 -1200 colored men carrying guns next to white Confederate soldiers. The words soldiers -v- Laborers was just to identify who was white and who was non-white!

  2. “According to the Richmond Whig, dated April 29, 1865, 40 to 50 colored soldiers were enlisted in Richmond as a result of the act of Congress.”

    Would the Richmond Whig of April 29 be a reliable source?:
    “The Whig will therefore be issued hereafter as a Union paper…the first to resume publication after the fall of Richmond.”

    “At the end of the war, the Confederate government had hoped for 200,000-300,000 black soldiers when General Order 14 was issued on March 23, 1865.”

    I believe the “300,000” was for political effect. In all of the Confederacy there were not 300,000 muskets (probably far less) to arm them. G.O. 14 authorized raising only independent companies and small battalions.

    1. The Richmond Examiner reported on March 27, 1865, the company of negroes recruiting at the rendezvous for negro troops, corner of Cary and Twenty-first streets, is increasing in numbers daily under the energy displayed by Major Turner. The company now numbers thirty-five members, all uniformed and equipped….About a dozen of the recruits are free negroes, who have enlisted of their own free will and choice. Recruits are coming in by ones and twos every day. The Richmond Examiner had a story on March 25, 1865, also stated that Major Turner’s negro troops were drilling at Twenty-first and Cary streets.
      The order does state raising companies and small battalions of four companies, however camps in each state was supposed to raise them. They left open the possibility for raising larger organizations at a future date, “as experience may determine.” In any case President davis writes to General Lee that they were having problems recruiting negroes. The newspapers used small “n” when referring to Negroes. The number 300,000 was probably what they wished for and whether they could arm them would have been a problem.
      The bigger problem would have been feeding them, because they could not feed their current soldiers. Plus, many in the Congress, army, and Southern population, believed that these men would go over to the Union army, when in close proximity. There was always a fear, in the South, that arming blacks could lean to servile insurrection.

      1. “The Richmond Examiner reported on March 27, 1865….The company now numbers thirty-five members”

        The last (Confederate) issue of the Examiner (April 3) called it a “battalion” but the total number of troops was not stated. There’s no official number but I’ve seen estimates that range from 50 to 200.

  3. I read a book that I cannot now find in my collection on Black Confederates, but I think a different author than Charles Barrow. I recall that there were an estimated 1.5 million free Blacks in the South. Some of these were slave owners and had loyalties to the CSA. There are many anecdotes of sighting of armed Blacks. But outside of body servants and such, most evidence seems to go against it. I have seen reports of CS volunteers who were rejected when it was discovered that they were part Black. Also, the Free Colored Militia Regt. of New Orleans turned out to fight the Yankees, but the Confederates disarmed them. When the Union occupied New Orleans, most seem to have volunteered for the Union Army to fight against their former “comrades.” At one of our CWRT meetings it was discussed, and an opinion was rendered that if there were indeed so many Blacks in CSA service, then why did Cleburne’s proposal meet with such indignation? I would mention that the counter- argument was raised, that perhaps it was the idea of arming slaves, as opposed to free Blacks that was at issue. What say you?

    1. There were approximately 488,000 free Blacks and approximately 4 million slaves,in the entire country at the time of the Civil War, with more than half of the free Blacks in the Confederacy. The rest being in the Border states and the North. Yes, there were black slave owners and some had loyalty to the South. Most black slave owners owned their family and maybe friends because after 1832, most freed slaves had to leave their states. Many blacks wanted to keep their families together, so they had to buy their relatives and keep them as “slaves.” However, there were some Black slave owners who were just like white slave owners. Owners of large slave plantations were the wealthiest, most respected, and most politically powerful people in the South.

      Yes, some blacks passed as white and enlisted in the Confederate army and if they were found out as being Black they were discharged. There are some sightings of armed Blacks, as some laborers and servants may have picked up weapons and fired on Union soldiers, but that does not make them Confederate soldiers. However, I have seen Civil War photographs, showing white soldiers who looked black because of the gunpowder on their faces, so some of the men in those anecdotes may not have been Black .

      The Louisiana Native Guard were Blacks in New Orleans, who were accepted by the state of Louisiana as militia but they were never accepted into the Confederate army. The Confederates did not disarm them because they had their own weapons and did not receive arms from the Confederate army nor Louisiana. The Confederates dismissed the militias, however, Louisiana’s governor reinstated the Native Guard. The Native Guard was left by the Confederate army when New Orleans fell. Then General Phelps recruited them for the Union army, but General Butler could not authorize it. However a few weeks later, General Butler recruited them again for the Union army – because he could not get any white reinforcements. They served in the Union army until the end of the war. Most of the free men in the Native Guard were very wealthy, well educated Black men, who had ancestors who served in the Louisiana militias back to the 1700’s, even before Louisiana became a part of the United states.

      Indeed, if there were so many Blacks as soldiers, then General Cleburne’s proposal should not have been met with so much disdain. General Johnston dismissed it and said destroy it. A copy was leaked and sent to President Davis, who said to insure that the document was destroyed and to never mention it again. This episode should prove that there Blacks were not welcomed in the Confederate army, neither by the army nor the Confederate government. In fact, Congress debated Blacks in the military as laborers for a couple of years and in the discussions, they always ruled out using Blacks as soldiers until March 13, 1865. They first agreed to only use free “Negroes,” then the discussion changed to arming slaves. When that discussion came up, the question was whether to free or emancipate those slaves who fought in the army (Cleburne’s suggestion, in his proposal, he was already killed at the Battle of Franklin by this time). In the law, no emancipation for slaves was granted by the government, but that decision to emancipate a slave soldier was left up to his master. Then, the question was raised that how could you keep a soldier a slave after he fought in a war. That would again, raise the specter of slave insurrection.

      1. Blacks were not welcome into the union army as well! However, they were there! And as well they were in all departments of the Confederate military: Army, Navy, ‘Air force (Blimps)”, submarine

  4. “After February 17, 1864, they were paid at the same rate as privates in the Confederate army.”

    The February 17 law was different in that it conscripted free blacks into the army.

    “Maybe that is why some of the SCV are giving the private rank to some of the laborers, who were honored by the Confederate government for giving loyal service to the Confederate States of America (CSA).”

    Some do appear on Confederate rolls as “private.”

    1. The law on February 17, 1864, conscripted blacks into the army as laborers and President Davis listed the labor positions, then added not to be soldiers. Some do appear on the rolls as “private” and some of those men could have been the ones who passed as white, then later found out to be black. However, some may have been listed as privates because they were free and paid as privates to be laborers.

      I have always acknowledged that there were many blacks who were loyal to the Confederacy. I have read of many instances when blacks even collected money to be used for the Confederate army. At the beginning of the war, blacks wanted to join the Confederate army, but were denied. They had their reasons for doing so, some thought by fighting for the Confederacy that they could earn their freedom, some wanted to fight to protect their families, and some felt that in order to be trusted they would offer their services to the Confederacy. Plus, some blacks knew that treatment of blacks in the North was no better, in most cases, than it was in the South. In the first year and a half of the war, some Union armies returned runaway slaves because the still honored the Fugitive Slave Act of 1850. This caused severe punishments up to and including death to those returned. Many Northerners, did not care for the slave or free black through the entire Civil War and after the war was over. Although, a lot of Southerners thought of the North as an abolitionist region, abolitionists were a minority of the Northern population. So, some of the slaves and free blacks put their trust in the white people they knew, instead of the white people they did not know.

  5. There is always someone who fails to get the word. In this case it is a clerk in the Confederate War Department who seems to not know about the thousands of Black Confederates:

    “The Northern journalists say we have negro regiments on the Rappahannock and the West. This is utterly untrue. We have no armed slaves to fight for us, nor do we fear a servile insurrection. We are at a loss, however, to interpret the meaning of such demonic misrepresentations” Mach 22, 1863. J.B. Jones, _A Rebel War Clerk’s Diary: At the Confederate States Capital_ (Laurence, 2015), 247.

  6. Folks should be more skeptical of any Civil War History claims being made after the 1980’s when many began trying to rewrite history for political purposes.

  7. Good Evening, my paternal great x 2 grandfather was a slave and worked as a Breast worker in 1864-65 I was wondering would there be any photo’s or information. He was from Pittsylvania County/Ringgold Va and was listed as a Slave of Franklin Connally?

    God Bless You, look forward to hearing back

    Darlene Ward

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