Black Confederates

Books study black men who served the confederacy

By Wayne Ford  

Saturday, February 4, 2006

Could it happen that a black man should die in the South, be buried in a gray uniform and have his casket draped in a Confederate battle flag?

It did happen.

In May 1905, Amos Rucker, who was originally from Elbert County, received such a burial in Atlanta. Rucker had gone to war with his master, Col. Sandy Rucker of Elberton, where it was his duty after each battle to call the roll to see which men had survived. Once, he picked up the musket of a mortally wounded soldier and charged the Yankee line. Eventually, he was wounded in the leg, which left him crippled.

A slave he might have been, but he also fought and worked side by side with white Confederate soldiers.

Such a tale of a black man who fought in the Civil War is one of numerous stories recounted in two books compiled and edited in part by J.H. "Hank" Segars of Madison. The books, "Black Confederates" and "Black Southerners in Confederate Armies," are but two books that have documented this little known facet of the Civil War.

"Not many folks focus on it," Segars, a retired Georgia Department of Education grants administrator, said recently. "I think the reason is we don’t know what to think of it. There seems to be a lot of material, as far as records and accounts in newspapers, and official records, but as far as historians finding this as a topic they can report on, such as Andersonville and Gettysburg, you don’t see it very often."

Segars said reaction to the books has been positive "which is surprising, because when Kelly Barrow and I were putting this together, I didn’t know how folks would take it. I didn’t know if an African-American would be offended by the topic. And I didn’t know how much interest there would be in it because it is such a forgotten subject."

The topic has been approached in academic circles a few times, Segars said, referring to works by Ervin Jordan Jr., a black history professor at the University of Virginia, who has investigated the history of black soldiers fighting for the Confederates and Union.

"I think some dismiss it entirely and others don’t know what to make of it," Segars said.

In his research, Segars and Barrow, along with R.B. Rosenburg in one book, located documents showing blacks being paid pensions for serving in the Confederacy, along with blacks serving as POWs in Union prison camps. In numerous old photographs showing Confederate veteran reunions at the turn of the 20th century, there are often old black men pictured alongside the old white men.

"If you’ve got the actual documents in front of you, it’s hard to dismiss it," Segars said. "It’s not a politically correct story, but history is not politically correct anyway."

Academics and those who study the Civil War have all put their theories on why blacks would fight for the Confederacy. There appears to be no single reason, but many.

"Sometimes the master would be shot and killed and (the slave) would take him home, then go back to serve with the unit. So I think there was commitment there. But people might say, ‘Why would they do this? It would continue their enslavement,’ but I think they were looking at the big picture. First, they were men trying to prove their manhood, and, secondly, they felt like if they threw their cap in with the Confederacy that ultimately there would be a better day. I don’t think they were doing it for approval of slavery or oppression."

During the Civil War, there was a push to get Jefferson Davis, president of the Confederacy, to free those slaves who served as troops, according to "Black Confederates." One Confederate general, Patrick Cleburne, strongly promoted emancipating the slaves and enlisting them in the Confederate Army. Cleburne’s proposal was turned down by Davis, although by the close of the war Davis did approve legislation to free the slaves for military duty.

"I believe they were being forced into it because of the lack of manpower," Segars said about this measure which came too late to affect the war’s outcome.

Segars said his personal favorite story of black Confederate soldiers is a newspaper story printed in 1885. The story tells about 40 black men, armed with rifles and revolvers, who participated in the battle of Chickamauga in Georgia. The story states: "Capt. (J.B.) Briggs, on reaching the horses, was surprised to find the colored men organized and equipped, under Daniel McLemore, colored, and demanding the right to go into the fight. After trying to dissuade them from this, Capt. Briggs led them up to the line of battle, which was just then preparing to assault Gen. Thomas’ position." During the battle, four of the blacks were killed and seven were wounded.

Segars said they compiled the books in a way to show the evidence as they found it.

"We try to present it and let you tell us what you think of it. I don’t have any doubt they played a pretty important role and like a lot of situations, they never got the credit they deserved," he said.

But when Amos Rucker was buried, among those at the funeral were Gov. Allen D. Chandler, along with John Slaton, who later would become governor, and Dr. Ronaryne Cleburne, the son of Confederate Gen. Cleburne, the same Southern officer who wanted to free the slaves and who was killed on the battlefield.

When a confederate captain read a poem titled "When Rucker Called the Roll," there was "not a dry eye in the house," the account states. Rucker then was a former slave, who was also honored a century ago as a Confederate veteran.

On The Web: