Black Confederates, Political Correctness, and a Virginia Textbook
Michael T. Griffith
@All Rights Reserved
In 2011 a
There is credible evidence that thousands of blacks did in fact fight for the Confederacy, quite possibly around 4,000, and maybe as many as 6,000 or 7,000. This is documented in Union army reports, in letters written by Union soldiers, and in Northern and Southern newspapers, among other sources. Slaves fought for two reasons: (1) they were offered freedom in exchange for their military service, and (2) they were loyal to their masters and/or to the South. Free blacks fought for the South as well.
The Confederate government
did not officially authorize the recruitment of slaves as soldiers until early
1865, shortly before the war ended.
However, some Southern state governments and individual Confederate
commanders began using slaves and free blacks as soldiers early in the war.
Some of the evidence that thousands of blacks fought for the South is as follows:
* The chief inspector of the
U.S. Sanitary Commission, Dr. Lewis Steiner, reported that he saw about 3,000
well-armed black Confederate soldiers in Stonewall Jackson’s army in
Wednesday, September 10--At four o'clock this morning
the rebel army began to move from our town,
Anyone can Google Steiner's
report and read it for themselves (it's usually in PDF format). Some
critics argue that Steiner was wrong about the total number of troops in Lee’s
army—Steiner put the number at about 72,000 (he said he saw about 64,000 on
September 10, and another 8,000 the next day).
For one thing, it's hard to estimate the size of a group that numbers in
the tens of thousands, whereas it's a lot easier to estimate the size of a
group that's only a few thousand in number. Even assuming Steiner was off
by 50%, that would still mean he saw around 1,500
black soldiers in
It should not be surprising that Stonewall Jackson would have had blacks fighting in his army.
* Union colonel Peter
Allabach, commander of the 2nd Brigade of the 131st
Pennsylvania Infantry, reported that his forces encountered black Confederate
soldiers during the Battle of
Under this disposition of my command, I lay until 11 o'clock, when I received orders from you to throw the two left regiments perpendicular to the road, and to advance in line of battle, with skirmishers in front, as far as to the edge of the wood bordering near the Chancellor house. This movement was explained to me as intended to hold the enemy in check long enough for the corps of Major-Generals Couch and Sickles to get into another position, and not to bring on an action if it could be avoided; and, should the enemy advance in force, to fall back slowly until I arrived on the edge of the wood, there to mass in column and double-quick to the rear, that the artillery might fire in this wood. I was instructed that I was to consider myself under the command of Major-General Couch.
In obedience to these orders, at about 11 o'clock I advanced with these two regiments forward through the wood, under a severe fire of shell, grape, and canister. I encountered their skirmishers when near the farther edge of the wood. Allow me to state that the skirmishers of the enemy were negroes. (Report of Col. Peter H. Allabach, 131st Pennsylvania Infantry, commanding Second Brigade, in Official Records, Volume XXV, in Two Parts, 1889, Chap. 37, Part I – Reports, p. 555, emphasis added)
Stonewall Jackson’s army
played a major role in the Battle of
* None other than African-American abolitionist Frederick Douglass complained that there were “many” blacks in the Confederate army who were armed and “ready to shoot down” Union soldiers. He added that this was "pretty well established":
is now pretty well established, that there are at the present moment many
colored men in the Confederate army doing duty not only as cooks, servants and
laborers, but as real soldiers, having muskets on their shoulders, and bullets
in their pockets, ready to shoot down loyal troops, and do all that soldiers
may. . . . (Douglass' Monthly,
September 1861, online copy available at http://radicaljournal.com/essays/fighting_rebels.html)
* In 1895 a former black
Union soldier, Christian A. Fleetwood, who had been a sergeant-major in the 4th
U.S. Colored Troops, acknowledged that the South began using blacks as soldiers
seems a little singular that in the tremendous struggle between the States in
1861-1S65, the south should have been the first to take steps toward the
enlistment of Negroes. Yet such is the fact. Two weeks after the fall of
A telegram from New Orleans dated November 23, 1S61, notes the review by Gov. Moore of over 28,000 troops, and that one regiment comprised "1,400 colored men." The New Orleans Picayune, referring to a review held February 9, 1862, says: "We must also pay a deserved compliment to the companies of free colored men, all very well drilled and comfortably equipped." (Christian A. Fleetwood, The Negro as a Soldier, Washington, D.C.: Howard University Print, 1895, pp. 5-6, emphasis added)
* In a Union army battle report, General David Stuart complained about the deadly effectiveness of the black Confederate soldiers whom his troops had encountered. The “armed negroes,” he said, did “serious execution upon our men”:
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, D. STUART, Brigadier-General, Commanding. (Report of Brig. Gen. David Stuart, U. S. Army, commanding Fourth Brigade and Second Division, of operations December 26, 1862 - January 3, 1863, in Official Records, Volume XVII, in Two Parts. 1886/1887, Chap. 29, Part I - Reports, pp. 635-636, emphasis added)
* In a letter published in the Indianapolis Star in December 1861, a Union soldier stated that his unit was attacked by black Confederate soldiers:
body of seven hundred [Confederate] Negro infantry opened fire on our men,
wounding two lieutenants and two privates. The wounded men testify positively
that they were shot by Negroes, and that not less than seven hundred were
present, armed with muskets. This is, indeed a new feature in the war. We have
heard of a regiment of [Confederate] Negroes at
* Union soldier James G.
Bates wrote a letter to his father that was reprinted in an
I can assure you [his father,] of a certainty, that the rebels have Negro soldiers in their army. One of their best sharp shooters and the boldest of them all here is a Negro. He dug himself a rifle pit last night [16 April 1863] just across the river and has been annoying our pickets opposite him very much to-day. You can see him plain enough with the naked eye, occasionally, to make sure that he is a "wooly-head," and with a spy-glass there is no mistaking him. (Winchester Journal, May 1, 1863)
* A few months before the
war ended, a Union soldier named James Miles of the 185th N.Y.V.I. wrote in his
diary, “Saw several
* A Union lieutenant colonel named Parkhurst, who served in the Ninth Michigan Infantry, reported that black Confederate soldiers participated in an attack on his camp:
The forces attacking my camp were the First
Regiment Texas Rangers, a battalion of the First Georgia Rangers . . . and
quite a number of Negroes attached to the
* In late June 1861, the Illinois Daily State Journal, a staunchly Republican newspaper, reported that the Confederate army was arming some slaves and that in some cases slaves were being organized into military units. Interestingly, the newspaper also said that the North was not fighting to abolish slavery, and that the South was not fighting to protect slavery:
Our mighty armies are gathering for no purpose of abolition. Our enemies are not in arms to protect the peculiar institution [slavery]. . . .
[the Confederates] are using their Slave property as an instrument of warfare
No wonder Frederick Douglass said it was "fairly well established" that "many" blacks were serving in the Confederate army as combat troops, as troops with guns and bullets who were ready to kill Union soldiers.
* Confederate general Nathan
Bedford Forrest had dozens of slaves serving in units under his command; he
offered them freedom in exchange for their service (Robert Selph Henry, ”First with the Most” Forrest,
These boys stayed with me . . . and better Confederates did not live. (Cincinnati Commercial, August 28, 1868; cf. Richard Rollins, Black Southerners in Gray, Redondo Beach, California: Rank and File Publications, 1994)
* After the Battle of
. . . reported among the rebel prisoners were seven blacks in Confederate uniforms fully armed as soldiers. (New York Herald, July 11, 1863)
* During the Battle of Gettysburg, two black Confederate soldiers took part in Pickett’s charge:
Color Corporal George B. Powell (14th
* During the Battle of Chickamauga, slaves serving Confederate soldiers armed themselves and asked permission to join the fight—and when they received that permission they fought commendably. Their commander, Captain J. B. Briggs, later noted that these men “filled a portion of the line of advance as well as any company of the regiment” (J. H. Segars and Charles Barrow, Black Southerners in Confederate Armies, Atlanta, GA: Southern Lion Books, 2001, p. 141). Interestingly, these slaves were organized by the personal servant of the regimental commander:
One of the last Confederate charges of the day included the Fourth Tennessee Calvary, which participated dismounted in the assault. Among the troopers of the regiment were forty African Americans who had been serving as camp servants but who now demanded the right the participate in the last combat of the day. Captain J. B. Briggs gave his permission for them to join his command on the front line. Organized and equipped under Daniel McLemore, the personal servant of the colonel of the regiment, the black troops had collected dropped weapons from battlefields during the regiment’s campaigns. . . . (Steve Cottrell, Civil War in Tennessee, Gretna, Louisiana: Pelican Publishing Company, 2001, p. 94)
There are numerous accounts of slaves assisting Confederate soldiers in battle
and helping them to escape capture afterward (see, for example, Francis
Springer, War for What?,
Springfield, Tennessee: Nippert Publishing Company, 1990, pp. 172-183).
* After the war, hundreds of African Americans received Confederate veterans’ pensions from Southern state governments (Segars and Barrow, Black Southerners in Confederate Armies, Atlanta, GA: Southern Lion Books, pp. 73-100).
* Photos of reunions of Confederate veterans show African Americans in attendance (some of these can be seen in Segars and Barrow’s book, Black Southerners in Confederate Armies).
* Civil War scholar Robert Broadwater discusses accounts of Union troops seeing black Confederate soldiers during the Peninsula Campaign in 1862:
Several reported incidents show that black Confederates
actually took an active part in the combat along the
After the battle [the Battle of Fair Oaks/Seven Pines], Union soldiers would claim that a large number of black troops had fought on the Confederate side. It was alleged that as many as two full regiments of Colored Troops were in the Southern ranks. . . . (The Battle of Fair Oaks: Turning Point of McClellan’s Peninsula Campaign, Jefferson, North Carolina: McFarland & Company, Inc., 2011, pp. 56, 116).
Some scholars dispute this and other evidence of black Confederates on the grounds that the Confederate government did not authorize the recruitment of slaves as soldiers until March 1865 and that therefore it was illegal for blacks to serve as Confederate soldiers before that time. This argument seems rather weak on its face, since it requires that we assume that all the reported sightings of black Confederate soldiers were either fabrications or misidentifications, which is unlikely given their number and sources. Many individual Confederate commanders ignored the Confederate government’s policies or directives when they felt they needed to do so, just as some Union commanders did not always follow federal policies and directives. So it’s not hard to believe that some Confederate commanders opted to ignore government policy and to increase their manpower by using slaves and free blacks as soldiers.
Furthermore, as politically incorrect as it may sound, and as strange as it may seem to most people in our day, many Southern slaves and free blacks felt loyalty to the South and viewed Union troops as invaders. Says Civil War scholar Walter Brian Cisco,
Christian Fleetwood, the
It is not in the line of this paper to speculate
upon what would have been the result of the war had the South kept up this
policy, enlisted the freemen, and emancipated the enlisting slaves and their
families. The immense addition to their fighting force, the quick recognition
of them by
But the primary [early] successes of the South closed its eyes to its only chance of salvation, while at the same time the eyes of the North were opened. In 1865, the South saw, and endeavored to remedy its error. On March 9, 1865, the Confederate Congress passed a bill, recommended by Gen. Lee, authorizing the enlistment of 200,000 Negroes; but it was then too late. (The Negro as a Soldier, p. 6, emphasis added)
In the July 1919 issue of The Journal of Negro History, Charles S. Wesley discussed the issue of blacks in the Confederate army:
The loyalty of the slave in guarding home and family during his master’s absence has long been eloquently orated. The Negroes’ loyalty extended itself even to service in the Confederate army. Believing their land invaded by hostile foes, slaves eagerly offered themselves for service in actual warfare. . . .
At the outbreak of the war, an observer in
Two weeks after the firing on
ABOUT THE AUTHOR:
Michael T. Griffith holds a Master’s degree in Theology from The
Catholic Distance University, a Graduate Certificate in Ancient and Classical
History from American Military University, a Bachelor’s degree in Liberal Arts
from Excelsior College, two Associate in Applied Science degrees from the
Community College of the Air Force, and an Advanced Certificate of Civil War
Studies and a Certificate of Civil War Studies from Carroll College. He is a two-time graduate of the Defense
Language Institute in