Frederick Douglass’ Black Confederate
A few weeks ago Harvard historian John Stauffer published an essay in The Root entitled, “Yes, There Were Black Confederates. Here’s Why.” Stauffer’s essay was largely an expansion of a talk he gave in 2011, which itself reflected little more research than Googling around the web for well-worn anecdotes. Stauffer’s Root piece was mostly panned by historians who have closely studied the “black Confederate” theme, particularly by my blogging colleagues Kevin Levin and Brooks Simpson. Both continued that discussion through follow-up posts. I wrote about it as well, pointing out that Stauffer identified one of Frederick Douglass’ sources in 1861 as an African American man who claimed to have seen “one regiment [at Manassas] 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.” Unfortunately Stauffer appears not to have followed up on the source of that quote, which actually appeared in the Boston Daily Journal and Evening Transcript newspapers in February 1862, roughly six months after Douglass wrote about them in his newsletter.
Douglass was making the rounds as a speaker that winter, and the man Stauffer cited as Douglass’ source had appeared with him at an Emancipation League at the Tremont Temple on February 5, 1862. That address must have given Douglass great satisfaction, as just fourteen months previously Douglass and other abolitionists had been forcibly ejected from that same venue on orders of Boston’s mayor.
But, as so often happens with historical research, nailing down the answer to one question raises several others. In this case, who was the “fugitive black man from a rebel corps” who gave the account of thousands of African American troops, organized into whole regiments, at Manassas? My colleague Dan Weinfeld, author of The Jackson County War: Reconstruction and Resistance in Post-Civil War Florida, decided to take on that question. He began by tracking down other accounts of Douglass’ speeches from this period as reproduced in Douglass’ Monthly newsletter. Sure enough, the March 1862 issue included not only the text of Douglass’ addresses, but also summaries of the remainder of the program. On February 12, one week after his speech in Boston, Douglass presented his program at Cooper Union (emphasis added):
At 8 o’clock, the [body] of the hall was nearly filled with an intelligent and respectable looking audience – The exercises commenced with a patriotic song by the Hutchinsons, which was received with great applause. The Rev. H. H. Garnett opened the meeting stating that the black man, a fugitive from Virginia, who was announced to speak would not appear, as a communication had been received yesterday from the South intimating that, for prudential reasons, it would not be proper for that person to appear, as his presence might affect the interests and safety of others in the South, both white persons and colored. He also stated that another fugitive slave, who was at the battle of Bull Run, proposed when the meeting was announced to be present, but for a similar reason he was absent; he had unwillingly fought on the side of Rebellion, but now he was, fortunately where he could raise his voice on the side of Union and universal liberty. The question which now seemed to be prominent in the nation was simply whether the services of black men shall be received in this war, and a speedy victory be accomplished. If the day should ever come when the flag of our country shall be the symbol of universal liberty, the black man should be able to look up to that glorious flag, and say that it was his flag, and his country’s flag; and if the services of the black men were wanted it would be found that they would rush into the ranks, and in a very short time sweep all the rebel party from the face of the country.
Although the man who “had unwillingly fought on the side of Rebellion” is not identified, evidence strongly suggests it was John Parker, the escaped slave who had served a Confederate artillery battery at Manassas. Just a few pages after the passage above, the Douglass Monthly reprints Parker’s “A Contraband’s Story” that had appeared earlier in the Reading [Pennsylvania] Journal. As Kate Masur noted in a New York Times Disunion essay in 2011, Parker had arrived in New York at the end of January 1862, where he was interviewed again about the Battle of Bull Run and Confederate losses there.
Notice in the Rochester, New York Union & Advertiser, February 12, 1862, announcing Douglass’ speech that night at Cooper Union, promising an appearance by “a rebel negro, in his regimentals, a deserter from Dixie.”
Additional material published at the time strongly indicates that the man announced to appear with Douglass was, in fact, John Parker. He was speaking in the same area at the same time as Douglass. For example, on February 19, one week after the Cooper Union event, Parker was the featured speaker at a Presbyterian church across the Hudson River in Newark, New Jersey. “Parker was hired by his master to the rebels at the breaking out of the rebellion,” according to the Newark Daily Advertiser, and “has worked at Winchester, Richmond, and Manassas, and is in possession of facts and incidents which the public are invited to listen to.”
Parker told his story to many people, including giving an extended interview to the New York Evening Post. Parker’s account of Manassas is vivid but badly muddled; when asked how many black persons there were “in the [Confederate] army there, he asserts that there were “one whole regiment of free colored persons, and two regiments slaves among the white regiments, one company to each.” A few paragraphs later, though, he claims that the number of black Confederate regiments at Manassas had since increased to “twelve regiments of negroes in the vicinity of Bull Run and Manassas Junction” (emphasis original). These twelve regiments, Parker again states, “are distributed one company in a regiment,” a claim that makes no sense at all. A normal infantry regiment of the time consisted of ten companies of about a thousand men in aggregate; Parker’s description is profoundly unclear in terms of organization and numbers of men.
The rest of Parker’s account of First Manassas equally questionable. In his New York Evening Post interview he claimed to be “sartin” (certain) that there were 3,600 Confederate dead, and 4,000 Federals. His estimates were off by an order of magnitude; the actual numbers were around 387 and 460, respectively. He gave the number of Confederate wounded as about 5,400, which is several times the actual number.
Of course, Parker was not a trained soldier, and none of the press accounts during his speaking engagement explicitly characterize him as such. Throughout his interview with the Evening Post, Parker made it clear that while he served a Confederate gun in action, neither his sympathies nor those of his fellows lay with the Confederate cause. In his earlier interview with the Reading Journal, reproduced in the Douglass Monthly in March, Parker asserted that “we would have run over to their side but our officers would have shot us if we had made the attempt.” He claimed that “our masters tried all they could to make us fight. They promised to give us our freedom and money besides, but none of us believed them, we only fought because we had to.” To the New York Evening Post, he claimed that a slave from Alabama had been assigned by his master to serve as a sharpshooter, and in that capacity killed three Federal pickets. When he himself was killed soon after, it “was a source of general congratulation among the negroes [sic.], as they do not intend to shoot the white soldiers.”
An illustration from Harper’s Weekly, May 10, 1862, showing Confederate slaves being forced to serve a cannon at gunpoint. John Parker claimed he and other slaves were put in a similar position at the Battle of First Manassas, saying that “we would have run over to [the Federals’] side but our officers would have shot us if we had made the attempt.”
Parker said that he and the other slaves manning the guns adjusted the elevating screws to fire over the heads of Union troops during the battle at Manassas. Recounting a prayer of thanksgiving given after the Confederate victory, one full of “southern braggadocio and bombast,” Parker said that “the colored people did not believe him, nor that the Lord was on that side.” Parker predicted that many slaves would continue to serve the Confederate cause, for fear that “the Lord was on the side of the South, and that they had got to be slaves always.” As for himself, Parker said, he would turn his artillery piece on Confederate forces and “could do it with pleasure,” though he dreaded the prospect of ever being in another battle again.
Was Parker exaggerating his experiences for an audience that was eager to believe the worst about the Confederates? It’s certainly possible. Did Douglass, who appeared with Parker on stage and published his story in the Douglass Monthly, have doubts about the man’s account? We cannot know. But whether he was telling exaggerated stories about First Manassas or not, the best evidence of Parker’s feeling toward the Confederacy lay in the fact that he began his speaking tour soon after learning that his wife and two youngest children – a son, eight, and a daughter, six — had successfully escaped to Union lines and were now on free soil, where they were safe from any retaliation that might occur as a result of his speaking. Two older sons, seventeen and fourteen, remained in the South, the elder as an officer’s servant and the younger, sold off to another owner six months before the war. (Parker gives his owner’s name as “Colonel Thomas Griggs,” who was likely William T. Griggs [1828-83], who was a Lieutenant Colonel in the Virginia Militia but served during the war as an enlisted soldier in the Fifteenth Virginia Cavalry.) At the time of his interview Parker had been informed that his wife and two younger children had arrived in New York but had not been able to link up with them; when they were reunited, he said, he hoped they would all continue on to Canada because he was still “not quite sure of his safety here.”
As Glenn Brasher points out in his 2012 volume, The Peninsula Campaign and the Necessity of Emancipation: African Americans and the Fight for Freedom, Parker’s speaking tour and that of another former slave, William Davis, gave a boost to both the cause of emancipation and for the enlistment of black soldiers in the U.S. military. (Davis also spoke at Cooper Union, on January 15, 1862, four weeks before Douglass. But Davis had come from Fortress Monroe, and did not claim to have present at First Manassas, or to have served the Confederates in any military capacity.) Thousands of people had heard Parker, Davis, or Douglass speak on the subject, and many thousands more read about it in the New York and Boston area papers. “Allegations that Southerners were coercing African Americans into combat continued to be a regular feature in the speeches and editorials of emancipationsists,” Brasher writes. “In pushing for both emancipation and the recruitment of black troops, the abolitionist newspaper Principia maintained that the Confederates ‘have been fighting in close companionship with negroes, from the beginning!’ Southern blacks, the paper claimed, ‘are regularly drilled for the service. And the proportion of negro soldiers in increasing.’”
Douglass himself went on to promote Parker’s story in print, in the March 1862 issue of his newsletter, a few weeks after having made the lecture circuit in New York and Boston. Parker’s arrival in New York was fortuitous for Douglass and other abolitionists, and who pointed to Parker’s account as evidence of claims they had been making for months. Parker’s claims of vast numbers of black troops in Confederate ranks isn’t corroborated by contemporary sources, but whether they reflected a misunderstanding on his part, or an intentional exaggeration for an appreciative northern audience, matters little. The widespread belief in their existence in the first months of 1862 helped drive the national narrative that began with the appearance of the first “contrabands” at Fortress Monroe in 1861, the First Confiscation Act in August of that same year, and through the preliminary announcement of the Emancipation Proclamation in September 1862, that opened the door to enlistment of African American men in the Union army the following year. By August of 1863, Douglass would be making his case for equal pay for black soldiers to Secretary of War Stanton and to President Lincoln in person, within the walls of the White House itself.
Many thanks to Dan Weinfeld, who did the hard work of tracking down the source material for this post.
 Boston Evening Transcript, February 6, 1862, 1.
 Douglass Monthly, March 1862, 623.
 Kate Masur, “Slavery and Freedom at Bull Run,” New York Times Disunion blog, July 27, 2011.
 Rochester, New York Union & Advertiser, February 12, 1862, 1.
 Newark Daily Advertiser, February 19, 1862, 2.
 New York Evening Post, January 24, 1862, 2.
 Douglass Monthly, March 1862, 625; New York Evening Post, January 24, 1862, 2.
 Glenn David Brasher, The Peninsula Campaign and the Necessity of Emancipation: African Americans and the Fight for Freedom (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina, 2012), 78.; New York Times, January 16, 1862; Brasher, 78.