Black Confederate Myth

The Civil War has brought about many controversial ideas; one idea is that if blacks were involved at all in the confederate army.  In all the books and discussions we have had in class, almost always there is a limited, almost nonexistent view of male African Americans and their participation in the Civil War.  Slavery was obviously a big part of the war and there are discussions about African American slaves and African American women but not a lot of details on black involvement in the fighting.  After doing some searching on the internet, I found some interesting things about black confederates, and some perturbed people claiming that they did not exist at all.  Despite all the evidence involved, there are those who claim black men were in no way part of the confederate army and try to defend it with all they can, truth or not.  Then there are those who have looked through many primary sources and found evidence of slaves being involved, but it may have not been on their own free will.

 A personal story of African American slaves involved in the war was John Parker and some others who fell into fighting at Bull Run.  Kate Masur who is a historian for Northwestern explains that all four men were slaves, ordered by their owners to fight for the Confederate cause. ‘We wish[ed] to our hearts that the Yankees would whip and we would have run over to their side but our officers would have shot us if we had made the attempt,’ Parker recalled.[1]  Does this story represent that masters forced their slaves to work in the Confederate army or was it their own will that they joined in the fighting?

 

There are other stories and evidence to prove that there were black confederates.  The battle at  Fort Pillow in Tennessee consisted of a garrison by one regiment of black troops, numbering 262, and a cavalry detachment of similar size, for a total of 557 men.[2]  Then the most infamous group, the 54th Massachusetts Regiment, in which the regiment consisted of all black men.  There is also another story about blacks participating in regiments here and there.  Do you think these blacks in the confederate army are valid or are they made up?

 On one hand there are people like Harvard professor John Stauffer who states that, “They say the Civil War was about states’ rights, and they wish to minimize the role of slavery in a vanished and romantic antebellum South.  But most historians of the past 50 years hold that the root cause of the Civil War was slavery. They bristle at the idea of black Confederates, which they say robs the war of its moral coin as the crucible of black emancipation.”[3]  Even though the amount of black’s fighting for the confederacy was low, it still shows that they were there and they were fighting.  Stauffer states that blacks who shouldered arms for the Confederacy numbered more than 3,000 but fewer than 10,000.[4]  On the other hand, many scholars believe that black confederates did not exist.  Fergus Bordewich, who wrote the fiction book The Root, is not alone in his position. Top-ranking scholars have repeatedly torpedoed the myth, including Bruce Levine, the renowned professor of African-American studies at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign; Edwin Bearss, historian emeritus at the National Park Service; and Henry Louis “Skip” Gates, editor-in-chief of The Root and chair of Harvard’s W.E.B. Du Bois Institute. Yet it persists.[5]  What do you think?  Are black confederates a myth or did they really exist?  If they did exist, why do you think they were involved?

A slave cartoon from Harpers Ferry, January 1863.

For more information about black Confederates:

54th Massachusetts:http://www.us-civilwar.com/54th.html

Confederate Law to authorize enlistment of slaves:http://www.history.umd.edu/Freedmen/csenlist.html

Myth of black confederates: http://www.theroot.com/views/myth-black-confederates-persists


[1] Kate Masur, “Slavery and Freedom at Bull Run,”  New York Times Opinion Pages, accessed June 28, 2012, http://opinionator.blogs.nytimes.com/2011/07/27/slavery-and-freedom-at-bull-run/.

[2] J Rickard,”Fort Pillow Massacre, 12 April 1864,”  History of War, accessed June 28, 2012,  http://www.historyofwar.org/articles/battles_fort_pillow_1864.html

[3] John Stauffer, “Black Confederates,” Harvard Gazette, accessed June 28, 2012, http://news.harvard.edu/gazette/story/2011/09/black-confederates/.

[4] John Stauffer, “Black Confederates, ”  Harvard Gazette, accessed June 28, 2012, http://news.harvard.edu/gazette/story/2011/09/black-confederates/.

 [5] Lynette Holloway, “The Myth of Black Confederates Persists, 2011,”  The Root, accessed June 28, 2012,  http://www.theroot.com/views/myth-black-confederates-persists.

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13 comments
  1. I enjoyed reading your post especially since I have virtually no knowledge of black Confederates. I think however that it is highly unlikely that any slave would have willingly taken up arms to help defend an institution that oppressed them. In class we have discussed that whereas slaves were not educated they certainly weren’t ignorant either, they knew what was happening. I can possibly see slaves fighting for the Confederacy, but only under the charge of their master. It is probably more likely that the “Confederate blacks” seen on the battlefields were simply slaves helping out with daily tasks. It would be preposterous for a master to provide their slave with a gun, ignorant or not of the current situation.

    • jadams08 said:

      I did not have much knowledge on the subject either since I also have my degree in elementary education and we don’t get much training or background on that subject sadly. It was interesting to read some of the stories and discusssions regarding black soldiers and all the debate about it.

  2. zfwerkowitch said:

    The black troops at Fort Pillow were Union troops who were massacred by Confederate troops. And the 54th Massachusetts was Union soldiers, too.

    • jadams08 said:

      Okay, sorry I didn’t make that clear. My information was really to inform you that there were black soldiers fighting in the war.

  3. Kristen Epps said:

    I have more than one problem with Stauffer’s research on this matter, but I’ll save most of it for another time. I’ll just say here that he has absolutely no evidence for providing those numbers. He has pulled them out of thin air, literally. Some of his points are true (there were likely a few slaves who hoped that participating in the fighting would win them approval, etc.), but his statistics are deeply flawed. You wouldn’t know this, of course, so this is not intended as a criticism of your blog. You’ve raised a really interesting topic.

    We’ll address this more in class next week, but just to clarify, there are no muster rolls, orders, or official correspondence that confirm the existence of black soldiers in any segment of the Confederate army. There were many slaves who served as laundresses, cooks, etc., so there were certainly black folks in the ranks if you use that term broadly. Zach is right that the troops massacred at Fort Pillow were Union soldiers who had actually surrendered to the Confederates. Our knowledge of the situation is a bit spotty, but witnesses testified to the fact that these troops were massacred primarily because they were black and the white Confederates hated seeing blacks in the military. Also, the 54th Massachusetts is the most famous Union regiment of the USCT (United States Colored Troops). Blacks officially entered the Northern ranks in 1863, but some had been used earlier, they just weren’t officially mustered in. This would include groups like the 1st Kansas Colored, the 2nd Kansas Colored, etc.

    • jadams08 said:

      Thank you for informing me correctly on the matter, I don’t have a whole lot of background information regarding the Civil War, really what we have touched on in class. When I started researching the matter on black soldiers it was crazy to see the vast spectrum of opinions on the matter of black soldiers. I assumed a professor from Harvard would be credible on his research, but again I don’t know that much regarding the matter. I really wanted to gain some knowledge before class and our discussion about black soldiers, but after doing some research, it makes me feel even more confused on the matter.

      • Kristen Epps said:

        Judging from the number of comments you’ve received here, Jamie, we can all tell that this is a heated topic! I totally understand, and I too would hope that a Harvard scholar would know better than to provide statistics that can’t be proven. We will have lots of fodder for our discussion on this next week, so thanks for getting us all thinking about this 🙂

  4. magaliq said:

    Would it not make sense that there may have been some black soldiers? If the Confederate states viewed the North with such hatred and trepidation, that may have transferred to some of their black neighbors. Better the enemy you know than some enemy you don’t know. I can see some of those cooks, servants, farm hand, etc. taking up arms to protect what they know.

    • jadams08 said:

      Well what’s interesting is something Brittany pointed out, what defines a soldier? From the little I know, blacks were involved in the Civil War but they may have not been defined a soldier by their terms. They may have been working as cooks and servants and such but not really “fighting” in the war.

      • Kristen Epps said:

        This is the key question–there is no doubt, as you say Jamie, that African Americans on both sides were involved, but the extent of that involvement is up for debate.

  5. bktitus17 said:

    I personally think it is really interesting to think about what constitutes a soldier, especially in this matter and after reading the comments. It would seem, from what we read and probably what we will read next week, that a black person, slave or free, who cooks or cleans in a regiment during the Civil War would not be considered a soldier, even if they picked up a gun and started fighting. Yet, I could see a white person doing the exact same thing during the war and be considered a soldier in his own right.

    I also think the question is a little polarized. I think it should not be a question necessarily of whether Black Confederates existed or not, it is a question of how they existed and what they exactly did in terms of fighting or advocating for the war.

    • Kristen Epps said:

      This is exactly what some of our readings for Tuesday will address (the blog posts, which I will try to send out soon). Does it seem plausible that some slave would pick up a gun when there are Union troops shooting at them? Sure, self preservation makes that quite plausible. Does that mean they considered themselves soldiers, or that the Confederate army considered them soldiers, no. Hence the lack of direct primary sources that say, “hey, we have black soldiers in our ranks, and this is how they’re paid, enlisted, etc.”

  6. catymark said:

    If find it interesting the a professor of African American studies would refute the evidence that African Americans did serve on the side of the Confederates. Perhaps all this is just an example of how memory is selective. One wants to remember the good things about their personal and public history, and fighting to preserve an institution that has kept your people below a human status for decades seems wrong, so one would probably want to forget it. But I think the difference is how many of the “soldiers” were forced to fight by their owners. That being the case, can you really call them soldiers?

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