Serving The South

Readers of the Raleigh (NC) News & Observer respond below to John David Smith’s assertion that "Black Confederates" is a propaganda myth circulated by "Southern conservative partisans."

Serving the South

John David Smith, in his Feb. 4 Point of View article "Armed, Confederate and black? Not likely" was correct in writing that black Southerners were a great source of strength to North Carolina and the American Confederacy.

Though during the war Jefferson Davis and other leaders held that black Southerners’ agricultural role was a source of strength to the new country, after March 1865 they determined to raise 300,000 emancipated black troops to serve under Southern arms.

Even Frederick Douglass and U.S. Sanitary Commission officers admitted the existence of black Confederates under arms during the war. In the summer of 1861, the Winston-Salem Peoples Press reported "fifteen free men of color left Salisbury … for the mouth of the Cape Fear, volunteers for the service of the State. They were in fine spirits and each wore a placard on his hat bearing the inscription "we will die by the South." The Greensborough Patriot of April 25, 1861 reported that in New Bern "15 or 20 free blacks came forward and volunteered their services as laborers or in defense of the city."

Bernhard Thuersam
Cape Fear Historical Institute

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Black Confederates

It seems that John David Smith (Feb. 4 Point of View article "Armed, Confederate and black? Not likely") refuses to believe many of the true facts regarding black Confederate soldiers. Let me share a passage by a Union surgeon who was caught behind Confederate lines in 1862:
"Wednesday, September 10

"At 4 o’clock this morning the Rebel army began to move from our town, Jackson’s force taking the advance.

"The movement continued until 8 o’clock P.M., occupying 16 hours. The most liberal calculation could not give them more than 64,000 men. Over 3,000 Negroes must be included in the number…They had arms, rifles, muskets, sabers, bowie-knives, dirks, etc. They were supplied, in many instances, with knapsacks, haversacks, canteens, etc., and they 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."

Smith needs to finally accept the true facts of subjects such as this. And he should read the well-documented book "Black Southerners in Gray: Essays on Afro-Americans in Confederate Armies." He might just learn something.

Edward Harding
Washington, N.C.

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Writing in the Raleigh (NC) News & Observer, history professor John David Smith of UNC-Charlotte writes that "Black Confederates" is a propaganda myth circulated by "Southern conservative partisans."
"Blacks overwhelmingly opposed the Confederacy," he writes.

Smith’s column follows. Responses may be sent to the N&O at PO Box
191, Raleigh NC 27602, by fax to (919) 829-4872, or by e-mail to
Smith can be contacted directly at (704) 687-4822 or via e-mail at

Armed, Confederate and black? Not likely


CHARLOTTE — "But the war!" Kentucky novelist James Lane Allen asked in 1899, "what is to be said of the part the

[N]egro took in that? Is there in the drama of humanity a figure more picturesque or more pathetic than the figure of the African slave, as he followed his master to the battlefield, marched and hungered and thirsted with him, served and cheered and nursed him — that master who was fighting to keep him in slavery?" Like Allen, modern writers and Civil War historians question the paradoxical role African-American slaves played in the war. A flood of recent publications and Web sites devoted to this contentious topic has elicited a spirited war of words over precisely in what roles slaves served the Confederacy.

Academic historians generally occupy the left flank of this battlefield. They argue that aside from a tiny minority of Louisiana free blacks who volunteered for Confederate fighting units (they were not allowed to fight and later in fact switched allegiance to join the Union Army), and the rare occurrence when a slave may have picked up a weapon for self-defense, blacks overwhelmingly opposed the Confederacy. When Confederate slaves had a chance to shoulder rifles, most authorities argue, they aimed their guns at their oppressors — white Southerners — not at the Yankees.

On the right flank of this contemporary battleground stands a cadre of Southern conservative partisans, some evangelicals and conservative African-Americans. They assert that blacks fought — not just with picks and shovels, but with guns — for the Confederacy. This is the black Confederates thesis.

Spokesmen for the argument contend that blacks sided with the Confederates because of their loyalty to their masters and the South; because they believed that supporting the Confederacy would lead to emancipation; because, in the case of free blacks, they sought to protect their private property; because they feared reprisals against their families that remained enslaved; and because the war posed an exciting adventure.

If, as its supporters insist, blacks commonly fought with guns, not shovels, for the Confederacy, why, then, did soldiers in both armies fail to comment on what would have been considered a revolutionary event in Southern race relations? Whites in the Old South generally were uncomfortable — if not paranoid — over the prospect of armed Negroes. Why did President Jefferson Davis suppress Maj. Gen. Patrick R. Cleburne’s 1864 plan to arm the slaves? Why did Confederate leaders agonize over their government’s last-gasp decision to arm the slaves in 1865?

• • •

To my mind, the black Confederates argument is fraught with sloppy scholarship, especially the misuse of anecdotal evidence by citing stray information out of context and by the twisting of the historical record for partisan purposes. Those who write about phantom black Confederates carelessly at best, maliciously at worst, equate such terms as working and serving with fighting, servant with soldier, laborers with troops, and enlisting with being pressed into service..

This is not to suggest that African-Americans were unimportant to the Confederacy. In fact, blacks played essential roles in keeping the Confederacy alive for four years — in agriculture, in industry, in mining, in transportation. They constructed fortifications, trenches, roads, railroads, and ships. Thousands of slaves baked, butchered, cleaned, cooked, served, worked as stable hands, attended to the wounded and buried the dead. But these black men and women served not by choice but by coercion. They were slaves — confiscated, hired and impressed persons. Has anyone ever classified slave laborers in the Third Reich as "soldiers" in Hitler’s Wehrmacht?

African-American slaves were not armed soldiers in the Confederate army. A handful of light-skinned blacks perhaps "passed" as whites. Some, caught in what President Lincoln called "mere friction and abrasion — by the mere incidents of the war" may have fired weapons. But such instances, as historian James M. McPherson explains, were "sporadic and exceptional" at best. Hard facts and cool logic demolish the black Confederates thesis and dismiss it to the realm of mythology.

Certainly, many blacks had close personal ties with their masters and identified with their farms and plantations — the only homes they knew. Yes, mid-19th blacks, like whites, responded to historic forces as individuals, not as a monolith. Yes, the Old South was more diverse, even "multicultural," than its critics then and now acknowledge. True, propagandists left and right, North and South, then and now, have used African-Americans and their history to advance partisan causes.

Did the slaves understand the meaning of freedom? Unquestionably yes. Did blacks fight with guns for the Confederacy? Unquestionably no.

(John David Smith is the Charles H. Stone distinguished professor of American history at UNC-Charlotte. He edited "Black Soldiers in Blue: African American Troops in the Civil War Era.")

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