Remembering Black Confederates

Wednesday, April 11, 2007

ELIZABETH JOHNSTON / A View from the Valley

Since April is Confederate History Month, I thought it would be
appropriate to discuss a much overlooked part of the history of
the Confederacy — that of the service of black Southerners,
both slave and free, in the Confederate army.

Of course, loyalty to the South was by no means uniform; an estimated
500,000 blacks came into Union lines during the War Between the
States, a significant number, though not the majority of Southern

Blacks, like other Confederate soldiers, had numerous personal reasons
for enlisting. Some joined for the excitement. Of the quarter of
a million free blacks in the South, 25 percent owned slaves, and
it was common for them to enlist in high numbers, feeling threatened
by the North.

In other cases, as one black Confederate put it: “No matter
where I fight, I only wish to spend what I have, and fight as long
as I can, if only my boy may stand alone in the street equal to
a white boy when the war is over.”

A strong minority were deeply loyal to the South and its cause,
which to them meant freedom. But the most common reason for enlisting
was simpler, and black and white Rebels shared it. They saw the
North as an invader and wanted to protect their homes, families
and way of life.

For all but the last few months of the War Between the States, the
Confederate national government did not encourage the enlistment
of blacks, but many were able to join the army through their states
or local communities. The number of black Confederates was probably
between 50,000 and 100,000. Unfortunately, Confederate records of
both its black and white servicemen were very poor, so the exact
number of either is guesswork.

The loyalty of many Southern blacks was a shock to Northerners.
A black Texan guarded a federal major so carefully that he complained
in his journal: “Here I had come South and was fighting to
free this man. If I had made one false move on my horse, he would
have shot my head off.”

The Union captors of one slave held at Point Lookout, Md., reminded
him that his master had signed the Oath of Allegiance and wanted
to know why he refused. “Master has no principles,”
the slave responded in disgust.

A Northern newspaper commented after First Manassas: “The
war has dispelled one delusion of the abolitionists. The Negroes
regard them as enemies instead of friends. … (T)hey have jeered
at and insulted our troops, have readily enlisted in the rebel army,
and on Sunday at Manassas, shot down our men with as much alacrity
as if abolitionism had never existed.”

Even Frederick Douglass, who was instrumental in the North’s
decision to allow blacks to serve in its armies, noticed: “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 do to destroy the Federal government and build up that of the
traitors and rebels.”

Black Confederates served as body servants, musicians, teamsters,
sentries, cooks, quartermasters, and engineers, as well as in the
commissaries and in construction of fortifications. An estimated
40,000 served in combat. In fact, a black Confederate soldier named
Sam Ashe was probably the one to kill Major Winthrop, the first
Union officer to die in combat.

The engineering skills of another black Rebel, Horace King, were
so well known that he was called “the bridge builder of the
Confederacy.” Sixty-five blacks rode with Nathan Bedford Forrest’s
cavalry. One Tennessee regiment, lacking a chaplain, chose a black
man named Uncle Lewis to serve in that position.

The deadly sniping of one black Rebel sharpshooter at Yorktown,
Va., became such a hindrance to the Union forces that an elite unit
of Federal marksmen had to be sent out to stop him. In the Confederate
Navy, 1,150 black sailors had served as of February 1865. Dozens
of Confederate blacks refused Northern offers of freedom and chose
instead to surrender at Appomattox with the white Confederates whom
they had marched alongside.

The black Confederates served just as bravely as other Rebels. As
we remember the Confederacy this month, we should be careful not
to forget them.

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