Frederick Douglass and the “Negro Regiment” at First Manassas
From the Douglass Monthly, September 1861:
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, ready to shoot down loyal troops, and do all that soldiers may to destroy the Federal Government and build up that of the traitors and rebels. There were such soldiers at Manassas, and they are probably there still. There is a Negro in the army as well as in the fence, and our Government is likely to find it out before the war comes to an end. That the Negroes are numerous in the rebel army, and do for that army its heaviest work, is beyond question. They have been the chief laborers upon those temporary defences in which the rebels have been able to mow down our men. Negroes helped to build the batteries at Charleston. They relieve their gentlemanly and military masters from the stiffening drudgery of the camp, and devote them to the nimble and dexterous use of arms. Rising above vulgar prejudice, the slaveholding rebel accepts the aid of the black man as readily as that of any other. If a bad cause can do this, why should a good cause be less wisely conducted? We insist upon it, that one black regiment in such a war as this is, without being any more brave and orderly, would be worth to the Government more than two of any other; and that, while the Government continues to refuse the aid of colored men, thus alienating them from the national cause, and giving the rebels the advantage of them, it will not deserve better fortunes than it has thus far experienced.–Men in earnest don’t fight with one hand, when they might fight with two, and a man drowning would not refuse to be saved even by a colored hand.
This quote, and most specifically the first part of it in bold above, is often waved triumphantly as an incontrovertible bit of evidence that the Confederacy did enlist African Americans as bona fide soldiers, “having muskets on their shoulders, and bullets in their pockets.” Those who advocate for the existence of large numbers of BCS seem to view Douglass’ quote as a sort of rhetorical trump card, as though the assertion of someone so genuinely revered could not possibly be questioned. If Frederick Douglass said so, the thinking seems to be, then even the most biased, politically-correct historian has to accept that.
The truth, of course, is that Frederick Douglass’ claims are subject to same scrutiny as anyone else’s. It’s worth remembering that Douglass was neither a reporter nor an historian; he was, by his own happy admission, an agitator, and is his September 1861 essay excerpted above he was again making the case for the enlistment of African American soldiers in the Union army. If there were reports that the Confederate army had used black troops at First Manassas — a battle that by September was well understood as an embarrassing setback for Union forces — then that made all the more compelling case for the Lincoln administration to respond in kind.
But why did Douglass believe that there were, or at least plausibly might be, such units in the Confederate army? He lived in upstate New York, in Rochester; he was nowhere near the battle and saw nothing of it at first hand. He might have spoken to someone who claimed first-hand knowledge of the event, but there’s no evidence that that’s the source of the claim. Indeed, the opening clause of the passage — “it is now pretty well established” — acknowledges that Douglass was not writing about something he knew to a certainty, but rather a conclusion based on what were likely numerous reports, rumors and press items.
Earlier this week Donald R. Shaffer looked at the evidence of black Confederate soldiers taking part in First Manassas, and argued that Douglass may have been basing his claim on an exchange in the Congressional Globe that took place soon after the battle, in which the involvement of African Americans in the Confederate army in a variety of capacities is discussed. Shaffer concludes, “it is apparent from the debate above that some servants and other African Americans attached to both armies were armed. This did not make them soldiers officially, but it does make murkier the line dividing soldiers and civilians attached to the armies in the Civil War.”
Dr. Shaffer, author of After the Glory: The Struggles of Black Civil War Veterans and Voices of Emancipation: Understanding Slavery, the Civil War, and Reconstruction through the U.S. Pension Bureau Files, makes a solid argument. Douglass closely followed the political debates of the day, and may well have followed the discussion in the Congressional Globe. But I would respectfully submit that it’s even more likely that he believed there were black Confederate troops at Manassas because he read it in the newspaper. From the New York Tribune, July 22, 1861, p. 5 col. 4:
A Mississippi soldier was taken prisoner by Hasbrouck of the Wisconsin Regiment. He turned out to be Brigadier Quartermaster Pryor, cousin to Roger A. Pryor. He was captured on his horse, as he by accident rode into our lines. He discovered himself by remarking to Hasbrouck, “we are getting badly cut to pieces.” What regiment do you belong to?” asked Hasbrouck. “The 19th Mississippi,” was the answer. “Then you are my prisoner,” said Hasbrouck.
From the statement of this prisoner it appears that our artillery had created great havoc among the rebels, of whom there are 30,000 to 40,000 in the field under command of Gen. Beauregard, while they have a reserve of 75,000 at the Junction.
He describes an officer most prominent in the fight, and distinguished from the rest by his white horse, as Jeff. Davis. He confirms previous reports of a regiment of negro [sic.] troops in the rebel forces, but says it is difficult to get them in proper discipline in battle array.
This account, with minor changes to the wording, appeared in newspapers all across the North, and even in Canada, in the days immediately following the battle. It was published in Batltimore, New York, Massachusetts, Albany and — yes — Rochester. A quick search of digitized newspapers suggests how far, and how often, the report of a back Confederate regiment in the field, seemingly confirmed by a captured Confederate officer, made it into print:
- St. John, New Brunswick Morning Freeman, July 25, 1861, p. 4, col. 3 (Google News)
- Baltimore American and Commercial Advertiser, July 22, 1861, p. 1 (Google News)
- Baltimore Sun, July 22, 1861, p. 2 (Google News)
- Lewiston, Maine Daily Evening Journal, p. 2, col. 2 (Google News)
- Springfield, Massachusetts Daily Republican, July 22, 1861, p. 4, col. 3 (GenealogyBank)
- Lowell Massachusetts Daily Citizen and News, July 22, 1861, p. 2 (GenealogyBank)
- Albany Evening Journal, July 22, 1861, p. 1. col. 6 (GenealogyBank)
- Jamestown, New York Journal, July 26, 1861, p. 2, col. 4 (GenealogyBank)
- Mineral Point, Wisconsin Tribune, July 26, 1861, p. 1, col 4 (NewspaperArchive)
- New York Daily Tribune, July 22, 1861, p. 5, col. 4 (Library of Congress)
- Moore’s Rural New Yorker, July 27, 1861, p. 6, col. 3 (Rochester Area Historic Newspapers)
As noted, these eleven citations are not an exhaustive list of papers that published this account in 1861; these are only examples that, 150 years later, survive in digitized, searchable form. The actual number of papers, large and small, across the country that repeated these short paragraphs may have counted in the dozens. Summaries based on Pryor’s account went even farther, with the British papers picking up and embellishing the claim. The Guardian was almost certainly rehashing Pryor’s account when it reported on August 7 that “Jefferson Davis was conspicuous on the field, on a white horse, in command of the centre of the army. A negro regiment fought on the same side.” The Illustrated London News went farther, claiming not only that such a unit went into action, but that “Northern troops found themselves opposed to a regiment of coloured men who fought with no want of zeal against them.”
I have no idea who “Brigadier Quartermaster Pryor” was; the 19th Mississippi had two Pryors, neither of which appear to be the man mentioned in the story. But who he was is less important here than assessing the reliability of his claims. I asked Harry Smeltzer of Bull Runnings for a quick assessment of Pryor’s report, as printed in the papers. Harry agreed, so long as I would indemnify him against getting dragged into the black Confederate discussion. (Done.) The Confederate numbers quoted are way off, he said, but then “numbers were wildly overstated by both sides, each being convinced they were outnumbered.” He continued:
OK – lots of [redacted barnyard term] in there, of course. The Federals did not move again on Manassas.
No 19th Mississippi at the battle: 2nd, 11th 13th, 17th, 18th. Last two were with Jones at McLean’s Ford. 2nd & 11th were with Bee and 13th with Early, so those three could have been where the 2nd Wisc was at some point. Pryor would have to have been very lost to wander from Jones to 2nd Wisc. Best bet to me is the 2nd or 11th. . . .
[Jeff Davis] arrived shortly after the fighting had stopped, during the retreat. . . .
Whoever “Brigadier Quartermaster Pryor” may have been, his claims about the battle and the Confederate army are a mess. Even allowing for the fog of war and the reality that no one, even the generals themselves, has a full and accurate picture of the fight in real time, Pryor’s claims are dubious and unreliable. It’s impossible to know, at this remove, what Pryor said on the battlefield, but what he’s quoted as saying in the newspaper is pretty worthless.
We’ll likely never know what caused Douglass to make his claim that the Confederacy had put African American soldiers on the field at Manassas. He may have heard about the battle from someone present, though Douglass’ passage doesn’t suggest that. He may well have followed the debate in the Congressional Globe, but at the same time he almost certainly was aware of the claims of “Brigadier Quartermaster Pryor,” printed in at least two papers likely to have crossed his cluttered desk in Rochester, Horace Greeley’s New York Daily Tribune and one of the local sheets, Moore’s Rural New Yorker. The presence of black men in Confederate uniform was an oft-repeated rumor that the time, and Douglass very likely saw “Brigadier Quartermaster Pryor’s” dubious account as further confirmation. Even an esteemed author like Frederick Douglass can only be a reliable as the material he has to work with.
Image: Issue of Douglass’ Monthly newspaper, via Division of Rare & Manuscript Collections, Carl A. Kroch Library, Cornell University.