Remembering Black Confederates

Wednesday, April 11, 2007

ELIZABETH JOHNSTON / A View from the Valley

Since April is Confederate History Month, I thought it would be appropriate to discuss a much overlooked part of the history of the Confederacy — that of the service of black Southerners, both slave and free, in the Confederate army.

Of course, loyalty to the South was by no means uniform; an estimated 500,000 blacks came into Union lines during the War Between the States, a significant number, though not the majority of Southern blacks.

Blacks, like other Confederate soldiers, had numerous personal reasons for enlisting. Some joined for the excitement. Of the quarter of a million free blacks in the South, 25 percent owned slaves, and it was common for them to enlist in high numbers, feeling threatened by the North.

In other cases, as one black Confederate put it: “No matter where I fight, I only wish to spend what I have, and fight as long as I can, if only my boy may stand alone in the street equal to a white boy when the war is over.”

A strong minority were deeply loyal to the South and its cause, which to them meant freedom. But the most common reason for enlisting was simpler, and black and white Rebels shared it. They saw the North as an invader and wanted to protect their homes, families and way of life.

For all but the last few months of the War Between the States, the Confederate national government did not encourage the enlistment of blacks, but many were able to join the army through their states or local communities. The number of black Confederates was probably between 50,000 and 100,000. Unfortunately, Confederate records of both its black and white servicemen were very poor, so the exact number of either is guesswork.

The loyalty of many Southern blacks was a shock to Northerners. A black Texan guarded a federal major so carefully that he complained in his journal: “Here I had come South and was fighting to free this man. If I had made one false move on my horse, he would have shot my head off.”

The Union captors of one slave held at Point Lookout, Md., reminded him that his master had signed the Oath of Allegiance and wanted to know why he refused. “Master has no principles,” the slave responded in disgust.

A Northern newspaper commented after First Manassas: “The war has dispelled one delusion of the abolitionists. The Negroes regard them as enemies instead of friends. … (T)hey have jeered at and insulted our troops, have readily enlisted in the rebel army, and on Sunday at Manassas, shot down our men with as much alacrity as if abolitionism had never existed.”

Even Frederick Douglass, who was instrumental in the North’s decision to allow blacks to serve in its armies, noticed: “There are at the present moment many colored men in the Confederate army doing duty not only as cooks, servants, and laborers, but as real soldiers, having muskets on their shoulders and bullets in their pockets, ready to shoot down loyal troops and do all that soldiers may do to destroy the Federal government and build up that of the traitors and rebels.”

Black Confederates served as body servants, musicians, teamsters, sentries, cooks, quartermasters, and engineers, as well as in the commissaries and in construction of fortifications. An estimated 40,000 served in combat. In fact, a black Confederate soldier named Sam Ashe was probably the one to kill Major Winthrop, the first Union officer to die in combat.

The engineering skills of another black Rebel, Horace King, were so well known that he was called “the bridge builder of the Confederacy.” Sixty-five blacks rode with Nathan Bedford Forrest’s cavalry. One Tennessee regiment, lacking a chaplain, chose a black man named Uncle Lewis to serve in that position.

The deadly sniping of one black Rebel sharpshooter at Yorktown, Va., became such a hindrance to the Union forces that an elite unit of Federal marksmen had to be sent out to stop him. In the Confederate Navy, 1,150 black sailors had served as of February 1865. Dozens of Confederate blacks refused Northern offers of freedom and chose instead to surrender at Appomattox with the white Confederates whom they had marched alongside.

The black Confederates served just as bravely as other Rebels. As we remember the Confederacy this month, we should be careful not to forget them.