Dead Confederates, A Civil War Era Blog

More on the “Negro Regiment” at Manassas

Posted in African Americans, Memory by Andy Hall on August 1, 2011

We recently looked at what may be the origin of Frederick Douglass’ famous reference to black Confederate soldiers at Manassas, a report credited to a captured Confederate officer, one “Brigadier Quartermaster Pryor,” supposedly of the 19th Mississippi, who is alleged to have ridden into Union lines by mistake, and happily provided all sorts of dubious information to his captors, including a description of “a regiment of negro [sic.] troops in the rebel forces, but [Pryor] says it is difficult to get them in proper discipline in battle array.” This account, with slight variation in the wording, was reprinted in newspapers across the North, and even incorporated — with substantial embellishment — into accounts of the battle in British papers such as the Guardian and the Illustrated London News.

In fact, the Confederate “Negro regiment” at Manassas seems to been the subject of much curiosity and speculation, and so turns up in multiple accounts of the battle, mostly in Northern papers. These accounts seem to go unmentioned by the advocates of BCS, which is curious given that these items make clear reference to such a unit. Or perhaps it’s not so curious, given that the descriptions of that unit and its activities are not always laudatory — not to the actions of the unit on the field, not to the trust placed in them by Confederate officers, nor to the loyalty of the men themselves. From the New York Times, August 17, 1861:

To-day a negro [sic.] arrived in our lines, and was brought to Gen. MANSFIELD’s office. He is one of the celebrated negro regiment. He fought at Bull Run, and made his escape with a servant of BEAUREGARD, after the battle, and succeeded in reaching Point of Rocks after great privation. He states that a regiment of one thousand slaves were brought from the Cotton States, and the perfection of their drill led to the organization of two regiments of negroes from Southeastern Virginia. Before the battle they were compelled to drill three hours a day, and for several hours beside were put to work in the entrenchments. At night they were penned up in the rear, and a strict guard placed over them. The Virginia negroes were nearly all anxious to escape, and would do so when the opportunity occurred. Those from the Cotton States, however, were fearful of doing so, having been made to believe that their lives would be in danger among our troops.

And this, from the Hartford, Connecticut Daily Courant, July 27, 1862:

Mr. James Plaskett has received a very interesting letter from his son, who was in the fight of Sunday, as a member of the 14th regiment New York militia. We make a few extracts. He says. . . :

One of the most inhuman occurrences which we were compelled to witness that day, was the destruction of a building erected by us for a temporary hospital. The building was about a mile from the batteries, and was filled with the wounded and dying, and they were also lying all around outside of the building. The rebels pointed their guns, and threw bomb-shells into the building, which blew it up and killed all who were in or around the building. A negro regiment came on the field after the fight was over, and killed those who showed signs of life.

The sight upon the battlefield, in view of the carnage, was a sad one to me; legs, arms and heads off.

And this, from the Madison, Wisconsin Daily Patriot, August 1, 1861:

A Minnesota boy, at Manassas, was rushed upon by four colored soldiers — full-blooded Africans; three were shot by Zouaves, the fourth attempted to pin him to the ground with his bayonet, which he parried, which gave a slight wound upon his thigh, and run into the ground its whole length, and, before he could extricate it, the boy shot him through the body, which was so ear that the blaze of the gun set his clothes on fire.

On the other hand, the New Orleans Commercial Bulletin eventually decided that all the talk of a “Negro regiment” at Manassas was a big misunderstanding (September 24, 1861, p. 2, col. 3):

The famous Black Horse Cavalry of the Potomac have been formed into a regiment, with Chas. W. Field for Colonel. Hencetofore the organization consisted of but one company. The “Black Horse” have become a terror to the Kangaroos, and their fame has even reached the other side of the water. One of the London papers speaks of them as a negro regiment armed by the Confederate States.

There’s a lot to digest in those passages, both spoken and unspoken. Thoughts?
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6 Responses

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  1. Margaret Blough said, on August 2, 2011 at 7:12 am

    There’s an element of something that was not uncommon in 19th century newspapers; Unquestioningly printing undocumented horror stories involving alleged unspeakable conduct by a feared minority. In the aftermath of the Johnstown Flood, stories abounded of “hunkies” (eastern Europeans) committing various atrocities including cutting off dead women’s fingers to take their wedding rings. The stories were thoroughly rebutted in a very short time.

    I find it interesting that the only Southern source cited in the post, rebutted rather than support the claims.

    • Andy Hall said, on August 2, 2011 at 7:30 am

      We had similar stories told here after the 1900 Storm.

      Yes, I noticed that about the one Southern account I found. That’s what’s striking about this — contemporary descriptions of supposed African American Confederate troops turn up much more frequently in Northern sources than in Southern. I haven’t seen any other mentions of the “Negro regiment” at Manassas in a Southern paper apart from this one.

  2. Foxessa said, on August 2, 2011 at 10:50 am

    It’s like the dead babies on hun bayonets meme that helped Wilson convince the citizens of the U.S. to throw into WWI. This was a lie. But it’s the lie that by no means began with WWI — it’s the one always used to persuade people to war. One of the recent iterations of it were those premies ripped from their life-support in Kuwait by the invading Iraqis — a story later admitted to have been made up whole cloth by a PR firm hired by the Kuwaitis — which was testimony on the Senate floor.

    Having seen this and other versions so much now in the course of history studies, they leap out as agitprop now when I see them, no matter from what era. Almost always that’s what those tales turn out to be — agitprop. Not every time, alas, such as the ongoing rape horrors in central Africa these decades.

    Love, C.

    • Andy Hall said, on August 2, 2011 at 10:55 am

      As I recall, the tearful “eyewitness” testimony given to the Senate about the Iraqis and the incubators was given by a girl, 15 or 16 at the time, whose identity was kept secret supposedly for her protection, and who was later found to be the daughter of the Kuwaiti ambassador, who hadn’t been in that country for months. Utterly fraudulent.

  3. corkingiron said, on August 2, 2011 at 7:05 pm

    How much experience would Northern troops have had with a concentration of African-American slaves? I imagine that – for people who rarely saw more than a handful of black people at any one time , any significant concentration of blacks – even a labor “battalion”, could be misconstrued – especially on a battlefield.

    • Andy Hall said, on August 2, 2011 at 10:46 pm

      That’s likely a big part of it. There are, I think, more Northern accounts of black Confederates in action (across the war) than there are from the Southern side, once one excludes anecdotes about this is that servant picking up a rifle in the heat of the action, which are numerous.

      Kate Masur had a story a few days ago in the NYT that told of a slave who’d been impressed to dig trenches and build fortifications prior to the Battle of First Manassas (Bull Run), and when the fighting started was put to work helping manhandle a piece of artillery — hot, heavy work. He then describes how he and his fellows were assigned for days after the battle, stripping dead Union soldiers of their gear. This sort of activity could easily, witnessed at a distance, fueled by rumor, anger and bigotry, be understood as the infamous “Negro regiment” coming onto the field and slaughtering the Federal wounded.


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