Black Confederates, Political Correctness, and a Virginia Textbook

 

Michael T. Griffith

2014

@All Rights Reserved

Third Edition

 

In 2011 a Virginia textbook titled Our Virginia: Past and Present came under heavy criticism in the news because it claimed that thousands of blacks fought for the Confederacy in the Civil War.  There are errors in that textbook, as there are in many other textbooks, but this claim is not one of them.

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 Frederick, Maryland, and that those soldiers were "manifestly an integral portion of the Southern Confederate Army."  Jackson’s army was part of Robert E. Lee’s Army of Northern Virginia.  Said Steiner,

 

Wednesday, September 10--At four o'clock this morning the rebel army began to move from our town, Jackson's force taking the advance.  The movement continued until eight o'clock P.M., occupying sixteen hours.  The most liberal calculations could not give them more than 64,000 men. Over 3,000 negroes must be included in this number.  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 rebel ranks.  Most of the negroes had arms, rifles, muskets, sabres, bowie-knives, dirks, etc.  They were supplied, in many instances, with knapsacks, haversacks, canteens, etc., and were manifestly an integral portion of the Southern Confederacy Army.  They were seen riding on horses and mules, driving wagons, riding on caissons, in ambulances, with the staff of Generals, and promiscuously mixed up with all the rebel horde. (Report of Lewis H. Steiner, New York: Anson D. F. Randolph, 1862, pp. 10-11)

 

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 Jackson's army.  However, there is evidence that Steiner was not wrong about the size of Lee’s army (see, for example, Joseph Harsh, Taken at the Flood: Robert E. Lee and Confederate Strategy in the Maryland Campaign of 1862, Kent State University Press, 1999, pp. 37-39; Gene Thorp, “In Defense of McClellan at Antietam,” The Washington Post, September 7, 2012).  So Steiner may indeed have seen 3,000 black Confederate soldiers in Jackson’s force.

It should not be surprising that Stonewall Jackson would have had blacks fighting in his army.  Jackson was known for his respectful, courteous treatment of slaves and free blacks alike.  Before the war, Jackson skirted the law and taught slaves how to read in his Sunday School class.  During the war, Jackson sent money back to his church to help fund the church's black Sunday School class.  And, Jackson was heard to voice the hope that slavery would be abolished.

* 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 Chancellorsville:

 

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 Chancellorsville.  The black Confederate soldiers whom Colonel Allabach saw there may have been some of the same black Confederate soldiers whom Dr. Steiner saw in Jackson’s army in Maryland.

 

* 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":

 

It 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 before the Union did:

 

It 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 Fort Sumter, the Charleston Mercury records the passing through Augusta of several companies of the 3rd and 4th Georgia Regt. and of sixteen well-drilled companies and one Negro company from Nashville, Tenn. The Memphis Avalanche and The Memphis Appeal of May 9, 10, and 11, 1861, give notice of the appointment by the "Committee of Safety" of a committee of three persons "to organize a volunteer company composed of our patriotic freemen of color of the city of Memphis, for the service of our common defense."

 

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:

 

A 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 Manassas, and another at Memphis, and still another at New Orleans, but did not believe it till it came so near home and attacked our men. (Indianapolis Star, December 23, 1861)

 

* Union soldier James G. Bates wrote a letter to his father that was reprinted in an Indiana newspaper in May 1863. In the letter Bates assured his father that there were black Confederate soldiers:

 

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 Negros fighting for those rebels" (Diary entry, January 8, 1865).

 

* 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 Texas and Georgia troops, who were armed and equipped, took part in the several engagements with my forces during the day. (Lieutenant Colonel Parkhurst’s Report, Ninth Michigan Infantry, on General Forrest’s Attack at Murfreesboro, Tennessee, July 13, 1862, in Official Records, Series 1, Volume XVI, Part 1, p. 805) 

 

* 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]. . . .

 

They [the Confederates] are using their Slave property as an instrument of warfare against the Union. Their slaves dig trenches, erect fortifications, and bear arms. Slaves, in some instances, are organized into military companies to fight against the Government. (“Slaves Contraband of War,” Illinois Daily State Journal, June 21, 1861)

 

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, Indianapolis, Indiana: Bobbs-Merrill, 1944, p. 14). In an interview given shortly after the war, Forrest said of them,

 

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 Gettysburg, Union forces took seven black Confederate soldiers as prisoners, as was noted in a Northern newspaper at the time, which said,

 

. . . 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 Tennessee) went down during the advance. Boney Smith, a Black man attached to the regiment, took the colors and carried them forward. . . . The colors of the 14th Tennessee got within fifty feet of the east wall before Boney Smith hit the dirt ---wounded. Jabbing the flagstaff in the ground, he momentarily urged the regiment forward until the intense pressure forced the men to lie down to save their lives. (John Michael Priest, Into the Fight: Pickett’s Charge at Gettysburg, White Mane Books, 1998, pp. 128, 130-131)

 

* 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 Yorktown line.  One black sniper took refuge in a chimney in Yorktown, shooting at any exposed target he could find in Camp Scott.  He picked off several Union soldiers from his position, despite the pleas of the Northern men for him to desert and join them.  In the end, a regiment was marched forward to fire a volley at the sniper’s hiding place, resulting in the black soldier being shot through the head.  Two more black soldiers were reported by Alfred Bellard, of the 5th New Jersey.  The two had been firing at Bellard and his comrades from the cover of a hollow tree.  One of the snipers was killed when he left his cover, presumably to relieve himself, and the other was wounded.  Bellard reported that two white Confederates later tried to retrieve the body, but were driven off by Union fire.  Still more black Confederates were seen serving a cannon at Yorktown, loading and firing the gun at the Federal lines.  Both men were eventually felled by a Yankee sharpshooter.  These incidents were but the first reported glimpses of armed black soldiers serving within the Confederate army during the Peninsula Campaign.  Northerners would come face to face with greater numbers of black Confederates when they drew nearer to Richmond. . . .

 

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,

 

Down in Charleston, free blacks . . . declared that “our allegiance is due to South Carolina and in her defense, we will offer up our lives, and all that is dear to us.”  Even slaves routinely expressed loyalty to their homeland, thousands serving the Confederate Army faithfully. (Taking A Stand: Portraits from the Southern Secession Movement, Shippensburg, Pennsylvania: White Mane Books, 2000, p. 112)

 

Christian Fleetwood, the above-mentioned black Union sergeant-major, made an interesting comment about the loyalty of Southern blacks.  After raising the issue of what would have happened if the Confederacy had increased its use of black troops earlier, he stated that, except for slavery, the heart of Southern blacks was with the South:

 

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 Great Britain, to which slavery was the greatest bar, and the fact that the heart of the Negro was with the South but for slavery, and the case stands clear.

 

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 Charleston noted the war-time preparations and called particular attention to “the thousand Negroes who, so far from inclining to insurrections, were grinning from ear to ear at the prospect of shooting the Yankees.”  In the same city, one of the daily papers stated in early January that 150 free colored men had offered their services to the Confederate Government, and at Memphis a recruiting office was opened.  In June 1861 the Legislature of Tennessee authorized Governor Harris to receive into the state military service all male persons of color between the ages of fifteen and fifty and to provide them with eight dollars a month, clothing, and rations. . . .  In the same state, under the command of Confederate officers, marched a procession of several hundred colored men carrying shovels, axes, and blankets.  The observer adds, “they were brimful of patriotism, shouting for Jeff Davis and singing war songs.”  A paper in Lynchburg, Virginia, commenting on the enlistment of seventy free Negroes to fight for the defense of the State, concluded with “three cheers for the patriotic Negroes of Lynchburg.”

 

Two weeks after the firing on Fort Sumter, several companies of volunteers of color passed through Augusta, Georgia, on their way to Virginia to engage in actual war. . . .  In November of the same year, a military review was held in New Orleans, where twenty-eight thousand troops passed before Governor Moore, General Lowell, and General Ruggles.  The line of march extended beyond seven miles and included one regiment comprised of 1,400 free colored men. (In Segars and Barrow, Black Southerners in Confederate Armies, pp. 2-4)

 

Another incident that suggests many slaves felt loyalty to the South involved the Confederate president, Jefferson Davis.  During a trip through the western part of the Confederacy, Davis got off his train at Griswoldville, Georgia, in order to meet with a group of slaves who had gathered in the hope of seeing him. These men worked at a local pistol factory and had come to the train station because they wanted to meet Davis. Informed of the gathering, Davis got off the train and circulated among the group, shaking each hand and speaking to each man individually (William Cooper, Jefferson Davis, American, Vintage Books Edition, New York: Vintage Books, 2001, p. 494).

 

We should keep in mind, too, that we have undeniable evidence that about 5,000 Hispanics and at least one brigade of Cherokee Indians fought for the Confederacy (see, for example, John O’Donnell-Rosales, Confederates, Clearfield Company, 1999).  The Confederate Cherokee brigade was commanded by a Cherokee Indian named Stand Watie, who was given the rank of general in the Confederate army.  These facts are additional reasons that, modern political correctness notwithstanding, it should not be surprising that thousands of blacks fought for the Confederacy.

 

Suggested Reading:

 

Black Confederate Warriors of Dixie Blog

 

Did Blacks Serve in the Confederate Army as Soldiers?

 

The Forgotten Black Confederate Soldier

 

Black Involvement with the Confederate Military



 

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 Monterey, California, in Arabic and Hebrew, and of the U.S. Air Force Technical Training School in San Angelo, Texas.  He has completed advanced Hebrew programs at Haifa University in Israel and at the Spiro Institute in London, England.  He is also the author of five books on Mormonism and ancient texts and one book on the John F. Kennedy assassination.

 

Mike Griffith’s Civil War website