Dead Confederates, A Civil War Era Blog

120 Years of Black Confederates

Posted in African Americans, Memory by Andy Hall on March 22, 2011

The existence of black Confederate soldiers has been asserted — and flatly refuted — longer than I’d imagined. From the St. Louis Republic, August 16, 1891:

On the much disputed question as to whether the South ever enlisted negro [sic.] soldiers, General Shelby writes to a friend denying that it was ever done. He himself, he says, solicited General Kirby Smith to allow him to enlist 10,000 negroes and move into Kansas, but General Smith’s reply was, “No; we will win or go to the grave before we enlist the negro.” “I thought it was a mistake,” says General Shelby, “in our leaders not placing blacks in the field, nor have I changed my opinion.”

I’ve said it before: real Confederates didn’t know about black Confederates.

Image: Joseph O. Shelby, via the Mid-Missouri Civil War Roundtable.

7 Responses

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  1. stephen matlock said, on March 22, 2011 at 10:17 am

    I guess for me the most obvious problem is this:

    a) The military in the South was not stupid
    b) The slaves were subjugated and oppressed because, of course, they were slaves
    c) Arming and training slaves (giving them guns and teaching them military tactics) would have simply been suicidal.

    “Yes! Let’s give our slaves guns and train them how to be soldiers! WHAT COULD GO WRONG?”

    I might think the South was wrong to go to war against the North, and I might think their military leadership was treasonous, but I can’t in any way imagine that they were stupid about war and uprisings.

    • Andy Hall said, on March 22, 2011 at 10:30 am

      Stephen, thanks for commenting. There are lots of practical reasons why senior Confederate military personnel rejected the idea — even Lee himself only came to endorse the idea, very reluctantly, very late in the war — but it’s much more fundamental than that. Howell Cobb (see link above) was very clear in his view that (1) slaves could not be made effective soldiers, and (2) to attempt to do so would be a betrayal of the very principles on which the Confederacy was founded. Kirby Smith would undoubtedly agree on both counts. Those views were not universal, but they were undoubtedly common and — relevant to the point of the post — make it clear that men who absolutely would have known of the presence of large numbers of African American soldiers in Confederate ranks, were both unaware of the alleged practice, and explicitly, vehemently opposed to it.

  2. Dennis said, on March 22, 2011 at 5:10 pm

    Poor Confederate Officer Shelby never had the opportunity of perspective that a hundred years has given to so many current historians of “Fact” who can reflect on these newly discovered “facts” that African American Slaves served willingly and as fully armed soldiers for the South … the poor Confederate General only had the chance to spend nearly four years among many units – camping with them, eating with them and watching slaves serve their masters and remain in camp during battles (and hence, closely guarded!) by rearguard units to protect the camp and property of these Southern soldiers.

    Poor General Shelby, if he hadn’t wasted his time overseeing white soldiers in combat the man would have realized that massive numbers of fully armed colored units had been “hanging” around the camp during these times to later do battle at night (using the new infrared goggles the South had developed for them to fight well at night – another “fact” these historians will soon discover). Of course, these colored units also employed chemical warfare (LSD) so not a single Union soldier ever recalled fighting black units but less at night (another “fact” these same historians will soon discover.)

    Only now do I really understand what the phase “The lost cause” really means – that these people claim to be educated (as in understand how to read AND comprehend), how in the world do they convince themselves of these delusions? (Sorry, but that is the only world in English that describes anyone who believes the Confederates ever armed slaves and let them fight Union forces.)

  3. Foxessa said, on March 23, 2011 at 4:11 pm

    The issue of arming black soldiers has come up in every war engaged in by the 13 colonies, and then the United States. In WWI black soldiers were not in combat positions, and not even in WWII until sometime in the middle, I think.

    We re-fight the previous wars in more ways than perhaps is realized.

    Love, C.

  4. Tim from Alabama said, on June 30, 2011 at 3:11 pm

    Free blacks were numerous throughout the United States from Canada to the Gulf of Mexico. The southern politician and planter could not reconcile winning with free soldiers of African heritage. The law finally agreed upon after the election of 64′, when all was lost, allowed for freedom. Unless I am mistaken, that law passed in 65′ with the retreat from Petersburg about to happen. If the law did not allow for freedom in exchange for service, the great Claiborne from Ireland expressed the sentiment without mincing words before the battle of Franklin.

    Regardless of all the debate at the time, the idiots who would rather sacrifice a quarter million lives and lose would have been odd men out twenty years later. By the turn of the century there would have been no Jim Crow laws. The south would have abolished slavery as a result of natural progression. The only way to justify it in the first place was to ignore the truth and honor economic principals based on the economic system through compromise with the honest realities of life as they knew it. Anything else would have to be insanity and not easy to reconcile by oral argument. Even for a dishonest person. Much less an honest hearted one.

    The truth is blacks rode with the southern troops and worked with the armies as much as whites. There were almost as many mules and horses as there were human beings. Logisitics by wagon takes a lot of manpower and horsepower.

    Armies use civilians now by the millions. I was one of them after serving on active duty.

    One of my favorite stories is a blck man named Robert riding by the side of Stonewall Jackson as the federals fired cannons at them in the Shenandoah Valley. Tell me he was not as cool as Armistead being shot with his hat on his sabre. What a great war.

    • Andy Hall said, on June 30, 2011 at 3:18 pm

      The Confederate Congress finally passed a law allowing the enlistment of slaves as soldiers on March 13, 1865 — less than three weeks before the evacuation of Richmond, and less than a month before Appomattox. I have a post coming shortly that deals with the debate.

      Although Lee and others had argued that men who so enlisted should be emancipated, as finally passed the law explicitly rejected that such enlistment would alter any previous standing between master and slave — i.e., no emancipation.

      Regardless of all the debate at the time, the idiots who would rather sacrifice a quarter million lives and lose would have been odd men out twenty years later. By the turn of the century there would have been no Jim Crow laws. The south would have abolished slavery as a result of natural progression.

      That’s a trope so often repeated that it’s become accepted as unchallenged fact. But I’ve never yet seen a Southerner of prominence prior to 1865 who argued publicly that slavery would have died a peaceful, natural death on its own within a few decades. Quite the contrary, they risked (and got) a war to ensure its preservation.

      Even if one takes that assertion as true, it ignores the other side of the scale. 640K dead is a horrific cost to end the institution of slavery, to be sure. But against that one much calculate additional DECADES of suffering by how many millions in chattel bondage — four million in 1860, increasing to how many millions by the turn of the century? And even then, why do we suppose that Jim Crow laws would not have been instituted? The calculation is not so simple, is it?

  5. Tim from Alabama said, on July 1, 2011 at 10:02 am

    Using the result of the Civil War in 1865 as a point of discussion prior to 1865 is not logical. Today is a result of the Civil War. Today is not a result of Lee becoming temporary mayor of Philadelphia then Lincoln moving the capitol to New York and making peace.

    If the south had not been forced to change their economic system they would have had the same system for one to two more generations, in my opinion. The people who voted to secede from the Union would have been dead, for the most part, by the turn of the century. The old people at the 1913 Gettysburg reunion were young kids during the war.

    The people in political control of the United States in the 1950s and 60s, who signed the Southern Manifesto in the US Senate, were born around the turn of the century. Their parents passed the Jim Crow laws. All those people lived through what resulted from the war and Reconstruction. Without Reconstruction we would have what we have today for well over fifty years. The Civil Rights movement of the 1960s would have taken place a generation earlier. The perceived necessity of Jim Crow law as an implement to blunt national government power and control of social change in lieu of local civilian authority would have been non existent.

    Without Reconstruction and forced social change the generations of 1880 and 1900 would have been forced to look at slavery as it was.

    Not as it used to be. Complete with all the Jim Crow foolishness.

    The majority of southern voters would have never had any interest in slavery. The eras of World Wars I and II changed America forever. Slavery would never have survived through the 20th century. There would have been no Civil Rights movement in the 1960s.

    Ignorance as a result of the ruling class perpetuating it through fear would have been eliminated at the ballot box in the 1930s, in my opinion. The election of FDR resulting in desegregation of the military by Truman was the beginning of the end of Reconstruction.

    If you really believe slavery would have been alive and well in 1900 and 1930 then one of us is sadly missing something here.

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