Vignettes of Black Confederates
Recently I ran across this startling remark by a prominent scholar: "Surely, before making assumptions . . . one ought to examine the sources very carefully. . . . Yet I can find no single scholar who has even tried to do this–a sad indication of the general slovenliness of modern scholarship in this field." Such language is rare in specialized, sober works of scholarship. I then wondered what other fields it could apply to. An obvious candidate is in the history of the black Confederates. Below I offer a few vignettes to help correct our memories.
Historian Richard Rollins has undertaken a study of an interesting file kept at the Tennessee State Archives in Nashville. In 1921, that state’s legislature passed an act providing pensions for blacks who had worked as servants to white Confederate officers during the war. Between 1921 and 1936, 285 applications were filed; of 248 we can verify actual service. Not many applicants noted their specific duties; of those who did, 37 said they had been cooks. Others were hospital workers, general servants, and drivers, to list a few. From the information on these applications, we can be sure that at least thirteen applicants were combatants in battle, two of which were wounded. An additional fourteen reported being wounded by hostile fire. Seventeen reported being captured; of these, six escaped to rejoin Southern forces. The pension applications required none of this information. We are left to wonder how many other applicants could have offered similar reports. We also wonder how many others were eligible but didn’t apply, and more importantly, since the pension was offered 56 years after the war’s end, we wonder how many stories passed away with the lives of those who would have told them. And remember, this is just for Tennessee!
Blacks were prominent as musicians in the Confederate army. They were buglers, fifers, and drummers, many of whom we could mention by name. One Northerner remarked, upon observing Confederate troops on the march, "the only real music in their column today was from a bugle blown by a Negro." So common were black musicians in the Confederate ranks that the Confederate Congress passed a law in 1862 stating that "whenever colored persons are employed as musicians in any regiment or company, they shall be entitled to the same pay now allowed by law to musicians regularly enlisted." (This act was passed by the legislature of the same "racist" Confederate States of America whose Constitution outlawed the slave trade.)
General Nathan Bedford Forrest was notoriously good to his slaves, and a number of blacks fought under his command. That this was well-known even among the northern ranks is evidenced in the following episode. Shortly after the war, in August 1866, Federal cavalry rode onto Forrest’s plantation. As they approached the house, Forrest’s old war horse, King Phillip, charged at them. When they struck at the animal, Jerry, Forrest’s valet and body servant (one of his many former slaves who, though freed in 1863 by Forrest himself, returned with him to his plantation) rushed out to defend the horse. The Federal captain said, "General, now I can account for your success. Your negroes fight for you, and your horse fights for you." The Northerners who fought against General Forrest knew that Blacks were on his side.
An Indiana soldier wrote a letter to his hometown newspaper recounting his unit’s run-in with black Confederates in the fall of 1861. The story was reprinted throughout the North:
a body of seven hundred Negro infantry opened fire on our men, wounding two lieutenants and two privates. The wounded men testify positively that they were shot by Negroes, and that not less than seven hundred were present, armed with muskets. This is, indeed, a new feature in the war. We have heard of a regiment of Negroes at Manassas, and another at Memphis, and still another at New Orleans, but did not believe it till it came so near home and attacked our men. . . . One of the lieutenants was shot in the back of the neck and is not expected to live.
The New Orleans regiment referred to may have been that which began with the May 12, 1861 proclamation of Louisiana Governor Thomas O. Moore. The proclamation called for the enrollment of blacks to form an all-black regiment with black officers for the defense of New Orleans. By early 1862, over 3,000 men had joined this regiment, and other black units had been formed as well.
Historian Thomas Y. Cartwright notes how effectively the Confederate blacks were able to dupe unsuspecting Northerners. "Using black Southerners as couriers was a favorite Confederate trick. They deceived the Federals into thinking they were dumb or pro-union (which of course the Northerners assumed anyway, not being willing to believe that black Southerners could be pro-Confederate), and thus manipulated unsuspecting Federals." During the war, the Yankees’ false assumptions about Blacks in the South opened themselves to manipulation. Sadly, these Yankee false assumptions still persist today. Yankees are still duped by false caricatures of Blacks in the South, and worse, Confederate Blacks are not remembered as they should be. This will continue so long as we persist in our unwillingness to believe that "black Southerners could be pro-Confederate."