Black Confederate Soldiers

Yes, they did really exist, even though dailykos states that they were a myth concocted by right wing “wingnuts”. There were never very many Black Confederate soldiers and I very much doubt any of them ever saw combat, but they did exist. Actually the story of the Confederate Blacks is an interesting one about men willing to fight for their country, and not being allowed to until it was too late.

The problem that the Confederate States of America had throughout the Civil War was that almost in everything needed to conduct a war, the North had more than the South. The Union had the greater population with 20 million against the Rebel’s 9 million. In fact the ratio of men of military age was much worse for the South, 4,070,000 to 1,140,000, because around 3,500,000 of the South’s population were Black slaves who weren’t expected to fight.  In fact, slavery may have been the South’s greatest disadvantage. Slaves have to be watched or they may try to escape or slack off on their work. The Confederacy did have some advantage with geography and they didn’t have to invade and conquer the North to win. They could fight a defensive war. Conquering and occupying a country is harder and more expensive than defending against an invader. Unfortunately for the South, the North had a great enough advantage to make it possible, albeit with much bloodshed.

One logical way to offset at least some of the Confederate disadvantage in population would have been to enlist at least some of the  Black men to fight, in segregated units with White officers, of course. You might wonder why any slave would want to fight for his masters and whether they could be trusted. Well, not all the Black population in the South were slaves. According to the 1860 census, there were 3,653,870 Blacks in the states that seceded from the Union the following year, 3,521,110 were slaves but 132,760, or around 4% were free Blacks. Many Blacks who were emancipated moved North but many stayed in the South, because it was their home or they had relatives still in bondage. Although there was a lot of discrimination against them, some of these free Blacks managed to prosper and there was even a handful of Black slave owners. Some of these free Blacks were willing to fight, either out of patriotism or the hope of some improvement in their circumstances. Even slaves might be induced to fight with the promise of emancipation.

Needless to say, Southern Whites were not enthusiastic about the idea of Blacks, free or slave fighting for the Confederacy. The slave-owning planter class was especially against the idea. Part of this was simple racism. No one believed that Africans had the necessary skills or qualities needed to make good soldiers. Also, it didn’t seem to be prudent to arm slaves, or former slaves and teach them to fight. Aside from the possibility of a slave insurrection, the sight of Black soldiers marching off to war might encourage insolence among the slaves, making it harder to maintain control. Actually, quite a few slave owners thought that the mere existence of free Blacks set a bad example. Over time, the southern states made it more difficult for a slave owner to emancipate his slaves.

At the beginning of the Civil War, some of the free Blacks of New Orleans formed the 1st Louisiana Native Guard. This militia unit of 1135 men was organised on May 2, 1861. The 1st Louisiana Native Guard was actually the first unit in America to have Black officers, although Louisiana governor Thomas Overton Moore appointed White officers to command the unit. The Confederate government did not have any use for the 1st Louisiana Native Guard. It did not provide the men with uniforms or weapons.

1st Louisiana Native Guard

1st Louisiana Native Guard (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

The men were able to obtain their own weapons and uniforms at their own expense and marched in a parade in New Orleans on January 8, 1861. They were not given any duties, even as non-combatants and were disbanded by the Louisiana state legislature on February 15, 1862.

Although there are unconfirmed reports of Blacks fighting for the South, there were no Black units officially organized, nor was the idea of enlisting Blacks given any consideration. Slave labor was used in various support roles, as teamsters, hospital attendants, and slaves were increasingly used to replace to labor of the White men who were absent to fight in the war. It seems most likely that any Blacks who were seen fighting were servants obliged to pick up a rifle to protect themselves and their masters. As the war went on and the South began to lose, a few people began to consider the unthinkable. In 1864, Major-General Pat Cleburne of the Army of Tennessee called a meeting of the leading officers to propose freeing the slaves and enlisting them to fight. In this way, he argued, the South’s disadvantage of slavery could be turned into its advantage. This proposal was not well received by his fellow officers and his commander, Joseph E. Johnston, advised him not to press the matter any further. Word of Cleburne’s radical proposal leaked out, however, and although he was one of the South’s better generals, he was not considered for promotion again before he died later that year.

President Jefferson Davis also began to realize that it might be necessary to enlist Blacks. He realized that any mention of such a proposal would be extremely controversial, so he put off suggesting such a course of action until there was no alternative. By the start of 1865, it seemed that that time had come. On January 11, 1865, General Robert E. Lee wrote to the Confederate Congress urging them to enlist Black slaves to fight in exchange for freedom. The Confederate Congress debated the legislation for two months, finally passing a bill on March 13, by a very slim margin. President Davis signed the bill the next day and made it military policy to allow slaves to fight, with the permission of their masters, in exchange for manumission. Even then, most southern Whites resented the idea of allowing Blacks to fight. When the first Black recruits marched through Richmond in their new, gray uniforms, Whites threw mud at them. It was too late, in any case. On April 9, 1865, General Lee surrendered to  General Grant at Appomattox Court House. By the end of May the war was over.

Would it have made a difference if the Blacks in the South had been allowed to fight? Probably not. Even with the  additional manpower, the North still had a considerable advantage in numbers over the South, not to mention its other advantages. Then again, I think the greatest advantage the Union had over the Confederacy was in the quality of the leadership of the two sides. Jefferson Davis was capable enough, but he didn’t have Lincoln’s skill at placating critics or getting rivals to work together. Confederate diplomacy was amateurish. The governors of some of the southern states worked against the policies of the central government.  General Lee didn’t really understand the war on the continental scale to the extent that Grant and Sherman did. A Confederate government that was flexible and open minded enough to be willing to consider having the Blacks fight before the last month of the war might have been able to use the resources of the South to win. Of course, a Southern leadership that was open minded and flexible might have realized that slavery was an institution that was quickly becoming  discredited in the modern world and have adopted some plan of emancipation, thus avoiding the need for the war.



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