A commenter responding to one of my essays about the Gamble House asserted that many black soldiers served in the Confederate Army. I cited his remarks in my earlier post of the same title as this one. There I also linked to an essay by a professional historian who wrote about the matter in the New York Times, and to an essay that described the origins of this wildly false claim. Many among the supporters of Confederate monuments, Confederate flags, and many people educated in the South believe this claim.
In my first essay, I included and discussed a photograph of an armed Confederate white officer and an armed black man in Confederate uniform. These pictures of black men in Confederate uniform, of which there are a few, show black slaves brought by their commissioned masters to the army as personal servants. They do not show black Confederate soldiers.
I’m not a professional historian, but I’ve read a lot as an amateur. I have some things to say about this subject beyond my first post.
The Confederate government did not enlist black men, either slaves or freemen, into the Confederate army until a few weeks before the end of the war and only a few dozen at that. Indeed, Southern white people widely feared the possibility of a slave revolt, and most states banned arming slaves.
Consider the remarkable Cleburne memorial, as it is known. In this context, memorial is an old word for what we today might call a memorandum or a white paper. Confederate General Patrick R. Cleburne was an Irish immigrant to Arkansas. He was not a slave owner. When Arkansas seceded from the Union, he allied himself with his new compatriots and enlisted in the Confederate armed forces as a private. He had had military experience in Ireland, and he advanced rapidly through the ranks. By January 1864, he was among the Confederacy’s most respected and capable division commanders. Union bullets struck him down among his men in the battle of Franklin in Tennessee, a calamitous Confederate defeat.
July 1863 had seen major Confederate defeats at Gettysburg and Vicksburg. The first of these put an end to Robert E. Lee’s second invasion of the North, and the second opened the Mississippi River to Union traffic to New Orleans and severed the Confederacy’s western states and source of supply from the eastern states. There were other important battles in the western theater in the fall of 1863, such as the bloody battle of Chickamauga, a Confederate victory, and the remarkable Union victory at Chattanooga in a series of battles. Cleburne, a division commander in the Confederate Army of Tennessee, was at both of those battles.
By January 1864, Cleburne concluded that a Confederate defeat was inevitable. The problem was that the North had too many men, and the South too few white men. The North was enlisting free northern blacks, and any escaped slaves who reached Union lines in the South and wished to enlist. The South had about 6 million whites and 4 million black slaves. The North had about 21 million whites, and about half a million black slaves in border states. Since the South did not enlist black men, free or slave, they had to find their fighting men from a population less than a third of that available to the Union. Thus, even a victory such as Chickamauga, the second bloodiest battle in the war after Gettysburg, could not sustain the rebellion. At this point, he prepared his memorial. He obtained the approval of his subordinate divisional commanders, and submitted the document to General Joseph Johnston, Command of the Army of Tennessee, the second most important Confederate Army. General Johnston convened a meeting of his divisional and corps commanders to consider Cleburne’s proposal, that the South enlist blacks in return for their freedom. This proposal was so incendiary and controversial that all those who attended the meeting were sworn to secrecy. The generals in attendance refused to endorse Cleburne’s proposal, and General Johnston refused Cleburne’s request to forward it to the Confederate government in Richmond.
Major General W. H. T. Walker, however, found the proposal so shocking and disgraceful that he forwarded the memorial directly to Jefferson Davis, with the recommendation that it be condemned. General Walker explained
The gravity of the subject, the magnitude of the issues involved, my strong convictions that the further agitation of such sentiments and proposition would ruin the efficiency of our army, and involve our cause in ruin and disgrace constitute my reason for bringing the documents before the Executive.
Jefferson Davis replied
Deeming it to be injurious to the public service that such subject [the employment of slaves as soldiers in the army] should be mooted or even known to be entertained by persons possessed of confidence and respond of the people, I have concluded that the best policy under the circumstances will be to avoid all publicity, and the Secretary of War has therefore written to General Johnston requested him to convey to those concerned my desire that it should be kept private. If it is kept out of the public journals its ill effects will be much lessened.
These quotations are from a University of Kentucky site, linked to above, that includes a copy of Cleburne’s scandalous document. It is worth reading for its 19th century prose, and its facts, analysis, and logic. It should have been persuasive under the circumstances, except that the thought of enlisted black soldiers was contrary to the stated purposes and ideals of the Confederacy. The events surrounding Cleburne’s memorial would make no sense if it were the case that the Confederate government openly enlisted black men into its ranks.
General Walker asserted that to enlist black men would “ruin the efficiency of our army and involve our cause in ruin and disgrace.” Part of white Southerners conviction that they would win their independence by force of arms arose from their ideals of manhood. Only white men could stand shoulder to shoulder with comrades in the face of murderous enemy fire. Only white men could accept the discipline necessary for successful warfare. The low and shiftless black race was, in this way of thinking, only suitable for slavery. Southern whites confidently believed that they far exceeded their Northern former countrymen in this measure so necessary for victory.
Indeed, many Northern white soldiers felt the same way as Southern whites about valiant manhood and blacks. The Union did not enlist black men at the beginning of the war, and once they were enlisted, many Northerners, officers and soldiers did not trust them. Union black soldiers fought in segregated units with white officers. The movie Glory, about the famous 54th Massachusetts regiment, shows the story of one of the earliest Northern black regiments. Slaves who escaped to Union lines after the Emancipation Proclamation went into force in January 1863, could enlist in US Colored Troops Regiments, also segregated with white officers. About 180,000 black men, 8 or 10% of the total Union men in arms, served in these regiments. You can visit the monument to this regiment on Boston Common facing the State House.
In my next post of this subject, I’ll describe the Confederate government’s and Confederate Army’s view of these black Union soldiers, as this also supports the idea that white Southerners did not accept that black men were legitimate soldiers.