Black Confederates

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Black Confederates and the Civil War

Records from the time are incomplete, but several thousand African Americans may have served as soldiers for the Confederacy. Anecdotal evidence implies at least some went into combat against Union forces.

Confederate Maj. Gen. Patrick Cleburne was a born fighter. A division commander in the Army of Tennessee, Cleburne hated to lose.
In 1864, Union forces, with their virtually unlimited resources of men and materiel, were grinding the Confederacy toward defeat. Cleburne saw an untapped Southern resource he wanted to use before it was too late.

Cleburne made a revolutionary proposal to Army Commander Gen. Braxton Bragg: Arm Southern slaves and have them fight for their freedom with the Confederate army.

What mattered to Cleburne was not the institution of slavery, but the establishment of the Confederate States of America. He believed that logical men would see that the only way to overcome the tremendous Union advantages in men and materiel was to arm the slaves.

In February 1862, 800 prisoners of war (officers and enlisted men) arrived at Camp Chase. Included among the 800 Confederate soldiers were approximately 75 African Americans.*

Consequently, Bragg, his corps commanders and selected division commanders in the Army of Tennessee listened to Cleburne's proposal in shocked silence. The whole idea was repugnant to them. Still, Bragg forwarded Cleburne's proposal to Confederate President Jefferson Davis.

Davis killed the idea and in fact was so worried about the effect of such a proposal on morale that he suppressed any mention of it. Cleburne's novel idea did not see the light of day until 40 years after the war.

But African Americans did serve with Confederate armies. And eventually they even bore arms for the Confederacy.

Early in the war, "Free Negroes" tried to enlist in the Confederate army. Black militia units, most notably in Louisiana, rushed to join in the war. The Confederate government did not accept the black militia units for army duty. Whether entire black units appeared in combat is debatable, however, many blacks performed what is referred to as combat service support today.

Thousands of African Americans marched off to war for the Confederacy. Many accompanied their masters, and there were isolated instances throughout the war of these "body servants," as these slaves were called, taking up arms when their masters went into combat.

Many other slaves served as laborers for the Confederate army. During the Atlanta Campaign of 1864, for instance, Confederate Gen. Joseph Johnston used thousands of slaves to prepare fortifications as his army sparred with that of Union Maj. Gen. William T. Sherman.

Thousands of additional slaves served the Confederate army driving horse drawn supply wagons. The Confederate fighting force was white, but much of its support was black.

But sheer Union numbers facing the Confederacy meant arming the slaves and inevitably giving them freedom. The Northern population was 20 million. Of the South's 9 million people, nearly 4 million were African Americans.

By late 1864, it was becoming apparent to even the most optimistic Southerner that the North was winning. The fall of Atlanta and Sherman's subsequent March to the Sea, Union victories in Virginia's Shenandoah Valley, and Lt. Gen. Ulysses S. Grant's death grip on Richmond and Petersburg, Va., meant time was running out for the Confederacy. The last hope expired when Northern voters reelected Abraham Lincoln president.

Now desperate, Jefferson Davis embraced an idea he thought revolting a year earlier. The Confederate Congress began looking at bills allowing the enlistment of African Americans into the army in early 1865. Confederate Secretary of State Judah P. Benjamin spoke at rallies around Richmond. He said 680,000 African American males were ready to fight for the Confederacy: "Let us say to every Negro who wants to go into the ranks, 'Go and fight, and you are free ... Fight for your masters, and you shall have your freedom.'"

Representatives from the Deep South were especially keen on getting blacks to enlist; since Sherman was currently destroying their cities, towns, and crops. Some in the Confederate government saw the measure as an admission the Confederacy was wrong about slavery from the beginning.

"If we are right in passing this measure we were wrong in denying to the old government [the United States] the right to interfere with the institution of slavery and to emancipate slaves, Virginia Sen. Robert M.T. Hunter said. Besides, if we offer slaves their freedom ... we confess that we were insincere, were hypocritical, in asserting that slavery was the best state for the Negroes themselves."

In February 1865, the Confederate Congress, after months of stalling, passed an act allowing black enlistments. Immediately, Virginia started enlisting slaves to fight for the Confederacy.

White officers commanded these battalions. They drilled and marched in downtown Richmond. Recruiters enlisted blacks from Richmond to Petersburg, but they moved too slowly for Gen. Robert E. Lee. Lee took officers from the Army of Northern Virginia and started recruiting blacks immediately.

But time expired. On March 31, Union forces broke the Confederate lines at Petersburg. Lee was compelled to evacuate Richmond and Petersburg. His only hope of carrying on the fight was to escape to North Carolina and link up with Confederate forces.

On April 4, a Confederate courier observed black Confederates defending a wagon train near Amelia Court House, Va. When Union cavalry approached, the black soldiers formed up, fired and drove them off. The cavalry reformed, charged and took the wagon train.

Later, near Farmville, Va., white refugees saw black Confederates building and preparing to man fortifications.

Lee surrendered to Grant at Appomattox, Va., on April 9. The enlistment of black Confederate soldiers was the dying gasp of the South.

WASHINGTON, Feb. 1, 1996
by Jim Garamone (ed. Matthew D. Parker)
American Forces Press Service

* Phillip R. Shriver and Donald J. Breen, Ohio's Military Prisons in the Civil War for the Ohio Historical Society (Columbus, OH: Ohio State University Press, 1964) 12-14.

Recommended Reading: Black Confederates. Description: The discovery that more than 'a few African Americans' served the Confederacy in the Civil War -- and not just as servants -- will strike some readers as contradictory, unnatural, and politically incorrect. Certainly, most historians have ignored the subject. But history is history: One must deal with past reality, not subordinate the facts to modern political positions. In researching the subject, Barrow called on the readership of Confederate Veteran, the official publication of the Sons of Confederate Veterans, to submit information on black Southern loyalists. Continued below...

The results were large and diverse, based on official reports, pension applications, family correspondence, newspaper articles, and published memoirs, and from that came this anthology of historical documents and accounts.

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Recommended Reading: Black Confederates and Afro-Yankees in Civil War Virginia (A Nation Divided : New Studies in Civil War History). Description: Despite its unwieldy title, this stout volume is an invaluable addition to African American and Civil War history, a meticulously researched and detailed collective portrait of the nonwhite population of Virginia, the leading state of the Confederacy. Beginning with a large, capable, and diverse African American population, free as well as slave, Virginia found itself, as fear warred with the need for labor, both increasing and decreasing restrictions on it. Continued below...
At the same time, that African American population, unanimously in favor of freedom and better lives, was thoroughly divided (yes!) as to which side it should support in order to achieve these goals. Not easy reading and clearly most useful to the serious history student, this is an eminently worthwhile candidate for U.S. history collections, nonetheless.
Recommended Reading: Black Southerners in Confederate Armies. Description: The little-known story of black Confederate soldiers. Large numbers of slaves and freedmen served the South, and in some cases as soldiers and sailors for the Confederacy. This book uses official records, newspaper articles, and veterans' accounts to tell the enlightening stories of these Black Confederates. Continued below...
As the debate over the role of African-Americans in Confederate armies continues, this well-researched collection serves as a significant contribution to the ongoing discussion about the numbers of black Southerners involved and their significant history.
Recommended Reading: "Why I Wave the Confederate Flag, Written by a Black Man". Description: Congress shall make no law respecting and establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof; or abridging the freedom of speech, or of the press; or the right of the people peaceably to assemble, and to petition the Government for a redress of grievances. "This book is about truth and passion." Continued below...

What makes this book dangerous is its raw honesty. Hervey lifts the veil of Black decadence at the same time he exposes the lies and political correctness of modern day America. Hervey states: "I show that the Civil War was not fought over slavery and that the demise of my race in America is not of the White man, but rather of our own making. In this book, I show how Blacks in America ran away from physical bondage to one far worse-- mental bondage."

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