Dead Confederates, A Civil War Era Blog

Frederick Douglass, Time Traveler?

Posted in Memory by Andy Hall on January 20, 2015

Douglass Time Machine


John Stauffer’s essay at The Root (“Yes, There Were Black Confederates. Here’s Why“), that claims to establish the reality of African American Confederate soldiers, has been pretty thoroughly dismantled by both Brooks Simpson and Kevin Levin. But I’d like to point out one small item that neither of them have mentioned. Stauffer cites Frederick Douglass’ oft-quoted assertion from the summer of 1861 that there were black Confederate troops at the site of the then-recent Battle of Manassas, “as real soldiers, having muskets on their shoulders, and bullets in their pockets.” Stauffer continues,


What were Douglass’ sources in identifying black Confederates? One came from a Virginia fugitive who escaped to Boston shortly before the Battle of First Manassas in Virginia that summer. He saw “one regiment of 700 black men from Georgia, 1000 [men] from South Carolina, and about 1000 [men with him from] Virginia, destined for Manassas when he ran away.”


Stauffer likely picked up this quote from an endnote on p. 467 of Frederick Douglass: Selected Speeches and Writings (Philip S. Foner and Yuval Taylor, eds., Chicago Review Press, 2000). Unfortunately for Stauffer, Foner and Taylor also provide the source for the quotation — a speech given in Boston on February 5, 1862, and quoted the next day in the Boston Daily Journal and Evening Transcript newspapers. Stauffer is claiming that Douglass, writing in the summer of 1861, based his claim on a speech that wouldn’t be given for another six months.

Douglass did, in fact, hear this story, because he was the headline speaker at the Emancipation League meeting in Boston where the unnamed “Virginia fugitive” told it — but not in 1861.

Frederick Douglass was a remarkable man, but as far as I know he wasn’t a time traveler. In citing an 1862 speech as a source for a Douglass essay written in 1861, Stauffer has either (1) broken genuinely new historical ground in his discovery that Douglass had mastered the fourth dimension, traveling forward through time and space to Boston in February 1862 to collect information he would use upon his return to 1861 Rochester, or (2) shown himself to be just as sloppy and misleading in his efforts as most of the other folks who’ve taken up the mantle of “scholarship” on this subject.

You decide which of those possibilities seems more likely.




35 Responses

Subscribe to comments with RSS.

  1. David Woodbury said, on January 21, 2015 at 12:07 am

    Good catch.

    • Andy Hall said, on January 21, 2015 at 12:21 am

      Stauffer goes on to cite another person who claimed that “the Confederates had three regiments of blacks in the field, and they maneuvered like veterans, and beat the Union men back” at First Manassas/Bull Run. This is a very specific, concrete claim, but Stauffer doesn’t bother to attempt to identify the three regiments. Now that would actually move the ball forward.

  2. Neil Hamilton said, on January 21, 2015 at 1:24 am

    The continued efforts to “prove” this myth continue to amaze me. Thanks for the article, Andy.


    • Andy Hall said, on January 21, 2015 at 8:06 am

      There’s no great mystery about why Douglass would have believed, in August 1861, that there were African American CS troops at Manassas, because Northern newspapers were FULL of mentions of them for weeks after the battle. As I described in a couple of blog posts a long while back, these reports all seem to originate with one or two people who cannot be traced, and then were systematically expanded upon and embellished as they were repeated over and over, as far away as the UK. (If you look at them all together, in order, you can see the lineage, but encountering them as they were published at the time, individually and in different papers over a period of weeks, they look like multiple, independent reports.) Douglass didn’t need to have someone tell him about the supposed black troops in Virginia, because he undoubtedly been reading about them for weeks.

    • OhioGuy said, on January 21, 2015 at 8:55 am

      Amaze and appall! What surprises me is the number of otherwise educated people that have fallen for this myth. I think of this as Lost Cause Part II. The perpetrators of these tall tales are the proud intellectual descendants of Jubal Early and the boys. They ought to read the post-war statements of John S. Mosby instead.

      • Andy Hall said, on January 21, 2015 at 8:59 am

        Stauffer originally stepped in it with his 2011 presentation on the subject, that appears to have been entirely “Google-researched” — not what one should expect from someone in his position. This second bite at the apple isn’t much better.

  3. Cotton Boll Conspiracy said, on January 21, 2015 at 7:51 am

    “Frederick Douglass was a remarkable man, but as far as I know he wasn’t a time traveler.” Best line I’ve read in a long time.

  4. corkingiron said, on January 21, 2015 at 10:06 am

    Thanks Andy. As I’ve mentioned before, I actually have found a “black Confederate”. He fought with Stand Watee as part of a pro-Confederate Cherokee Brigade in the Western Theater. Was he black? Well, yeah, but only if you apply the Slave Code’s “one-drop” rule. He identified as Cherokee. Was he a slave? Again, yeah – for a brief period of time he and his brother had been kidnapped during the Trail of Tears and sold into slavery, but their family was able to rescue them both. I’ve always liked this story because it simultaneously “proves” the existence of a black confederate and shows how strained and ridiculous the claim is.

    • Andy Hall said, on January 21, 2015 at 10:21 am

      Good to hear from you again, Sandy.

      Kevin had a comment this morning from someone who’s doing research on some mixed-race CS soldiers from Tennessee. It’s an interesting story that gets at how complex the subject could be.

      The “black Confederate” meme as it’s usually pushed, though, is very superficial, and lacks any real understanding of the time or place. It’s a way for heritage folks to re-cast race and slavery on their own terms.

      • OhioGuy said, on January 21, 2015 at 10:46 am

        Andy, these may be the same CSA soldiers that were written about in North and South magazine several years ago. They were Melungeons and in the strange racial classifications of the period were not considered part of the inferior race that was “eligible” for slavery. As I recall they made up a company or two of a regiment of Tennessee volunteers. The author said this group, the Louisiana turncoats and the 1865 “last ditch” integrated regiments were the only black Confederates that could be documented.

  5. Leo said, on January 21, 2015 at 1:50 pm

    Andy, Can you flesh out the story of Holt Collier? I have actually seen photos of a State historical marker describing him as a Confederate sharp shooter.

    • Leo said, on January 21, 2015 at 1:53 pm

    • Andy Hall said, on January 21, 2015 at 2:08 pm

      Teddy Roosevelt and Holt Collier

      Holt Collier was a teenaged servant who went with his owner to the Confederate army. He was crazy good as a tracker and a hunter, so he was used as a scout. He also was a crack shot, and so was apparently used on occasion as a sharpshooter. So the marker isn’t wrong, but it’s not the full story.

      Colier’s grave has a modern headstone that is inscribed with the rank of private which is, strictly speaking, incorrect.

      Collier was never enlisted in the Confederate army, but he does come closest to having served in practice as a soldier of almost all of the names that are tossed around as “black Confederates.” He is, in that sense, sort of the exception that proves the rule. In his later years he applied on (I think) three separate occasions for a pension, twice using a servant’s application and once using a soldier’s application form.

      Here’s a piece I wrote about him in 2013:

      And here’s a link to his pension files (9MB):

      Click to access holtcollierpensionfiles.pdf

  6. Leo said, on January 21, 2015 at 2:28 pm

    Thank you!

    I am not a historian and stumbled across an image of the marker while doing some online browsing. I know about his relation to the Teddy Roosevelt story, but never as a Black confederate until recently. It seemed odd at first, so I just blew it off another neo-confederate attempt at myth making.

    The facts are much more interesting.

    Thanks again.

    • Andy Hall said, on January 21, 2015 at 2:46 pm

      No, there are definitely facts there. But the heritage folks are always more interested in claiming a “black Confederate” than they are in really understanding their stories in detail.

  7. Leo said, on January 21, 2015 at 2:53 pm


  8. Leo said, on January 21, 2015 at 3:44 pm

    I just found your blog listed as a resource on the University of Mississippi Center for Civil War Research page!

    Now I have another reason to like your blog!

    • Andy Hall said, on January 21, 2015 at 3:49 pm

      I didn’t know about that, thanks. (Also, another reason for the heritage clown car to be hatin’ on Ole Miss.)

  9. Leo said, on January 21, 2015 at 4:01 pm


  10. H. E. Parmer said, on January 22, 2015 at 1:52 am

    What interests me is, what could have been the motivation for the escaped slave mentioned in the endnote to come up with (or pass on) this tall tale? You know I’m most definitely not trying to argue there were three regiments of “Black Confederates” at First Manassas, just saying that if you’re going to tell an audience something you know — or at least should strongly suspect — is untrue, odds are it’s something you think they want to hear.

    I can see how the former slave might have enjoyed the attention this earned him, but it just seems kind of an odd inspiration, to hit upon the idea of telling Abolitionists that the South had slave regiments. Even if, according to the article in the Evening Transcript, he implied they were deceived into joining by ridiculous horror stories about the Yankees skinning and eating the slaves they couldn’t sell. (Which ought to have been a major tell right there that the guy’s narrative was — shall we say — not strictly conforming to the facts.)

    Were the Abolitionists hoping these slave regiments would turn on their masters, once they realized the North were the good guys, and end the war? Was this a way of underscoring the evil of the Southern slave-masters, using lies to induce their poor, deluded slaves to fight against the very people who were trying to free them?

    From what you said up-thread, it was a popular meme in the North, at least for a while, so it must have struck a chord. (I can also see how it would be popular for exactly the opposite reasons in the U.K., as it would seem to validate the Southern cause.)

    Funny, though, that the Southern newspapers would keep it a secret. I mean, sure, I can see how they might have been uncomfortable with the implication that a black man was just as good at soldiering as a white, but it seems to me that it would have been even more difficult to refrain from rubbing the Yankees’ noses in it, especially after Emancipation became an official object of the war.

    • Andy Hall said, on January 22, 2015 at 8:10 am

      It’s probably impossible to know at this point what caused the man to report that. Some people have a natural tendency to embellish, and more so to an audience that is receptive to it. Not sure if he claimed to have seen these himself, or simply heard about them; maybe someone was BS-ing him.

      My point is, I don’t blame people like Douglass for believing those units existed, but I do fault Stauffer (or anyone else) today who takes those accounts at face value without any attempt to question or verify them.

      Were the Abolitionists hoping these slave regiments would turn on their masters, once they realized the North were the good guys, and end the war?

      In Douglass’ case, he was using it as leverage to argue that the Union must begin enlisting African American men to help put down the rebellion:

      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.

      • H. E. Parmer said, on January 22, 2015 at 10:06 pm

        Oh, absolutely, as regards Stauffer. If he was paraphrasing that endnote’s (accurate) quotation of the Evening Transcript‘s summary of the speech given by “a fugitive black man”, it’s even sloppier than you pointed out.

        A fugitive black man from a rebel corps in Nansemond county, Va., stated that there was one regiment of 700 black men from Georgia, 1000 from South Carolina, and about 1000, including his own, in Virginia, destined for Manassas, when he ran away.

        Which is not at all the same thing as claiming he “saw” these formations, as Stauffer wants to have it. Although the phrasing “about 1000, including his own” is kind of weird, it would also seem to imply the speaker was part of some smaller formation, not the full thousand-strong “black Confederate” regiment from his home state. And there’s nothing in that article that says these men were under arms, either, assuming Stauffer went so far as to actually look the damn thing up. (Not a very safe assumption, if you ask me.)

        I mean, the idea is so obviously preposterous, on so many levels. Not the least of which is that Stauffer seriously wants us to believe the Confederates were marching large formations of armed — and trained to use those arms, because otherwise, what would be the point of arming them? — slaves around the countryside, especially in frickin’ July of 1861!

        I can’t fault Douglass for using a recent rumor to make a point. (Although I wonder if he gave the story much credence in his own mind.) It just seems kind of a self-defeating way to go about it. That might be a fair argument in favor of the proposition that blacks would make just as good soldiers as whites, but at the same time, if large numbers of slaves were willing to fight for their masters, doesn’t that raise some serious questions about the project of emancipating them?

        Not, of course, that overlooking inherent contradictions in the name of expedience is all that uncommon a behavior for our species.

  11. Brooks D. Simpson said, on January 23, 2015 at 3:38 pm

    I’ve cited Andy’s fine piece of characteristically careful and discerning research several times already, but I am amused that the historians who claim they know all about research methods and approaches can’t simply admit that this was one big blunder on Stauffer’s part. Maybe there are social or other connections that override good scholarship in some places.

    • Andy Hall said, on January 24, 2015 at 12:01 pm

      Thanks. This is a subject where a close read of the sources seems to trip them up every time.

  12. Pat Young said, on January 24, 2015 at 7:30 am

    Thanks for this post Andy. I have been following this flare up and did not spot this particular fallacy.

  13. Spelunker said, on January 24, 2015 at 11:28 pm

    Man. What a great catch on the Douglass speech.

    That alone would make me question the entire piece.

  14. Jack said, on January 26, 2015 at 5:23 pm

    One has only to ask were African American slaves and their labor responsible for the development of the US? The answer we are told is yes as there are monuments to this effect. But how can this be when they didn’t do this labor out of free choice? The same analysis can be applied to the black Confederate. He gets credit for advancing the cause of the Confederacy if slaves also get credit for helping build some of the early US. The rest is semantics, or politics rather.

    • Andy Hall said, on January 26, 2015 at 5:45 pm

      When the Confederate Heritage folks acknowledge that slave labor is both involuntary and coercive, then there will be common ground for discussion. But you and I both know that doesn’t fit the “black Confederate” narrative they prefer.

  15. Ace-of-Stars said, on April 2, 2016 at 5:38 pm

    There is no reason to believe that there is any discrepancy here.

    “First Manassas” (“Bull Run”) did take place late in July of 1861, and was likely at that time Mr. Douglass heard about and made subsequent brief mention of the presence of ‘Negro soldiers’ within the ranks of some Confederate regiments, which he further reiterated in the following month’s edition of his own “Douglass’ Monthly” periodical, wherein he stated: “[T]he Federal army has met that of the rebels, under Beauregard and Jeff. Davis, at Bull Run, near Manassas Junction, Va. The battle was hot and bloody, and was declared in favor of the rebels, they having repulsed the Federal army, causing it to retreat to Washington, with great losses in killed and wounded and in provisions and munitions of war. Among the rebels were black troops, NO DOUBT PRESSED INTO THE SERVICE BY THEIR TYRANT MASTERS. […] The strength of the rebels, the vigor with which they prosecute the war, the deadly hate towards the North which they cherish, [and] THE EMPLOYMENT OF SLAVES TO DO THE DRUDGERY of the rebel army, AND TO SHOOT DOWN THE GOVERNMENT TROOPS–the fact that this is a slaveholder’s rebellion and nothing else, all point out slavery as the thing to be struck down, as the best means of the successful and permanent establishment of the peace and prosperity of the nation.” (Vol. IV, Num. III, Aug. 1861, p. 498 – all emphases added)

    So logically, somewhere prior, during, or following those publications Mr. Douglass learned some of the “details” of that conflict and who was involved from this unidentified “escaped Black Confederate” who recounted his personal experiences, whether Mr. Douglass learned these things in direct meeting with this alleged 1st Manassas Confederate escapee or indirectly by way of other information sources, It then becomes evident that the professed escapee in question was presented as a “Guest Speaker” during the Feb. 1862 gathering in Boston to recount and publicize his claimed experiences to a much wider audience.

    The only real question remaining would be just how accurate/reliable any of the contemporary information regarding the strength of numbers of “Black combatants” within Confederate ranks actually was, and whether such numbers were reflective of honest misjudgements/overestemations or were being deliberately inflated & manipulated for purposes of propaganda in an attempt to force the North’s hand into loosening their restictions on Blacks serving in the ranks of the Union military.

    • Andy Hall said, on April 2, 2016 at 6:52 pm

      Thanks for taking time to comment.

      There are two phases of Douglass’ speech and writing we’re dealing with in this case. The first is his oft-quoted assertion in the August 1861 issue of his newsletter. There is stronger circumstantial evidence that Douglass was relying on then-widely-published accounts in the press, including two papers he almost certainly read at his home in Rochester. There’s no indication that he had any *direct* contact with anyone who claimed to have first-hand knowledge of the situation at Manassas.

      By the time of his speaking tour in the winter of 1862, though, Douglass had met John Parker, and was sharing the stage with him. Douglass’ own claims about African Americans in Confederate service changed, as well, based on Parker’s (and probably others’) stories.

      But back to this post — Stauffer is claiming that Douglass’ August 1861 assertion about black Confederates at Manassas is based on contacts he made months later, which he should’ve realized if he’d looked carefully at the citations. It’s just sloppy work, and disappointing coming from someone in Stauffer’s position.

      • Ace-of-Stars said, on April 3, 2016 at 5:59 pm

        In other words, Mr. Stauffer is guilty of, if anything, making a comment suggestive more of a stated fact, rather than erring on the side of presenting a “speculative” scenario. Got’cha. Thanks for the clarification.

        • Andy Hall said, on April 3, 2016 at 8:28 pm

          It’s more concrete than that. Stauffer seems to be asserting that Douglass “knew” about black Confederates at Manassas in the summer of 1861 from a man he didn’t actually meet until the following winter. This would have been clear to Stauffer if he had looked more closely at the sources. That’s why I joked about Douglass being a time-traveler.

          • Ace-of-Stars said, on April 3, 2016 at 9:31 pm

            Perhaps he is making such an assertion; perhaps it was more of an “honest slip-up” – only Mr. Stauffer could assure us which was the case, as it is his own collection of words that are being called into question.

            In either case, what “evidence” do we have (hard or circumstantial) that Mr. Douglass could not have actually had some sort of contact (directly or indirectly) with Mr. Parker prior to the Feb. 1862 “Emancipation League” assembly at Tremont Temple? — If any such evidence(s) do(es) exist, I’d be most interested in being directed to any supporting documentation; otherwise, I feel it is equally fair to “speculate” that Mr. Douglass may have either personally met, or become aware of, Mr. Parker and learned of his claims as early as July 1861, after the first “Bull Run” offensive, as it is fair to “speculate” that Mr. Douglass may have remained unaware of the alleged Confederate escapee & his story until closer to, or upon, the actual date of the Boston speech. ~ Thanks again for the feedback.

            • Andy Hall said, on April 3, 2016 at 9:53 pm

              We don’t know when Douglass and Parker met exactly, but Parker apparently arrived in New York in late January 1862. It seems unlikely that Douglass met him before that time, as he (Douglass) was living in Rochester, upstate. Although we don’t know for certain what his claim about black Confederates at Manassas in August 1861 was based on, there’s strong circumstantial evidence that it was something he read in the press, as it was all over northern newspapers in the weeks after the battle there. See:





              • Ace-of-Stars said, on April 4, 2016 at 3:33 pm

                Being new to your blog, please allow me to once again express my appreciation for the feedback and for the time & effort you’ve devoted to this issue. I found your presentations to be very insightful and they have helped me to gain a clearer & deeper understanding of this controversial subject: it would appear to be well researched, indepthly analyzed & scrutinized, and just as importantly, handled in an even-handed fashion.

                (If I may: what are your opinions about the Bruce Levine book, “CONFEDERATE EMANCIPATION,” which is moving up in my reading queue?) ~ Aloha.

Comments are closed.

%d bloggers like this: