Black Confederate Participation
written by Tim Westphal
“…And after the battle of Gettysburg in July 1863, …reported among the rebel prisoners were seven blacks in Confederate uniforms fully armed as soldiers…”
-New York Herald, July 11, 1863. (1)
As far back as the American Revolution, African Americans have fought in every conflict this country has been engaged in. A number of authors have studied the participation which blacks played for the Union and Confederate governments during the Civil War. Most of these writers have focused on the Union army since it employed a large number of blacks as soldiers during the conflict. “When authors do cover the Confederate side, they usually limit their coverage to the free blacks of New Orleans who formed a regiment of “Native Guards” for the Louisiana militia and the Confederate effort late in the war to employ slaves as soldiers” (2). Civil War historians have not given these blacks their due recognition, and have left the truth of their involvement for the Confederacy covered in obscurity and confusion.
As many as 90,000 blacks, slave and free, were employed in some capacity by the Confederate army. The majority of these men fall into two categories, as military laborers or body servants. The fact that some Southern blacks might have played an important role for the South is a very controversial issue. Scholars have avoided the difficult task of linking any blacks to the Southern war effort. One of the main reasons they choose not to attempt this is because they are afraid of confronting the great paradox that exists. Why would any slaves or free blacks work towards a Southern victory when this war was seen as one to sustain blacks’ enslavement and degradation? The point of this paper is to seek out exactly what kind of role any blacks, free or slave, served in the South during the war and to examine the reasons why they would support the Southern war cause.
The Louisiana Native Guards demonstrate what free blacks, from Louisiana, thought about the Confederacy. The Louisiana Native Guards was a militia regiment comprised of 1400 black men and officers, “who offered their services to Dixie” in April of 1861 (3). The following year 3000 black men and officers organized themselves into the 1st Native Guard of Louisiana. These pro-Confederate blacks formed for the protection of New Orleans. After parading through the city they were described in the newspaper as “rebel Negroes…well drilled…and uniformed” (4). Historians argue the Native Guards were a unique circumstance. The difference between Louisiana and the rest of the South was its peculiar tri-racial system. The state of Louisiana was home to a population, which was different than the rest of the country’s. The population consisted of many Spanish and “Creole” families. It was easier for Louisiana to accept these men for military service. For that reason historians like to separate the free “blacks” in that state from the rest of the free blacks in the South. Many other states had blacks volunteer their services, and some states accepted these volunteers. There were slaves in Alabama who were organized as soldiers in the fall of 1861. There were also 60 free blacks in Virginia who formed their own company and marched to Richmond to volunteer their services to help in the war effort. “Several companies of free Negroes offered their services to the Confederacy Government early in the war” (5). The War Department decided they wouldn’t be needed at this time so they sent them home.
II. Body Servants and Laborers
Body servants consisted of slaves or free blacks. They were between the ages of sixteen and sixty. They accompanied both Confederate soldiers and officers into the war. “Body servants in a continuation of the master-slave relationship, tended their wounded soldiers, sometimes escorting their bodies home and occasionally fought in battles” (6). The number of body servants in the Confederate army was considerable in the early days of the war. The jobs of the body servants varied greatly. An officer’s servant was expected to keep the officer’s quarters clean, to wash the clothes, brush uniforms, polish swords and buckles, and to run errands, such as going to the commissary and getting rations. The servant was supposed to look after his master’s horse, making sure it was well groomed and well fed. It was the duty of one of these servants to have the horse ready in the morning by the time the officer was ready to ride.
Slaves who came from plantations with their owners were the most loyal under difficult incidents. “Negroes who had been treated well before the start of the war were more faithful during the most trying days of the conflict” (7). In many cases, soldiers and servants had been childhood playmates. The result of this was a genuine affection for each other, which further cemented during the shared hardships brought on by the war. “No other slaves had as good opportunities for desertion and disloyalty as the body servants, but none were more loyal” (8).
A personal servant would have been chosen from among the slaves that had been affiliated with the family for a long time. For that reason these slaves often felt a responsibility for the protection of their master when going into the war. The owners of body servants respected the devotion and loyalty displayed by their black servants. “Owners frequently made provisions for their servants freedom, and after the war blacks dressed in “Confederate Gray” were among the most honored veterans in attendance at soldiers reunions” (9).
Blacks fought because they were loyal to their masters. From a servant’s perspective their life as a body servant was less burdensome than field slavery. Slavery was an oppressive institution and the war offered them previously denied options. Unlike the plantation in camp the Confederate servants had ample time to hang out with other blacks. Black soldiers (servants) ate the same food as the officers did. These servants were the best-fed soldiers in the Confederate army. They could also play cards and when given the chance they would sneak away with other blacks to some obscure location and play dice. Servants were able to obtain whiskey, either from their master or on one of their foraging missions. “Servants had opportunities to earn money on the side from any number of way” (10). They were allowed to charge small amounts for washing clothes for men in their company. They made money for running errands and sold what they were able to pick up off the battlefield. Making money was just one reason blacks would sign up to work for the Confederacy.
Black servants, many who were excellent musicians and good singers, kept the soldiers spirits up in camp. “When life became sad or monotonous for Jeb Stuart’s officers, they frequently built a roaring fire, formed a large circle, and had the servants dance and sing to the music of the banjo” (11). Soldiers who had come from plantations knew about their slaves musical talents—a fact, which might explain why a few body servants were called on to, be musicians for the units to which their masters belonged.
Blackbody servants fought in battles for the Confederacy. A newspaper correspondent from the New Orleans Daily Crescent, reporting on one of the early battles of the war stated a servant named Levin Graham refused to stay in camp during a fight, “but obtained a musket, fought manfully, and killed four of the Yankees himself” (12). Furthermore “Captain George Baylor told the story of two body servants who had supplied themselves with equipment left on the field by Federals at the battle of Brandy Station. These two servants joined in the company charges and succeeded in capturing a Yankee and brought him back to camp as a prisoner” (13).
Robin, a black servant with the Stonewall Brigade, demonstrates black patriotism. According to the newspaper the Richmond Whig, he was imprisoned for a time away from his master and then offered his freedom on the condition he take an oath and swear allegiance to the United States. Robin stated, in the Richmond Whig, “I will never disgrace my family by such an oath” (14). After the siege of Vicksburg there were servants who were captured along with their masters who could have had their freedom. But instead of their freedom they chose to share in the cruelties of the northern prisons with which they had been serving in the Confederate army.
Free blacks voluntarily became body servants for wages and whatever other advantages they might negotiate. Self-preservation was the paramount objective for the free blacks who offered their services as servants. Free blacks in the South knew there was a difference between them and the slave population, they saw this as a way to separate themselves even further from the slave class. “Being a body servant enabled individual “Afro-Confederate” males to embellish their Confederate allegiance by publicly integrating themselves with Confederates” (15). The free blacks stood ready to imitate the white class in its patriotism and loyalty, believing this was a way to attain priviligese previously denied to them and to prove they were superior over the slaves.
Unlike the life of a body servant the experience for black laborers working on Confederate defenses was excessively harsh and physically exhausting. Especially during the winter months, when they were fighting with constant exposure while building batteries or earthworks. “The tedious work of digging, shoveling, and heaving earth, as well as the erection of massive embankments demanded tremendous physical stamina” (16).
The principal object of the defensive works was to protect Confederate troops from enemy fire and to allow the Confederate soldiers to deliver their own fire with devastating consequences.
“Union soldiers…sallied up to Rebel breastwork
that were often impregnable. They began to
complain, finding the Negro with his pick and
spade, a greater hindrance to their progress than
the Rebel’s cannon balls” (17).
Therefore to triumphantly repulse Union attacks the army needed satisfactorily constructed entrenchments.
The blacks’ brawn and skill were key elements of Confederate transportation and fortification. That is why in summer of 1861 “Negro labor, under supervision of state engineers, was immediately committed to the construction of defensive lines” (18). Whether free or slave the blacks that worked as laborers contributed a supporting effort to the war. In the South during the years between 1861-1865, there was a constant construction of defensive works designed to repulse attacks by Federal armies. “Without the aid of the Negro the South never would have been able to last four years in the war” (19).
While the overwhelming majority of black laborers were common laborers there were some highly skilled craftsmen. The conventional laborer provided manpower in the foraging of food, and raw materials such as coal, iron and timber. “Black artisans provided their skills in subsequent stages of refinement and processing of commodities into manufactured items in arsenals, armories, iron works, and machine shops” (20).
James Brewer described the five methods used for obtaining black labor: “slaves were offered by their masters without request for compensation; free Negroes volunteered their services; Negroes, free and slave, were hired by the Engineer Bureau; labor was impressed by commanding officers because of the exigencies of war; and conscription laws were passed by Confederate congress” (21). The Confederate government had to rely on conscription laws for the last two years of the war because: the blacks, slave and free knew about the changes of the war (that it had become one to free them from bondage); and 2) the owners didn’t want to give up their slaves, due to the hard work that the laborers had to sustain.
III. Loyalty and Patriotism
Black Confederate loyalty was pervasive and real. American historians failed to recognize this loyalty. “By the summer of 1861 Southern blacks who supported and allied themselves with the Confederacy were looking to volunteer” (22). Despite the Confederate government’s refusal to admit blacks in the army, six Southern states did so otherwise, mostly consisting of state militias. Eyewitness accounts by officers in the Federal army offer some evidence of African American participation on the battlefields for the South. Records show that New York officers on patrol reported they were attacked near New Market, Virginia, by Confederate cavalry and a group of 700-armed blacks on December 22, 1861. The Northerners killed six of the blacks before retreating; officers later swore out affidavits that they were attacked by blacks and later complained: “If they fight with Negroes, why should we not fight with them too?” (23)
Alfred Bellard, a white soldier of the 5th NJ Infantry, reported in his memoirs the shooting of two black Confederate snipers by member’s of the Berdan’s Sharpshooters in April of 1862.
“One of the Negro Confederates was only wounded, but the
other was killed one afternoon after leaving the security of a
hollow tree (probably to relieve himself). Two Confederates
tried to get to his body but were driven away by the Union
This wasn’t an isolated case. One of the best marksmen in the Confederacy was an African-American who outfitted himself in a sniper’s roost in an almost perfect hiding spot inside a brick chimney from which he proceeded to shoot Yankees at their nearby camp. Any Union soldier who dared to come into his range was fired at. Several times the Federalize called up to the sniper to desert, but the black Confederate ignored their appeals. This ordeal ended when a regiment was marched off to fire a volley at the chimney, eventually putting a bullet through the sniper’s head.
Serving in a military capacity wasn’t the only way blacks could prove their loyalty to the Confederacy. Black patriotism took many forms, “some were sincerely patriotic, others were alarmed individuals acting on self-preservation and economic interest” (25). There are other prominent cases of black patriotism among slaves and free men. Many of these people saw their cause as protecting their homes. “Despite the hardships of slavery loyal blacks made financial and material contributions to the Confederacy” (26). In Alabama some slaves brought 60 dollars worth of watermelons to Montgomery to be donated to the soldiers of that state. A South Carolina slave was impelled to donate all the money here had saved, which ended up being 5 dollars. Some slaves used their talents to raise money for the Confederacy. The Confederate Ethiopian Serenaders were one such group. They were a collection of slave singers “who turned over profits from some of their shows to the Confederate cause” (27). By doing this, these slaves hoped the restrictions they lived under I the institution of slavery would be loosened. It became a custom for slaves to demonstrate their loyalty by holding balls and concerts to raise money for the aiding of Southern soldiers and their families.
The 1st Battle of Manassas offered black Confederate the chance to prove their loyalty. An English officer, Arthur Freemantle, describes the story of a slave who had run away to the Federal line just before the battle began. The slave was recaptured a short time after the battle ended. “Two patriotic servants were of the opinion that he should be shot or hanged as a traitor “ (28). He was then turned over to these slaves and met a more severe death than any white man could have given him. These slaves did this out of patriotism and these servants probably also felt threatened by a runaway slave. They knew that a runaway was a threat to their freedom as servants and soldiers. They wanted to show the white soldiers in the army that they weren’t anything like this runaway. They achieved that goal by violently killing him.
IV. Why were blacks loyal?
The motivation of black Confederates was to protect their homeland with a faith of what the future could be. By 1860 there were 500,000 free blacks in the United States, the vast majority in the South. Slaves knew freedom was attainable from the sight of free blacks in their communities. They knew some has been freed through manumission, while others purchased their freedom by working side jobs. Blacks Confederates and African Americans had to position themselves in case the South won the ear. They had to prove they were patriots in the anticipation their future would be better. From this risk of their display of unequivocal patriotism they hoped to be rewarded. Most black Confederates were not given an opportunity to serve in the front line as soldiers. But they did what they could as loyal civilians.
Why would blacks support, and possibly want to fight for, the Confederacy? One is money. The pay rate for the laborers was greater than that of the white soldier’s pay rate. The black laborers were paid 30 dollars a month while the Confederate soldiers made only 11 dollars. By volunteering their service to the South these blacks earned enough money for themselves and their families back home. Blacks, both free and slave, were able to make more money by trading whiskey, food, horses and other possessions they might steal through their foraging missions. There is a story of a servant who was captured by the Yankees, stole two horses, and got back to his Confederate line. When he got back he sold one horse for fifty dollars and kept the other one for himself.
“The quest for freedom also played a great role in black Confederate decisions” (29). With good service to the master or to the Southern cause, there was the hope of being manumitted after the war. Slaves also knew the army life offered them a chance for adventure and an opportunity to get away from the drudgery of plantation work. Like many of the white men who volunteered and fought in the war because of strong regional pride, the local attachment blacks felt prompted them to come to the aide of the Confederacy.
Blacks placed their lives in danger for a country and its cause; a cause which many Americans would not expect blacks to support. Slaves and free blacks joined for different reasons. The Louisiana free blacks stated in a letter written to the New Orleans’ Daily Delta:
“The free colored population love their home, their
property, their own slaves and recognize no other country
than Louisiana, and are ready to shed their blood for her
defense. They have no sympathy for Abolitionism; no
love for the North, but they have plenty for Louisiana.”
Prosperous free blacks realized that a Union victory would bring about destruction to their economy, the basis of their livelihood, which gave them their special status. “Free blacks knew where their loyalties lay when the war started because they stood to lose the status they enjoyed as free people” (30). Any well-to-do freeman probably prized his wealth and standing, and deplored anyone who would endanger it. The slaves who felt compelled to volunteer for the South did so because they hoped it would improve their status after the war. They knew if the North won they would probably be freed, but if the South won, they would have to show support during the war if they had hopes of being freed.
V. The Debate: Black Soldiers
During the war the Confederacy’s question of making a soldier out of the black, slave and free, received considerable attention. In the beginning of the war many of the Southern states made provisions for placing blacks at the disposal of the state governments. “The Tennessee legislature passed an act in June, 1861, authorizing the governor, at his discretion to receive into the military service of the State all male free persons of color, between the ages of fifteen and fifty, or such numbers as may be necessary who may be capable of actual service” (31). The governor was also authorized to press free blacks into services if a sufficient number was not met.
Early in the year there began in the Southern armies a discussion of enlisting slaves as soldiers. Lt. General Hardee called their corps and division commanders, of the Western Campaign, to meet at General Johnston’s Headquarters on the night of January 2, 1863. There they were presented with a plan by Major General Pat Cleburne, who was urging the enlistment and arming of the slaves, with freedom as a reward for their service. After President Davis received a copy of this memorandum he replied, “deeming it to be injurious of the public service that such subject should be mooted or even known to entertain by persons possessed of confidence and respect of the people. If it be kept out of the public journal its ill effect will be much lessened” (32).
Perhaps the most effective argument against putting the slaves in the ranks was that it laid the South open to charges of hypocrisy. It was known that slavery was one of the basic principles of the Confederacy. “The primary justification for slavery had been that it was in the interest of both blacks and whites because of the blacks inferiority and incapability to care for themselves” (33). To arm the slaves in the Confederacy would be a reversal on its position completely. If the salves were freed by the Confederate Government-and it was agreed that arming the slaves would probably entail freeing them-then another basic principle of the Confederacy was disregarded. One of the main reasons for secession was their firm belief in states rights over that of a central government. If the Confederate government stepped in and freed the slaves for faithful service, instead of individual states, than it would be guilty of breaking their constitutional rights.
By the summer of 1863 the victories had begun to shift to the northern armies. Within one week the Confederacy suffered devastating defeats at Vicksburg and Gettysburg. The momentum of war was being sung into the Unions direction. Hood’s crushing defeat in Tennessee, Sherman’s destructive march through Georgia, and the threatened collapse of the whole military effort left the Confederacy in need of reinforcements. The Southern armies were being depleted. “There were ‘exceptions’, the ‘detailed men’, the numerous state militias and there were the slaves. Before Christmas of 1864 was over, President Davis had come to the opinion that arming the salves was a good idea” (34).
Meanwhile, William Smith, the Governor of Virginia, took up the subject with his legislators suggesting that Virginia should arm its slaves for its defense by offering freedom as slaves’ reward. “With two hundred thousand Negro soldiers already in the Union army, the Governor asked, “can we hesitate, can we doubt, when the question is, whether the enemy shall use our slaves against us or we use them against him (the North); when the question may be between liberty and independence o one hand or our own subjugation and utter ruin on the other?” (35)
The majority of those who advocated enlisting the slaves were of the opinion that such a step would mean giving them their freedom. This was met with great opposition. Though this should not have been a deterring factor. Given that “slavery was already an expiring condition in the South; that emancipation was already an accomplished fact if the Federalize succeeded; that the situation was such that a choice had to be made between the loss of independence and the loss of property in slaves; that it was far better for the Southerner to give up the Negro slave than be a slave himself” (36).
The matter immediately became the foremost topic of discussion in the whole South by the fall of 1864. General Lee was asked for his view and on January 11, 1865 he spoke out clearly for the arming of slaves-which he believed should be accompanied by a gradual and general emancipation.
“It is the enemy’s avowed policy to convert the
able-bodied men among them into soldiers, and to
emancipate all. His progress will destroy slavery in
a manner most pernicious to the welfare of our
people…Whatever maybe the effect of our employing Negro troops, it cannot be as mischievous as this…I think,
therefore, we must decide whether slavery shall be
extinguished by our enemies and the slaves used against
us, or use them ourselves at the risk of the effects which
may be produced upon our social institutions…”
“…The best means of securing the efficiency and fidelity
of this auxiliary force would be to accompany the measure
with a well digested plan of gradual and general emancipation.
As that will be the result of the continuance of this war,
and will certainly occur if the enemy succeeds,it seems to
be most advisable to adopt at once. Every day’s delay
increases the difficulty” (37).
Finally, a little more than a month before the war ended, the Confederates began to enlist blacks as soldiers in the army. “Steps were immediately taken toward recruiting and organizing the slaves and free blacks” (38). It was too late; the South had waited too long to enlist blacks into their army. When the war broke out many blacks, slave and free, wanted to position themselves with the winning side to better position themselves after the war. In the winter of 1864-65 it was evident that the South was going to lose the war. That is why recruiting the blacks was so difficult. If the Confederate Government had acted on the initial enthusiasm displayed by blacks then things probably would have been different in 1865.
VI. Blacks’ contribution to the Southern War effort
It is often forgotten that while slavery was among the major causes of the Civil War, its abolition was not the original goal of the North. President Lincoln sated he didn’t want to interfere with slavery in the states where it already existed. Many Federal soldiers felt the same way, proclaiming if the war was one turned into a fight for abolitionism they would stop fighting. Faced with this attitude from the North black Southerners had no reason but to be loyal to their homes. “The slaves had nothing to gain form a Union victory, and free black men might actually stand to lose such rights and property they already had” (39).
Thus instead of revolts among the blacks, slaves and free, as many Northerners predicted, some became possessed with a war fervor that was stimulated by the white response. “The Negro who boasted of his desire to fight the Yankees the loudest; who showed the greatest anxiety to aid the Confederates, was granted the most freedom and received the approval of his community” (40).
The readiness with which some blacks responded should only be surprising to those who are unfamiliar with the true feelings of slaves. Their only hope was to someday be free. “One thing that impressed the blacks greatly was the failure of Denmark Vesey, Nat Turner, and John Brown, whose e fate was held up to them as the fate of all who tried to free the slaves or free themselves” (41). Therefore it should not be surprising to see blacks that sprang at the chance to dig trenches and assist in any way possible for the South.
To better comprehend these people we should understand that most people do things for immediate reasons and not abstract ones. Instead of revolts among the blacks, slave and free, as predicted by some, many became possessed of a fervor –originating in fear-which was stimulated by an enthusiasm of the white population. “The gaily decked cities; the flags, bunting and streamers of all colors; the mounted cavalry; the artillery trains with brazen cannons drawn by sturdy steeds; followed by regiments of infantry in brilliant uniforms, with burnished muskets, glittering bayonets and beautiful plumes; all these scenes greatly interested and delighted the Negro, and it was filling the cup of many with ecstasy to the brim, to be allowed to connect themselves, even in the most menial way, with the demonstrations” (42). Blacks saw first hand what was going on. They knew they had an opportunity to better themselves, which was all many of them really wanted. When the war broke out everybody thought it was going to be over quickly. Slaves and free blacks knew this too, which is why many of them displayed an enthusiasm that was gone by 1863, when the South began to lose the war.