Black Confederates Revisited
Continuing to research and rewrite my forthcoming book, African Americans in American History, I found a lot more material on the topic of black Confederate soldiers. So much, in fact, that I made the topic a separate chapter instead of an add-on to US Colored Troops. The Confederates clearly recognized the efficacy of the 200,000 or so black soldiers the Union trained and equipped, and began a serious dialogue after Gettysburg, Vicksburg, and the Nashville disaster at the end of 1863. Throughout, Southern statesmen, military leaders, and the press argued for the necessity to arm their slaves and freedmen if the Confederacy were to have a fighting chance. This was vociferously answered others who pointed out the reality that arming slaves obviated the Confederacy’s reason for existence, destroying its very “cornerstone,” as Alexander Stephens, the Confederate vice president, put it.
Major Thomas P. Turner, the recruiting officer for the Richmond district, observed, “Our) wives and daughters and the negroes are the only elements left for us to recruit from.” Indeed, since the Confederacy resorded to the draft in March 1862, there were few males left between the ages of sixteen and sixty that the South could draw on. Many Confederate regiments had been consolidated, which hurt unit pride. Even then, many units were mere skeletons, sometimes lacking qualified officers due to constant battle losses. Even when it became clear that the Confederacy could not survive without massive infusions of fresh recruits, the Confederate Congress conducted a protracted debate. Legislation authorizing arming slaves and freedmen was not signed until 13 March, barely three weeks before Appomattox, too late to do any good. At most a company or two was organized, and these troops would have had only rudimentary training.
Nevertheless, to bolster Lost Cause mythology in the 1970s, Neo-Confederates began to spin tales of black soldiers fighting for the Confederacy, citing a few pension records and photos of blacks in uniform. Many slaves accompanied masters to the field, and in some cases donned parts of uniforms. They received much lower pension payments for proving that they remained faithfully with their master in the field.. However, according to the American Battlefield Trust, the Official Records of the War of the Rebellion, records from both sides compiled by the War Department into over 128 volumes from 1880 to 1901, mentions black Confederate soldiers only seven times. Three record individual black men shooting at Union soldiers, one mentions capturing a handful of armed black men, and the other three reports describe unarmed black laborers. None of this documentation mentions an instance of Union forces encountering an organized black Confederate battle line.