Dead Confederates, A Civil War Era Blog

Real Confederates Didn’t Know About Black Confederates

Posted in African Americans, Education, Media, Memory by Andy Hall on January 8, 2015

Kevin reminds us that today, January 8, is the sesquicentennial of Howell Cobb’s famous letter to the Secretary of War, James Seddon, rejecting the notion of enlisting slaves as Confederate soldiers. Under the circumstances, it’s worth revisiting this old post of mine from October 2010.

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Lots of folks are familiar with Howell Cobb’s famous line, offered in response to the Confederacy’s efforts to enlist African American slaves as soldiers in the closing days of the war: “if slaves make good soldiers our whole theory of slavery is wrong.” It was part of a letter sent to Confederate Secretary of War James A. Seddon, in January 1865:

The proposition to make soldiers of our slaves is the most pernicious idea that has been suggested since the war began. It is to me a source of deep mortification and regret to see the name of that good and great man and soldier, General R. E. Lee, given as authority for such a policy. My first hour of despondency will be the one in which that policy shall be adopted. You cannot make soldiers of slaves, nor slaves of soldiers. The moment you resort to negro [sic.] soldiers your white soldiers will be lost to you; and one secret of the favor With which the proposition is received in portions of the Army is the hope that when negroes go into the Army they will be permitted to retire. It is simply a proposition to fight the balance of the war with negro troops. You can’t keep white and black troops together, and you can’t trust negroes by themselves. It is difficult to get negroes enough for the purpose indicated in the President’s message, much less enough for an Army. Use all the negroes you can get, for all the purposes for which you need them, but don’t arm them. The day you make soldiers of them is the beginning of the end of the revolution. If slaves make good soldiers our whole theory of slavery is wrong — but they won’t make soldiers. As a class they are wanting in every qualification of a soldier. Better by far to yield to the demands of England and France and abolish slavery and thereby purchase their aid, than resort to this policy, which leads as certainly to ruin and subjugation as it is adopted; you want more soldiers, and hence the proposition to take negroes into the Army. Before resorting to it, at least try every reasonable mode of getting white soldiers. I do not entertain a doubt that you can, by the volunteering policy, get more men into the service than you can arm. I have more fears about arms than about men, For Heaven’s sake, try it before you fill with gloom and despondency the hearts of many of our truest and most devoted men, by resort to the suicidal policy of arming our slaves.

No great surprise here; earnest and vituperative opposition to the enlistment of slaves in Confederate service was widespread, even as the concussion of Federal artillery rattled the panes in the windows of the capitol in Richmond. What’s passing strange, as Molly Ivins used to say, is that Howell Cobb is a central figure in one of the canonical sources in Black Confederate “scholarship,” the description of the capture of Frederick, Maryland in 1862, published by Dr. Lewis H. Steiner of the U.S. Sanitary Commission. In his account of the capture and occupation of the town, Steiner makes mention of

Over 3,000 Negroes must be included in this num­ber [of Con­fed­er­ate troops]. These were clad in all kinds of uni­forms, not only in cast-off or cap­tured United States uni­forms, but in coats with South­ern but­tons, State but­tons, etc. These were shabby, but not shab­bier or seed­ier than those worn by white men in the rebel ranks. Most of the Negroes had arms, rifles, mus­kets, sabers, bowie-knives, dirks, etc. . . and were man­i­festly an inte­gral por­tion of the South­ern Con­fed­er­ate Army.

This passage is often repeated without critique or analysis, and offered as eyewitness evidence of the widespread use of African American soldiers by the Confederate Army. Indeed, Steiner’s figure is sometimes extrapolation to derrive an estimate of black soldiers in the whole of the Confederate Army, to number in the tens of thousands. But, as history blogger Aporetic points out, Steiner’s observation is included in a larger work that mocks the Confederates generally, is full of obvious exaggerations and caricatures, and is clearly written — like Frederick Douglass’ well-known evocation of Black Confederates “with bullets in their pockets” — to rally support in the North to the Union cause. It is propaganda.  Most important, Steiner’s account of Black Confederates under arms is entirely unsupported by other eyewitnesses to this event, North or South. Aporetic goes on to point out the apparent incongruity of Steiner’s description of this horde being led by none other than Howell Cobb:

A drunken, bloated blackguard on horseback, for instance, with the badge of a Major General on his collar, understood to be one Howell Cobb, formerly Secretary of the United States Treasury, on passing the house of a prominent sympathizer with the rebellion, removed his hat in answer to the waving of handkerchiefs, and reining his horse up, called on “his boys” to give three cheers. “Three more, my boys!” and “three more!” Then, looking at the silent crowd of Union men on the pavement, he shook his fist at them, saying, “Oh, you d—d long-faced Yankees! Ladies, take down their names and I will attend to them personally when I return.” In view of the fact that this was addressed to a crowd of unarmed citizens, in the presence of a large body of armed soldiery flushed with success, the prudence — to say nothing of the bravery — of these remarks, may be judged of by any man of common sense.

The Black Confederate crowd doesn’t usually include this second passage describing the same event, or explain Cobb’s apparent profound amnesia when it comes to the employment of African Americans in Confederate ranks. How is it, one wonders, that the same Howell Cobb who supposedly led thousands of black Confederate soldiers into Frederick in 1862 found the very notion of enlisting African Americans into the Confederate military a “most pernicious idea” just twenty-seven months later? How is it that the general who called on his black troops to give three cheers, then “three more, my boys!” came to believe that “the day you make soldiers of them is the beginning of the end of the revolution?” How is it that the commander of successful black soldiers felt that “as a class they are wanting in every qualification of a soldier?” But set aside Dr. Steiner’s propogandist account for the moment; it’s unreliable and unsupported by other sources. Events at Frederick aside, how is that Howell Cobb, in January 1865, was unaware of the thousands, or tens of thousands, of African Americans soldiers supposedly serving in Confederate ranks across the South? Howell Cobb’s Confederate bona fides are unimpeachable, and throughout the war he was irrevocably tied in to both political and military affairs. In his career he was, in turn, a five-term U.S. Representative from Gerogia, Speaker of the U.S. House Representatives, Governor of Georgia, U.S. Secretary of the Treasury, Speaker of the Provisional Confederate Congress, and Major General in the Confederate Army. He was a leader of the secession movement, and was elected president of the Montgomery convention that drafted a constitution for the new Confederacy. For a brief period in 1861, between the establishment of the Confederate States and the election of Jefferson Davis as its president, Speaker Cobb served as the new nation’s effective head of state. In his military career, Cobb held commands in the Army of Northern Virginia and the District of Georgia and Florida. He scouted and recommended a site for a prisoner-of-war camp that eventually became known as Andersonville; his Georgia Reserve Corps fought against Sherman in his infamous “March to the Sea.” Cobb commanded Confederate forces in a doomed defense of Columbus, Georgia in the last major land battle of the war, on Easter Sunday, April 16, 1865, the day after Abraham Lincoln died in Washington, D.C. Perhaps more than any other man, Howell Cobb’s career followed the fortunes of Confederacy — civil, political and military — from beginning to end. And yet, after almost four years of war and almost three years of commanding large formations of Confederate troops in the field, in January 1865 Howell Cobb seemingly remained unaware of the thousands, or tens of thousands, of African Americans now claimed to have been serving in Southern ranks throughout the war. It is passing strange, is it not?

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“Ninety-eight percent of Texas Confederate soldiers never owned a slave.”

Posted in African Americans, Genealogy, Memory by Andy Hall on April 28, 2011

It would be a shame to let April slip by without a mention of Texas State Senate Resolution No. 526, which designates this month as Texas Confederate History and Heritage Month. The resolution uses a lot of boilerplate language (including an obligatory mention of “politically correct revisionists”), and also makes the assertion that “ninety-eight percent of Texas Confederate soldiers never owned a slave.” This is a common argument among Confederate apologists, part of a larger effort to minimize or eliminate the institution of slavery as a factor in secession and the coming of the war, and thus make it possible to maintain the notion that Southern soldiers, like the Confederacy itself, were driven by the purest and noblest values to defend home and hearth. Slavery played no role it the coming of the war, they say; how could it, when less than two percent (four percent, five percent) actually owned slaves? In fact, they’d say, their ancestors had nothing at all to do with slavery.

But it’s wrong.

It’s true that in an extremely narrow sense, only a very small proportion of Confederate soldiers owned slaves in their own right. That, of course, is to be expected; soldiering is a young man’s game, and most young men, then and now, have little in the way of personal wealth. As a crude analogy, how many PFCs and corporals in Iraq and Afghanistan today own their own homes? Not many.

But even if it is narrowly true, it’s a deeply misleading statistic, cited religiously to distract from the much more relevant number, the proportion of soldiers who came from slaveholding households. The majority of the young men who marched off to war in the spring of 1861 were fully vested in the “peculiar institution.” Joseph T. Glatthaar, in his magnificent study of the force that eventually became the Army of Northern Virginia, lays out the evidence.

Even more revealing was their attachment to slavery. Among the enlistees in 1861, slightly more than one in ten owned slaves personally. This compared favorably to the Confederacy as a whole, in which one in every twenty white persons owned slaves. Yet more than one in every four volunteers that first year lived with parents who were slaveholders. Combining those soldiers who owned slaves with those soldiers who lived with slaveholding family members, the proportion rose to 36 percent. That contrasted starkly with the 24.9 percent, or one in every four households, that owned slaves in the South, based on the 1860 census. Thus, volunteers in 1861 were 42 percent more likely to own slaves themselves or to live with family members who owned slaves than the general population.

The attachment to slavery, though, was even more powerful. One in every ten volunteers in 1861 did not own slaves themselves but lived in households headed by non family members who did. This figure, combined with the 36 percent who owned or whose family members owned slaves, indicated that almost one of every two 1861 recruits lived with slaveholders. Nor did the direct exposure stop there. Untold numbers of enlistees rented land from, sold crops to, or worked for slaveholders. In the final tabulation, the vast majority of the volunteers of 1861 had a direct connection to slavery. For slaveholder and nonslaveholder alike, slavery lay at the heart of the Confederate nation. The fact that their paper notes frequently depicted scenes of slaves demonstrated the institution’s central role and symbolic value to the Confederacy.

More than half the officers in 1861 owned slaves, and none of them lived with family members who were slaveholders. Their substantial median combined wealth ($5,600) and average combined wealth ($8,979) mirrored that high proportion of slave ownership. By comparison, only one in twelve enlisted men owned slaves, but when those who lived with family slave owners were included, the ratio exceeded one in three. That was 40 percent above the tally for all households in the Old South. With the inclusion of those who resided in nonfamily slaveholding households, the direct exposure to bondage among enlisted personnel was four of every nine. Enlisted men owned less wealth, with combined levels of $1,125 for the median and $7,079 for the average, but those numbers indicated a fairly comfortable standard of living. Proportionately, far more officers were likely to be professionals in civil life, and their age difference, about four years older than enlisted men, reflected their greater accumulated wealth.

The prevalence of slaveholding was so pervasive among Southerners who heeded the call to arms in 1861 that it became something of a joke; Glatthaar tells of an Irish-born private in a Georgia regiment who quipped to his messmates that “he bought a negro, he says, to have something to fight for.”

While Joe Glatthaar undoubtedly had a small regiment of graduate assistants to help with cross-indexing Confederate muster rolls and the 1860 U.S. Census, there are some basic tools now available online that will allow anyone to at least get a general sense of the validity of his numbers. The Historical Census Browser from the University of Virginia Library allows users to compile, sort and visualize data from U.S. Censuses from 1790 to 1960. For Glatthaar’s purposes and ours, the 1860 census, taken a few months before the outbreak of the war, is crucial. It records basic data about the free population, including names, sex, approximate age, occupation and value of real and personal property of each person in a household. A second, separate schedule records the name of each slaveholder and lists the slave he or she owns. Each slave is listed by sex and age; names were not recorded. The data in the UofV online system can be broken down either by state or counties within a state, and make it possible to compare one data element (e.g., households) with another (slaveholders) and calculate the proportions between them.

In the vast majority of cases, each household (termed a “family” in the 1860 document, even when the group consisted of unrelated people living in the same residence) that owned slaves had only one slaveholder listed, the head of the household. It is thus possible to compare the number of slaveholders in a given state to the numbers of families/households, and get a rough estimation of the proportion of free households that owned at least one slave. The numbers varies considerably, ranging from (roughly) 1 in 5 in Arkansas to nearly 1 in 2 in Mississippi and South Carolina. In the eleven states that formed the Confederacy, there were in aggregate just over 1 million free households, which between them represented 316,632 slaveholders—meaning that somewhere between one-quarter and one-third of households in the Confederate States counted among its assets at least one human being.

The UofV system also makes it possible to generate maps that show graphically the proportion of slaveholding households in a given county. This is particularly useful in revealing political divisions or disputes within a state, although it takes some practice with the online query system to generate maps properly. Here are county maps for all eleven Confederate states, with the estimated proportion of slaveholding families indicated in green — a darker color indicates a higher density: Alabama, Arkansas, Florida, Georgia, Louisiana, Mississippi, North Carolina, South Carolina, Tennessee, Texas, Virginia, All States.

Observers will note that the incidence of slaveholding was highest in agricultural lowlands, where rivers provided both transportation for bulk commodities and periodic floods that replenished the soil, and lowest in mountainous regions like Appalachia. The map of Virginia, in particular, goes a long way to explaining the breakup of that state during the war.

Obviously this calculation is not perfect. There are a couple of burbles in the data where populations are very low, for example Mississippi, where the census recorded two very sparsely-populated counties having more slaveholders than families (possible, but unlikely), or on the Texas frontier, where the data maps the finding that almost every family probably included a slaveholder. But in spite of its imperfections, it nonetheless presents a picture that more accurately describes the presence of slaveholding in the everyday lives – indeed, under the same roof – of citizens of the Confederate States than the much smaller number of slave owners does.

Aaron Perry, whose seven slaves are enumerated above in an excerpt from the 1860 U.S. Census Slave Schedule, illustrates the point. Perry, a Texas State Representative who raised hogs and corn in Limestone County (east of present-day Waco) had two sons, William and Mark (or Marcus), living with him at the farm at the time of the census.  The elder Perry owned $3,000 worth of land, and nearly four times that in personal property, most of which must have been represented in those seven slaves. When the war came, both sons joined the Eighth Texas Cavalry, the famed Terry’s Rangers. Because neither of the sons – aged 21 and 17 respectively at the time of the census – held formal, legal title to a bondsman, Confederate apologists would claim that they are among the “ninety-eight percent of Texas Confederate soldiers [that] never owned a slave,” and, by implication, therefore had no interest or motivation to protect the “peculiar institution.” Nonetheless, it was slave labor that made their father’s farm (and their inheritance) a going concern. It was slave labor that, in one way or another, provided the food they ate, the shelter over their heads, the money in their pockets, the clothes they wore, and formed the basis of wealth they would inherit someday. And when they went to war, it was slave labor that made it possible for them to bring with them the mounts and sidearms that Texas cavalrymen were expected to provide for themselves. While the Perry boys left no record of their personal thoughts or motivations upon enlisting, the notion that these two young men must have had no interest, no personal stake, in the preservation of slavery as an institution is simply asinine on its face.

You don’t have to talk to a Confederate apologist long before you’ll be told that only a tiny fraction of butternuts owned slaves. (This is usually followed immediately by an assertion that the speaker’s own Confederate ancestors never owned slaves, either.)  The number ascribed to Confederate soldiers as a whole varies—two percent, five percent—but the message is always the same, that those men 150 years had nothing to do with the peculiar institution, they had no stake in it, and that it certainly played no role whatever in their personal motivations or in the Confederacy’s goals in the war. But such a blanket disassociation between Confederate soldiers and the “peculiar institution” is simply not true in any meaningful way. Slave labor was as much a part of life in the antebellum South as heat in the summer and hog-killing time in the late fall. Southerners who didn’t own slaves could not but avoid coming in regular, frequent contact with the institution. They hired out others’ slaves for temporary work. They did business with slaveholders, bought from or sold to them. They utilized the products of others’ slaves’ labor. They traveled roads and lived behind levees built by slaves. Southerners across the Confederacy, from Texas to Florida to Virginia, civilian and soldier alike, were awash in the institution of slavery. They were up to their necks in it. They swam in it, and no amount of willful denial can change that.

Coming up: Did non-slaveholding Southerners have a stake in fighting to defend the “peculiar institution?

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Images: Top, list of seven slaves belonging to Texas State Representative Aaron Perry of Limestone County, Texas, from the 1860 U.S. Census slave schedules, via Ancestry. Below, central image on the face of a Confederate States of America $100 note,issued at Richmond in 1862, featuring African Americans working in the field, via The Daily Omnivore Blog.

This post is adapted from one originally appearing in The Atlantic online in August 2010.

John B. Gordon, “Faithful Servants,” and Veterans’ Reunions

Posted in African Americans, Leadership, Memory by Andy Hall on November 14, 2010

Recently I came across a passage in General John B. Gordon’s Reminiscences of the Civil War (1903, pp. 382-84) that, while discussing the eleventh-hour decision of the Confederate government to enlist slaves as soldiers in the final weeks of the conflict, reveals a great deal about the nature of slaves’ other service in the Confederate army, and how they themselves sometimes presented themselves both during the war and decades later.

John Brown Gordon (1832-1904) was an attorney with no military experience when the war began, but he was elected captain of a company he raised, and by late 1862 had been promoted to the rank  of brigadier general. He quickly became famous for his bravery under fire, and was wounded numerous times.  He served throughout the war with the Army of Northern Virginia, eventually rising to the rank of major general (he claimed lieutenant general), and commanding the Second Corps of that army. Gordon saw action at most of the Army of Northern Virginia’s major engagements, including First Manassas, Malvern Hill, Sharpsburg, Gettysburg, the Wilderness, Spotsylvania Court House and the Siege of Petersburg. Gordon surrendered his command to another famous civilian-turned-general, Joshua Lawrence Chamberlain, in April 1865. After the war, he fought against Reconstruction policies — allegedly as a leader of the Klan — and later served as a U.S. senator and as governor of Georgia. In 1890 he was elected first Commander-in-Chief of the United Confederate Veterans, a post he held until his death.

In his memoir, Gordon describes the debate surrounding the proposed enlistment of slaves in the Confederate army in the closing weeks of the war:

Again, it was argued in favor of the proposition that the loyalty and proven devotion of the Southern negroes [sic.] to their owners would make them serviceable and reliable as fighters, while their inherited habits of obedience would make it easy to drill and discipline them. The fidelity of the race during the past years of the war, their refusal to strike for their freedom in any organized movement that would involve the peace and safety of the communities where they largely outnumbered the whites, and the innumerable instances of individual devotion to masters and their families, which have never been equaled in any servile race, were all considered as arguments for the enlistment of slaves as Confederate soldiers. Indeed, many of them who were with the army as body-servants repeatedly risked their lives in following their young masters and bringing them off the battlefield when wounded or dead. These faithful servants at that time boasted of being Confederates, and many of them meet now with the veterans in their reunions, and, pointing to their Confederate badges, relate with great satisfaction and pride their experiences and services during the war. One of them, who attends nearly all the reunions, can, after a lapse of nearly forty years, repeat from memory the roll call of the company to which his master belonged.

My emphasis. Like another dyed-in-the-wool, senior and well-connected Confederate general, Howell Cobb, Gordon discusses the proposal to enroll slaves as soldiers without making any mention of the supposedly-widespread practice of African Americans serving in exactly that capacity.

Far more important, though, is what he does say. Gordon’s description of enslaved body servants, and their ongoing attachment to the Confederacy, is essential. He notes that they “boasted of being Confederates, and many of them meet now with the veterans in their reunions, and, pointing to their Confederate badges, relate with great satisfaction and pride their experiences and services during the war.” This is a critical observation, and explains much of what is now taken as “evidence” of African American men serving as soldiers during the war. Advocates for the notion that large numbers of black men served as soldiers in the Confederate army routinely point to images of elderly African American men at veterans’ reunions and argue that those men wouldn’t have been present had they not been seen as co-equal soldiers themselves. As we’ve seen, the historical record, when available, can disprove that assumption. And now we have General John B. Gordon, Commander-in-Chief of the United Confederate Veterans, writing exactly the same thing about what he saw around him, as the popularity of veterans’ reunions reached its peak. Gordon clearly takes pride in the former slaves’ commitment to the memory of the Confederacy — again, “faithful servants” — but he never credits any greater wartime service to them. Indeed, Gordon continues with an anecdote mocking the idea of such men being considered soldiers:

General Lee used to tell with decided relish of the old negro (a cook of one of his officers) who called to see him at his headquarters. He was shown into the general’s presence, and, pulling off his hat, he said, “General Lee, I been wanting to see you a long time. I ‘m a soldier.”

“Ah? To what army do you belong—to the Union army or to the Southern army ?”

“Oh, general, I belong to your army.”

“Well, have you been shot ?”

“No, sir; I ain’t been shot yet.”

“How is that? Nearly all of our men get shot.”

“Why, general, I ain’t been shot ’cause I stays back whar de generals stay.”

This anecdote reinforces Gordon’s (and Lee’s) dismissal of the idea that the service of black men like the cook should be considered soldiers; what made the story amusing to both generals is that the man’s claim to status as a soldier was, to their thinking, preposterous on its face. To be sure, Gordon shows real affection for these old African American men who, in his view, remain loyal to the cause. Nonetheless, he can’t help but make gentle mockery of their pretensions to be soldiers. He never considered them to be soldiers in their own right, which is the point of heaping praise on them as “faithful servants.” Lee understood that, Gordon understood that, and Gordon counted on his readers in 1903 to understand that.

So why is that so hard to understand now?

Real Confederates Didn’t Know About Black Confederates

Posted in African Americans, Education, Media, Memory by Andy Hall on October 26, 2010

Lots of folks are familiar with Howell Cobb’s famous line, offered in response to the Confederacy’s efforts to enlist African American slaves as soldiers in the closing days of the war: “if slaves make good soldiers our whole theory of slavery is wrong.” It was part of a letter sent to Confederate Secretary of War James A. Seddon, in January 1865:

The proposition to make soldiers of our slaves is the most pernicious idea that has been suggested since the war began. It is to me a source of deep mortification and regret to see the name of that good and great man and soldier, General R. E. Lee, given as authority for such a policy. My first hour of despondency will be the one in which that policy shall be adopted. You cannot make soldiers of slaves, nor slaves of soldiers. The moment you resort to negro [sic.] soldiers your white soldiers will be lost to you; and one secret of the favor With which the proposition is received in portions of the Army is the hope that when negroes go into the Army they will be permitted to retire. It is simply a proposition to fight the balance of the war with negro troops. You can’t keep white and black troops together, and you can’t trust negroes by themselves. It is difficult to get negroes enough for the purpose indicated in the President’s message, much less enough for an Army. Use all the negroes you can get, for all the purposes for which you need them, but don’t arm them. The day you make soldiers of them is the beginning of the end of the revolution. If slaves make good soldiers our whole theory of slavery is wrong — but they won’t make soldiers. As a class they are wanting in every qualification of a soldier. Better by far to yield to the demands of England and France and abolish slavery and thereby purchase their aid, than resort to this policy, which leads as certainly to ruin and subjugation as it is adopted; you want more soldiers, and hence the proposition to take negroes into the Army. Before resorting to it, at least try every reasonable mode of getting white soldiers. I do not entertain a doubt that you can, by the volunteering policy, get more men into the service than you can arm. I have more fears about arms than about men, For Heaven’s sake, try it before you fill with gloom and despondency the hearts of many of our truest and most devoted men, by resort to the suicidal policy of arming our slaves.

No great surprise here; earnest and vituperative opposition to the enlistment of slaves in Confederate service was widespread, even as the concussion of Federal artillery rattled the panes in the windows of the capitol in Richmond.

What’s passing strange, as Molly Ivins used to say, is that Howell Cobb is a central figure in one of the canonical sources in Black Confederate “scholarship,” the description of the capture of Frederick, Maryland in 1862, published by Dr. Lewis H. Steiner of the U.S. Sanitary Commission. In his account of the capture and occupation of the town, Steiner makes mention of

Over 3,000 Negroes must be included in this num­ber [of Con­fed­er­ate troops]. These were clad in all kinds of uni­forms, not only in cast-off or cap­tured United States uni­forms, but in coats with South­ern but­tons, State but­tons, etc. These were shabby, but not shab­bier or seed­ier than those worn by white men in the rebel ranks. Most of the Negroes had arms, rifles, mus­kets, sabers, bowie-knives, dirks, etc. . . and were man­i­festly an inte­gral por­tion of the South­ern Con­fed­er­ate Army.

This passage is often repeated without critique or analysis, and offered as eyewitness evidence of the widespread use of African American soldiers by the Confederate Army. Indeed, Steiner’s figure is sometimes extrapolation to derrive an estimate of black soldiers in the whole of the Confederate Army, to number in the tens of thousands.

But, as history blogger Aporetic points out, Steiner’s observation is included in a larger work that mocks the Confederates generally, is full of obvious exaggerations and caricatures, and is clearly written — like Frederick Douglass’ well-known evocation of Black Confederates “with bullets in their pockets” — to rally support in the North to the Union cause. It is propaganda.  Most important, Steiner’s account of Black Confederates under arms is entirely unsupported by other eyewitnesses to this event, North or South. Aporetic goes on to point out the apparent incongruity of Steiner’s description of this horde being led by none other than Howell Cobb:

A drunken, bloated blackguard on horseback, for instance, with the badge of a Major General on his collar, understood to be one Howell Cobb, formerly Secretary of the United States Treasury, on passing the house of a prominent sympathizer with the rebellion, removed his hat in answer to the waving of handkerchiefs, and reining his horse up, called on “his boys” to give three cheers. “Three more, my boys!” and “three more!” Then, looking at the silent crowd of Union men on the pavement, he shook his fist at them, saying, “Oh, you d—d long-faced Yankees! Ladies, take down their names and I will attend to them personally when I return.” In view of the fact that this was addressed to a crowd of unarmed citizens, in the presence of a large body of armed soldiery flushed with success, the prudence — to say nothing of the bravery — of these remarks, may be judged of by any man of common sense.

The Black Confederate crowd doesn’t usually include this second passage describing the same event, or explain Cobb’s apparent profound amnesia when it comes to the employment of African Americans in Confederate ranks. How is it, one wonders, that the same Howell Cobb who supposedly led thousands of black Confederate soldiers into Frederick in 1862 found the very notion of enlisting African Americans into the Confederate military a “most pernicious idea” just twenty-seven months later? How is it that the general who called on his black troops to give three cheers, then “three more, my boys!” came to believe that “the day you make soldiers of them is the beginning of the end of the revolution?” How is it that the commander of successful black soldiers felt that “as a class they are wanting in every qualification of a soldier?”

But set aside Dr. Steiner’s propogandist account for the moment; it’s unreliable and unsupported by other sources. Events at Frederick aside, how is that Howell Cobb, in January 1865, was unaware of the thousands, or tens of thousands, of African Americans soldiers supposedly serving in Confederate ranks across the South?

Howell Cobb’s Confederate bona fides are unimpeachable, and throughout the war he was irrevocably tied in to both political and military affairs. In his career he was, in turn, a five-term U.S. Representative from Gerogia, Speaker of the U.S. House Representatives, Governor of Georgia, U.S. Secretary of the Treasury, Speaker of the Provisional Confederate Congress, and Major General in the Confederate Army. He was a leader of the secession movement, and was elected president of the Montgomery convention that drafted a constitution for the new Confederacy. For a brief period in 1861, between the establishment of the Confederate States and the election of Jefferson Davis as its president, Speaker Cobb served as the new nation’s effective head of state. In his military career, Cobb held commands in the Army of Northern Virginia and the District of Georgia and Florida. He scouted and recommended a site for a prisoner-of-war camp that eventually became known as Andersonville; his Georgia Reserve Corps fought against Sherman in his infamous “March to the Sea.” Cobb commanded Confederate forces in a doomed defense of Columbus, Georgia in the last major land battle of the war, on Easter Sunday, April 16, 1865, the day after Abraham Lincoln died in Washington, D.C. Perhaps more than any other man, Howell Cobb’s career followed the fortunes of Confederacy — civil, political and military — from beginning to end.

And yet, after almost four years of war and almost three years of commanding large formations of Confederate troops in the field, in January 1865 Howell Cobb seemingly remained unaware of the thousands, or tens of thousands, of African Americans now claimed to have been serving in Southern ranks throughout the war.

It is passing strange, is it not?