Hey there folks, and welcome back to the Connections blog! To begin today’s two-part topic, I shall tell to you an awkward personal story. When I was visiting a large, outdoor living history museum in Virginia last year (a museum that shall remain nameless and had nothing to do with the Civil War), I overheard one of the museum’s staff interrupt a conversation between a museum interpreter and a visitor standing adjacent to me. The staff member interrupted the interpreter to say that the Confederates had an integrated military, with black soldiers fighting right next to white ones, and that the Confederates were therefore less prejudiced than the Union. After an uncomfortable silence, the interpreter resumed his previous conversation.
The comment made by this staff member was not only inappropriate to the museum’s focus and setting, but also seemed like a blatant falsehood. But could it possibly be true that blacks and whites fought together in Confederate units? To answer that question, technically no. There were of course no integrated units in the South. However, much to my surprise, there may have actually been a few units of black troops that organized for the Confederates. Professor John Stauffer of Harvard has recently done research on just this subject, and estimates that there may have been a bit over 3,000 black soldiers formed on the Confederate side (Article HERE.) Now, before you get excited, keep in mind that Stauffer points out that many of these black soldiers were not accepted by the Confederate government and were not issued firearms: still more of these soldiers were coerced into joining the military, and others joined to escape miserable poverty. Professor Carol Sheriff of the College of William and Mary reinforces the notion that any blacks who fought did so somewhat involuntarily, by clarifying that some black body-servants may have taken up arms in the heat of battle to defend their masters and themselves, and even then they were sometimes forced to do so. (Article HERE.) She also makes the point that arming blacks or allowing them to fight in the military was illegal in the Confederacy. This makes it extremely difficult to claim that the Confederates used black troops, because refusing to allow them to fight and forcing them to join in the first place quashes the notion that they were soldiers. In any case, they were present in such minuscule numbers that it’s difficult to validate their presence – these “soldiers” only represented about one half of one percent of the Confederate military strength.
The greatest single example of black Confederate soldiers – the Louisiana Native Guards, composed of black and mixed-race men from the New Orleans area – was not accepted by the Confederate military despite their wish to fight for the south when the war broke out (Article HERE.) As a result, when the Union took New Orleans in spring of 1862, the Louisiana Native Guards joined the Union when General Butler called for reinforcements. On a side note, over 4,000 black and mixed-race men joined the Union army in New Orleans that spring, which outnumbers those that may have joined the Confederacy over the course of the entire war.
In addition to these early-war instances of black soldiers serving with the Confederates, the Confederate congress authorized the conscription of 300,000 black soldiers in March of 1865. As most of you are no doubt well aware, General Lee surrendered at Appomattox about a month after this decision, rendering the aforementioned decision to use black troops meaningless. Instead, the timing of the decision should give you an idea of just how averse the Confederates were to including African Americans in their ranks: they waited until there were no white troops left to fight, Richmond was about to be burned, and the South was almost completely destroyed before they seriously considered using black troops. While a few thousand African Americans may have indeed joined the Confederates, they joined at the start of the war and were quickly rebuffed by the Confederate government either directly or by denial of equipment. At best, the story of black Confederate soldiers highlights the prejudice of the slaveholding society and serves as yet another embarrassment for the South – why that nameless employee thought it was a good idea to mention it is a story for the next blog post. Until then, have a good one!