Friday, April 22, 2011

Black Confederates. Really? REALLY??

Greetings Cosmic Americans!

So - I've been on Youtube again. It's a guilty pleasure, really. Last night was a real kicker. I followed a few video "suggestions" to a series of posts on black Confederate soldiers. There seems to be this warped idea out there that there were thousands and thousands of blacks serving as soldiers in the Confederate army. One estimation claimed as many as 90,000 black people shouldered a musket for the glorious CSA. You have got to be freakin' kidding me. 90,000?? That is bigger than the whole Army of Northern Virginia at its grandest.

Now I am not saying that blacks were absent from the military scene. When the ANV (or any other CS army) went somewhere, they took black people with them. They were - you guessed it - slaves. They did what they were forced to do. Laundry, cooking, clearing trees, building fortifications, etc. Slaves were drafted in to Confederate service in others ways too (much to the irritation of their masters). They built fortifications around Atlanta, Richmond and Petersburg, for example. These were the toils of slaves. They were not willingly serving the Confederate cause.

The very idea of this is perverse at best. Imagine - blacks serving a country conceived on the idea of racial inequality and the protection of the "peculiar" institution. Wow. Does that mean that a slave or two may at one time have picked up a musket, maybe - but regiments or even divisions of black soldiers. You think we would have heard of them.

Seriously, I have never seen or heard of a letter written by a Union soldier describing the several regiments of black Confederates he faced in battle. I have never read a newspaper describing black Confederate divisions defending a Rebel position. I am guessing it's because they didn't exist. I mean really, don't you think Ken Burns would have at least said something about this? (Insert Ashokon Farewell theme music here..."Dear Mama - today 90,000 black Reb soldiers marched by...we fear the worst...I have dysentery....blah blah blah.")

Now the prospect of raising limited black troops had crossed a few Rebels' minds. Even Robert E. Lee thought it was a good idea. But nothing of significance ever happened in this regard. Rebels in power decided that if they armed blacks, then what they had been fighting for would have been pretty pointless. Late, late, late in the war CSA Congress finally passed legislation to raise a few black troops as sort of a last ditch effort. And there were reports of a handful of black troops drilling in Richmond early in April 1865. But this was way too little waaaay too late.

Now after the war, some United Confederate Veterans dressed up a few former slaves in Confederate gray and paraded them around, I suppose, to show that the war wasn't about slavery and that blacks were in favor of Confederate independence. Oy. So if you are trying to prove that black people supported the Confederate war effort just stop. Or better yet, show me some real evidence that these thousands and thousands of black soldiers actually existed. Put them on a map, show me the battle reports, anything. Just saying they were around doesn't make it so - evidence does.

Have a look at my friend Kevin Levin's Blog, Civil War Memory for a comprehensive look at this topic - he has spent a great deal of time and effort examining the all claims from the moderate to the bizarre. Another friend, Jaime Martinez just wrote a succinct piece on Black Confederates for the Encyclopedia Virginia that you can check out HERE. And of course, if you have any real evidence that these guys actually existed - please submit in the comment section.




  1. Now after the war, some United Confederate Veterans dressed up a few former slaves in Confederate gray and paraded them around, I suppose, to show that the war wasn’t about slavery and that blacks were in favor of Confederate independence.That's a good summary of it. Once you dig down into the contemporary accounts of these reunions, and the descriptions of the those African American men, it's quite explicitly clear that (1) they were not described and treated in the same way as the white veterans, and (2) in their own way served to reinforce traditional white/black roles from the antebellum South. The notion that these black men were considered co-equals by the white veterans is simply not supported by the evidence.

  2. Hello Keith,

    Good, well written post.

    It's amazing (to me) that I can be in a group somewhere, anywhere and when the subject comes up someone will invariably turn to me and say "Well, you know, there were black soldiers in the confederate army." They say it with impunity and with the reverence reserved for a priest.

    I take a deep breath; then I respectfully ask for evidence - and the conversation goes south (pun intended). Still, we must challenge these claims at every instance. If we turn our backs, we will see these outrageous claims in our children's history textbooks. OMG, that already happened in Virginia! Hmmn, not so funny....

    Peace & Blessings,
    "Guided by the Ancestors"

  3. "Jaime Martinez just wrote a succinct piece on Black Confederates for the Encyclopedia Virginia that you can check out HERE."

    Good...good...very good...

    I am glad how you (and several others) are promoting this "succinct" article.

    Hey Andy and George!...don't y'all want to promote it too? Please do.

  4. Border,

    What would you point to as a reliable encyclopedia entry on the subject that includes a list for further reading?

  5. Actually, this issue is far more complicated as you would make it seem (in yopur defense, it's far mopre complicated than Confederate partisans woudl claim either.)

    According to the Compiled Service records, some approximately 7,000 blacks officially served in some capacity in the CS Armies; they were carried on muster rolls and were paid directly. (Tens of thousands more -- free and slave -- were employed on an ad hoc basis.) Many of these 7,000 were free blacks, a few (very few) of them served in combat roles (almost entirely in the final months of the war), but I have seen the service record of one person of color in a Tennessee regiment who was mustered in as a Private in the fall of 1861.

    (Robert K. Krick placed this number at only a few hundred, but that was based on a misreading of the data on the index of Confederate soldiers. Only a few hundred had "colored," "black," "negro," etc. listed ON THE OUTSIDE JACKET of their respective CSR; if one pulls the service records of all those with only a single name [given or surname] holding the sort of support roles one would expect blacks to have held [cooks, servants, musicians, teamsters] and then subtracts from those all the soldiers in Indian regiments, you reach a number of approx. 7,000. One researcher has pursued this line of research on a individual-by-individual basis, and produced an almost identical result; see Richard J. Rodriguez, Black Confederates In The U.S. Civil War: A Compiled List of African-Americans Who Served The Confederacy

    What is the status of these men? Well, if you want to say they weren't "soldiers" because they aren't combat personnel, that's too narrow a definition. (By that standard, the most famous POW of the invasion of Iraq, Jessica Lynch, wasn't a "soldier" -- merely a 21st century teamster). That definition woudl eliminate thousnads of whites as well -- every sugeon or adjutant or commissary sergeant or ordnance sargeant or chaplain -- who ever served. Were they Civil War SOLDIERS? One can argue. Were they members of their respective units and therefore of the Union Army? No question. The same for these thousands of blacks.

    As for those who were slave, the fact that their labor was coerced doesn't of itself nullify their claim to being "soldiers" -- any more than one would disqualify a conscripted white man who fought in the ranks merely because he service was compelled by force.

    Neo-Confederates warp this data to downplay the realities of race and slavery in the Confederacy . But neo-abolitionists equally distort the historical record when they attempt to dismiss the realities of the contributions made by blacks to the Confederacy -- not always involuntarily.

    I'd caution against applying modern notions of equality and self-identification to the 19th century. Equally, I'd caution against positing any single narrative to the millions of black Southerners.

    Modern trends in social history privilege the contributions of blacks -- particularly slave labor -- in the buildign of America. At a minimum, there's something disingenuous in championing those experiences under the Stars and Stripes and then suddenly dismissing them under the Stars and Bars.

    Like the often-myopic Kevin Levin, you make the mistake of seeing the issue as all or nothing (dare I say, black or white?)

  6. Just thought Id share some facts I know from doing misc historical research over the years in my state of South Carolina, not all blacks in the Confederate army were slaves, "Dad" Brown of Darlington, SC was a free black who fought in the Mexican War, Civil War, and Spanish American War, he did so voluntarily each time and was seen as a local hero, the town even paid for a huge monument for his grave when he died, so he was never made to ever fight against his will, my other bit of info to share is a man named William Ellison was a free black but born a slave as was his wife, over time he bought his familys independence, he and his sons supported the Confederacy, his grandson John Wilson Buckner was a member of the 1st SC Artillery, he was a free black and voluntarily joined the army, William died in 1861 but he made it known before his death that his plantation and the 63 slaves he owned were at the willful service of the Confederacy, now with this being said I know there were many slaves who were forcedor told they had to fight, which is incredibly wrong no matter what race the slaves are, but there were some who voluntarily went to the defense of their homeland, like most of the white soldiers did, they werent fighting for slavery, thats what the rich people fussed about, but the average man went only to defend their home state and their familes and loved ones, no matter what race they were or free or enslaved

  7. Karen - I find it hard to take people seriously when they use the word "privilege" as a verb. But apart from that - I am pretty clear on what constitutes a Civil War soldier.

  8. Ciara - there are so many things wring with your post that I do not even know where to start. Before I take you to task on your "facts" might I ask what this research is to which you are referring?