By Doug Peterson, University of Illinois
PATRICK R. CLEBURNE, A PROMINENT GENERAL IN THE CONFEDERATE ARMY of Tennessee, could see what was happening in the South in the winter of 1864. Rebel forces were outnumbered, the soldiers were demoralized, and the war effort itself was floundering. So one cold January night, Cleburne rode through a sleet storm in northern Georgia to present an audacious proposal to nearly a dozen Confederate commanders.
He recommended that the Southern army let black slaves fight for the cause. And in exchange for their service, they’d win their freedom.
“Most of the generals denounced him,” says Bruce Levine, University of Illinois history professor and author of Confederate Emancipation and The Fall of the House of Dixie.
In fact, Cleburne’s proposal was overwhelmingly rejected. Secessionist states were not about to undermine the institution of slavery — the very system that they were fighting to defend. Yet despite the resistance at the time to the idea of arming African Americans, over the past 30 years the narrative has changed. According to popular myth, black soldiers did in fact fight for the Confederacy, and in massive numbers too — tens of thousands even hundreds of thousands joined the rebellion.
The notion that African Americans fought in large numbers for the South was never suggested in the immediate aftermath of the war, mostly because Southern veterans would have still been alive to shoot down the idea.
“The claims among modern romanticizers of the Confederacy are intended to bolster more fundamental claims—that African Americans identified with the Confederacy, that slaves were content with being slaves, and that the war had nothing to do with slavery.”
The problem is that the assertions of massive involvement by blacks in the Southern army are false, he says.
The Confederate army had a strict racial policy: those who were not certifiably white were prohibited from military service. That doesn’t mean African Americans played no role in the Southern war effort. In the early years of the conflict, many slave owners brought their servants along on campaign, often to carry equipment, to clean clothes or to take care of horses. In addition, the Confederacy forced many slaves, and even free blacks, to build rail lines, breastworks and fortifications, as well as to drive wagons, bury the dead, and serve as nurses and orderlies.
“On occasion, a slave might have even picked up a gun and taken a shot at the Yankees, to prove how loyal and dependable he was,” Levine says. But this level of involvement is a far cry from tens of thousands of armed black soldiers marching in defense of the rebellion, the historian maintains.
What’s more, Confederates quickly realized that if they placed black laborers too close to the Union lines, many would try to flee to the other side. Soon, slave owners stopped bringing along their black servants altogether.
Levine notes that there were two militias in the South made up of free African American soldiers—one in Mobile, Ala., and the other in New Orleans. But these were state militias and not part of the regular army. Neither saw much action. Meanwhile, numerous members of the “Native Guards” of New Orleans immediately switched allegiance to the Union once the Yankees occupied the city.
The very idea of black Confederates is a relatively recent phenomenon, emerging after the Civil Rights movement of the 1960s, Levine says. The notion that African Americans fought in large numbers for the South was never suggested in the immediate aftermath of the war, mostly because Southern veterans would have still been alive to shoot down the idea.
“White Confederate soldiers would have taken it as an insult to have served in the same army with black soldiers,” he says.
As evidence that African Americans fought heroically for the South, neo-Confederates today produce period photos of slaves dressed in grey tunics and army caps.
“Some servants were dressed in military uniforms,” says Levine. “That was the kind of clothing available in the army.” It didn’t mean they were real members of those army units, he adds.
Levine does point out that in March of 1865, when the Confederacy was on its last legs, the Southern congress in Richmond did pass eleventh-hour legislation for the enlistment of black soldiers. But even then, the controversial measure was adopted only by a razor thin margin. Few signed up and the law freed no one.
“The Southern government invited masters to volunteer their slaves for the army, but Jefferson Davis and Robert E. Lee knew that still-enslaved black men would certainly not fight for the South,” he says. “The overwhelming majority of masters declined that invitation.”
In the final weeks of the war, a handful of Southern states actively tried to recruit black soldiers too, he says.
“Nothing happened anywhere, except Richmond and Petersburg,” said Levine. “They apparently raised about 60 black soldiers in the Confederate army, who then saw virtually no action.”
By contrast, once black soldiers were accepted into the Union army in 1863, roughly 190,000 to 200,000 flocked to the colours. Even more telling, he adds, an estimated 80 percent of those soldiers were runaway slaves and free blacks recruited by the Union army from slave states.
Reprinted with permission from the University of Illinois, College of Liberal Arts and Sciences.