Where Were All the Black Confederates in the Summer of 1864?

Thanks to Brooks Simpson and Ken Noe for participation in my most recent post on black Confederates.  Their thorough comments in response to a reader who put forward what he believed to be evidence for black Confederate soldiers is a clinic on how to engage in serious historical analysis.  I can’t tell you what it means to me to have such respected professional historians as regular readers of this blog.  You would also do well to check out Ta-Nehisi Coates’s most recent post on the subject as well as the clever thought experiment over at Vast Public Indifference.

At one point in the discussion today Ken Noe offered the following:

I recently completed a project that required me to read the letters and diaries of 320 CS soldiers. They wrote a lot about slavery, slave labor in camp, their opposition to emancipation, and their mixed feelings about the 1865 Confederate Congressional debates over arming blacks. But not a one of them–not one–described black men fighting beside them as armed soldiers for the Confederacy. What I’d need are a lot of letters that did describe that. I’d also need evidence that the 1865 Confederate slavery debates never took place after all, because why debate the issue if black men were already soldiers in Confederate service? Finally, some official mention from the Confederate government before 1865 would help.

Before proceeding I want to mention that the project that Ken speaks of will be published shortly by the University of North Carolina Press and it promises to be a very interesting study.  All of Ken’s questions are relevant, but I was particularly struck by his emphasis on the lack of references to black Confederates from the men in his sample.  One would think that at some point a Confederate solider would acknowledge the presence of black soldiers rather than servants, teamsters, cooks, etc.  I don’t know one historian who has come across such a letter, though I assume that a few did serve or were able to pass as white soldiers. 

While I think Ken’s question is relevant it might be helpful to focus in a bit on one specific period of the war.  It should come as no surprise to my readers that I want to focus in on the summer of 1864 outside of Petersburg.  Over the past five years I’ve read hundreds of soldiers letters from the men in the Army of Northern Virginia and I’ve not come across one reference to black Confederate soldiers.  My point, however, is that it matters more that no such references apparently exist as opposed to the rest of the war.  By the summer of 1864 United States Colored Troops had become a much more visible presence on Virginia’s battlefields, first in supporting roles during the “Overland Campaign” and later in actual battle during the earliest advances against Confederate positions around Petersburg.  And as many of you know, on July 30 an entire division of USCTs took part in the failed assault that became known as the battle of the Crater.  Even a cursory glance at the letters and diaries of Confederates reveals an army obsessed with issues of race, slavery, and the significance of having to face armed black men on the battlefield.  White southerners in the ranks wrote openly about what the consequences of defeat would mean to a society that was built on racial supremacy.  Following the bloody battle of the Crater they expressed their hatred for black soldiers along with casual references to having executed significant numbers of USCTs following the fighting.

Questions You Would Expect Confederates To Ask

What is striking is that at no point do these men make any reference to black Confederate soldiers.  Where are the references to the loyal black soldiers who met the men of Brig. Gen. Edward Ferrero’s Fourth Division at the Crater?  Where are the pleas to their commanders and Robert E. Lee to unleash these men on those they believed had been manipulated by the Lincoln administration to fight? At a time when race had become a central issue in the minds of Confederate soldiers who were responsible for defending a civilian population at Petersburg and not one reference to loyal black Confederate soldiers.  What you will find are a few references to the ongoing debate about whether to arm slaves, but I have yet to find a letter or diary that actually supports the plan.  Which leads to my final question: Why are there no references from soldiers informing the public through an editorial that they already have significant numbers of blacks serving as soldiers?

Now, not every question deserves an answer, but for the life of me I can’t fathom why you wouldn’t be curious about such a glaring omission.

10 comments… add one
  • K.P. Marshall Apr 15, 2011 @ 3:39

    I am one of the most unreconstructed Southerners anywhere. Probably even more so than our friends down in Brazil lol and I have read extensively and grew up 100 yards from Ft. Lamar which the yankees under Genl. Benham attacked in June of ’62. I grew up with two things in my hand, a surfboard and a metal detector. I had the same professor at The Citadel in the course called “Disunion and the War for Southern Independence” as my Father had when he was a Cadet at the school who fired the first shots of the war. I am not a member of the Sons of Confederate Veterans or the Military Order of the Stars and Bars, both if which my heritage qualifies me for, because when I was a kid I saw that they sold t-shirts, bumper stickers, and other trinkets with the Confederate Flag on them. This is degradation of a sacred symbol. I do not believe that the true history of the events leading up to and during the war is being told. The issue WAS State Powers and the only State Power that would get the mass of Southern Men of the time riled up enough to actually fight was the issue of the ruination of the economy by the threat of abolition. The arguments for secession would have been the same if the issue was widgets! Take the word slavery and all the race based drivel out of the individual States so called, and because Jefferson called it this and we of the South rightly worship most everything about Jefferson and his view of what the relationship between the federal government and the States should be lol, Declaration of Causes and insert any thing you want. It really makes no difference. The appeal had to be made to the inherent white supremacist feelings of the overwhelming majority of all white men of the 19th Century to get the Southern Men to actually fight. You’ve got to be one hell of a speaker to get men to stand 100 yards from each other and slug it out the way they did FOR A TARIFF! I doubt President Obama, gifted orator he is, could even do that! .The federal government was becoming one controlled by business and commerce and very centralized. This was, and is, not what we signed up for and not our understanding of the founders intentions. It is really a shame that The Cause was wrapped up in such a disreputable and shaming thing as the peculiar institution. Because of this most people can never bring themselves to look past what the State Power WAS and honestly look at our position vis a vis State Powers versus federal powers as stated in our Constitution. I say all that so that you know where I am coming from when I say this. I have never believed any of this Black Confederate nonsense. Did some black men who followed their masters into the army pick up the rifle and defend themselves if they were in personal danger? I am sure they did, but this notion of legions of black Confederate Soldiers bravely charging the yankee works in an integrated Confederate Army is the stuff of fantasy. Sorry for the length!


  • Robyn Apr 14, 2011 @ 19:17

    I have been reading David Blight’s “A Slave No More”, which contains 2 newly discovered (well a few years ago now) slave narratives. It occurred to me another unique source for this whole black soldier argument are slave narratives of those who ran behind Union lines, which these two men did. The first guy, John Washington, had been an urban slave in Fredericksburg and describes the city when all the Confederates where still there. He notes, “A great many slave men were sent into the Rebel Army as drivers, cooks, hostlers and anything else they could do.” Notice ‘Soldier’ is missing form that list; you would expect for him to mention that if he did see it. I am sure in the hundreds of other published narratives, we may find more of these firsthand accounts from former slaves.

  • EarthTone Jan 24, 2010 @ 13:14

    FYI – You may already be aware of this, but there is a relatively new blog dedicated to Black Confederates – http://blackconfederates.blogspot.com/

    The blog talks about Black Confederates from a “Confederate” point of view.

    • Kevin Levin Jan 24, 2010 @ 13:32

      Yes, I've seen it. There is nothing interesting at all, just the standard line that fails to help us understand anything related to actual history.

  • toby Jan 21, 2010 @ 20:00

    It seems to me there is also a marked paucity of evidence from Union soldiers on seeing armed black men in the Confederate ranks.

    After all, tens of thousands of Union soldiers were taken prisoner and saw the Confederate army behind the lines. It is downright amazing that none (at least none that has been highlighted) saw an organised body of black soldiers, or anything even remotely like that. Many Union soldiers were anti-abolition, if not downright racist, and surely would have trumpeted black disloyalty to high heaven.

    Here is a passage from the memoirs of an Irish soldier, Andrew J. Byrne of Dublin. Wounded and taken prisoner in the Saven Days, he was transported to Libby Prison in a wagon driven by a black teamster. Byrne remarked on the kindness of his driver, who have him corn sacks to rest on. He added: “N[egroes] were allways Kind to us and looked upon us as their deliverers”

    I think (contradict me if I am wrong) that Byrne was encountering a typical response from a black Southerner meeting a Union soldier when no white Confederate was nearby. Where then, are the black Confederate who would have aroused great curiousity, if not racial animosity, among Union soldiers?

  • Tom Perry Jan 21, 2010 @ 12:43


    I posted last week on my blog about my research in Patrick County about slave requisitions and the use of these people for the Confederate war effort, not as soldiers, but as laborers. I might have missed this on the discussion on your blog, but this is something you have to dig deep into county records to find.


    • Kevin Levin Jan 21, 2010 @ 12:52

      Thanks for the link. You are absolutely right that this is one of the more fruitful avenues of research that can help us uncover the racial dynamic within the ranks. Will Greene talks a bit about this in his recent study of Petersburg. Large numbers of enslaved blacks were requisitioned by the government and some free blacks volunteered their services to the Confederate war effort in various support roles.

  • Ken Noe Jan 21, 2010 @ 12:18

    Kevin: Thanks for the kind words and the book plug too.

    • Kevin Levin Jan 21, 2010 @ 12:23

      I am very much looking forward to reading it. I should be getting a review copy at some point soon.

Now that you've read the post, share your thoughts.