Black Confederates: Laborers or Soldiers? (part three)

Chandler Slave with masterpart three in a series

At the beginning of the Civil War, blacks tried to enlist in both armies as soldiers but were denied by both. Enslaved men were taken to the Confederate army by their slaveowners. Free blacks were paid to work in the army and the military industry in various positions, especially blacksmiths, wheelwrights, carpenters, and iron workers. The Union army also employed black tradesmen, cooks, servants, and scouts. In fact, Sergeant Nimrod Burke of the 23rd USCT, started the war in 1861 as a teamster and scout for the 36th Ohio Infantry, before joining the 23rd in 1864.

In 1862, the Confederate army started to impress blacks to serve as laborers, especially, to dig fortifications for the defenses of the cities and for the troops on battlefields. They did not want to arm blacks because of the following reasons: Negroes were inferior to white men; they were made genteel by the many decades of slavery (especially since Nat Turner’s rebellion); they would run to the Yankee lines if they were near the front; and many Southerners were afraid of massive slave insurrections.

Civil War Times cover articleProfessor James H. Brewer’s book The Confederate Negro discusses five impressment laws, three by Virginia and two by the Confederate Congress from Feb. 1862 to Feb. 1864:

  1. The first Virginia state law subjected the free Negro to being drafted as a laborer (February 1862)—all free males between 18 and 50 had to register for the draft to work as laborers
  2. Second state law placed a ceiling on the number of slaves that could be impressed (October 3,1862)—census taken of all black males from18-45; upon requisition by the president, the governor would make available not to exceed 10,000 slaves or more than 5% of the slave population from any county, city, or town; military owners paid $16 per month; slave given soldier’s ration, medicine, and medical care
  3. Third state law exempted impressment of slaves in counties that would have their agricultural production affected (March 1863)—extended the age limit to 55; legal exemption extended to counties near enemy lines, whereby owners could prove that one third of their slaves escaped; increased owners’ pay to $20 per month
  4. Confederate law made provisions for tapping state’s “Negro” reservoir and to minimize the conflicts between state and Confederate authorities over impressment of slaves (March 26, 1863)—CSA was now responsible for slave impressment; according to the laws of the state where impressed, army could impress “other property,” as well; military violated this law occasionally; (February 17, 1864)—amended 1863 law, authorizing a levy of 20,000 slaves throughout the Confederacy, ages 18 to 55, slaves were to be impressed when the number of free negroes failed to meet the needs of the government, increased pay to owners up to $25 per month. (also in Professor Benjamin Quarles’s book, The Negro in the Civil War)
  5. Last impressment act corrected the glaring defects of state impressment laws – made all free negroes between 18 and 50 liable to service in war manufactories, in erecting defensive works, and military hospitals; the Conscription Act of 1864 allowed the creation of the Bureau of Conscription, this agency enrolled or exempted white males from 17 to 50 and also was entrusted with procuring Negroes, free and slave; CSA provided clothing and shoes to these Negroes; free VA Negroes occupied 52 labor positions but not soldiers; 1464 conscripted: 1818 were enrolled 45 deserters

However, the slaves were not treated very well in the army. Because of inadequate medical care, lack of food, and bad treatment, many escaped to the Union lines. Therefore, slaveowners resisted sending their slaves to the Confederate army.

To be continued….

About stewardthenderson

Civil War historian at Fredericksburg and Spotsylvania National Military Park and living historian with the 23rd Regiment USCT and 54th Massachusetts Infantry Co. B. I am also a member of the Trail to Freedom Committee in the Fredericksburg, VA area and a member of the John J. Wright Museum in Spotsylvania, VA.
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