Black Confederates: Laborers or Soldiers? (part four)

Part four of a series

Some people suggested using slaves to fight from the very beginning of the war. However, the overwhelming fear was of slave insurrection. The John Brown raid was less than two years before the Civil War began.

In New Orleans, Louisiana, the Native Guards (free and enslaved blacks) had been in the Louisiana militia, a black tradition since 1727. They were ready to fight to defend Louisiana, as many of the free black men were wealthy and had French, Spanish, and Creole blood. Many were educated in Europe.

However, the Confederate States of America did not accept them into the Confederate army—contrary to what is said today—because the Confederate army did not allow the arming of the slaves or free blacks. In fact, these men did not get any weapons from the CSA nor the state of Louisiana. When New Orleans fell to the Union army, the Native Guard stayed and eventually became troops in the Union army (73rd, 74th, and 75th USCT). The Louisiana Native Guards were never troops in the Confederate army.

As the war progressed and there were no mass rebellions, Southern whites thought that their slaves were loyal to them.

Louisiana Native Guard with black officers

Louisiana Native Guard with black officers

In 1862, General Richard Ewell suggested using slaves to fight because the Union army was using foreigners to fight for them.

However, in January 2, 1864, the first formal plan was tendered to the Confederate Army of Tennessee by General Patrick Cleburne (nicknamed “the Stonewall Jackson of the West”). Cleburne was probably the best Confederate division commander in the West, but after he proposed to use black soldiers and give them their freedom in exchange for fighting in the army, he was never again promoted. The majority of the generals in the Army of Tennessee rejected the proposal and accused Cleburne of being an abolitionist. A copy of his plan was leaked to President Jefferson Davis, who ordered Commanding General Joseph Johnston to suppress all copies of this document and to stop all discussion of it. (Johnston had previously ordered the discussion closed before Davis stepped in.) Cleburne thought that, in order to protect Confederate independence, the Confederacy’s people would give up their slaves to fight for the country rather than let their country’s citizens become slaves to the United States.

By November 1864, Davis was beginning to come around to using blacks in the army for whatever military purpose deemed necessary. The Confederate Congress had debated various laws to impress blacks into being laborers for the army as early as 1862. Confederate state governors, in the fall of 1864, held a conference that produced resolutions about slavery and slaveowners, stating that those owners should freely give up their slaves to serve their country, in the public service, as may be required.

In November of that same year, Davis wanted to impress 20,000 slaves and free Negroes to perform labor duties for the army, but not as soldiers. Congress would finally pass a law authorizing slaves and free Negroes to be soldiers on March 13, 1865. General Order 14 was issued on March 23, 1865.

Appo-BlackConfederatesBy the end of that month, a company of blacks and some whites drilled together and marched in parades in Richmond, just before the capital fell—too late to make any difference in the war. There are varying reports of the newspapers (the Examiner and Dispatch) in Richmond on March 25th and 27th stating that the 35 Negroes are uniformed and equipped and drilled daily for several hours. Twelve of the men are free Negroes, with more recruits coming in daily—by the ones and twos [emphasis added].

On March 31, 1865, The Richmond Whig reported that two of the Negro soldiers were arrested for being runaways because they had no passes, even though they were in full Confederate uniforms. They were soldiers but could not walk in the same Richmond streets in which they had been drilling and marching. They were supposed to fight for a Confederacy that still considered them runaway slaves because they had no passes. The mayor got them out and returned them to their command.

In his book The Negro in the Civil War, Professor Benjamin Quarles wrote:

Richmond was the only place at which any appreciable number was enlisted. Here two companies of mixed free Negroes and slaves were recruited. As a means of inducing other Negroes to sign up, these companies were put on exhibition in the city. Uniformed in rebel gray, they held parades in Capitol Square before thousands of curious onlookers. White Richmonders were fascinated by the spectacle of blacks marching in perfect step and going through the manual of arms with clocklike precision. But within a week after the drillings and paradings had begun, Richmond was abandoned; it had become too late for soldiers of whatever hue or previous condition of servitude.

Doubtless some of the Negro body servants actually were pressed into emergency military service in firing on the enemy. Blacks made excellent sharpshooters, and some of them perhaps took an occasional pot shot at a lurking enemy figure. Indeed the widespread belief in the North that the Confederacy was using Negro soldiers undoubtedly originated from the closeness of the body servants to the firing line.

real-black-confederate-picture

The un-cropped USCT photo as mentioned from above. For more information visit “Jubilo! The Emancipation Century.

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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5 Responses to Black Confederates: Laborers or Soldiers? (part four)

  1. Andy Hall says:

    Please know that that first image labeled “Louisiana Native Guards” is actually a USCT unit. It’s been used for many years as “evidence” of black Confederate soldiers, and it’s a fake. See:

    https://jubiloemancipationcentury.wordpress.com/2011/01/04/truth-lies-and-a-black-confederate-soldiers-hoax-and-the-true-story-of-the-louisiana-native-guards/

    • I know that the image labeled Louisiana Native Guard was a USCT unit because there was an American flag in the background. Sometimes, the American flag is cropped out of the picture. That pictured is widely used, when looking up images of Black Confederates on Bing and Google.

      • Thanks, Andy, I had two pictures of this unit, I was hoping both were put in so that I could show the contrast of how a picture of USCT soldiers had been used to portray black Confederates. Obviously, the Union officer was left off of the picture.

  2. Steward, I just want to say how much I am enjoying this series. Learning a lot! I really appreciate your balanced approach to the topic and commitment to finding the facts and interpreting them in historical context.

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