Friday, December 29, 2006

Black People Served in the Confederate Army

Like "prolife feminist," the phrase "black Confederate" seems like an oxymoron. But the record
shows that many slaves and free blacks were a part of the South's military during the US Civil
None other than abolitionist Frederick Douglass, a former slave and one of the most prominent
African Americans in history, declared:
There are at present moment [autumn 1861], many colored men in the Confederate Army
doing duty not only as cooks, servants, and laborers, but as real soldiers, having musket on
their shoulders and bullets in their pockets, ready to shoot down loyal troops and do all
that soldiers may do to destroy the Federal government and build up that of the traitors
and rebels.
Page 27
In Black Confederates and Afro-Yankees in Civil War Virginia, Professor Ervin L. Jordan, Jr.,
Numerous black Virginians served with Confederate forces as soldiers, sailors, teamsters,
spies, and hospital personnel.... I know of black Confederate sharp-shooters who saw
combat during the 1862 Seven Days Campaign and [of] the existence of black companies
[which] organized and drilled in Richmond in March-April 1865. Integrated companies of
black and white hospital workers fought against the Union army in the Petersburg trenches
during March 1865. There were several recruitment campaigns and charity balls held in
Virginia on behalf of black soldiers and special camps of instruction were established to
train them.
The book Black Confederates contains loads of
primary documents testifying to the role of African
Americans: letters, military documents, tributes,
obituaries, contemporaneous newspaper articles, and
more. In an 1862 letter to his uncle, a soldier at Camp
Brown in Knoxville, Tennessee, wrote that his
company had recently gunned down six Union
soldiers and that "Jack Thomas a colored person that
belongs to our company killed one of them."
An 1861 article in the Montgomery Advertiser says:
"We are informed that Mr. G.C. Hale, of Autauga County, yesterday tendered to Governor
Moore the services of a company of negroes, to assist in driving back the horde of abolition
sycophants who are now talking so flippantly of reducing to a conquered province the
Confederate States of the South."
The obituary of black South Carolinian Henry Brown states that he had never been a slave and
had served in three wars: the Mexican, the Spanish-American, and the Civil (on the side of the
South). He was given a 21-gun salute at his funeral.
In 1890, black Union veteran Joseph T. Wilson wrote in his book, The Black Phalanx: A History
of the Negro Soldiers of the United States, that New Orleans was home to two Native Guard
regiments, which comprised 3,000 "colored men." Referring to these regiments in an 1898 book,
Union Captain Dan Matson said: "Here is a strange fact. We find that the Confederates
themselves first armed and mustered the Negro as a solider in the late war."
Most blacks in the Confederate Army, though, were in supporting roles such as cook, musician,
nurse, and the catch-all "servant." However, a lot of them ended up fighting on the battlefield,
even though the South didn't officially induct black soldiers until late in the conflict. And all of
them — whether inducted or not, whether solider or some other position — were eligible for
military pensions from several Southern states (including Tennessee and Mississippi), an records
show that many of them signed up for these benefits.

A follow-up volume, Black Southerners in Confederate Armies, presents even more source
documents. A book from 1866 contains the recollection of a Union man whose compatriot killed
a black Confederate sniper "who, through his skill as a marksman, had done more injury to our
men that any dozen of his white compeers..." Union documents show Henry Marshall, a black
soldier with the 14th Kentucky Cavalry, being held in Northern prisoner of war camps. A
pension document from South Carolina reveals that "a free Negro who volunteered" for the army
served from August 1861 to the end of the war — over three and a half years. An obituary for
George Mathewson says that the former slave received "a Cross of Honor for bravery in action,"
based on his role as standard-bearer.
The New York Tribune noted "that the Rebels organized and employed 'Negro troops' a full year
before our government could be persuaded to do any thing of the sort." After the Battle of
Gettys-burg, the New York Herald reported: "Among the rebel prisoners who were marched
through Gettysburg there were observed seven negroes in uniform and fully accoutered as
An article from Smithsonian magazine relates: "A New York Times correspondent with Grant in
1863 wrote: 'The guns of the rebel battery were manned almost wholly by Negroes, a single
white man, or perhaps two, directing operations.'"
While it certainly couldn't be said that African Americans played a major military role in the
Southern army, they were definitely there. And some of them had even volunteered.

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