“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.
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.
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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