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.