The Civil War Connections Blog

Black Confederate Soldiers: Fact or Fantasy? (Part 1)

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!

16 Comments

  1. Posted March 21, 2013 at 8:35 PM | Permalink

    Well, I’m sorry but you are incorrect. There were large numbers of blacks that served the Confederate armed forces. You have to discredit so many sources to make the claim that you did, like Chief Sanitary Officer Steiner of the US army, who estimated that Stonewall Jackson’s army contained about 3,000 black soldiers, fully equipped. How about Frederick Douglas’ statement about how many blacks there were in the South who were fighting for the Confederates? Or maybe the hundreds of black veterans who collected pensions for their service in the Confederate army? Do you not consider the thousands of blacks who served in the army in non-combat roles soldiers? What about the numerous testimonies of Union soldiers and officers who claimed that they fought against black Confederates? If you are looking for formal records, then you are obviously not going to find any because Confederate records are largely incomplete, and it’s nearly impossible to identify which soldiers were black because… the Confederate armies WERE INTEGRATED.

  2. William Weatherford
    Posted June 12, 2013 at 11:45 PM | Permalink

    You sir, know very little about the service of blacks for the confederacy.

    unfortunately, some uninformed readers will believe your editorial as fact.

  3. Steve Van Helten
    Posted July 10, 2013 at 9:04 AM | Permalink

    I think black soldiers did serve in the confederate army. Any blanket assertion of unit composition in either the union or confederate armies would be wrong. Officially blacks were banned from the confederate army and in the union army only in seperate all black units. If you read the regimental history of the 38th Iowa titled “Iowa’s Martyr Regiment” by David Wildman you find that a freed black man first was their cook and then was officially inducted into the unit. I suspect that you will find instances of this in both armies.

  4. Gene Gatewood
    Posted July 13, 2013 at 11:51 AM | Permalink

    While you do make a valid point that black confederates were few and far between, you seem to be writing them off just because there were only 3000 of them. That is very belittling. By the way, I am quite certain there where more than 3000 considering that the 1890 census shows 3,273 black confederate veterans, and that doesn’t account for the ones that died during the war or the ones that died in the 25 years between the war and the census. Not to mention the ones that were not counted in the census (due to moving during western expansion, hermits not wanting to be counted. ect., ect.) You also say that they would have joined early war and basically forced out because they would not have been equipped, this is not true. If so how would 7 have been captured at Gettysburg? I agree that it is a cop-out to an extent, but they were there. Granted few of them, but they fought and bleed just like the man standing next to them.

  5. Marlea
    Posted August 4, 2013 at 2:57 PM | Permalink

    Brian, an interesting and thoughtful article. I investigated the ancestry of a friend of mine (black). The most interesting person in his family tree was a mulatto, the son of a plantation owner and a slave. The owner loved this female slave and so her son was born free. The young man moves to New Orleans and is sent to trade school to learn shoe making. He joined the local militia, which was as much a social club as a military unit. These men were armed. The militia joined the Confederate army. How many served in battle, I don’t know.

    What you must understand is that slavery was different under the French and the Spanish. Slaves had the right to buy their freedom, the prices adjudicated in court. Slaves got every Sunday off and many worked other jobs to buy their freedom.

    Freed slaves and free people of color thrived in New Orleans. Ironically, many of them bought slaves of their own.

    Ref: Bounded Lives, Bounded Places

  6. YellowDog
    Posted August 10, 2013 at 5:04 AM | Permalink

    We must remember that slaves did not have the right to volunteer for service or the right to refuse service.

    I cannot believe that any significant number of slaves fought for the right to remain enslaved; and THE CIVIL WAR WAS PRIMARILY A WAR CONCERNING SLAVERY.

    “…our peculiar institutions-African slavery as it exists among us-the proper status of the negro in our form of civilization. This was the immediate cause of the late rupture and present revolution.”

    Alexander H. Stephens Confederate VP

  7. acornelius
    Posted September 11, 2013 at 10:17 PM | Permalink

    I have found this to be an interesting topic. On the one hand you have historians who point to the near total lack of evidence that the confederacy had blacks soldiers, because (1) it was illegal in the south, and (2) there are few reliable records. On the other hand the same historians admit that (1) blacks still served in support capacities, albeit their level of enthusiasm cannot be measured, and (2) there are some documented cases of individual blacks bearing arms in brief instances, such as the heat of battle. The opposition, in their intellectual fury, seem to argue (1) nu-uh. I’ve seen statements like “everyone knows” or “its a fact that” – but never any real evidence unless it is the individual cases the historians already pointed out, from with they then over-generalize recklessly.

    Look, a million southern men fought, and nearly a third died. I have no doubt many of them were good men who feared God and fought to protect their homes. I also have no doubt that most of them harbored racist attitudes akin to those most northerners had (If I lived in the south then I probably would have fought too). However, there is no doubt that for at least the wealthy and powerful in the south the preservation of slavery was a major impetus for war. That fact should not cause the descendants of those who fought to feel badly about the sacrifices of their ancestors, even though there was a dark side to the cause they fought for.

    No more lies. History is good enough without them. Few blacks fought for the south, but many good white men did. But really, what does that change unless you are trying to rationalize history to meet the emotional needs of the present?

  8. sorry
    Posted September 28, 2013 at 2:33 AM | Permalink

    If the war was primarily about slavery why did Lincoln say it was about preserving the Union regardless of slavery? I’m getting tired of federally brainwashed sheep ignorance from gun control to drug war propaganda to false history. If the South would of won carpetbagger created racism would be much less and the KKK/ Hollywood would of never been able to defile the cross of St. Andrews. Welcome to reality, it comes from reading actual historical documents not listening to other biased peoples interpretations.

  9. Steve
    Posted September 30, 2013 at 6:54 PM | Permalink

    The Confederate fighting armies were… integrated? Nothing could be further from the truth. It is correct to say that “some” blacks, free and slave, fought for the Confederacy. Integration was totally unacceptable by whites in the North and the South, yet some blacks were commissioned as officers by both. However these commissions were given solely for the purpose of blacks commanding as officers over other blacks ONLY!

    All one must do to decipher the “truth” in historic accounts, is to study, pay attention and use common sense. Recent published documents by Dr. Juanita Patience Moss shows that her black great grandfather served as a cook in an all-white Union regiment. If you want to call that “integration” I guess you can. However, the fact that both the North and South created exclusively “all-black” regiments and units should tell you that integration of fighting units was not the order of the day.

  10. Marc
    Posted October 17, 2013 at 10:54 AM | Permalink

    I have read some interesting and largely informed comments here. Bravo. I have been researching the cause of the war and the cause of secession for some time now. They are seperate issues you know? I have come to the conclusion the question of “why did the south secede?” is actually a trick question. Tennessee, for example, seceded because the government of the state decided to hold a referendum on the subject and 68.9% of her people voted to secede. Other states held special elections to pick delegates from each county who met specifically to vote on the subject and therefore seceded because the duly elected representatives voted to. So, the truth few want taught is that the south seceded because the citizens of the states in the south either directly or through elected representation, chose to.

    Now, why did the war start? I’ve read letters sent back and forth between the governments of the north and the south and though my research continues, at this point it looks to me as follows: The north told South Carolina they would evacuate Fort Sumpter and others. The south had sent special ambassadors to meet with the Secretary of State in the US and they had agreed to directly notify each other if either side planned any large troop movements so as to avoid war. All the while, Lincoln was assembling a fleet to travel down and reenforce Fort Sumpter. He violated the agreement to notifiy the amabassadors and sent a man who was to arrive in Charleston the night before the reenforements arrived. Weather delayed the fleet and word got to the South so they reenforced the other forts. And finally, Jefferson Davis sent a message to the commander of Fort Sumpter stating that Charleston would not fire on Fort Sumpter if the union forces agreed not to fire on them unless first fired upon. The Union commander refused to make the agreement. In a letter President Davis sent to the congress of the CSA, he declared that under the circumstances, he could only believe that the North planned to invade Charleston and so ordered to for razed.

    Thanks for your time.

  11. Billy
    Posted February 22, 2014 at 6:19 AM | Permalink

    For all those claiming that slavery was not the cause of the war: For 20 years before the civil war, there was HUGE controversy over whether a state would join the Union as free or slave. Actual fighting broke out in Kansas and elsewhere. The South seceded after the election of Lincoln because they were terrified that he was going to abolish slavery.

    Furthermore, slavery was not fading away in the south, it was only increasing and becoming more and more prosperous. Despite the abolishment of the slave trade, there was a “natural increase” in slaves in the south, entrepreneurs commonly invested in slave women and children because of their ability to produce more slaves.

  12. Lori
    Posted April 1, 2014 at 12:09 PM | Permalink

    Someone mentioned Frederick Douglass as a reliable source of information about Black Confederate soldiers. He actually isn’t a good source, at least for this information, because he made that statement after word of mouth rumors were relayed to him. He lived in New York and never witnessed any fighting between the Union & black Confederate soldiers. With that being said, I have personally done research on this topic and it is in fact true that the number of black Confederate soldiers was very low. There were thousands that worked in a laboring capacity, such as cooks and “gofers”. Very few actually served as soldiers and NONE served alongside white soldiers. It is true that there were around 3,000 black soldiers and possibly slightly more. No one is discrediting their contribution to the Civil War. Almost 200,000 fought for the Union. Reasoning being, why would they fight for the Confederate South that had held them in servitude and treated them inhumanely when they could fight for the Union North & receive their freedom afterwards??? To me it is basic common sense however a deep historical study of the topic reveals that this article is in fact accurate.

  13. FRANCESCO
    Posted June 1, 2014 at 1:52 PM | Permalink

    Ladies and Gentlemen, good morning.

    Article Black Confederates in the Civil War
    by Scott K. Williams estimate African-Americans enrolled in the CSA to 65,000.
    I believe that a number of armed taklli to constitute two armies would have been noticed.

    FrancESCO

  14. Joshua
    Posted June 26, 2014 at 6:22 PM | Permalink

    In the course of the entire war there were blacks, white, and even Indians. My great, great, (great?) grandfather was Cherokee, and he fought for the Confederacy.
    The Civil War hardly had anything to do with slavery. Less than half of the succeeding states owned slaves. Maryland, and I think Ohio as well, owned slaves.
    The slaves weren’t considered human. In fact, if the Union soldiers knew that the result of the Union’s victory would be the freedom of the slaves, then the Union army would greatly lose its numbers.
    There are stories about how the north was so dedicated to the Union — they weren’t. They were about ready to give up. The Confederacy was starving, without proper uniforms, and they were still committed to the Confederacy. If the south had ammunition, the Confederacy would have won that war hands down.

  15. Pvblivs
    Posted July 7, 2014 at 11:40 PM | Permalink

    Billy:

    It sounds like such a noble cause, doesn’t it? That Union forces wanted to free the slaves. Here’s the problem: the facts do not support the contention. Congress did not abolish slavery until the war was over. And it looks like they
    did so in order to punish the southern states. The northern states no longer needed slave labor but it was a very harsh economic punishment to the south. Did you know that there was also talk of reducing the southern states to territories so that they would have NO say in government?

    If the northern states were really that concerned with eliminating slavery in their country, they would simply have let the southern states go. Then they could pass legislation in their own separate country abolishing slavery without opposition.

  16. Will Davis
    Posted August 18, 2014 at 3:21 PM | Permalink

    To come back to the original article, there were obviously more that “a few”. It’s hard to tell how many exactly but the real number is probably high enough to make people with certain ideas uncomfortable.

    * The chief inspector of the U.S. Sanitary Commission, Dr. Lewis Steiner, reported that he saw about 3,000 well-armed black Confederate soldiers in Stonewall Jackson’s army in Frederick, Maryland, and that those soldiers were “manifestly an integral portion of the Southern Confederate Army.” Said Steiner,

    “Wednesday, September 10–At four o’clock this morning the rebel army began to move from our town, Jackson’s force taking the advance. The movement continued until eight o’clock P.M., occupying sixteen hours. The most liberal calculations could not give them more than 64,000 men. Over 3,000 negroes must be included in this number. These were clad in all kinds of uniforms, not only in cast-off or captured United States uniforms, but in coats with Southern buttons, State buttons, etc. These were shabby, but not shabbier or seedier than those worn by white men in rebel ranks. Most of the negroes had arms, rifles, muskets, sabres, bowie-knives, dirks, etc. They were supplied, in many instances, with knapsacks, haversacks, canteens, etc., and were manifestly an integral portion of the Southern Confederacy Army. They were seen riding on horses and mules, driving wagons, riding on caissons, in ambulances, with the staff of Generals, and promiscuously mixed up with all the rebel horde.” (Report of Lewis H. Steiner, New York: Anson D. F. Randolph, 1862, pp. 10-11)

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