Did black men serve as soldiers in the Confederate Army?


Our post from last December, Why Do the People and Government of Florida Honor Judah P. Benjamin at the Gamble Plantation State Park? has drawn a few comments. Here’s the most recent:

takebackUS (@wc983)

August 15, 2017 at 5:50 am Edit

You do realize many blacks freely served [in] the confederacy and owned slaves. Your rhetoric is boring!!

To this I replied:

Dear takeback,
How would it have been possible for a black slave to “freely” serve in the Confederate army? A slave could not freely do anything.
You are misinformed about black Confederate soldiers. The idea of arming black men was horrifying to Southern white people, to the leaders of the Confederacy, and to Confederate soldiers. The Confederacy only began to enlist black men bearing their owner’s manumission papers, in the final weeks of the war out of desperation. Only a few dozen were enlisted, and they did not take part in combat.
I’ll write a blog post about this for you and our readers.

Here’s the promised blog post.

That black men, free and slave, served in Confederate Armies is widely believed among defenders of today’s Confederate monuments and the display of Confederate flags. Many of those who testified to the Hillsborough County Council that the local monument is not racist asserted that people of many nationalities, including blacks, served in rebel armies. One displayed a photograph of a black man in Confederate gray uniform. I couldn’t find that photograph, but here’s another:

While I’m happy to write what I know about this issue, which is that the Confederate government and Army did not enlist black men, slave or free, until the last few weeks of the war, I have some useful links to professional scholarship.

General Cleburne’s Radical Plan is an essay in the New York Times’ wonderful series in which they had a professional historian write an essay each day about events 150 years ago, to the day, in the Civil War. Although the essay centers on the General’s plan, historian Phil Leigh discusses the entire issue. In January 1864, General Cleburne presented what we would call a white paper to the other senior officers of his army, meeting in northwest Georgia. They were defending Georgia against General Sherman and his men. Considering the circumstances of the war, such as the terrible Confederate defeats at Gettysburg and Vicksburg, Cleburne proposed that the Confederate Army enlist black men. Of course, they would have to be offered freedom in return. This proposal was scandalous to such a degree that all officers present were sworn to maintain the secret as the document went to Richmond for consideration by the Confederate government.

This proposal was turned down, and Jefferson Davis ordered all copies of the document destroyed. By chance one copy survived, and it was discovered decades later. Typical remarks, I’m not quoting but writing from memory of books I’ve read, were like this: If black men can be good soldiers, then our entire theory of this war is wrong!

In the last months of the war, at the end of 1864 and early in 1865, the Confederate government in desperation for men debated and approved a plan to enlist slave men. Such a man required the approval of his master had to be accompanied by his manumission papers. In many of the Southern states, freeing slaves was illegal. A few dozen slaves, now free, in Richmond were enlisted in March 1865 and began training. But the Confederate government and the Army of Northern Virginia abandoned Richmond at the beginning of April and the army surrendered on April 9. None of these slaves ever saw combat.

Many black slaves were with Confederate Armies, but were not soldiers. Wealthy men, slave owners, who served as officers might bring one of their slaves as a personal servant. These are the usual black men rarely shown in photographs wearing a soldiers’ gray uniform. Other black slaves dug trenches, chopped trees, drove wagons, and other laborious tasks.

There are a few other unusual cases. In New Orleans at the beginning of the war in 1861 a militia unit that included Creole men and free black men offered their services to the Confederacy. The government turned them down and disbanded them. The Union Navy captured New Orleans in May 1862, and most of Louisiana was controlled by the Union for the rest of the war. This militia unit reassembled and was enlisted in the Union Army. Other black men from Louisiana, free or escaped slaves, served in the United States Colored Troops regiments once they formed.

But not in the Confederate Army.

Where did the story arise that black men “freely”, as the commenter reports, serve in the Confederate Army. It’s a modern idea, part of the modern version of the Lost Cause. Here’s a good article that discusses the origins of this falsehood. The photograph I posted here leads this article, but is not otherwise described.

This photograph and the two men in it are the subjects of a charming and informative History Detectives show on PBS, “Wearing the Confederate Uniform: Slave or Soldier?

The detective tracks down and meets with descendants of the two men, great-great-grandchildren. The family stories, according to both men, are that the white man had freed his black slave, who then accompanied him to war as a soldier. These genial modern men want to know if their family stories are true. Watch the video, which is good, clear, and interesting. You’ll see census records, deeds, listen to historians describing the photograph, and talking about soldiers of that time. In short, the black man was certainly a slave at the time of the photograph. His weapons likely handed him for the photograph. He had accompanied his master to war, but not, himself, to combat. The Confederate Armies did not enlist black men. Other parts of the family stories turn out to be partly correct. It was illegal to free a slave in Mississippi in the 1860s.

Thus, commenter takebackUS is misinformed. As to his value as a critic of our blog’s merits, I leave to our readers.


Filed under Civil War

2 responses to “Did black men serve as soldiers in the Confederate Army?

  1. Pingback: Did Black Soldiers Serve in the Confederate Army? Part II | two heads are better

  2. Pingback: Did Black Men Serve in Confederate Armies Part III | two heads are better

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