Black in Grey — Did Some African Americans Really Fight For the Confederacy?

By the end of the Civil War, as many as one in ten Union soldiers were African American. While a vocal minority stubbornly assert that "thousands" of blacks also took up arms to defend the Confederacy, most historians reject the idea. (Image source: WikiCommons)

By the end of the Civil War, as many as one in ten Union soldiers were African American. While a vocal minority stubbornly assert that “thousands” of blacks also took up arms to defend the Confederacy, most historians reject the idea. (Image source: WikiCommons)

“Some say it was a statistically insignificant handful, others maintain that it must have been ‘thousands.’

BY THE END of the U.S. Civil War, there were approximately 180,000 African Americans serving in Union uniform. This represented about 10 percent of Lincoln’s army. While a good number of these men were citizens of the North, it’s been estimated that about half were former slaves who had fled the Confederacy to take up arms against their former oppressors. These so-called “colored soldiers” have often been credited with helping to turn the tide of the war in favour of the Union. Yet astonishingly, not all blacks that took part in the War Between the States fought for the North.

A Confederate officer and his slave.

A Confederate officer and his slave.

African Americans were involved in the Confederate war effort too. The overwhelming majority of them were slaves and as such had no choice but to accompany their masters on campaign. Yet a minute number were free men.

While, most black Confederates served as stewards, cooks, stable hands or labourers, there is some evidence that at least a few carried rifles and might have even served in battle, either as willing volunteers or as pressed men. But determining just how many African Americans actually fought for the Rebellion has touched off a war of sorts in its own right.

For the past 15 years, historians, professional and amateur, have debated the issue (often vehemently). Some say it was a statistically insignificant handful, others maintain that it must have been “thousands”.

Those who believe that scores of African Americans did indeed fight for the South consider it evidence that there was more to the Rebel cause than the defence of slavery. It’s an argument that (rightly or wrongly) absolves the Confederacy of what many consider to be its racist heritage.

‘But, where’s the proof?’ academics invariably ask. Professional historians maintain that despite the persistent claims of black Confederates, there is virtually zero compelling evidence showing that thousands of African Americans took up arms against the very people who fought to set them free.

Confederate ‘colored’ companies?

What both sides do agree on is the fact that in the very last days of the war, the Confederate government in Richmond was desperately short on troops, did in fact authorize the raising of regiments for o “colored” soldiers. The terms of enlistment stipulated that slaves who joined up would be granted their freedom in exchange for military service. Only enough turned up in the Rebel capital to fill two companies of infantry — and all of them were captured without incident just days later when the city fell to the Yankees.

Many websites claiming that blacks fought for the South post this picture as ‘proof’. It supposedly shows armed African American soldiers dressed in rebel grey. Someone has even added a caption declaring this to be a unit from Louisiana. Scroll down to see this photo in its entirety.

Here’s the uncropped original showing Federal troops in their light blue winter tunics with a Union officer.

The case for black rebels

Yet according to many present-day Confederacy enthusiasts, of the 65,000 blacks that toiled in the Southern army as cooks, stable hands and servants, a ‘considerable’ number served as combatants. But just what constitutes ‘considerable’? No one is sure.

An article on the nonprofit historical-genealogical web hosting service, USGenNet.org estimates that as many as 13,000 African Americans might have taken up arms against the Union. While the author of the piece, Scott K. Williams, provides a number of anecdotal accounts of blacks serving in some capacity

within the Confederate military, the actual numbers he presents are little more than an educated guess. And while the author’s 22 “noted examples” of African American Rebs in combat fail to provide any conclusive evidence that blacks served in anything other than support roles or in very rare cases as armed militia, these handful of accounts are still intriguing. Consider the following:

• An artillery unit that saw action at the First Battle of Bull Run known as the Richmond Howitzers included black militiamen in its ranks. After the battle Frederick Douglas himself reported hearing accounts of either slaves or free blacks fighting beneath the Stars and Bars.

• A racially mixed group of militia took on Northern troops at an engagement near Macon, Georgia, yet there were no details specifying the ratio of white troops to black.

• African Americans served on to the front lines during the siege of Petersburg in the war’s final year. As servants or as combatants? It’s unclear.

• In the last days of the war, U.S. cavalry reportedly clashed with a small group of black Confederate troops who were detailed to guard a supply train.

Despite these few examples, proof that anything more than a minuscule number of blacks fought to preserve the South is hard to find. Even a website entitled ConfederateBlackSoldiers.com lists 200 service records of blacks attached to the Rebel army. But with a few exceptions, these individuals (both women and men) worked as cooks, labourers, musicians, teamsters or hospital orderlies. Only 11 are listed simply as privates, which might suggest combat roles or it could simply be that their exact occupation within their rebel camp was not recorded (many of those designated orderlies, teamsters and servants were also designated as privates). According to the site, three blacks did serve as pilots in the Confederate States Navy, presumably due to their pre-war knowledge of southern waterways. One was listed as serving with the Louisiana militia.

Historians not convinced

Do these few examples support claims that scores of African Americans flocked to the Rebel colours to defend the system that enslaved them? Professional historians overwhelmingly reject the notion. If any blacks did take up arms against the Union it was only a small number.

“Masters put guns to the heads of slaves to make them shoot Yankees.”

According to Truman R. Clark, a professor of American history at the University of Pennsylvania and Tomball College in Texas, of the 215,000 Confederate prisoners captured by the Union in the final year of the war, none were black. If the Rebel army had more than ten thousand black soldiers, why would none have been taken prisoner? Other sources online refute this claim and provide an account of ‘dozens’ of blacks surrendering at Gettysburg alone. But were these combat troops or servants, stewards and orderlies? It’s frustratingly unclear.

Clark also points out that the legislation in favour of raising black regiments at war’s end (which was seen as a last resort to stave off defeat) passed by only three votes in the Confederate legislature. Had blacks already been serving by the thousands in the Civil War, why would such debate be necessary? Why would nearly half of Confederate lawmakers vote against raising and arming black regiments?

In a 2011 article in The Harvard Gazette, Corydon Ireland interviews John Stauffer, a historian with the noted university who estimates that a fraction of 1 percent of the Confederate army might have been black.

Stauffer described the case of a slave named John Parker who was forced by his owner to man a field gun that was firing canister shot into the Federal line. Parker remarked years later that he feared for his life that day and prayed for a Union victory, all the while helping to load the gun and fire it on his liberators.

“His case can be seen to be representative,” Stauffer told The Gazette. “Masters put guns to the heads of slaves to make them shoot Yankees.”

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41 comments for “Black in Grey — Did Some African Americans Really Fight For the Confederacy?

  1. 20 June, 2012 at 9:40 am

    Interesting read, great post!

  2. 20 June, 2012 at 9:51 am

    Thanks for the feedback. I’m glad you enjoyed it.

    • Brad
      23 June, 2015 at 2:32 pm

      I have a family letter from 1868 describing the role of my Great x2 Grandfather at the battle of Mansfield when “he armed 300 Negroes”(quote from letter) and they fought beside him alone and beat many encampments of the Union soldiers during night raids. I don’t see how he held guns to all of their heads to do so, especially after he armed all of them. Email me and I will send you a copy.

      • 28 June, 2015 at 11:44 am

        Brad, Can I get a copy of the information you are talking about? I’m in ongoing debate with classmates (fb) who tell me the complete opposite of what you are telling me. I knew I was right. All they are talking about are books. I want information right from the Black Confederate soldiers words.

      • 15 July, 2015 at 12:18 pm

        I would love to read it. Can I get a copy?

      • justinmurrell
        20 July, 2015 at 3:05 pm

        I would love a copy of that letter. Please let me know how I can get a copy.

      • Brandon Hinds
        16 September, 2015 at 5:39 pm

        Brad, I too would love a copy. I am studying to be a history teacher now and would love to share this with my future students.

      • Allen Flowers
        21 May, 2016 at 10:35 pm

        I would be very interested in obtaining a copy of your letter! History is being erased/changed right in front of us! Thanks in advance!

      • Mark
        10 July, 2016 at 9:34 pm

        Brad I would love to have a copy of your letter as I’m also in a great debate with family over the issue of the confederate flag and what it stands for.

      • James Hinsman
        16 January, 2017 at 4:27 pm

        Brad, Can I also get a copy of the letter you reference? I would very much love to get a copy.

        Thanks.

      • B Johnson
        24 February, 2017 at 5:37 pm

        Brad, are you still sharing this letter? Please send to me as well if you are.

      • Patrick Desjardins
        12 July, 2017 at 2:23 am

        Brad, I am trying to investigate this topic in view of the recent events affecting the history of this nation and how we are in danger of loosing its meaning. Removing monuments or archives from the reach of our citizens is no less condemnable than burning books. Please send me a copy of this letter. I give you my word that I will not desecrate its invaluable integrity by defaming, altering or changing any portion or use it out of context. Thank you.

  3. 21 June, 2012 at 4:04 am

    There is a book by a man call Noah Andre Trudeau called “Like men of war” that focusses solely on black troops during the ACW. I found this to be the best book on the subject, since it is very well researched and also sets things in a historical context and goes into the policitcal reasoning behind the freeing of the slaves and use as troops (it also ties in nicely Phearsons “Battlecry for freedom” in this regard with the two together giving quiet a comprehensive view).
    But even he could not find much proof of a large use of black troops on the Confederate side and was only able to dedicate one chapter to them (which I sadly could not find again right now leafing through it).

  4. xxxx
    7 December, 2012 at 9:32 pm

    One tragedy of war is that its victors write its history and often do so with bias and dishonesty. That’s true about our War of 1861, erroneously called a civil war. Civil wars, by the way, are when two or more parties attempt to take over the central government. Jefferson Davis no more wanted to take over Washington, D.C., than George Washington, in 1776, wanted to take over London. Both wars were wars of independence.

    Kevin Sieff, staff writer for The Washington Post, penned an article “Virginia 4th-grade textbook criticized over claims on black Confederate soldiers.” The textbook says that blacks fought on the side of the Confederacy. Sieff claims that “Scholars are nearly unanimous in calling these accounts of black Confederate soldiers a misrepresentation of history.”

    Let’s examine that accepted scholarship.

    In April 1861, a Petersburg, Va., newspaper proposed “three cheers for the patriotic free Negroes of Lynchburg” after 70 blacks offered “to act in whatever capacity may be assigned to them” in defense of Virginia. Ex-slave Frederick Douglass observed, “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 … and do all that soldiers may do to destroy the Federal government.”

    Charles H. Wesley, a distinguished black historian who lived from 1891 to 1987, wrote “The Employment of Negroes as Soldiers in the Confederate Army,” in the Journal of Negro History (1919). He says, “Seventy free blacks enlisted in the Confederate Army in Lynchburg, Virginia. Sixteen companies (1,600) of free men of color marched through Augusta, Georgia on their way to fight in Virginia.”

    Wesley goes on to say, “An observer in Charleston at the outbreak of the war noted the preparation for war, and called particular attention to the thousand Negroes who, so far from inclining to insurrections, were grinning from ear to ear at the prospect of shooting the Yankees.” One would have to be stupid to think that blacks were fighting to preserve slavery. What’s untaught in most history classes is that it is relatively recent that we Americans think of ourselves as citizens of United States. For most of our history, we thought of ourselves as citizens of Virginia, citizens of New York and citizens of whatever state in which we resided. Wesley says, “To the majority of the Negroes, as to all the South, the invading armies of the Union seemed to be ruthlessly attacking independent States, invading the beloved homeland and trampling upon all that these men held dear.” Blacks have fought in all of our wars both before and after slavery, in hopes of better treatment afterward.

    Denying the role, and thereby cheapening the memory, of the Confederacy’s slaves and freemen who fought in a failed war of independence is part of the agenda to cover up Abraham Lincoln’s unconstitutional acts to prevent Southern secession. Did states have a right to secede? At the 1787 Constitutional Convention, James Madison rejected a proposal that would allow the federal government to suppress a seceding state. He said, “A Union of the States containing such an ingredient seemed to provide for its own destruction. The use of force against a State would look more like a declaration of war than an infliction of punishment and would probably be considered by the party attacked as a dissolution of all previous compacts by which it might be bound.”

    • kevmo
      9 March, 2014 at 12:04 am

      To claim the CSA rebellion was akin to the US war of independence and that the CSA had no interest in capturing WDC is flatly not true. It is well known the CSA, had they won, had plans to not only legalize and expand slavery throughout the continental US, but also establish an CSA empire throughout the western hemisphere. Also I’m sure the reason why Gen. Washington had no interest in London was a little something called the Atlantic ocean.

      • 31 May, 2014 at 4:26 pm

        Liberals all have their agenda to put down any part of history that doesn’t go along with it! Your agenda to make people believe that all blacks hated the south is re writing history! Many black soldiers fought for their State! That’s where the misconception comes in to play. They were not fighting for the South as a whole , but the State in which they lived! Read anything by professor Jordan.you will find the truth!

      • Ceritas
        24 August, 2014 at 10:01 pm

        You really don’t understand history nor English do you. The CSA did not seek control over the North, the war ipso facto could not have been a civil war. It was more accurately a war for independence. I see no logic nor evidence in your comments to support your point. I also love your last sentence, a masterpiece of strawmen arguments.

      • Veritas
        3 November, 2015 at 12:17 am

        Kevmo:

        Its always interesting to see such a commented from an expert such as yourself. It may have escaped your notice but slavery was legal in the US prior to Lincoln’s War of Northern Aggression. Since the Confederacy did not wish to take over the USA one wonders how they planned to expand it into Maine or Minnesota. Its also may have escaped your attention that the South’s intention to expand was unique. That’s why the USA in all its benevolent intent took over Alaska, the seized Puerto Rico and the Phillippines along with various former Spanish possessions. Nor did the USA forment a revolution in Columbia to create Panama, which the USA managed to grab a significANT PORTION OF.

        Perhaps you can explain to me why Lincoln thought he could use force against the South when he stated he would never do so in the Lincoln=Douglas debates and said no government should force anyone to belong to a nation that they did not believe in. No doubt that that time Lincoln shared the sentiments of our founding fathers till he was in a position to wage war on civilians.

        Please post again. In this ear I am sorely in need of laughter and your post reminds one of the babblings of Professor Edwain Corey.

      • 16 May, 2016 at 7:01 pm

        Interesting note. Speaking of Washington… the slave owner. When the British left, after their defeat, they took with them 70 to 80 thousand blacks. Many had been promised their freedom if they fought for the crown. An upset George sent a message to the King of England asking for the return of what he said was US property. The Brits responded with a resounding…….F..You! and go take a hike. Many of these ex-slaves went on to live in the Bahamas,Bermuda, Jamaica and of course, mother England where they were treated as free-men, women and children. Ironically the new free repubblic…….was farce if you were not white.

  5. 20 April, 2014 at 9:47 pm

    Political Correctness makes poor history.

    • admin
      15 August, 2014 at 11:56 am

      As does political ideology.

  6. 9 March, 2015 at 12:53 pm

    To fully understand who served the Confederate military you must understand the laws dealing with jobs generally associated with blacks in the Confederate army. Southern Heritage Advancement Preservation and Education (S.H.A.P.E.) has been researching the issue of blacks in the Confederate Military for some years, at this time we have in the neighborhood of 10,000 listed. You can visit our website at http://negrosingrey.southernheritageadvancementpreservationeducation.com/page.php?2

    George Purvis
    Webmaster

  7. jim fleming
    17 May, 2015 at 1:25 pm

    Let me put to bed forever the fact that free blacks did infact enlist in the confederate army.. I am in posession of a newspaper printed in New Orleans in 1861 I states that on this date 1700 free black men enlisted in the Confederate army. And lets remember that is one day one city in the south.

    • jim fleming
      17 May, 2015 at 2:07 pm

      It is in a paper called PUBLIC LEDGER vol.LL No. 33
      Philadlphia, Wednesday May 1 1861 I will type exactly as it is printed in the paper— Colored Troops in the South—fifteen hundred free colored men in New Orleans at a meeting last Monday night enrolled themselves for military duty in defence of the Confederate States. That is how it is written. I should have re-read the paper before typing the first post as i was going from memory. I will not make that mistake again. It still proves that black men were willing to fight for the South.

      • 8 June, 2017 at 1:30 am

        It is pretty obvious from the dates you provide that this article is referring to the 1st Louisiana Native Guard (CSA) which was formed at that time in New Orleans among the somewhat affluent free black/mulatto population of that city.

        The 1st Louisiana Native Guard (CSA) officially disbanded on April 25, 1862 although most of its members re-formed as the Union Army’s 1st Louisiana Native Guard, which later became the 73rd Regiment Infantry of the United States Colored Troops.

        So they weren’t really that dedicated to “fighting for the South” (since they ended up fighting for the North). Additionally, New Orleans was one of the few areas of the South with an affluent free black/mulatto population (who supported the local power structure be it Confederate or Union) and the unique nature of New Orleans and its free black/mulatto population cannot be realistically extrapolated to the rest of the Confederacy.

        I do think, however, that would explain your newspaper article from 1861.

    • Veritas
      3 November, 2015 at 12:19 am

      My understading is several regiments of freed blacks were formed in New Orleans prior to the cAPTURE OF THE CITY BY THE nORTH IN EARLY 1862. lATER THESE REGIMENTS SERVED THE nORTH.

      • jim fleming
        3 November, 2015 at 12:03 pm

        I would need to see the proof of your statement.
        However the blacks did inlist in the Confederate
        Army to serve the South. What thay may have, is NOT important. Your statement proves my point (if correct) That slavery became a major issue after the start of the war of northern aggression. Or the Blacks never would have inlisted in the first place

        • RCollins, abused child
          23 June, 2016 at 6:45 pm

          I do not believe I ever indicated that blacks did not serve in the CSA. I do not recall ever stating that slavery was a major issue at the start of the war. In short your comment serves no purpose.

    • 16 May, 2016 at 7:15 pm

      That’s absolutely right! Stupidity, ignorance and racism did more to hurt the South then many of the North’s generals. Many were gentlemen of the South with a good economic situation. In an era of chivalry and noble deeds any progressive, non bias nation would’ve been happy to have these soldiers in their ranks. The southern commanders in that region laughed at them…too narrow minded to realize, they were undermining their own cause. The North was quicker to understand the manpower situation, and accepted them more readily./////////Sadly S I R…..continues to thrive in our military, IMC and war profiteering politicians.

      • RCollins, abused child
        23 June, 2016 at 6:49 pm

        Jose-Apparently far too many Yankees were unhappy to fight in Mr. Lincoln’s war to fill the ranks of Lincoln’s mercenary armies. So Lincoln filled with slaves because bounties cost too much to entice northerners into such a righteous cause. Ignorance and stupidity well describes a national policey that cost obver 800,000 lives. A policy no other civilized nation embraced nor repeated.

    • 8 June, 2017 at 1:32 am

      Here is another very good article on the subject:

      http://teachinghistory.org/history-content/ask-a-historian/24634

  8. Erin
    5 July, 2015 at 10:02 pm

    Knowing that slaves didn’t generally know how to READ, the only way they’d get information would be from their masters. Could they have been conned into fighting for the Confederacy? Certainly, fear and lies could convince slaves to fight for their masters!

    • jim fleming
      6 July, 2015 at 10:15 am

      Erin, The black men who defended the South were FREE MEN, As the newspaper states. When the war started it WAS NOT about freeing anyone, one of the many reasons was the spread of slavery. But primarly states rights. I will give you the fact that ONE of these rights was the right to own a slave. But the north had slaves also. Even some FREE blacks owned slaves. The whole reason to FREE the slaves was because after years of union defeat after defeat and large loss of troops, Lincolon needed more troops. Hence the emancipation proclamation. If this is not correct then tell my why the slaves were not freed in 1861???

    • RCollins, abused child
      23 June, 2016 at 6:49 pm

      Erin you mean like BLM?

    • John Isbell
      13 November, 2016 at 10:50 am

      They were offered their freedom if the enlisted and fought for the confederacy. That’s why they enlisted in the CSA.

    • Sean
      19 November, 2016 at 9:39 pm

      Most Irish could not read at the time,it did not lead to them all being good subjects of the Queen.

  9. mj
    10 August, 2015 at 2:16 pm

    There’s a difference between believing in a war and openly fighting as a voluntary soldier versus being a manservant of a Confederate soldier.

    • jim fleming
      10 August, 2015 at 9:17 pm

      MJ, With all due respect, I guess you just do not want to believe that
      free Black men wanted to defend their country from Northern agression. The paper CLEARLY states
      free men NOT manservants If you do any reasearch you will also find out that some free Blacks also, had slaves. But you probaly do not want to believe that either

  10. Ernesto Martinez
    31 May, 2016 at 5:18 pm

    Look up the act of 1871 I think blacks did fight in the south….i feel in my heart white people will not fight to receive 100,000 dead in a day for black people its not a racist thing. That was england taking over covertly. They had plans on killing the natives and expanding west….they deceive us all. The confederacy represented the colonist of 1776 to me my opinion. My heart tell me whites and indians and mexicans do get along its propaganda that makes us hate each other. I worked with white people we get along in the military all races get along. At the park we could walk by white people in a park and they say hi and we say hi i know we all get along its propaganda and news that wants us to fight each other

  11. Ernesto Martinez
    31 May, 2016 at 5:24 pm

    The act of 1871 changes america into a corporation its right after the civil war think about it thats how england won they sent like rich 007 agents to take over america covertly again. They have said all the presidents have a bloodlink to the queen of england can anyone confirm that? Our president pays taxes to england? Fuck school i dont what to believe in just myself family and thy neighbor.

  12. MITCHELL.
    15 May, 2017 at 11:53 am

    Commanders
    Notable
    commanders
    Colonel Felix Labatut
    Lt. Colonel Henry D. Ogden
    Major S. St. Cyr

    The Native Guards were on duty and at their post when Federal ships arrived opposite New Orleans, April 25, 1862[1]
    The 1st Louisiana Native Guard (CSA) was a Confederate Louisianan militia that consisted of free persons of color. Formed in 1861 in New Orleans, Louisiana, it was disbanded on April 25, 1862. Some of the unit’s members joined the Union Army’s 1st Louisiana Native Guard, which later became the 73rd Regiment Infantry of the United States Colored Troops.

    Contents  [hide] 
    1
    Confederate Louisiana militia
    2
    Activities
    3
    Notable members
    4
    Companies
    5
    See also
    6
    References

    Confederate Louisiana militia[edit]
    Shortly after Louisiana’s secession, Governor Thomas Overton Moore issued pleas for troops on April 17 and April 21, 1861. In response to the governor’s request, a committee of ten prominent New Orleans free blacks called a meeting at the Catholic Institute on April 22. About two thousand people attended the meeting where muster lists were opened, with about 1,500 free blacks signing up. Governor Moore accepted the services of these men as part of the state’s militia.
    The new militia regiment was formed during May 1861, consisting mostly of free persons of color, Creole Francophones (gens de couleur). While some members of the new regiment came from wealthy prominent free-black families, a majority of the men were clerks, artisans, and skilled laborers.[2] At that time, an estimated 10,000 African American residents of Louisiana and New Orleans had gained their freedom.
    On May 29, 1861, Governor Moore appointed three white officers as commanders of the regiment, and company commanders were appointed from among the free blacks of the regiment. The militia unit was the first of any in North America to have African-American officers. This regiment was called the Louisiana Native Guard. Though ten per cent of its members would later join the Union Army’s 1st Louisiana Native Guard, the two were separate military units.

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