The myth of black Confederates is arguably the most controversial subject of the Civil War. Over the past four years, the debate over whether or not blacks fought for the Confederacy has been the most discussed topic on Civil War Memory, a popular website attracting teachers and scholars from around the world, and the Atlantic Monthly and The Root have devoted several articles to it.
Almost every Civil War historian today repudiates the idea of thousands of blacks fighting for the South. Brooks Simpson and Fergus Bordewich are representative in their dismissals. The notion of “black Confederates,” Simpson says, betrays a “pattern of distortion, deception, and deceit” in the use of evidence. Bordewich declares the very term “meaningless,” “a fiction,” “a myth,” utter “nonsense.”
They are reacting to a growing chorus of “neo-Confederates,” who assert that tens of thousands of blacks loyally fought as soldiers for the Confederacy and that hundreds of thousands more supported it. Neo-Confederates acknowledge that the Confederacy legally prohibited slaves from fighting as soldiers until the last month of the war. But they argue that 10 percent of the Confederate states’ 250,000 free blacks enlisted as soldiers, and that thousands of loyal slaves fought alongside their masters even though the Confederacy prohibited it. They do this, as the Civil War scholar James McPherson noted, “as a way of purging their cause of its association with slavery.”
The debate over black Confederates has reached a kind of impasse: Neither side is listening to the other. As the historian William Freehling quietly acknowledged in a footnote: “This important subject is now needlessly embroiled in controversy, with politically correct historians of one sort refusing to see the importance (indeed existence) of the minority of slaves who were black Confederates, and politically correct historians of the opposite sort refusing to see the importance of black Confederates’ limited numbers.”
Freehling is right. A few thousand blacks did indeed fight for the Confederacy. Significantly, African-American scholars from Ervin Jordan and Joseph Reidy to Juliet Walker and Henry Louis Gates Jr., editor-in-chief of The Root, have stood outside this impasse, acknowledging that a few blacks, slave and free, supported the Confederacy.
How many supported it? No one knows precisely. But by drawing on these scholars and focusing on sources written or published during the war, I estimate that between 3,000 and 6,000 served as Confederate soldiers. Another 100,000 or so blacks, mostly slaves, supported the Confederacy as laborers, servants and teamsters. They built roads, batteries and fortifications; manned munitions factories—essentially did the Confederacy’s dirty work.
We know that blacks made up more than half the toilers at Richmond’s Tredegar Iron Works and more than 75 percent of the workforce at Selma, Ala.’s naval ordnance plant. And slaves grew the crops that fed the Confederacy. As Frederick Douglass noted, blacks were “the stomach of the rebellion.”
The total number of black Confederate soldiers is statistically insignificant: They made up less than 1 percent of the 800,000 black men of military age (17-50) living in the Confederate states, based on 1860 U.S. census figures, and less than 1 percent of at least 750,000 Confederate soldiers.
But they carry immense symbolic weight, for they explode the myth that a slave wouldn’t fight on behalf of masters. Scholars recognize that throughout history, slave societies have armed slaves, at times with the promise of freedom. They also acknowledge that a small number of African Americans were slave owners (about 3,700, according to Loren Schweninger). In a similar vein, some blacks voted against Obama (4 percent in 2008, 6 percent in 2012), and a few Jews supported the Nazis. Now that the sesquicentennial of the Civil War is almost over, it is time to admit that there were also a few black Confederates.
Did Black Confederates Lead to Black Union Soldiers?
African Americans were the first to publicize the presence of black Confederates. Frederick Douglass bemoaned the Confederate victory of First Manassas in July 1861 by noting in the August 1861 issue of his newspaper, Douglass’ Monthly, that “among rebels were black troops, no doubt pressed into service by their tyrant masters.” He used this evidence to pressure the administration of Abraham Lincoln to abolish slavery and arm blacks as a military strategy. It was “the speediest method of terminating the war,” he said.
Douglass repeatedly drew attention to black Confederates in order to press his cause. “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,” he wrote in July 1861. Slaveholders “accept the aid of the black man,” he said. “Why should a good cause be less wisely conducted?” (Douglass and most other observers ignored blacks’ service in both the Union and Confederate navies from the beginning of the war.) In refusing to use blacks as soldiers and laborers, the Lincoln administration was “fighting the rebels with only one hand”—its white hand—and ignoring a potent source of black power.