The Black soldiers who served in the Confederate Army are the real
Private R.M. Doswell was hastening back to his unit after carrying an order when something attracted his attention. The young Virginian had just spotted one of the new Confederate companies of black soldiers, “a novel sight to me.” the black Confederates were guarding a wagon train near Amelia Court House on the retreat from Richmond.
Doswell reined in about 100 yards to the rear of the wagon train and watched in fascination as a Union cavalry regiment formed up to charge. The black Confederates fired their weapons like veterans and drove back the overconfident Federals. The horse soldiers re-formed for another charge. This time they broke up the wagon train and scattered the defenders. The black soldiers were captured and disarmed. Doswell suddenly realized his own danger and rode away without being noticed. The date was April 4, 1865. Five days later, Lee would surrender his Army of Northern Virginia at Appomattox Court House.
The Couragous black soldiers who served in the various Northern armies have been much publicized and praised. Their brothers who fought for the South have been almost totally ignored. In actual fact, black Americans marched to war with the Southern armies from the very beginning in early 1861. In contrast, the Federal government refused to allow black men to serve in its ranks until well into the conflict. It was 1863 before the North began using black troops in any large number, and only then after considerable opposition.
Why did black men become soldiers of the south? It is often forgotten that while slavery was the major underlying cause of the Civil War, its abolition was not the original objective of the US government. In his inaugural address of March 4, 1861, President Abraham Lincoln stated that he had “no purpose, directly or indirectly, to interfere with the institution of slavery in the states where it exists. I believe I have no lawful right to do so, and I have no inclination to do so.” The attempts by overzealous generals such as John C. Fremont and David Hunter to free the slaves in the areas they occupied were promptly countermanded by Lincoln. The man in the White House had enough problems without pushing slave-owning Union loyalist in the critical border stares into the arms of secessionists.
Many Northern soldiers felt the same way, declaring that they would stop fighting if the war turned into a crusade for abolition. Before crossing the Ohio River in 1861 into what would become West Virginia, Maj. Gen. George B. McClellan had issued a proclamation to reassure the inhabitants, “Not only will we abstain from such interference,” he wrote, “but we will on the contrary with an iron hand crush any insurrection on their part.” Even General Ulysses S. Grant had said that if he “thought this was was to abolish slavery, I would resign my commission, and offer my sword to the other side.”
Faced with such an attitude from the hostile North, the black Southerners had little reason not to be loyal to their home section. The slaves had nothing to gain from a Northern victory, and free black men might actually stand to lose such rights and property as they already had.
The 1860 census counted 240,747 “free Negroes” in the slave states, 15,000 more than lived in the free states to the north. Almost half a century earlier, free black Southerners had fought under Andrew Jackson to help defeat British invaders at the Battle of New Orleans. Not surprisingly, many also volunteered to defend their homes against the new threat from the North. No accurate record has been kept of black units that served the South, since most of them were state militia and never mustered into the Confederate Army. However, contemporary newspapers mention black units as being present at Charleston, Mobile, Nashville, New Orleans, Bowling Green, Ky., and Lynchburg, Va. Not one of these militia units appears to have been actively engaged in combat, though many did perform service on the front lines. Quite often this was as laborers in the construction of fortifications, a task also performed by slaves.
While free black men may have been accepted into the Confederate Army, the question of allowing slaves to enlist was another matter. As early as July 11, 1861, W.S. Turner of Helena, Ark., had proposed to arm and equip a regiment of slaves from his area for the Confederate Army. The offer was not accepted. In fact, such proposals struck at the very basis of slavery. To admit that slaved could be turned into good soldiers was to recognize black equality. If that was the case, slavery was wrong. Nevertheless, thousands of slaves served in the Southern army as noncombatants such as cooks, teamsters and musicians, or as personal servants to white Southerners.
Many of the slaves did on occasion take up arms and become combatants. An Englishman serving with the South wrote that one “might as well endeavor to keep ducks from water as to attempt to hold in the cooks of our company, when firing or fighting is on hand.” Despite ordering his black cook to remain in the rear during the First Battle of Manassas, the English Confederate found him on the firing line, rifle in hand, shouting “Go in, Massa! give it to ‘m, boys! Now you’ve got ‘m, and give ’em Hell!” The soldier wrote, “If the Negro is really so unhappy as Northernern orators proclaim, why do our servants go into battle with us? – how comes it that officers cannot keep them from the front?”
One of the fighting cooks was given his freedom as a reward for his bravery but still continued to follow his former owner. It should be noted, however, that in almost every instance where a slave served loyally with his soldier-master, there was longstanding close relationship between the two. Slave and master had often grown up together, and the emotional ties between the two were strong.
For the vast majority of slaves, the war over secession meant little. Quite sensibly, they were basically neutral. Even after the Emancipation Proclamation, most slaves did not automatically support the North. In 1866, a witness before the Congressional Committee on Reconstruction was asked what percentage of the Southern blacks sympathized with the North during the war. “None of them,” he replied. “There has been this: a dispostion on their part to try something new…to be free; and when they came within reach of the Federal army a great many of them ran away to it. But there was no resistance to discipline and authority at home.”
In fact, slaves serving with the Confederate Army showed little inclination to run away even when they were deep within Union territory. A British observer, Lt. Col. Arthur J. Fremantle of the Coldstream Guards, noted in his diary that he observed an armed black man leading a Union prisoner in Pennsylvania during the Gettysburg campaign. The man explained to Fremantle that the two soldiers assigned to guard the prisoner were drunk, so he had taken charge of the prisoner to keep him from escaping. “This little episode of a Southern slave leading a white Yankee through a Northern village, alone and of his own accord, would not have been gratifying to an abolitionists,” wrote Fremantle. “Nor would the sympathizers both in England and in the North feel encouraged if they could hear the language of detestation and contempt with which numerous Negroes with the Southern armies speak of their liberators.”
The issue of arming the slaves was one which the South would eventually have to face. It was all a matter of numbers. The population of the Northern states was several times that of the South, and about one-third of the total Southern population was black. As the war dragged on, the shortage of manpower became exceedingly evident. Sooner or later, the slaves would have to be turned into soldiers. However, to do so was to write the finish to slavery itself.
By the end of the third year of the war, Maj. Gen. Patrick R. Clebutne decided the time had come. Abraham Lincoln had already issued his Emancipation Proclamation, which ironically affected only the states who were not under his control. Lincoln had proclaimed freedom for all slaves in the territory still held by the Confederacy in an attempt to end their usefullness in the South. However, the slaves in areas under Union control remained slaves. It almost seemed hypocritical. Nevertheless, the Emancipation Proclamation was a powerful psychological weapon that made the North now appear tomany as the champion of human liberty. The slaves had been given reason to hope for Northern victory.
Irish-born Pat Cleburn proposed turning the tables on Lincoln: free the slaves and enlist them as Southern soldiers. “The necessity for more fighting men is upon us,” Cleburne wrote on January 2, 1864. “We can only get a sufficiency by making the Negro share the danger and hardship of the war. If we arm him and train him and make him fight for his country, every consideration of principle and policy demands that we shall set him and his whole race, who side with us, free.”
Cleburne believed that every rational man would place Southern independence ahead of the outdated system of slavery. However, governments are not always run by rational men. A copy of Cleburne’s proposal was forwarded to Jefferson Davis. The Confederate president commented that although he recognized the “patriotic motives of its distinguished author, I deem it inexpedient at this time.”
Major General Howell Cobb, a Georgia politician who owned over 1,000 slaves, was shocked by what Cleburne had suggested. “If slaves make good soldiers,” said Cobb, “our whole theory of slavery is wrong.” The Lincoln government had already decided that was indeed the case. In the summer of 1862, the U.S. Congress authorized the president to employ as many black noncombatants as he felt necessary. They still were not accepted by the North as soldiers, but within a year’s time they would be.
The Union Army’s black troops were formed into segregated units commanded by white officers. A number of these regiments distinguished themselves in combat, and black Union soldiers eventually would be present at over 400 battles and skirmishes before the war had ended. The black Federals, however, were discriminated against in other ways. Until late in the war, they received lower pay than white soldiers. Throughout the war they were regularly cheated of their enlistment bonuses by unscrupulous recruiting agents. Black soldiers faced an additional danger not shared by their white colleagues. If captured, they would not be considered prisoners of war, but sold back into slavery. On a few occasions, black captives were simply shot.
NOTE the above statement is not completely true (thanks to Captain Michael Kelley of the 34th Texas Cavalry for the following clarification:
Black Union soldiers _were_ taken as prisoner and are recorded as such in Southern prison camps. One was Corporal Henry Gooding of the 54th Massachusetts, whose letters to his hometown newspaper were later published as, “On the Altar of Freedom – the Collected Letters of Cpl Henry B. Gooding, 54th Massachusetts (Colored)”; he died as a POW at Andersonville in 1865. At Ft. Pillow, Gen. N.B. Forrest took away 37 Black Union soldiers as POWs.
Tens of thousands of black Southerners eventually served in the Northern armies. The Emancipation Proclamation gave them a reason to do so, though many did so clearly against their will. Union officers sometimes rounded up recruits at the point of a bayonet, since collecting the Federal bounty of $100 dollars for each man made this a highly profitable sideline. On February 7, 1865, Lincoln personally wrote to the army commander at Henderson, Ky., ordering him to stop torturing black men to force them to enlist.
Six weeks earlier, Brig. Gen. Rugus Saxon had informed the War Department of an even more shocking incident that occured in South Carolina when slaves were conscripted en masse. “The order spread confusion and terror,” wrote Saxon. “The Negroes fled to the woods and swamps, visiting their cabins only by stealth and in darkness. They were hunted to their hiding places by armed partied of their own people, and if found, compelled to enlist.” Three young men, one only 14, were seized while working in a field and sent to a distant regiment without their parents even being informed. A black man who refused to enlist was shot dead. Another man who worked for the army quartermaster department was kidnapped and forced to join an infantry regiment.
By the end of 1864, the battered Confederacy was running out of time. On September 26, 1864, Governer Henry W. Allen of Louisianna wrote to to the Confederate secretary of war urging him to take action at once. “The time has come for us to put into the army every able-bodied Negro man as a soldier,” Allen said. “We have learned from dear-bought experience that Negroes can be taught to fight. I would free all able to bear arms, and put them into the field at once. They will make much better soldiers for us than against us, and swell the now depleted ranks of our armies.”
The influential Richmond Enquirer agreed in its editorial for October 18, 1864. “When it is once understood that freedom and a home in the South are the privelages offered by the Confederate authorities, not only will desertions from our ranks be unfrequent, but the drafted Negroes of the Yankee armies will exchange services.”
In January 1865, Robert E. Lee gave his powerful support in a letter to Andrew Hunter of Virginia. Lee proposed that all slaves who were willing to enlist be freed and armed. “We must decide whether slavery shall be extinguished by our enemies and the slaves used against us, or use them ourselves at the risk of the effects which may be produced on our social institutions,” he wrote. “My own opinion is that we should employ them without delay.” Lee also felt that if the action had been taken at the beginning of the war, black assistance might have been decisive.
On February 18, 1865, the Confederate Congress finally authorized the enlistment of Southern slaves “to provide additional forces to repel invasion, maintain the rightful possession of the Confederate States, secure their independence and preserve their institutions.” One instituion they would not be preserving was that of slavery. No matter which side won, slavery was now as good as dead. Surprisingly, the Southern army accepted black soldiers as equals. By order of March 23, 1865, the black Confederates were to “receive the same ration, clothing, and compensation as allowed other troops in the same branch of service.”
The enlistment of slaves into the Confederate Army began almost at once. Soon, black soldiers were drilling in the streets of Richmond, and the Confederate War Department was being deluged with requests for the authority to raise more. On March 21, 1865, the Richmond Sentinal reported that the battalion from Camps Winder and Jackson, including “the company of colored troops under Captain Grimes,” would parade on the square. Three days later, the newspaper informed its readers that “the Negro brigade being raised by Majors Pegram and Turner, is being rapidly filled up.”
The black companies were provided with new uniforms and marched through the city to encourage more to enlist. Black units were also recruited in the deep South, and a worried Ulysses S. Grant wrote to Maj. Gen. Edward R.S. Canby at Mobile to “get all the Negro men we can before the enemy puts them into their ranks.” However, the Southern leaders had waited far too long. The war would be over before the black Confederates could have any effect on the outcome.
But what would have happened if Confederate authorities had acted sooner? Could the South have won, after all? Slavery was the main obstacle in gaining foreign recognition, especially after the Emancipation Proclamation had made the North appear to be fighting to bring freedom to the black man. Slavery’s abolition by the Confederacy would have eliminated the moral issue and made the South acceptable to Europe. Christian Fleetwood, a black soldier who had served in the Union Army, realized this. “The immense addition to their fighting forces, quick recognition of Great Britian, 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,” he wrote. Confederate General John Bell Hood was equally positive. “This stroke of policy and additional source of strength would, in my opinion, have given us our independence.” Yet slavery was one of the basic issues of the war. The Confederate political leaders could not bear to give it up until there was nothing else left to do.
After the war, the contributions of black soldiers to the Southern war effort were almost completely forgotten. In part, this was the result of the growing misconception that the Civil War had been fought solely to end slavery. The political and economic causes were virtually ignored, as was the question of the legality of secession. The memory of the martyred Abraham Lincoln left little place for the recognition of black men who had fought against his armies. However, one former slave who had been captured with his master spoke for them all. “I had as much right to fight for my native State as you had to fight for yours,” he told a Union officer, “and a blame sight more right than your furriners, what’s got no homes.”
The Confederate veterans did not forget. In 1913, 50 years after the bloody Battle of Gettysburg, thousands of surviving members of the rival armies met once more at the little Pennsylvania town, this time in friendship. The commission in charge of housing had provided accommodations for the black Union veterans. However, they were completely surprised when black Confederates showed up as well. The unexpected black Southerners were given straw pallets in the main tent of the compound. White veterans from Tennessee soon learned of their old comrads’ plight. The white Confederates led the black veterans to their own camp, assigned them one of their tents, and saw to their every need. In peace, as in war, all men were equal.
(Article by Charles Rice, America’s Civil War, November 1995)