Last night I came across an interesting little section in Will Greene’s Civil War Petersburg which analyzes the reaction of the city’s free black population to Virginia’s decision to secede and the deployment of the areas first units. On the eve of the Civil War Petersburg was a majority black city; twenty-six percent of the city’s free population was black and within the black community 36% were free. A sizable number, according to Greene, "owned town lots, and some achieved surprising wealth for the time." (p. 8). Much has been made of the growing percentage of the Upper South’s free black population throughout the antebellum period and its significance during the war years. William Freehling contends that this general trend towards greater black freedom in the Upper and Border South threatened the states in the Lower South who believed that such changes would eventually spill into their own backyards. Freehling has also contended that the racial dynamics in the Upper South played a crucial role in the evolution and outcome of the war. Questions of how to manage large free black populations while at the same time maintain sufficient control of the slaves abounded.
Greene presents a very interesting written document by a free black man by the name of Charles Tinsley (29 years old) who openly declared his loyalty to Virginia’s cause by volunteering to aid the militia:
We are willing to aid Virginia’s cause to the utmost extent of our ability. We do not feel that it is right for us to remain idle here, when white gentlemen are engaged in the performance of work at Norfolk, that…is more suitable to our hands….There is not an unwilling heart among us…and we promise unhesitating obedience to all orders that may be given us….I could feel no greater pride, no more genuine gratification than to be able to plant [the Confederate flag] upon the ramparts of Ft. Monroe. (p. 36)
While Greene does not dismiss out of hand Tinsley’s declaration of loyalty to Virginia and the Confederacy he is rightfully skeptical. The disruption of trade with the North had already taken a toll on tobacco companies and other businesses which employed free blacks. Greene cites one resident of James City County who believed that allowing these men to work on fortifications "would be putting them out of harm’s way, thereby lessening the chances of servile insurrection, which it is well to guard against as far as possible." (p. 36)
I tend to agree with Greene’s conclusions here:
Although some of the black volunteers may have felt a genuine loyalty to Virginia and found sincere motivation n serving their native state, it is difficult to believe that men like Charles Tinsley did not exaggerate their Confederate patriotism out of a sense of self-interest. Free blacks in Virginia had become experts at accommodation and survival, and their eagerness in volunteering for unarmed military service comported with this instinct. Calculations of self-protection undoubtedly tipped the scales in favor of cooperating with the rapidly mobilizing whites. (p. 36)
Free blacks understood all too well the precariousness of their legal standing in the years leading up to the Civil War. I don’t think it is a stretch at all to suggest that their very public claims of loyalty were in part an attempt to assuage the kinds of concerns expressed by the above-cited resident of James City County. Accepting free blacks for volunteer service took care of reinforcing white Virginian’s own sense of paternalism as well as their fears of slave revolts at a time when the security and stability of their community remained uncertain.
As I was reading this section of the book I couldn’t help but think of the aftermath of the Crater in July 1864. In a sense the reaction of Confederates to the presence of USCTs becomes even clearer in light of these early concerns about slave rebellion and race relations. Keep in mind that the regiments that made up Mahone’s Virginia brigade were raised in the Petersburg and were commanded by the city’s own David A. Weisiger. Confederates did not see black soldiers as simply an extension of the Union army, but as a realization of their worst fears of racial leveling and servile insurrection come true. Evidence suggests that a few of the USCTs were originally from the Petersburg area and at least one document suggests that a captured black man was returned to his former owner following the battle. The public parade of captured black soldiers through the streets of Petersburg and on their way to prison camps further south must also be seen in this context. The remaining white population in Petersburg was given a glimpse of just what the war had become and just what was at stake in case of defeat.