Did Black Men Serve in Confederate Armies Part III


A commenter to a post about the Gamble Plantation asserted that many blacks freely served in Confederate armies. This falsehood is widely believed among the “heritage not hate” Confederate monument and flag supporters, neo-Confederates, and some southern educated white Southerners. Some of those who spoke at the recent Hillsborough County Council meetings in favor of preserving the County’s Confederate Soldiers Monument on the Courthouse grounds told this canard to the Commissioners.

I’ve written about this subject in two previous posts, Part I and Part II. In Part II, I described the Cleburne Memorial of January 1864. This proposal, to enlist black men in return for their freedom, by Major General Patrick R. Cleburne, one of the South’s best division commanders, was so scandalous that Jefferson Davis ordered it kept secret, and the Confederate War Department ordered all copies destroyed. A single surviving copy was found decades later in some regimental papers. If the Confederates had been enlisting black men as soldiers Cleburne’s proposal would have been unnecessary. If the enlistment of black men were merely undesired, as it was at the beginning of the war in the North, then the strict secrecy and destruction of all evidence of the proposal would have been unnecessary too. The Confederate government and Confederate armies did not enlist black men.

How did white Southerners, Confederate officials, officers and soldiers view armed black men, such as the soldiers in the United States Colored Troops regiments? They were horrified at the thought. They did not consider them legitimate soldiers worthy of respect due honorable enemies according to the laws of war of that time.

Confederate soldiers were enraged to face black armed men. There are well-known incidents, such as at Ft. Pillow and at the Battle of the Crater, in which Confederate soldiers shot down surrendering black men. But this must have been common, if unremarked. A case I know about is the battle of Olustee, a place in northern Florida. This was the largest battle fought in Florida, which was on no strategic interest to either side. About 5000 Confederates blocked a force of about 5000 U. S. Army troops including regiments of black soldiers. Among those regiments was the famous 54th Massachusetts. This battle was a Confederate victory, and Union forces left the field. Confederate soldiers murdered wounded black men who remained on the field. This fact is not known from official records, of course. But Confederate men described what they did or what they saw in letters home, some of which have survived to be read by historians. Supportive of the reports in these letters is the fact that the ratio of dead Union soldiers to all casualties was much higher than in typical Civil War battles.

Black soldiers who were captured alive might well be sold into slavery with the profits distributed among the rebel regiment’s men. When Robert E. Lee invaded Maryland and Pennsylvania in May 1863, his army sold into slavery any black people, slave or free, who were unfortunate enough to fall into their hands. I can’t say that I’ve read that Lee ordered this, but it could not have taken place without the knowledge of some ranking officers.

President Lincoln promulgated the Emancipation Proclamation on January 1, 1863. Here’s Jefferson Davis’s proclamation in response. It is worth reading this, or reading about it. I’ll just summarize his argument this way. The tyrant Lincoln was encouraging black people to rise up in arms against their legitimate owners. That is, he was encouraging a slave revolt. Indeed, more than encouraging it, he planned to arm the brutal and brutish blacks. This, according to Davis, was an outrage against all civilized Christian society. The Confederacy proposed to try any captured black Union soldiers as if they were slaves in armed revolt against their masters. The penalty for this was death. White officers of black regiments were also threatened with death. You can see this dramatized in Glory, the movie about the 54th Massachusetts. The black soldiers, then in training heard Davis’s proclamation and were offered the opportunity to leave the regiment, as the risks of combat to them were apparently much beyond those normal to soldiers. Lincoln’s response to this was to direct that one Confederate prisoner would be put to hard labor for each captured black man sold. This led to Confederates to ease the treatment of captured blacks somewhat.

In the first years of the Civil War the two sides did not maintain prisoner of war camps. They would exchange captured men, after they signed a parole promising not to return to combat. Of course, many and perhaps most paroled men returned to combat. Confederate armies, however, refused to parole captured black soldiers. All were considered escaped slaves. Those that could not be returned to their masters were nevertheless enslaved. Union forces demanded that all Union soldiers be treated alike and paroled. Negotiations failed to produce an agreement to restore the parole system. Jefferson Davis contributed to these negotiations by pointing out that Confederate armies were under no obligation to return their property in blacks captured from Union armies any more than they’d be expected to return captured horses, mules, or oxen. It was this breakdown of the parole system over Southern insistence that blacks were not legitimate soldiers that led both sides to establish the War’s notorious prisoner of war camps.

Conditions in these camps on both sides were poor, and death rates were high. As the South faced shortages of food, clothing, and material for its armies and citizens Union prisoners were in particularly dire straits. The Confederate prison at Andersonville, where thousands of men were kept without shelter, with inadequate food, and, basically, no medical treatment, was notorious.

Over the course if the war this failure of the parole system worked to the North’s advantage because it had much more manpower available to its armies, while a Confederate prisoner could not be replaced in its forces.

If Confederates at all levels denied the legitimacy of black soldiers in Union armies, they certainly weren’t going to enlist blacks into their own armies. Indeed, they did not do so until the last weeks of the war, in utter desperation for men in arms. The Confederate Congress heatedly debated the matter, with typical sentiments being such as this: If blacks can make good soldiers then our entire theory of this war is wrong. Enlistment was not approved until March, and, so I read, a few dozen slaves were enlisted and began training. But the war ended in April 1865.

If it were the case that many black men freely served, as the commenter asserted, then this debate would have been unnecessary. That these legislative debates and their final outcome occurred demonstrates that before that time, the Confederates did not enlist black men.

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