The story of “Black Confederates”

A Black cook tends to large kettles set over a fire. In parts of the picture cropped out, White Confederate soldiers enjoy leisure time. This again supports the assertion that Blacks served as laborers of varying kinds, not as soldiers for the Confederates.

The story of Black Confederates is one that needs to be told accurately and correctly. I first heard of it when I visited Richard Stewart’s Pocahontas Island Black History Museum some years ago. I come back to it again after writing about Blacks who supported the British Crown in last week’s post.

Images like this one of Marlboro Jones would be twisted by the distorters of history to support the claim that Blacks fought as soldiers in the Confederate lines, although he was a “manservant of Confederate captain Randal F. Jones of the 7th Georgia Cavalry,” only dressed in a Confederate uniform for that role. Hence, he was not free in any sense of the word.

The Civil War Trust makes it abundantly clear: there were no Black Confederate soldiers, considering that “Vast columns of escaped slaves followed almost every major Union army at one point or another” while Confederate armies captured and enslaved “free black people during their brief occupations of Northern territories.” They add that while “black soldiers made up 10% of the Union Army and had suffered more than 10,000 combat casualties” some Blacks aided the Confederacy, many who were “forced to accompany their masters or were forced to toil behind the lines” since they were prohibited from serving “combat soldiers in the Confederate Army.” Hence, they were “cooks, teamsters, and manual laborers” with no documentation for Black Confederate units of any type during the Civil War. While some black men may have fired at Union soldiers, such soldiers never encountered “an all-black line of battle or anything close to it.” In contrast, the Union Army had the United States Colored Troops, among other units, which fought as part of the said army.

The Civil War Trust adds that not only did no Confederate ever reference “black soldiers under his command or in his unit,” but did reference Black laborers, with the rejection of black combat units until March 13, 1865 when the Confederate Congress allowed Black men to serve in combat roles. However, this came with a caveat: “black soldiers would still be slaves.” With the end of the war three weeks after this law was passed, no evidence seems to indicate that “any black units were accepted into the Confederate Army as a result of the law.” No other primary source of Confederates “mentions serving with black soldiers.” [1] The Civil War Trust ends by saying that the “notion of widespread black combat service has only arisen within the past 25 years or so,” with the baseless claims that as many as ” 80,000 black soldiers” fought for the Confederacy.

The Civil War Trust is not the only one that has said this. When one author made a shotty claim that “thousands” of Blacks fought for the Confederacy they were derided when the sources for their book were web links all tied back to the pro-Confederate Sons of Confederate Veterans, and it was shown they didn’t know what they were talking about. Later they removed the badly sourced material. This is part of the general distortion of the topic. Claims by respected historians, whether their words or associated photographs with their work, are twisted to claim that Blacks fought for the Confederacy in large numbers. [2]

Separating myth from reality

The Root is a good place to continue this discussion. They note that most Civil War historians repudiate “the idea of thousands of blacks fighting for the South.” Adding to this, it seems evident that a “few blacks, slave and free, supported the Confederacy” and while The Root author estimates that “between 3,000 and 6,000 served as Confederate soldiers,” nothing seems to support that estimation if you use the sources cited by the Civil War Trust, as noted earlier. [3] However, it seems more evident, and more supported by evidence, that “another 100,000 or so blacks, mostly slaves, supported the Confederacy as laborers, servants and teamsters…[doing] the Confederacy’s dirty work.” Adding to this, the article notes how Frederick Douglass said that at the Battle of Manassas “among rebels were black troops, no doubt pressed into service by their tyrant masters,” although this account is highly disputed with Douglass’s sources on this subject likely faulty. It claims there are sources “proving” that Blacks fought for the confederacy at the battle, however, this seems to be suspect since no existing sources prove such claims as real. After all, it seems evident that “Confederates impressed slaves as laborers and at times forced them to fight,” putting guns in their hands, forcing them to fire on Union soldiers.

There was the Louisiana Native Guards. They were a black unit “accepted as part of the Louisiana militia in May 1862” but they “never saw combat while in Confederate service,” and were just for “public display” with the unit surrendering to Union troops in April 1862, later serving in the Union Army. So, that again, cannot be used to support a claim of Blacks fighting for the Confederacy. For those who were part of the Native Guards, they said that “By serving the Confederates, [they hoped] to advance a little nearer to equality with whites,” seeing that they would gain more rights. While later in the war, in 1863,  “masters increasingly refused to allow slaves to be impressed by the Confederacy” and Northern papers continued to print rumors of Blacks serving as soldiers.

There was another factor to keep in mind. There were “some partial companies of slaves training as soldiers discovered by Union forces after the fall of Richmond” but they never fought in a combat capacity since, until the end of the war, “the Confederate Congress expressly forbade arming enslaved African Americans,” for fears of a slave uprising. Still, it is accounts like this that are used to support the claim of Black soldiers on the side of the Confederacy by people such as John J. Dwyer. This is despite the fact that it was not “until March 1865—after a contentious debate that took place throughout the Confederacy—that the Confederate Congress passed legislation authorizing the enlistment of slaves who were first freed by their masters,” with such individuals re-enslaved after their service ended.

There are a number of other articles on this subject. A Civil War Era blog, Dead Confederates confronts this issue head on. In one post they write about how claims that Stonewall Jackson had a “regiment of negroes” to be faulty, a letter by a White Southerner saying that Blacks may “may be made an efficient body in this war of self-defence” while led by White officers, and claims that cannot be corroborated anywhere else. Then there are the false claims that Robert Small was a “Black Confederate,” a mess-up by the engravers that called a Black Union soldier a member of the Confederate Army, and disproving the claim that Crock Davis was a “Black Confederate.” This is only a small sampling of the posts he has written on the subject, which accompany those assembled in a post by historian Kevin Levin on Civil War Memory. [4]

Even some more sympathetic to the Black Confederate Soldiers idea note that “first-hand evidence abundantly demonstrates that black men were present in great numbers with Confederate armies at all times.” It is added that “a great deal of the cook­ing, wagon driving, tending wounded, and camp work was done by these men.” While they push the idea of Black Confederate Soldiers, which is dubious, they have to admit that the Blacks within Confederate ranks were basically laborers, with others noted earlier in this post. As Hari Jones, assistant director/curator of the African American Civil War Museum in Washington, DC., argued “calling slaves soldiers is propaganda, not history. The labor force of the Confederacy was a majority of African American enslaved persons. In order for [the Confederates] to fight the war, they had to use enslaved labor. The Confederate Army could not have moved one-tenth of its equipment without enslaved labor.”

There is more to the story. The National Archives points out that “on July 17, 1862, Congress passed the Second Confiscation and Militia Act, freeing slaves who had masters in the Confederate Army” and only “two days later, slavery was abolished in the territories of the United States.”Adding to this is that

Recruitment was slow until black leaders such as Frederick Douglass…encouraged black men to become soldiers to ensure eventual full citizenship…Volunteers began to respond, and in May 1863 the Government established the Bureau of Colored Troops to manage the burgeoning numbers of black soldiers. By the end of the Civil War, roughly 179,000 black men (10% of the Union Army) served as soldiers in the U.S. Army and another 19,000 served in the Navy. Nearly 40,000 black soldiers died over the course of the war—30,000 of infection or disease. Black soldiers served in artillery and infantry and performed all noncombat support functions that sustain an army, as well. Black carpenters, chaplains, cooks, guards, laborers, nurses, scouts, spies, steamboat pilots, surgeons, and teamsters also contributed to the war cause. There were nearly 80 black commissioned officers. Black women, who could not formally join the Army, nonetheless served as nurses, spies, and scouts…Because of prejudice against them, black units were not used in combat as extensively as they might have been. Nevertheless, the soldiers served with distinction in a number of battles. Black infantrymen fought gallantly at Milliken’s Bend, LA; Port Hudson, LA; Petersburg, VA; and Nashville, TN…. In June 1864 Congress granted equal pay to the U.S. Colored Troops and made the action retroactive. Black soldiers received the same rations and supplies. In addition, they received comparable medical care…Although the threat generally restrained the Confederates, black captives were typically treated more harshly than white captives. In perhaps the most heinous known example of abuse, Confederate soldiers shot to death black Union soldiers captured at the Fort Pillow, TN, engagement of 1864.

The fact that Confederates treated Blacks within the Union Army as people to be abused, killed, or tortured, further punctures the idea of the Confederacy as “progressive” for letting (actually forcing) Blacks to serve in their ranks.

The present

To this day, debate continues on this issue, between those historians who want to revive the racist, pro-slavery Confederacy as “glorious” and the majority of Civil War historians who indicate that the Confederacy and slavery were wrong, telling the reality of the war. Even some, who are in the second group, seem to accept the idea of Black Confederate soldiers, saying historians like Levin are using “21st century standards” to determine what happened in the 19th century (if he is even doing this, which is debatable). It is silly to say this because historians in the present should not be required to use the standards of that time to make their historical interpretations, as that would limit them, and new standards allow them to avoid mistakes which were made in the past.

Such debates obscure the fact that Neo-Confederates today use the Black Confederate narrative to their advantage. While the black Confederate narrative may threaten assertions by such individuals “that the “southern nation” consists solely of “anglo-celtic” Christians,” it also seems to apologize for action by the Confederacy. While Blacks provided “physical and material support to the CSA throughout its existence by performing tasks normally associated with chattel slavery in that period, and in scattered instances toward the close of the war” they took up arms, the core truth is that “black Confederates were operating in a system of coercion and oppression where the penalty for non-compliance was corporal punishment or death.” So, to hold this up as an example is to mean that one has become an apologist for slavery. Hence, the idea of Black Confederates fighting as soldiers is clearly a myth. Adding to this is the fact stated by the Mariner’s Museum in a post on the subject:

There were of course no integrated units in the South…there may have actually been a few units of black troops that organized for the Confederates. Professor John Stauffer of Harvard has recently done research on just this subject, and estimates that there may have been a bit over 3,000 black soldiers formed on the Confederate side…many of these black soldiers were not accepted by the Confederate government and were not issued firearms: still more of these soldiers were coerced into joining the military, and others joined to escape miserable poverty….The greatest single example of black Confederate soldiers – the Louisiana Native Guards, composed of black and mixed-race men from the New Orleans area – was not accepted by the Confederate military despite their wish to fight for the south when the war broke out…As a result, when the Union took New Orleans in spring of 1862, the Louisiana Native Guards joined the Union when General Butler called for reinforcements. On a side note, over 4,000 black and mixed-race men joined the Union army in New Orleans that spring, which outnumbers those that may have joined the Confederacy over the course of the entire war.

Again, let us restate that 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.” Other sources confirm this reality.

For now, it seems this case is closed. It is better to focus on those Blacks who fought for the British Crown during the Revolutionary War, those who fought for the Union during the Civil War, or those who fought for the British during the War of 1812.

Notes

[1] The Civil War Trust says “whatever black combat service might have occurred during the war, it was not sanctioned by the Confederate government.” But, based on their own article, this sentence has no basis in reality.

[2] Ta-Nehisi Coates covers this briefly, linking to varying resources in his two articles on the subject in The Atlantic.

[3] The Root author seems to accept the idea of Black Confederate soldiers (why), saying that “the total number of black Confederate soldiers is statistically insignificant: They made up less than 1 percent of the 800,000 black men of military age (17-50) living in the Confederate states, based on 1860 U.S. census figures, and less than 1 percent of at least 750,000 Confederate soldiers.” But again, this is not supported by evidence.

[4] The Sons of Confederate Veterans (SCV)even has a whole page on their website titled “Black Confederates,” claiming that “over 65,000 Southern blacks were in the Confederate ranks,” citing books such as Charles Kelly Barrow’s Forgotten Confederates: An Anthology About Black Southerners, Ervin L. Jordan, Jr.’s Black Confederates and Afro-Yankees in Civil War Virginia, Richard Rollins’s Black Southerners in Gray, accounts of Frederick Douglass, and Dr. Lewis Steiner, Chief Inspector of the United States Sanitary Commission, although the latter two cannot be independently verified, along with an “excellent educational video.” They claim that there were varying Black units (“Richmond Howitzers” (partially), a “non-commissioned officer” named James Washington, “skilled black workers”, “Black and white militiamen…at the Battle of Griswoldsville”, “Jackson Battalion” (partially), “Confederate States Colored Troops” (unknown number), “confederate supply train was exclusively manned and guarded by black Infantry”, “black seamen served in the Confederate Navy”, “180,000 Black Southerners, from Virginia alone, provided logistical support for the Confederate military”). Of these claims, these claims are undoubtedly. distortions of history but are using the numbers of those Blacks who served as laborers and claiming they are soldiers, which is not the case. They also seem to assume that when someone talks about Blacks joining the “ranks” of the Confederates it was down willingly and that they were soldiers rather than laborers. Similar claims are made by Walter E. Williams in “Black Confederates” (Jan. 21, 2000).

 

 

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