Dead Confederates, A Civil War Era Blog

Ambrose Bierce “On Black Soldiering”

Posted in African Americans, Leadership, Memory by Andy Hall on October 29, 2010

A skeptical correspondent asks me for an opinion of the fighting qualities of our colored regiments. Really I had thought the question settled long ago. The Negro will fight and fight well. From the time when we began to use him in civil war, through all his service against Indians on the frontier, to this day he has not failed to acquit himself acceptably to his White officers. I the more cheerfully testify to this because I was at one time a doubter. Under a general order from the headquarters of the Army, or possibly from the War Department, I once in a burst of ambition applied for rank as a field officer of colored troops, being then a line officer of white troops. Before my application was acted on I had repented and persuaded myself that the darkies would not fight; so when ordered to report to the proper board of officers, with a view to gratification of my wish, I “backed out” and secured “influence” which enabled me to remain in my humbler station.

But at the battle of Nashville it was borne in upon me that I had made a fool of myself. During the two days of that memorable engagement the only reverse sustained by our arms was in an assault upon Overton Hill, a fortified salient of the Confederate line on the second day. The troops repulsed were a brigade of Beatty’s division and a colored brigade of raw troops which had been brought up from a camp of instruction at Chattanooga. I was serving on Gen. Beatty’s staff, but was not doing duty that day, being disabled by a wound — just sitting in the saddle and looking on. Seeing the darkies going in on our left I was naturally interested and observed them closely. Better fighting was never done. The front of the enemy’s earthworks was protected by an intricate abatis of felled trees denuded of their foliage and twigs. Through this obstacle a cat would have made slow progress; its passage by troops under fire was hopeless from the first — even the inexperienced black chaps must have known that. They did not hesitate a moment: their long lines swept into that fatal obstruction in perfect order and remained there as long as those of the white veterans on their right. And as many of them in proportion remained until borne away and buried after the action. It was as pretty an example of courage and discipline as one could wish to see. In order that my discomfiture and humiliation might lack nothing of completeness I was told afterward that one of their field officers succeeded in forcing his horse through a break in the abatis and was shot to rags on the slope on the parapet. But for my abjuration of faith in the Negroes’ fighting qualities I might perhaps have been so fortunate as to be that man!

San Fransisco Examiner, June 5, 1898. From Russell Duncan and David Klooster, Phantoms of a Blood-Stained Period: The Complete Civil War Writings of Ambrose Bierce. Image: “Battle of Nashville,” Kutz & Allison Lithograph, Library of Congress.

8 Responses

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  1. Mark Douglas said, on October 30, 2010 at 12:14 am

    Anyone who believes in black confederate soldiers, I have a bridge to sell you.

    No doubt there were some individual blacks there — with some of the officers. Lee had three slaves with him, Bill, Perry, and Lawrence. But the were not in the CSA.

    The South had over a million slaves doing their work — Lee had 100,000 in RIchmond alone, building the earth works. But they were not in the CSA.

    But large scale of black Confederate troops, IN the CSA? Utter nonsense. We already know the massive back lash against the idea of black soldiers, from Clebourne, and how the idea was roundly rejected.

    The last few weeks of the war, a bill passed to DRAFT slaves– pay the owner. They were slaves. The bill specifically said, they would STILL be slaves. But even that fizzled out.

    Go read Jeff Davis speech from Jan 5, 1863. Read it, and then tell me if there were any blacks in the Confederate Army.


    For nearly two years my people have been defending their inherent rights……..The people of the Southern Confederacy have–making sacrifices such as the modern world has never witnessed–patiently, but determinedly, stood between their home interests and the well paid, well fed and well clad mercenaries of the Abolitionists, and I need not say that they have nobly vindicated the good name of American citizens

    .Now, therefore, as a compensatory measure, I do hereby issue the following Address to the People of the Non-Slaveholding States:–

    On and after February 22, 1863, all free negroes within the limits of the Southern Confederacy shall be placed on the slave status, and be deemed to be chattels, they and their issue forever.
    All negroes who shall be taken in any of the States in which slavery does not now exist, in the progress of our arms, shall be adjudged, immediately after such capture, to occupy the slave status, and in all States which shall be vanquished by our arms, all free negroes shall, ipso facto, be reduced to the condition of helotism, so that the respective normal conditions of the white and black races may be ultimately placed on a permanent basis, so as to prevent the public peace from being thereafter endangered.

    • Andy Hall said, on October 30, 2010 at 12:41 am

      Mark, thanks for commenting but — again — I’m not quite sure who you’re addressing with your comment. I appreciate your enthusiasm, but please stay on-topic with the post.

  2. Dick Stanley said, on October 30, 2010 at 12:28 am

    I guess Bierce never knew that most of the USCT wound up off the front lines doing duty with the provost marshall, guarding Confederate prisoners at places like Point Lookout (where they won few if any friends) and, at the end of the war, were denied the right to march in the victory parade in Washington City.

  3. David Cassatt said, on October 30, 2010 at 10:41 am

    For anyone in the Harrisburg, PA area:

    This is a celebration of the 150th anniversary of the USCT Grand Review in Harrisburg. The PA event included Colored Troops who were excluded from the Washington, DC Grand Review.

  4. Matt McKeon said, on October 30, 2010 at 12:51 pm

    I guess Bierce was addressing the rank racism of his own day, two years after Plessy v. Ferguson and during the Spanish American War, where segregated black regiments played a key role.

    The unnamed correspondents “skepticism” of black courage he refutes with an account of black heroism. He also recounts his own race based doubts, and shame that he lacked the boldness of the Union officer in the charge. So I’m pretty sure he understood the racism of Civil War days which limited both the deployment of black soldiers and the recognition of their bravery and sacrifice.

  5. TheRaven said, on October 30, 2010 at 3:42 pm

    “Better fighting was never done”

  6. […] David Cassatt points out that this coming weekend in Harrisburg, Pennsylvania is the Grand Review, a celebration of the […]

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