Surprising differences between Confederate, Union armies

By Bill Ward
Posted: Monday June 12, 2006

"To the Confederate army goes the distinction of having the first black to minister to white troops: correspondent of the SOLDIER’S FRIEND mentions a Tennessee regiment which has no chaplain; but an old negro, ‘Uncle Lewis, preaches two or three times a week at night. He is heard with respectful attention – and for earnestness, zeal and sincerity, can be surpassed by none. Two or three revivals have followed his preaching in the regiment. What will the wise Christian patriots out of the army, who denounce those who wish to see competent negroes allowed to preach, as tainted with anti-slaveryism, say with regard to the true Southern feeling of that regiment, which has fought unflinchingly from Shiloh to Murfreesboro?’"

Religious Herald, Richmond, Virg., Sept. 10, 1863
(From unedited microfiche of the original article)

As an elementary school student, growing up in the 1940s, the impression I received of the War Between the States was far different from what I discovered for myself in much later years. I had this image of two great armies of old white guys, one from the North and the other from the South. In about the sixth grade, we were actually required to recite, in unison, as a class, that the North fought to free the slaves and the South fought to keep slavery.

We were never taught that slaves lived in the North, or that when the Union Army began to conscript (draft) blacks into its ranks, slave owners in Northern states were paid to let their slaves enter the army.

We were never taught that black folks were among the wealthiest land- and slave-owners in the South when the war began in 1861.

We were never taught that the United States Colored Troops (USCT), the designation for black units in the Union Army, were not just black. In fact, we were never taught that the USCT existed. But all soldiers of color, whether African, Asian, Indian or Hispanic, were lumped into the USCT. The Union Army was totally segregated, with men of color and whites never mixing, except USCT units were commanded only by white officers. This condition would continue until 1948 when President Harry Truman ordered the U.S. armed forces to desegregate, an order that would not be carried out until 1952.

The Confederate Army represented an international mix of color, race, and ethnicity. Many thousands of foreigners are known to have been in Confederate ranks, although accurate figures are not available for all groups.

Several Southern generals used foreign soldiers of fortune as their aide-de-campa: von Borcke to Jeb Stuart; St. Leger Grenfell to John Morgan; and Victor von Scheliha to Simon Bolivar Buckner. A German Jew, Marcus Baum, served Gen. Joseph Kershaw, making a reputation for gallantry and loyalty. Another German Baron, William Henry von Eberstein, enlisted with the Washington Grays of the 7th North Carolina and was named fifth sergeant.

The 1st Louisiana was probably the foremost mixed regiment, boasting of men of 37 nationalities. The Deep South provided so many French-speaking men that the Confederate Army had two "official languages." This prompted Gen. P.G.T. Beauregard to create the word, "sacredamn."

Every Confederate state had an international mixture of companies or regiments that represented virtually every spot on the globe, including Africa. The USCT of the Union Army claimed 188,000 black soldiers in its ranks, but since that included all men of color, the count for blacks may lack accuracy.

Dr. Lewis Steiner, chief inspector of the United States Sanitary Commission, observed the 1st Virginia Brigade of Gen. "Stonewall" Jackson’s occupying Frederick, Md. in 1862: "Over 3,000 Negroes must be included in this number

[Confederate troops]. 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 the rebel ranks. Most of the Negroes had arms, rifles, muskets, sabers, bowie-knives, dirks, etc. … and were manifestly an integral portion of the Southern Confederate Army."

The "Richmond Howitzers" were partially manned by black militiamen. They saw action at 1st Manassas (first Battle of Bull Run) where they operated battery No. 2. In addition two black Southern "regiments," one free and one slave, participated in that battle. "Many colored people were killed in the action," recorded John Parker, a former slave.

Ex-slave-turned-freedman and U.S. Congressman, Frederick Douglass, reported, "There are at the present moment many Colored men in the Confederate Army doing duty not only as cooks, servants and laborers, but real soldiers, having muskets on their shoulders, and bullets in their pockets, ready to shoot down any loyal troops and do all that soldiers may do to destroy the Federal government and build up that of the rebels."

Black and white militiamen returned heavy fire on Union troops at the Battle of Griswoldsville, Ga. (near Macon). About 600 boys and elderly men were killed in this skirmish.

The exact number of black soldiers who served in the Confederate Army has been hard to determine, since it hasn’t been politically correct for academics to do research in that area. But abundant Union correspondence and military dispatches in the OR (Official Records of the War of Rebellion, authorized for publication by the U.S. Congress) provides evidence of widespread black participation in the Confederate Army.

To answer the question of why haven’t we heard more about Black Confederates, former National Park Service historian Ed Bearrs stated, "I don’t want to call it a conspiracy to ignore the role of Blacks both above and below the Mason-Dixon line, but it was definitely a tendency that began around 1910."

Historian, Erwin L. Jordan Jr. calls it a "cover-up" that started back in 1865. He writes, "During my research, I came across instances where Black men stated they were soldiers, but you can plainly see where ‘soldier’ is crossed out and ‘body servant’ or ‘teamster’ was substituted on pension applications." That, of course, had the effect of denying men pensions that they might otherwise have been entitled to.

Another black historian, Roland Young, says he is not surprised that blacks fought. He explains that "some, if not most, Black southerners would support their country" and that by doing so they were "demonstrating it’s possible to hate the system of slavery and love one’s country." This is the same reaction that most African Americans showed during the American Revolution, where they fought for the colonies, even though the British offered them freedom if they fought for them.

So now I know – it wasn’t just two great armies of old white guys who fought in the War Between the States. It was an artist’s palette of humanity that fought, bled and died on both sides in a war that never should have happened.