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by James Durney
No Civil War subject creates the upset of Black Confederates. For many, the idea that slaves would stay with and be loyal to the Confederacy is unacceptable. The lack of documentation, CSA laws restricting enlistments, racial prejudices and the Emancipation Tradition all stand against the idea of Black Confederates.
Four regiments of blacks served in the West after the Civil War. Two regiments of cavalry and two regiments of infantry made up the United States Colored Troops on active duty in the American Army. According to the Buffalo Soldiers National Museum, blacks were about 10% of the Army on the western frontier. However, Hollywood westerns seldom had blacks as cowboys or soldiers. This is not a denial of their existence but shows that they were not acceptable on the silver screen from the 1930s to the 1970s. During this time they disappear from our view and are all but forgotten. The Ninth & Tenth Cavalry USCT charged with the Rough Riders on San Juan Hill. Eyewitness accounts credit the “Negro Cavalry” for saving the Rough Riders that day. Read about it? No. See it depicted in the press? No. Did it happen? Yes.
About 200,000 blacks served in the Union armies during the Civil War, inducted into service as members of the United States Colored Troops. The USCT served with almost every Union army and in almost every campaign from late 1863 to the end of the war. Burnside’s Corps, The Department of the South and the XXV Army Corps had large numbers of USCT units. All together, members of the USCT fought in 410 engagements and 39 major battles. However, the USCT disappeared from the history of the war in the 1870s. They remained largely invisible until 1989, when Joseph Glatthaar published Forged in Battle. A number of books have followed his groundbreaking work on the USCT. The public’s introduction to the USCT is the movie Glory about the 54th Mass. This regiment has become the poster child for all black men that fought for the North during the war.
Black Americans participated in all aspects of American Life in a separate but equal environment. From 1900 to 1945, the Negro Baseball League functioned alongside the American and National Leagues that were white. Was the Negro League reported? No. Did they exist? Yes. About 30 years ago, we started to recognize them and included them in baseball’s history.
Black Americans entered organized crime along the Mississippi river and controlled a number of towns. During the 1930s, Kansas City and Memphis were the biggest cities controlled by black organizations. They held their turf against the Irish, Jewish and Italian mobs of the upper Midwest. Except for Robert Altman’s movie Kansas City, these groups are invisible.
Starting with the Philippines War from 1899 to 1902 through to the 1916 Expedition to Mexico, World War I, and World War II; from four to twelve percent of the US forces involved were Afro-Americans in the USCT. They do not show up in most history books, photographs, drawings or movies. These were independent black units in a segregated military. President Truman integrated the military by Presidential order after World War II, ending the history of the USCT.
I have provided this background to show that American history has often been “Colored Blind”. Not color blind but Colored Blind. This is defined as the inability to see Afro-Americans outside of the roles White America assigned them. Willing service with the Confederate States of America is NOT an approved role and subject to Colored Blindness. These men suffer from the same problems the Negro Baseball League and USCT units in the American West did. We simply do not see them, colored blindness.
Just over 475,000 free blacks lived in the United States in 1860. 226,000 lived in the Free States with 193,000 living in Slave States. Maryland, North Carolina and Virginia account for about 90% of the South’s free black population. New York, New Jersey, Ohio and Pennsylvania contain about 75% of the North’s free black population. The states that secede have a population of about 75,000 free blacks in 1860.
Slave owners account for about one to thirty percent of the free black population. Twenty percent of the taxable property of Charleston’s free black community is slaves. Sherrod Bryant owned at least 20 slaves working 700 acres in Middle Tennessee. This was a larger plantation than that of Andrew Jackson. Bryant was one of the richer men in middle Tennessee and was a free black. Six free black families in Louisiana owned over 65 slaves each. The Richards family, owning 152 slaves, was the largest of the group. In North Carolina about 69 free blacks owned slaves. South Carolina was the home of William Ellison, one of the richest men in the state and one of the larger slave owners. Ellison owned over 900 acres of land, manufactured cotton gins, and lived next to Dr. W. W. Anderson, the father of CSA General “Fighting Dick” Anderson. His grandson served in the First South Carolina Artillery and was wounded in 1862. At his grandson’s funeral in 1895, a former commander praised the man for being a “faithful solider”. Ellison’s wealth in 1860 was 15 times greater than the average white person and he owned more slaves than 99 percent of the White population. One of the largest black slave owners in Louisiana was part of the state’s Reconstruction Government after the war. Free blacks in Southern states assumed the attitudes of the society that they lived in. They had no more objections to slavery than that of other Southerners and owned slaves whenever possible for the same reasons white Southerners did.
Slaves were the investment of choice for Southerners. The South measured wealth not in land, stocks & bonds but in slaves. Slaves were a very profitable investment and one that increased in value every year. The slave states with less than one third of America’s free population had sixty percent of America’s wealthiest men. The 1860 per capita income of the South was $3,978 almost twice the North’s per capita income of $2,040. Slave ownership was common. In the states that seceded first, about 37% of the population owned slaves. Of the states that seceded after Fort Sumter, about 25% of the population owned slaves. While the average for owning slaves is about 31% in the Confederate states, this masks the true picture. In Mississippi and South Carolina, ownership approached 50%. In Florida, Alabama & Georgia ownership was above one third of the population. Other than Arkansas, the Confederate states ranged from 25% to 30% of the population being slave owners. In the 1950s only two percent of American families held stock equal to the value of a single slave in 1860. In other words, owning slaves was more common in the South in 1860 than owning stock was in the 1950s.
When we think of slavery, the “Gone with the Wind” style plantation is the image that comes to mind. This is the standard image of slavery in the South passed down as part of the Lost Cause Tradition. However, this is not the correct image. Eighty eight percent of all slave owners had no more than 20 slaves. Fifty percent of all slave owners had no more than five slaves. The majority of slaves were in smallholdings with the largest group of owners having two slaves. The majority of slaves were almost members of the household. These owners were unable to provide separate, distinct living quarters, meaning that slave and owner lived in close proximity.
Slaves labored at all levels in Southern society. The “Gone with the Wind” image of unskilled cotton pickers is true only for a minority of slaves. Most provided general labor on farms or cities. Many became skilled workers acquiring a trade and providing essential services in their community. The only area truly closed to slave labor was the professional fields requiring extensive schooling. These were generally limited to teaching school, medicine and law. However, many slaves worked as nurses and/or hospital stewards during the war making one question how closed medicine below the level of doctor was.
Slaves lived in an environment that was both trusting and suspicious.
Slave revolts, while rare, terrified Southerners. In August 1800, Richmond slaves gave up the leaders of a slave revolt. Rumor says over a thousand slaves planned on taking the city, plundering the arsenal and starting a full revolution. Charleston is the site of the next major revolt in 1822. Planning included the mass murder of whites. Once again, the revolt was discovered when members of the plot betrayed the leaders. While much planning was in place and some preparations made, no white person was harmed in these revolts. This changed on August 20, 1831. Nat Turner and about 60 followers murdered 55 whites in the most violent slave revolt in America. Turner and company were quickly identified and hunted down. At least 15 of his band died during the pursuit and capture. Nat Turner eluded capture for six additional weeks. In November 1831 Turner is captured, hanged and skinned, ending the most serious of the slave revolts.
John Brown’s raid at Harpers Ferry may have had more impact than Nat Turner’s revolt on the Southern mind. Brown’s raid convinced many that Northern abolitionists were willing to see Southerners slaughtered in their beds. The fact that Brown was white added to the revulsion gripping the South. The slave revolts and Brown’s raid fueled an active rumor mill throughout the South. In response to the rumors and fear, the local militias became more professional, the position of slave catcher was created, and restrictive laws governing slave conduct were passed.
In spite of the rumors, revolts and raids, slaves were a fixture in society and homes. Many slaves achieved the status of almost family based on years of shared experiences and association. Owners had to trust their slaves with their lives while fearing a slave revolt at the same time. Rumors of attempted revolts, stories of runaways and occasional violence against an owner all contributed to the need for security while eroding confidence. A dual level of trust and suspicion seems to have developed, where the closer the slave was to the owner the higher the trust level. In practice, this created a class system among the slaves. House servants and skilled workers occupied a higher class than the semiskilled worker or unskilled field hand. With the majority of slaves in smallholdings, slave families often belonged to multiple households. In practice, this allowed for a regular movement between houses on Saturday afternoon and Sunday evening. Owners gave slaves passes that allowed them to visit their families on the Sabbath. This practice was very common throughout the South and seems to have allowed some freedom to slaves. Slave churches were a major source of community. While some owners attended these churches, the majority seem to have allowed slaves to attend with little or no oversight.
Runaways were constant. However, most fell under the current military AWOL rules as opposed to desertion. [Note: AWOL assumes the person plans on returning to duty, while desertion assumes they do not plan on returning.] Not returning from a family visit or trip to town as expected, hiding out until anger cools over damaging something were far more common than trying to escape north. The average person never went 50 miles from where they lived. Slaves normally had an even smaller area that they lived in. Chronic problems resulted in being “sold south”, a complete severance from the slave’s family, friends and world.
Owners and slaves existed in a complex multi layered relationship that could be very close but was always defined by race. America defined all contact between the races in very hard terms. In many ways, the South was more accepting of blacks and blacks were better integrated into society than in the North.
In 1861, America formally split into two nations and went to war. The South fought to break away and maintain their society and values in a second American Revolution. The North fought to preserve the United States and force the South back into the nation in the War of Rebellion. The 75,000 free blacks and just over 3,000,000 slaves were about thirty-five percent of their Southern population. While the North refused to consider enlisting any of their black population, the South had no such problems. Free blacks enlisted in the army as musicians from the outset of the war. The Confederate Congress passed a law giving black and white bandsman the same pay. Another law limited blacks to no more than one-twentieth of a ship’s crew. In 1865, Stephen R. Mallory stated the Navy needed over 1,100 black seamen.
Enlisted bandsmen and seamen do not comprise the major percentage of Black Confederates. Nor do the large numbers of black men slave and free working on fortifications. In terms of gross numbers, short term conscripted black labor is the largest category of blacks that saw Confederate service. However, these men seldom traveled with an army, were not normally involved in long-term service and almost never came under fire or participated in a battle. Body servants, cooks and teamsters make up the majority of Black Confederates. These men, while never enlisted, traveled and served the army. They came under fire just as often as support elements in an army. When we talk about Black Confederates, we are talking about this group. Men that chose to stay and travel with units in Confederate armies; that chose not to slip away, serving as faithfully as any enlisted soldier. This is the Black Confederate.
While their existence is in question and smirked at now, their existence was accepted during the war. In the late summer of 1861, Frederick Douglas stated the following: “There are at the present moment many Colored men in the Confederate Army doing duty not only as cooks, servants and laborers, but real soldiers, having musket on their shoulders, and bullets in their pockets, ready to shoot down any loyal troops and do all that soldiers may do to destroy the Federal government and build up that of the rebels.” No one questioned his statement and it helped justify the creation of The United States Colored Troops. Harper’s Weekly often contained stories of armed Negroes in Confederate service. Much of the groundwork for the USCT came from the Union Army’s experience with blacks serving in Confederate armies. These stories, few of which were questioned, helped build acceptance for the USCT.
The most accepted example of Black Confederates comes from Nathan Bedford Forrest. In 1861, Forrest received authorization to raise a mounted regiment. As part of the process, he offered freedom to any male slave who would serve with him during the war. Over 25 volunteered, forming a pioneer company within the regiment. These men stayed with Forrest throughout the war. However, they did not have to wait until 1865 for emancipation. While recovering from one of his many wounds, Forrest freed these men. He feared that being killed could create unexpected problems and keep these slaves from being freed.
In the movie Gods and Generals, Stonewall Jackson hires a slave to be his cook. This sequence generated a large numbers of comments, most of which were negative. The objection was to the idea of a slave being willing to serve the Confederate General Jackson. However, the new Robert E. Rodes biography tells the following story: Lt. Robert Park’s black cook is being reassigned from the 12th Alabama to brigade as a teamster. Lt. Park confronts General Rodes, the division commander, stating this is an attempt by Major Bryan to steal his cook. General Rodes declines to get involved. Lt. Park refuses to obey the order. This is 1863, the unnamed cook has been with the 12th Alabama long enough to develop a reputation that brigade hears about. If he were the only black man in the Army of Northern Virginia, General Rodes would have taken steps to remove him. The story shows the acceptance of black men as cooks and teamsters in 1863.
William Marvel in Lincoln’s Darkest Year: The War in 1862 recounts the following well-known story. Lewis Steiner was in Frederick Maryland when Jackson’s command marched through the town. A member of the Sanitary Commission, Steiner closely observed the Confederates making note of the condition of their equipment, uniforms and numbers. Among these observations was the presence of no fewer than three thousand black men, wearing a mix of Confederate, Union and civilian clothing and armed with a variety of firearms and cutlery. Many were riding on horses or mules. Others rode with the artillery or ambulances. Many were teamsters driving wagons bearing United States marking. Jackson was officially commanding an army of about 12,800 men. Three thousand black men would increase Jackson’s numbers by about twenty-five percent. If we apply these numbers to the Army of Northern Virginia, in September 1862 just over seven thousand black men would have taken part in the Antietam Campaign, based on CSA numbers from Antietam: The Soldiers’ Battle by John Michael Priest.
In July of 1863, we have another chance to gauge the presence of black men in Lee’s army. Arthur Fremantle, a Captain in the Coldstream Guards who has the rank Lieutenant Colonel in the regular British army, managed to enter the Confederacy and travel with Longstreet’s command during the Gettysburg Campaign. He was an observer at the battle of Gettysburg but not in uniform as depicted in the movie. Back home, he published Three Months in the Southern States; April-June 1863, an account of his travels and observations. An edited version of his book, published in the 1950’s, remains in print. This version is a source used by many books on the battle of Gettysburg. Fremantle recounts an incident where an armed black man, dressed in Confederate and Union uniform items, escorts Union prisoners of war to the rear. He states that every regiment and battery has from 20 to 40 black men traveling with it. His description of their dress and arms is similar to the description of Jackson’s command in 1862. This indicates that Lee’s army had not changed any policies and still contained a substantial number of black men. Longstreet had 72 regiments and batteries with just under 21,000 men carried on the rolls. If we use 20 black men with each battery and 30 with each regiment Longstreet’s Corps in July 1863 had just under 2,000 black men embedded in the units, an additional 9.4% above the official muster rolls.
Teamsters are not included with this number; they are not considered regimental assets. The Antietam percentages for Jackson’s command included Teamsters. Using these percentages for the Army of Northern Virginia in July 1863 adds about 17,500 men in regiments, batteries, and working as teamsters. This would give Lee an army of about 92,500 at Gettysburg. This is almost 7,500 more men than Meade. If we take only the I Corps numbers, Lee and Meade are almost equal in strength. One possible explanation for why Confederate armies always fought much bigger than their paper strength is the presence of uncounted black men. These men freed whites to man the firing line by filling positions that soldiers filled in the Union army.
As related in General Lee’s Army: From Victory to Collapse, of the 1861 volunteers that filled the ranks of the Army of Northern Virginia, 36% owned slaves or were members of families that owned slaves. When jobs based on slavery are included almost 50% of the 1861 army had a connection to slaves. For the period of the entire war two out of three officers and four of nine enlisted men owned slaves or came from families that did. What does that mean in terms of numbers? At the start of The Seven Days, Lee had an army of about 92,000 men. 46,000 of those men had access to slaves. If 10% of these men had a body servant, the AoNV increases by 4,600 or about five percent. If 20% of these men had a body servant, the AoNV increases by 9,200 or about ten percent. These numbers do not include hired teamsters. If we apply Lewis Steiner’s 25%, the AoNV going into The Seven Days contained 23,000 black men serving in that army. Lee’s army would have had 115,000 men black and white moving to battle.
An individual black man enlisting as a Confederate soldier was uncommon but not unknown. Confederate Emancipation is the best account of the contentious path to accepting the idea of a Confederate States Colored Troops. In 1865, a couple of black companies were drilling in Richmond. There is no evidence that any of these men saw the elephant or were more than a last ditch effort at reversing defeat. The tens of thousands of black men assigned to work details during the war should not be considered Black Confederates. Their service was not more than a couple of months and most worked for only a few weeks. Their most common task was to dig fortifications. This activity was very unpopular with slave owners, who objected and often obstructed the drafting of slaves in every way possible. A common observation in the CSA was that slave owners were more protective of their slaves than their sons.
Black Confederates and Black Southerners in Confederate Armies are a collection of incidents and facts about blacks serving the Confederacy. As previously stated, the official CSA war records do not support Black Confederates. They exist in a multitude of photos, letters and pension records. The authors worked with these items producing two books which, while not readable, were very thought provoking. The United Confederate Veterans included many black men at their meetings. It is common to find pictures of a group of elderly white men in UCV dress with an elderly black man. At the 1913 Gettysburg reunion, no provision was made for black accommodations. When Black men started to appear in large numbers, the UCV welcomed them and made room for them within their encampment. There were no USCT units at Gettysburg, so any black men had to be members of Lee’s army.
As veterans aged pensions became an issue. The United States Government pensions system dated from the war and continually expanded to meet the needs of aging Union veterans. Confederate veterans enjoyed no federal support. Forced on local charity they got by as best they could. As things improved in the South, veterans were able to force pension bills into law in the states that had made up the Confederacy. Never as comprehensive or as good as the Federal pensions, they provided some compensation. In the years between 1915 and 1920, states extended CSA pensions to black men who had served in CSA armies. For 20 years, black men applied to these states for a pension based on their service. Local UCV posts supported many of these applications and specified that the applicant was a member in good standing. In 1920s, the average American male lived 55.5 years. The time between the end of the war and 1915 was almost the average male life span. The state of Tennessee received 267 applications for a pension from black men. York County, South Carolina recorded 30 applications. Keep in mind this state did not accept pensions from blacks until 1923. Virginia approved almost 1,000 pensions. 387 of the applications contained a regiment and company, indicating they were in combat units and possibly combat situations. Every Southern state with the exception of Missouri received applications and granted pensions to Black Confederates. The state of Missouri was notorious for not granting pensions to citizens that fought for the CSA. The fact that they granted no pensions to black men is not an indication black men did not serve in Missouri units.
Grandville Moody was commander of Camp Chase outside of Columbus, Ohio in 1862. From 1861 to the end of the war, Camp Chase was a POW camp. The web page states, “The camp received its first large influx of captured Confederates from western campaigns, including enlisted men, officers, and a few of the latter’s black servants.” Grandville Moody’s autobiography says he refused to treat black and white POWs differently. He reported that, “No small measure of indignation was aroused in the public mind, in relation to the status of the ‘colored population’ held in confinement at Camp Chase”. A Senate committee in their report upon the subject inquired, “Why are those Negroes there at all?” The question was certainly a most appropriate one. Upon investigation, they found that they were placed there as prisoners of war – a position as dignified as that enjoyed by their masters. “The Negroes were taken as participants in the rebel cause, some with arms in their hands against our loyal troops, and against our flag, others aiding their rebel masters in camp duty. This being the case, they were sent by General Halleck to Camp Chase in the same category as their masters were; namely, as prisoners of war taken in battle.” The Confederate Burial Mound for Camp Morton at Indianapolis, Indiana has a bronze tablet listing the 1,616 Confederates who died at that camp. Among those names are 26 Black Southerners. Most of the Union POW camps held black men that were exchanged with and for Union soldiers.
Whether these Black Confederates saw the elephant, engaging in combat, is an open question. The Confederacy contained no organized Black combat units, in spite of the reports in Harper’s Illustrated Weekly. However, consistent reports of black men seen on the firing line should not be discounted. During the Peninsula Campaign, a black sniper inspired fear and respect until killed by artillery fire. At the battle of Perryville, Union troops reported black men fighting in Louisiana regiments. We have covered Arthur Fremantle’s Gettysburg experience indicating that black men escorted Union prisoners to the rear. The best-known example of black men fighting occurs on July 7, 1863 at Williamsport, MD. General Imboden stopped the Union cavalry from occupying Williamsport and destroying the Confederate trains. For many years, this was known as “the Wagoner’s Fight” in honor of the teamsters who left their wagons, secured arms and fought alongside of Imboden’s men.
The states of the Confederacy contained about three million slaves in 1860. During the war, many of the men became part of the USCT. We need to remember that the free black population of the Northern states was about 400,000 and they joined the USCT too. An indeterminate number fled into Union lines, especially after 1862. However, the majority passively supported the South by continuing to live their pre-war life. This is not to say they were unhappy with emancipation, but that they simply stayed home living their lives. The men that stayed with the armies actively supported the South. It is easy to view these men as fighting to remain slaves. Physiological terms, from our times, like Stockholm syndrome and Identifying with the Oppressor are often used to explain away their motivations. One author suggested that the term Black Confederates is incorrect and they should be called “Confederate Slaves” instead. This assumes these men were so lacking in intelligence or so brutalized that they were incapable of making decisions. It makes the assumption these men lacked the intelligence or were so closely watched that it was impossible to for them escape. “Confederate Slaves” ignores the men who chose a Union POW camp rather than be freed. If you view the Civil War as a great battle between the “good Abolitionist North” and the “evil slave holding South”, these explanations are a comfort. The simple explanation is that these men felt they were there defending home and family. Accepting this idea requires us to see these men not as black but as Southerners who identified with defending home and family. This is the same idea that motivated White Confederates and kept these men in the field.
The last question is always “How many?” We do not have a good count of how many white men enlisted in Southern armies. How could we have a good count of how many body servants, cooks, hospital stewards, musicians and teamsters were in Southern armies? The most accepted estimate for white men enlisted or drafted is 880,000. The estimate for Black Confederates is 30,000 to 80,000. The most used figure is 50,000.
Black Confederates will not go away. In spite of all the educators’ official denials of their existence, scholarship is starting to admit they exist. Once they are no longer considered a myth, we can start working on numbers.
MAJOR GENERAL ROBERT E RODES OF THE ARMY OF NORTHERN VIRGINIA: A Biography by Darrell L. Collins
Lincoln’s Darkest Year: The War in 1862 by William Marvel
Antietam: The Soldiers’ Battle (Paperback) by John Michael Priest
Three Months in the Southern States; April-June 1863 by Arthur J. L. Fremantle
Brigades of Gettysburg: The Union and Confederate Brigades at the Battle of Gettysburg by Bradley M. Gottfried
The Artillery of Gettysburg by Bradley M. Gottfried
General Lee’s Army: From Victory to Collapse by Joseph Glatthaar
Confederate Emancipation: Southern Plans to Free and Arm Slaves during the Civil War by Bruce Levine
Black Confederates by Charles Barrow, J. H. Segars, and R. B. Rosenburg
Black Southerners in Confederate Armies by J. H. Segars and Charles Kelly Barrow