Black Confederates? Why haven’t we heard more about them? National Park Service historian, Ed Bearrs, stated, “I don’t want to call it a conspiracy to ignore the role of blacks both above and below the Mason-Dixon line, but it was definitely a tendency that began around 1910.” Historian, Erwin L. Jordan, Jr., calls it a “cover-up” which started back in 1865. He writes, “During my research, I came across instances where black men stated they were soldiers, but you can plainly see where ‘soldier’ is crossed out and ‘body servant’ inserted, or ‘teamster’ on pension applications.” Another black historian, Roland Young, says he is not surprised that blacks fought. He explains that “…some, if not most, black southerners would support their country” and that by doing so they were “demonstrating it’s possible to hate the system of slavery and love one’s country.” This is the very same reaction that most African Americans showed during the American Revolution, where they fought for the colonies, even though the British offered them freedom if they fought for them.
It has been estimated that over 65,000 Southern blacks were in the Confederate ranks. Over 13,000 of these, “saw the elephant” also known as meeting the enemy in combat. These Black Confederates included both slave and free. The Confederate Congress did not approve blacks to be officially enlisted as soldiers (except as musicians), until late in the war. But in the ranks it was a different story. Many Confederate officers did not obey the mandates of politicians, they frequently enlisted blacks with the simple criteria, “Will you fight?” Historian Ervin Jordan, explains that “biracial units” were frequently organized “by local Confederate and State militia commanders in response to immediate threats in the form of Union raids…”. Dr. Leonard Haynes, a African-American professor at Southern University, stated, “When you eliminate the black Confederate soldier, you’ve eliminated the history of the South.”
As the War came to an end, the Confederacy took progressive measures to build back up its army. The creation of the Confederate States Colored Troops, copied after the segregated northern colored troops, came too late to be successful. Had the Confederacy been successful, it would have created the world's largest armies (at the time) consisting of black soldiers, even larger than that of the North. This would have given the future of the Confederacy a vastly different appearance than what modern day racist or anti-Confederate liberals conjecture. Not only did Jefferson Davis envision black Confederate veterans receiving bounty lands for their service, there would have been no future for slavery after the goal of 300,000 armed black CSA veterans came home after the war.
1. The "Richmond Howitzers" were partially manned by black militiamen. They saw action at 1st Manassas (or 1st Battle of Bull Run) where they operated Battery No. 2. In addition, two black “regiments,” one free and one slave, participated in the battle on behalf of the South. “Many colored people were killed in the action,” recorded John Parker, a former slave.
Charles Kelly Barrow, et.al., Forgotten Confederates: An Anthology About Black Southerners (1995). Currently the best book on the subject.
Ervin L. Jordan, Jr. Black Confederates and Afro-Yankees in Civil War Virginia (1995). Well researched and very good source of information on black Confederates, but it has a strong Union bias.
Richard Rollins. Black Southerners in Gray (1994). Excellent source.
Dr. Edward Smith and Nelson Winbush, Black Southern Heritage. An excellent educational video. Mr. Winbush is a descendent of a black Confederate and a member of the Sons of Confederate Veterans.
Author, Historian William C. Davis on black Confederates:
Noted War Between the States historian/author William C. Davis writes about the forgotten black Confederates: "One of the lost chapters of Civil War (sic) history has been the passive and even active support that many southern blacks, free and slave, gave to the Confederacy. Forgotten Confederates illuminates the overlooked facet of this seemingly contradictory behavior by a group of African Americans who appear to have thought of themselves as Southerners first and blacks second. Neither Confederate history, nor black studies, can afford to ignore it."
A letter by a Federal officer:Col. Giles Smith commanded the First Brigade and Col. T. Kilby Smith, Fifty-fourth Ohio, the Fourth. I communicated to these officers General Sherman's orders and charged Colonel Smith, Fifty-fourth Ohio, specially with the duty of clearing away the road to the crossing and getting it into the best condition for effecting our crossing that he possibly could. The work was vigorously pressed under his immediate supervision and orders, and he devoted himself to it with as much energy and activity as any living man could employ. It had to be prosecuted under the fire of the enemy's sharpshooters, protected as well as the men might be by our skirmishers on the bank, who were ordered to keep up so vigorous a fire that the enemy should not dare to lift their heads above their rifle-pits; but the enemy, and especially their armed negroes, did dare to rise and fire, and did serious execution upon our men. The casualties in the brigade were 11 killed, 40 wounded, and 4 missing; aggregate, 55. Very respectfully, your obedient servant,
How many black Confederates served the South in combat or direct battlefield support ? The numbers vary wildly from 15,000 to 120,000. The truth remains that nobody has an accurate figure. My estimate is that 65,000 blacks scattered across the entire South followed the Confederate armies from one battlefield to the next from 1861 to 1865. Larger numbers of blacks loyally served the Confederacy, not as soldiers but as employees of the Army, Navy, Confederate government or the individual State governments.
Dr. Steiner, Chief Inspector of the United States Sanitary Commission, observed that Gen. "Stonewall" Jackson's troops in occupation of Frederick, Maryland, in 1862: "Over 3,000 Negroes must be included in this number [Confederate troops]. These were clad in all kinds of uniforms, not only in cast-off or captured United States uniforms, but in coats with Southern buttons, State buttons, etc. These were shabby, but not shabbier or seedier than those worn by white men in the rebel ranks. Most of the Negroes had arms, rifles, muskets, sabers, bowie-knives, dirks, etc.....and were manifestly an integral portion of the Southern Confederate Army."
If we assume Dr. Steiner is somewhat reliable and assume that this 3,000 Negroes of Jackson's troops are a representative number of black Confederates in a typical Confederate fighting force, then we may be able to make a rough calculation. First we must determine how many men were part of Jackson's troops ? If Lee had 50,000, was Jackson's force, 25,000 ? That would be a likely estimate. So then what percentage is 3,000 of 25,000 ? Answer: 12 %. So that would tell us that 12% of Jackson's force was black Confederates. Now, if we assume that Steiner meant 3,000 blacks soldiers in Lee's entire 50,000 force that crossed the Potomac, then the percentage of black Confederates is reduced to 6%. Either way it is calculated, black Confederates were a considerable percentage of the total Confederate fighting force.
To extend this reasoning across the entire Confederate Army, what does this represent ? That depends on the total number of men that served in the CS Army, which is also in itself debatable as muster rolls are notoriously incomplete.
For example, let's use for example the 1,000,000 listed names in Broadfoot's Confederate roster compiled by the National Archives. Yes, there is some repeat names, but let's use that figure as an example. What percentage is 12% ? This would translate to 120,000 black Confederates and half that, 60,000. As such, the 65,000 estimate is not an unreasonable estimate. Debatable ? Yes. Refutable ? Absolutely not. Black Confederates imaginary ? Ridiculous
Could Dr. Steiner have been wrong regarding the numbers ? Yes, absolutely. In fact, many Army officers routinely made mistakes at estimating the enemies numerical strengths. However, the smaller the body of troops one is estimating, the more likely that number is correct. While Steiner failed to accurately estimate Lee's total forces (I recall he estimated 80,000 instead of 50,000), in my opinion, it is unlikely he erred as significantly with a handful of 3,000 black troops. So even if Steiner made an overestimate of 30%, we still are in the range of 40,000 to 80,000.
Black Confederate soldier depicted marching in rank with white Confederate soldiers. This is taken from the Confederate monument at Arlington National Cemetery. Designed by Moses Ezekiel, a Jewish Confederate erected in 1908. Ezekiel depicted the Confederate Army as he himself witnessed. As such, it is the one of the first monument, if not the first, honoring a black American soldier. (Photo by Bob Crowell)
"No effort must be spared to add largely to our effective force as promptly as possible. The sources of supply are to be found in restoring to the army all who are improperly absent, putting an end to substitution, modifying the exemption law, restricting details and placing in the ranks such of the able-bodied men now employed as wagoners, nurses, cooks and other employees as are doing service for which the negroes may be found competent."
"As between the loss of independence and the loss of slavery, we assume that every patriot will freely give up the latter--give up the negro slave rather than be a slave himself. If we are correct in this assumption it only remains to show how this great national sacrifice is, in all human probabilities, to change the current of success and sweep the invader from our country," [Reprinted in the Richmond, Va., Dispatch, August 5, 1904.]
It is wrong to think that most in the Confederate ranks were opposed to the revolutionary idea of enlisting slaves as soldiers for the C.S. Colored Troops, modeled after its northern counterpart. In fact, the majority of Confederate soldiers fully supported the idea. Of course, there were many that opposed the idea.
For example, eleven men of the 12th Kentucky Cavalry signed a petition that they were adamantly opposed to Negro equality as soldiers. Furthermore, this petition also denounces anyone who is an advocate for putting the Negro into the army as official soldiers. It states they are, "either whipped or are aspirants for office. They are mostly playouts that are walking the streets of every town in the South with the bars or stars on their collar. They are afraid to face the yankies any longer but want the Negro to fight for their liberty." Nothing can be further from the truth regarding the motivations of progressively minded Confederates.
Regardless of the personal prejudices of these eleven Confederates, they were apparently in the minority. For instance, nearly 400 officers and enlisted men from the 2nd, 7th and 11th Kentucky Cavalry Regiments signed a petition asking the Confederate Congress to approve the policy of using Negroes as official soldiers. These were NOT "whipped men" or "aspirants for office", as the disgruntled eleven men of the 12th Kentucky claimed. Rather they were battle-hardened men who knew how to be victorious. As they stated, "to win our independence we should resort to every honorable means and cheerfully make every sacrifice. We know the fate that awaits us should the enemy succeed in crushing our gallant armies, and rather than submit let us exhaust every resource and use every means of defeating him." While their petition indicated they approved of Negro soldiers, this was not a condition to their continued fighting, as was stated, "we will, on the battlefield, submit to the arbitrament of the sword, the issue of independence or subjugation, and prove our determination to die freeman rather than live slaves." And to make sure their petition was heard, they chose one of their officers, Lt. Col. James Bennett McCreary, to personally deliver the petition to the C.S. Congress.
The fact is, the Confederacy contained men of very diverse opinions, just as in the North. It is simply bad history for anyone to uphold eleven soldiers as defining the general attitude of the Confederate ranks and ignore a petition of much greater magnitude.
It is claimed (a claim Stevens disputed) that Confederate Vice President Alexander Stevens once stated, "Our new government's foundations are laid...upon the great truth that the Negro is not equal to the white man, that slavery...is his natural and normal condition." However, It is a false assumption to believe that Stevens had control over the destiny of the Confederacy. Jefferson Davis also opposed changing the status quo of the Old South but by 1865 the Davis administration was announcing to slaves in Virginia, "Let us say to every Negro who wants to go into the ranks, go and fight, and you are free...…Fight for your masters and you shall have your freedom."
Books frequently quote stubborn, hard-nosed Confederate congressmen, like Sen. Robert Hunter and Howell Cobb, as examples of the never dying devotion to slavery...not to mention the short-sighted, General Robert Toombs, who said, "The worst calamity that could befall us would be to gain our independence by the valor of our slaves." However, these examples fail to recognize the changing attitudes that were gradually coming about in the South. For instance, the majority of men in the Confederate Congress eventually disagreed with Toombs' assessment, as Congress in 1865 authorized the enlistment of 300,000 blacks for the Confederate States Colored Troops. Among the last orders was for Confederate officers to treat them humanely and protect them from "injustice and oppression." Let us remember that these last acts would have shaped the destiny of the Confederacy. If the South would have won the War, it is quite obvious that it would not be long before slavery would have crumbled..
Lt Gen RS Ewell
General Lee directs me to acknowledge the receipt of your letter of the 25th inst: and to say that he much regrets the unwillingness of owners to permit their slaves to enter the service. If the state authorities can do nothing to get those negroes who are willing to join the army, but whose masters refuse their consent, there is no authority to do it at all. What benefit they expect their negroes to be to them, if the enemy occupies the country, it is impossible to say. He hopes you will endeavor to get the assistance of citizens who favor the measure, and bring every influence you can to bear. When a negro is willing, and his master objects, there would be less objection to compulsion, if the state has the authority. It is however of primary importance that the negroes should know that the service is voluntary on their part. As to the name of the troops, the general thinks you cannot do better than consult the men themselves. His only objection to calling them colored troops was that the enemy had selected that designation for theirs. But this has no weight against the choice of the troops and he recommends that they be called colored or if they prefer, they can be called simply Confederate troops or volunteers. Everything should be done to impress them with the responsibility and character of their position, and while of course due respect and subordination should be exacted, they should be so treated as to feel that their obligations are those of any other soldier and their rights and privileges dependent in law & order as obligations upon others as upon theirselves. Harshness and contemptuous or offensive language or conduct to them must be forbidden and they should be made to forget as soon as possible that they were regarded as menials. You will readily understand however how to conciliate their good will & elevate the tone and character of the men....
Your obt. servt.
Lt. Col & AAG
Hd. Qts. CS Armies
30th March 1865
Lt Gen RS Ewell
General Lee directs me to acknowledge the receipt of your letter of the 29th inst: and to say that he regrets very much to learn that owners refuse to allow their slaves to enlist. He deems it of great moment that some of this force should be put in the field as soon as possible, believing that they will remove all doubts as to the expediency of the measure. He regrets it the more in the case of the owners about Richmond, inasmuch as the example would be extremely valuable, and the present posture of military affairs renders it almost certain that if we do not get these men, they will soon be in arms against us, and perhaps relieving white Federal soldiers from guard duty in Richmond. He desires you to press this view upon the owners.
He says that he regards it as very important that immediate steps be taken to put the recruiting in operation, and has so advised the department. He desires to have you placed in general charge of it, if agreeable to you, as he thinks nothing can be accomplished without energetic and intelligent effort by someone who fully appreciates the vital importance of the duty....
Your obt servt
Lt col & AAG
source: Richards S. Ewell Papers, Manuscript Division, Library of Congress.
Another reason some blacks sided with the South.
The "freedpeople throughout the Union-occupied South often toiled harder and longer under Federal officers and soldiers than they had under slave owners and overseers--and received inferior food, clothing, and shelter to boot."--"Free At Last: A Documentary History of Slavery, Freedom, and the Civil War", 1992 edited by Ira Berlin, & others.
The negro hospital here has become notorious for filth, neglect, mortality & brutal whipping, so that the contrabands have lost all hope of kind treatment there, & would almost as soon go to their graves as to their hospital. These grievances reported to us by persons in whom we have confidence, & some of which we known to be true, are but a few of the many wrongs of which they complain---For the sake of humanity, for the sake of Christianity, for the good name of our army, for the honor of our country, cannot something be done to prevent this oppression & stop its demoralizing influences upon the Soldiers themselves ? Some have suggested that the matter be laid before the Department at Washington, in the hope that they will clothe an agent with authority to register all the names of the contravands, who will have a benevolent regard for their welfare, though whom all details of fatigue & working parties shall be made though whom rations may be drawn & money paid, & who shall be empowered to organize schools, & to make all needfull regulatiojns for the comfort & improvement of the condition of the contrabands; whose accounts shall be open at all times for inspection, and who shall make stated reports to the Department--All which is respectfully submitted. ~Samuel Sawyer, Pearl P. Ingall, J.G. Forman
Letter by Charles Stevenas to Lt. J. H. Metcalf (Acting Assistant Adjutant General) on Jan. 27, 1863 described working conditions of contrabands working for the Union Army in Kenner, La.):
"My cattle at home are better cared for than these unfortunate persons."
~Col. Frank S. Nickerson, U.S. Army (describing condition of Southern blacks in the care of the Federal Army)
Elsewhere at Fortress Monroe in the Virginia theatre, Lewis C. Lockwood, a U.S. Senator from Massachusetts testifies that this kind of abuse by the Union Army was committed on a widespread extent. In a letter dated Jan 29, 1862 he writes:
Across the South there was a significant minority of slaves and black freemen that sided with the Confederacy. Normally the free blacks, serving with the Confederacy received equal pay of the white Confederate private. For the slaves, the receipt of pay was not guaranteed. Their pay went according to their master's wishes, but often a portion did go for his personal up-keep. Others were promised freedom, mainly in return for faithful service by their masters. Missouri was a far journey from the Confederate capital of Richmond, so the offers of freedom for service late in the war by the Jefferson Davis administration never made it to the far West. But like the rest of the South, some black Missourians sided with the Confederacy, not because they were fighting to preserve slavery but because they believed it was their duty to defend their people (as they saw them, both black and white) from the Yankee invader. But in Missouri this was less true than in most of the South.
In Missouri, since most slave owners were pro-Union, and the State was occupied by the Union Army, there were very few black Confederates. Black Confederates rarely came to service without their masters (or more affectionately, "white folks"). For free blacks in Missouri, the Confederacy had nothing to offer to rally them to their cause. The Missouri River was patrolled by Union gunboats, so essentially the upper half the State was cut off from serious Confederate influence. It is true a dozen or so rode with Confederate guerilla forces of Quantrill and a few served elsewhere. But their numbers in Missouri do not compare with the visibility of black Confederate in other southern States. One uncommon example would be George McDonald, of Osceola, Missouri (see link below).
Terrell's Texas Cavalry, a historical multi-racial Confederate unit.
Rev. William Mack Lee Narrative (Gen. Robert E. Lee's black servant) "I was raised by one of the greatest men in the world. There was never one born of a woman greater than Gen. Robert E. Lee, according to my judgment. All of his servants were set free ten years before the war, but all remained on the plantation until after the surrender."
Copyright 1998-2003, by Scott K. Williams, All Rights Reserved. Permission granted to reproduce this fact sheet for educational purposes only. Must include this statement on all copies.