That black men, slaves and freedmen alike, served their homeland — the Confederate States of America — is beyond dispute.
But how many? And in what capacity?
*With the 150th anniversary of the Civil War, the “Forgotten Confederate,” or the myth of him, has risen again. *
Some contend that 60,000 served the rebel cause. Mostly behind the lines in support roles, of course, but a few got up front where the bullets flew.
“Whatever the job, if you did it for the Army, you were a soldier,” said Walter Williams, African-American economics professor at George Mason University. He argues for the inclusion of the 60,000 blacks among the 750,000 to 900,000 Confederate troops.
To which Hari Jones scoffed.
“You will never find documentation for that number because that 60,000 never existed,” said the curator of the National African-American Civil War Memorial and Museum in Washington, D.C. He believes, “at most,” about 1,500 black men did service, although not gun-toting, in the CSA ranks.
Jones said his museum has found Confederate records for about a dozen who were mustered in as cooks or musicians in North Carolina regiments.
“In the field, officers needed soldiers, and they didn’t care whether they had enlistment papers,” replied Retired Lt. Col. Edwin L. Kennedy Jr., who teaches history at the Command and General Staff College at Fort Leavenworth. To him, 60,000 is a fair estimate.
“If they are shooting a musket, then who cares if they are on the enlistment rolls?”
On both sides, trenches had to be dug, fortifications raised, supply wagons driven, mules shod, meals cooked, laundry done and music played. But the South, outnumbered on the front 2-to-1 and always short of manpower, used thousands of slaves contracted to the government. And Southern officers had black servants with them in the field.
“Black men have volunteered to serve their country in all our wars,” said Williams. “To ignore the black Confederate soldier is to do dishonor to him.”
Jones: “Let’s not call them anything other than what they were — Confederate slaves. The Confederates used slave labor.”
In the 25,000 soldiers’ letters he read for his Pulitzer Prize-winning “Battle Cry of Freedom: The Civil War Era,” James McPherson found mention of only about a dozen black soldiers among the rebels.
For the existence of 60,000 — the equivalent of roughly five divisions — Jones finds few “enlistment papers, nothing to prove they ever existed.”
To advocates of the “Forgotten Confederates,” who argue that Northern victors got to rewrite history their way, that is not surprising. A few will go as far as to claim such records and photographs were purged by those who did not wish to acknowledge the black men.
The notion of thousands of black Confederates buttresses the contention that the war was over state sovereignty, not slavery. If the Southern way of life was so bad, why did so many of these men of color join the rebellion alongside white comrades?
During the late 1850s, Williams explained, “people didn’t consider themselves as citizens of the U.S. They saw their state as their country. These blacks who were slaves, some of them freedmen, saw their country under attack and were willing to defend it. … Because of their loyalty, they would be treated better after the war.”
Entrusting hundreds or thousands of black men to take up arms, however, ran counter to the South’s deep-rooted fear of slave uprisings.
Evidence of black men actually fighting in rebel ranks is largely anecdotal. One Union officer held prisoner complained bitterly that he had thought he was fighting to free the Negro who held a shotgun at his head. In 1862, a Union doctor reported seeing “over 3,000 negroes … clad in all manner of uniforms” during a rebel occupation of Frederick, Md., but he tended to greatly exaggerate troop numbers.
“Better Confederates did not live,” said Gen. Nathan Bedford Forrest.
Before the war a slave trader, after it the first Grand Wizard of the Ku Klux Klan, Forrest took 45 slaves into the cavalry with him, promising them freedom, either way it turned out.
In Missouri, three black men, apparently all freedmen, served at times with guerrilla chief William Quantrill. John Noland even attended postwar Bushwhacker reunions and was carried to his grave by six white pallbearers.
In 1897, The Kansas City Star wrote of Billy Hunter, once owned by Missouri’s famous Confederate cavalry commander, Gen. Jo Shelby.
“Billy rode forth at the side of his gallant, young master,” who, the story said, outfitted Hunter in a gray uniform.
The slave carried the general’s weapons, besides cooking for him. But, as Hunter told his interviewer, he was “what you call a high private in the rear ranks most times. Been knocked with a skillet or a piece of fence rail and run over by horses and shot at, but I never shot.”
Perhaps hundreds of such body servants accompanied their masters to war. James G. Hollandsworth Jr., a former professor at the University of Southern Mississippi, researched state pension archives and found that 85 percent of black applicants were servants or cooks. They served in every theater of the war, and he assumes some did so willingly.
Only at the very end did the Confederacy consider enlisting and arming its slaves. Gen. Robert E. Lee favored the idea. Virginia adopted it.
The Richmond Enquirer opined: “The question of making soldiers of Negroes, of regularly enlisting them, for their own safety as well as our own, must have presented itself to every reflecting mind. Because the Yankees have not been able to make soldiers out of their drafted Negroes, it does not follow that we cannot train our slaves to make very efficient troops. We believe that they can be, by drill and discipline, molded into steady and reliable soldiers.”
The experiment was tried, but the war ended weeks later.
Steven Woodworth, a professor at Texas Christian University, knew of one New Orleans black militia unit that volunteered service to the rebels. They were rejected.
When the Yankees occupied the city midway in the war, the militia went to their side.