Defining Black Union Soldiers

One of the most frustrating aspects of the black Confederate debate is the tendency on the part of a select few to warp the definition of a soldier to a point where it becomes meaningless.  These individuals may have made room for their preferred picture of the Confederate army, but it fails to reflect anything resembling what white Southerners, both in the army and on the home front, would have acknowledged in the 1860s.  Given the difficulty involved in acknowledging a distinction between a soldier and noncombatant (personal servant/impressed slave or free black) in the Confederate army, perhaps it will help to take a quick look at the Union army.

Gary Gallagher’s new book, The Union War (Harvard University Press, 2011), opens with an interesting chapter on the Grand Review, which took place in Washington, D.C. in May 1865.  After dealing effectively with the claim that African American soldiers were intentionally prevented from taking part in the parade Gallagher analyzes newspaper coverage of the racial profile of Sherman’s army:

Neither publication commented on the absence of United States Colored Troops in the parade, though both described African American noncombatants who accompanied Sherman’s armies.  Harper’s Weekly termed them the “transportation brigade of the ‘Bummers’ Corps'” and noted that they “caused much amusement” among spectators.  Frank Leslie’s included an illustration, explaining that “our Artist has chosen to represent the passage of some of Sherman’s ‘bummers’ and the indigenous fruits of the sacred Southern soil collected by their industry.”  The “indigenous fruits” included horses, donkeys, mules, cattle, chickens, ducks, corn, flour, and other things that had “supplied the fighting legions of Sherman” in Georgia and the Carolinas.  “The ludicrous grand division of foragers and bummers,”  stated Leslie’s in language with a cruel edge, “furnished a life-like picture of an army of invasion carrying the terror of the law into the vitals of rebellious States.”  Both newspapers conflated two groups of black people in the parade–African American pioneers, who performed various types of labor in support of Sherman’s operations, and contrabands, including women and children, who followed the Union armies y swept through the Confederate hinterland.  Sherman described  the former as marching “abreast in double ranks, keeping perfect dress and step” in advance of each division of infantry; the latter, added to the parade by some of the division commanders, included “families of freed slaves…with the women leading their children.”  The papers also misused the term “bummers,” which properly referred to white soldiers who foraged without close supervision during the March to the Sea and in the Carolinas. (p. 19)

What stands out to me is the consistency in the way that both the general public and the military defined the status of the black men, who took part in the Grand Review.  The newspapers refer to them as a “ludicrous grand division of foragers and bummers,” but even Sherman fails to acknowledge the men who marched “abreast in double ranks” as soldiers.  Even though these men marched in a military parade and no doubt shared in the hardships of camp life and perhaps even battle, we should not overlook what was true in 1865: THEY WERE NOT SOLDIERS.

Those black men who were in uniform in the United States army in 1865 and who could have taken part in the parade were in the process of boarding transports at City Point as part of an operation to secure the Texas border in response to the thousands of French regulars stationed in Mexico.  You see, distinctions matter.

CraterThanks for reading this post. Scroll down, leave a comment and join the conversation if you are so inclined. Follow me on Twitter and join the Civil War Memory Facebook group for continuous updates and additional links to newsworthy items from around the interwebs. Stay up to date by subscribing to this blog’s feed. You can also check out my recently published book, Remembering the Battle of the Crater: War as Murder.

6 comments… add one

  • Craig Apr 9, 2011

    “THEY WERE NOT SOLDIERS”

    Indeed. If we attempt to draw a parallel to classifications within the modern construct, these were “contractors.”

    • Andy Hall Apr 9, 2011

      Exactly so. One of the common rhetorical arguments used by advocates of BCS goes along the lines of, “a cook or truck driver in Afghanistan is still a soldier!” The correct response to that is, “not if they work for KBR.” ;-)

      That said, I fully expect someone to show up here, arguing that this account merely demonstrates the endemic racism and discrimination in the North, while (as everyone knows) Confederate units were fully integrated, and there’s no mention of it in the contemporary C.S. records because Southerners thought nothing of it.

  • Neil Hamilton Apr 9, 2011

    One should ask soldiers who they consider are ‘real’ soldiers.

    Even amongst today’s modern army, you will see comparisons made between combat infantry and support soldiers, i.e., the 11 Bravo’s of my days.

    But the fact remains, those who talk of cooks, clerks, or truck drivers who are part of the Army today need to understand that all of these folks (who are NOT civilian contract employees hired by the Department of Defense) ENLISTED, held up their hands, took the oath, went to Basic Combat Training and are SOLDIERS, according to the requirements of this century of this Army. Why is it so hard to understand that this did not happen with the slaves who did perform the duties of cook and teamsters of that era? Why can we not believe what the Confederate Army of the 19th century required and demanded when it enlisted soldiers? Why is it when the Confederate Secretary of War stated he would not enlisted negroes, free or slave, or when he later said he had no negroes in his army, we cannot accept his word?

    Baffles me.

    Sincerely,
    Neil

    • Bryan Cheeseboro May 14, 2012

      “But the fact remains, those who talk of cooks, clerks, or truck drivers who are part of the Army today need to understand that all of these folks ENLISTED, held up their hands, took the oath, went to Basic Combat Training and are SOLDIERS, according to the requirements of this century of this Army. Why is it so hard to understand that this did not happen with the slaves who did perform the duties of cook and teamsters of that era? ”

      If you don’t want to believe it’s true, you never will. That’s what mkaes it “hard to believe.”

      To me, it does not even matter how many Black Confederate soldiers actually existed because I don’t believe their numbers will ever provide a statistical significance to anything regarding the Civil War. They are like a base hit in a 5-3 defeat in baseball. The South lost the war with them; and could have lost just as well without them.

      Don’t get me wrong- I am very fascinated by the role African-Americans played in the Confederacy and its military. But I think the claim that thousands of Black men served in the Confederate military under our common definition of “soldier” is a self-serving attempt by neo-Confederates to divert from the main issue of slavery and White supremacy.

  • London John Apr 12, 2011

    More examples: I believe the Construction Brigades (“Seabees”) of the US Pacific campaigns of WWII were not soldiers? During WWI the British army had attached Pioneer units that the more reform Concientious Objectors joined. The British also used Chinese labour battallions.
    In all cases the work could have been done by actual soldiers, many of whom were never in actual combat, but that doesn’t make those who did do it soldiers.
    Lawrence Chamberlain mentioned the freed slaves with Sherman’s army in the Grand Parade 50 years later in his memoirs. I was struck by the contrast of parading people freed by Sherman’s army with traditional triumphs parading prisoners taken.

    • Ken Noe Apr 12, 2011

      Seabees were, and are, regularly enlisted sailors in the U. S. Navy.

Leave a Comment