By Doug Coleman
UNSUNG SOLDIERS: BLACK CONFEDERATES
Fast forward thirty years to 1861. When the North invaded the South, the population of the South was a little over 9 million – of which about 5 million were white, the remainder being free blacks or slaves, versus about 35 million northerners. These numbers alone tell a story – it is impossible to believe that a population outnumbered almost four to one in a total war could survive four years without the dedication of the entire population; conversely if almost half of the population decided to go full Nat Turner, actively sabotage or just shirk work, it is inconceivable that the Confederacy could have lasted any amount of time at all. Further, while hundreds of thousands left or were confiscated when Yankee armies swept through, many stayed on. The South was not devoid of its former slaves when the war ended.
Millions of southern blacks supported the Confederate war effort because the Confederacy was their country. When Sherman made “Georgia howl”, he left a desert for everyone. The blockade affected everyone. When the Yankees carried off the livestock and corn and burnt people out, it was not just white people who starved and froze. And if the Yankees carried you off as “contraband”, you were now homeless.
We have movies like Glory which celebrate the African-American contribution to the Civil War but precious few which aim for the converse (Holt from Ride with the Devil is an exception, also a treat for fans of Tobey McGuire, Jewel and Jonathan Rhys Meyers). There is no question that blacks served the Confederacy. The real question is in what numbers and to what degree they did so willingly.
Frederick Douglass, writing in Douglass’ Monthly in September 1861 notes:
It is now pretty well established, that 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 loyal troops, and do all that soldiers may to destroy the Federal Government and build up that of the traitors and rebels. There were such soldiers at Manassas, and they are probably there still. There is a Negro in the army as well as in the fence, and our Government is likely to find it out before the war comes to an end. That the Negroes are numerous in the rebel army, and do for that army its heaviest work, is beyond question. They have been the chief laborers upon those temporary defences in which the rebels have been able to mow down our men. Negroes helped to build the batteries at Charleston. They relieve their gentlemanly and military masters from the stiffening drudgery of the camp, and devote them to the nimble and dexterous use of arms. Rising above vulgar prejudice, the slaveholding rebel accepts the aid of the black man as readily as that of any other. If a bad cause can do this, why should a good cause be less wisely conducted?
Some enlisted enthusiastically, like the Louisiana Native Guards, made up mostly of free blacks and mixed race men of color from New Orleans. They formed their regiment in March of 1861, well before the shelling of Fort Sumter and the invasion of Virginia. In Louisiana, stupidity and racism trumped patriotism. The governor rejected the regiment and refused to arm them. So insulted, the regiment offered itself up for service the following year – this time to Benjamin “ Beast” Butler after the capture of New Orleans. Butler was a little smarter than the governor of Louisiana and the Native Guards became the first colored regiment in the Union army, going on to distinguish themselves in the Vicksburg campaign. In Charleston, they were smarter – 150 free blacks volunteered their services and set to work constructing fortifications. And it is hard to account for the captured blacks who chose to live (and die) in Union prison camps when they could have secured their freedom by stepping forward and taking the Union oath of loyalty.
More may have served more reluctantly, as slaves either hired out by their masters or impressed by the government to construct forts and earthworks. Sarah Emma Edmonds, a woman who disguised herself as a man to serve in the Union army, painted herself with silver nitrate so that she might slip through the lines and spy masquerading as a male slave. Once inside the rebel camp, she and most of the other blacks were ordered to work on fortifications near Yorktown, backbreaking work for her. One night she was among a group sent out with supper for the men on the picket line. A sergeant handed her a rifle and directed her to take the place of a picket who had been wounded “which I was told to use freely in case I should see anything or anybody approaching from the enemy.” Then the sergeant gave her a kick and reminded her that the penalty for sleeping on duty was death. She slipped back into her own lines that night. Edmond’s account is corroborated by a sketch from Harper’s Weekly from January 1863 depicting two Confederate pickets as seen through a telescope.
William Henry Johnson, a free black from Connecticut was present at Manassas. He corroborates Douglass’ concerns and says black soldiers were a decisive factor: “We were defeated, routed and driven from the field. … It was not alone the white man’s victory, for it was won by slaves. Yes, the Confederates had three regiments of blacks in the field, and they maneuvered like veterans, and beat the Union men back. This is not guessing, but it is a fact.” It is highly doubtful that the South had three regiments of blacks at First Manassas; were these laborers such as Parker who were pressed into service to meet the emergency? If so, how willingly did they fight? The problem is further complicated by defining who is “black” – mixed race individuals could be legally “black” to the degree of “octoroon” – one eighth black.
There is another story told by a Yankee officer observing an opposing battery through his telescope. Blacks were being tasked to load the guns, which entailed stepping into the embrasure of the earthwork, exposing them for a few seconds. Berdan’s Sharpshooters, a special regiment of professional snipers, killed every one of them so exposed without pity, notwithstanding an appreciation that these men were almost certainly acting under coercion.
The irony of Confederate policy is that early on at least a portion of the free blacks and even of the enslaved would have supported the new government in the field, as in New Orleans and Charleston. A nation outnumbered almost four to one would be very foolhardy indeed to disqualify almost half of its population from service. But the Confederacy squandered this opportunity and the stories of black soldiers in the ranks trickle off after 1862, though some black soldiers were noted among captives at Gettysburg
Conversely, the Union appreciated the value of the slaves to the war effort and passed two Confiscation Acts and the Emancipation Proclamation to deny the Confederacy this resource. Freed slaves joined the Union army in droves – by the end of the war, Colored units made up about 10% of the Yankee army, while “contrabands” now performed the same services in Union camps as they had formerly. In contrast, most scholars believe that the proportion under arms was perhaps 1% of the Confederate army. In January of 1864, General Cleburne urged Richmond to let slaves serve in exchange for their freedom, without success. Lee made the same argument a year later, emphasizing that the notion was “not only expedient, but necessary.” In March of 1865, the Confederate Congress finally relented. Too late – Lee surrendered the next month.
My dad has a book of photographs taken at a Confederate reunion circa 1900. It includes our own people, but in the very back (of course), there is a photo of a black veteran named Monroe Gooch. He served through the war and was present at the surrender. In the photo, he is wearing the Confederate uniform. He was a member of the veteran’s organization, was welcome at the reunions and probably paid for his own hotel and train ticket. This guy wanted to be there to be counted forty years later. Make of that what you will.
Sources: Laura L. Gansler, The Mysterious Private Thompson; Robert P. Broadwater, America’s Civil War: Louisiana Native Guards, http://www.historynet.com/americas-civil-war-louisiana-native-guards.htm; Black Confederates, http://teachinghistory.org/history-content/ask-a-historian/24634;, John Stauffer, Yes, there Were Black Confederates, http://www.theroot.com/articles/history/2015/01/black_confederates_not_a_myth_here_s_why.3.html
Doug Coleman is an attorney and amateur historian in Alexandria; comments and corrections are welcome at firstname.lastname@example.org.