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.