A Rebel War Clerk Denies the Existence of Black Confederates

The current Confederate heritage fetish with black Confederate soldiers and the confidence with which many assert the existence of these loyal and brave men in arms stands in sharp contrast with the fact that you are hard pressed to find anyone in Confederate ranks or on the home front who acknowledged the existence of these men during the war. How could it be that black men in arms escaped the attention of…well…everyone?  Again, I’ve not come across one piece of evidence during the height of the debate over the enlistment of slaves in the Confederate army that states that these men were already present.  Not one.  What you will find, on occasion, are outright denials that they exist at all. 

Consider John B. Jones’s diary entry for March 22, 1863:

It was thawing all night, and there is a heavy fog this morning. The snow will disappear in a few days.

A very large number of slaves, said to be nearly 40,000, have been collected by the enemy on the Peninsula and at adjacent points, for the purpose, it is supposed, of co-operating with Hooker’s army in the next attempt to capture Richmond.

The snow has laid an embargo on the usual slight supplies brought to market, and all who had made no provision for such a contingency are subsisting on very short-commons. Corn-meal is selling at from $6 to $8 per bushel. Chickens $5 each. Turkeys $20. Turnip greens $8 per bushel. Bad bacon $1.50 per pound. Bread 20 cts. per loaf. Flour $38 per barrel,–and other things in proportion. There are some pale faces seen in the streets from deficiency of food; but no beggars, no complaints. We are all in rags, especially our underclothes. This for liberty!

The Northern journals say we have negro regiments on the Rappahannock and in the West. This is utterly untrue. We have no armed slaves to fight for us, nor do we fear a servile insurrection. We are at no loss, however, to interpret the meaning of such demoniac misrepresentations. It is to be seen of what value the negro regiments employed against us will be to the invader.

It’s unlikely that even a well placed diarist such as Jones will have any influence on the hardcore.  That’s what happens when you are driven by wanting or needing to believe as opposed to engaging in serious study.  Ultimately, what goes missing is Jones’s brief reference to what he perceives as the meaning behind those Northern journal reports.  He doesn’t simply deny it.  In referring to these reports as “demoniac” Jones is communicating something about the importance of slavery to the Confederacy and the broader society that just about every white Southerner (regardless of their slave holding status) would understand.  To miss even this brief reference is to fail to understand just how divisive the eventual debate was over slave enlistment in the Confederate army in 1864 and 65.  For many Confederates the picture of armed slaves was and always would be “demoniac.”

[Thanks to Ken Noe for passing it along.]

28 thoughts on “A Rebel War Clerk Denies the Existence of Black Confederates

  1. tom white

    hate to hurt your fellings but their were CONERDTERATE ARMY DID HAVE BLACKS AND DID GET A PENION SO YOUR BOOKS ARE WRONG

    Reply
    1. Matthew Wallace-Gross

      Well, the “CONERDTERATE ARMY” may have had black soldiers, but the Confederate Army didn’t.

      Reply
  2. Neil Hamilton

    Kevin,

    It’s going to happen one day.

    The realization that our/my Confederate ancestors fought to preserve slavery and simply could not “cotton” the idea of arming any slaves to fight to preserve slavery.

    I see unsupported hopes and fables, desperate attempts to use pensions of former slaves, etc., but all by 20th and now, 21st century advocates of black Confederates, whereas 19th century accounts do not.

    The historical record and close examination of such, as done by yourself and others, are slowly, but surely, forcing the issue to come back to the original reasons given for secession.

    Slavery. It’s protection and expansion as it is plainly stated by those at the time.

    Thank you for your continuing research and efforts in this area.

    Sincerely,
    Neil

    Reply
  3. William Black

    It is not immediately clear to me what “meaning” Jones was talking about when he wrote, “We are at no loss, however, to interpret the meaning of such demoniac misrepresentations.” Did he mean that Northern newspapers were spreading lies about black Confederate troops so as to build support in the North for enlisting black troops (essentially saying, if we don’t use them, the Confederacy will)?

    Reply
    1. Kevin Levin Post author

      I agree. It isn’t entirely clear. It seems to me that Jones is referring to the suggestion that the Confederacy is using black troops. Jones was no doubt already aware that the United States was organizing black soldiers given the date of the diary entry.

      Reply
      1. Ken Noe

        Jones had already commented frequently on the Emancipation Proclamation and the Union’s use of black troops, both of which he understood as dastardly attempts to stimulate a southern slave uprising. Here he is saying that northern press reports of similar “black Confederates” were evil lies. The Confederacy had not stooped to such nefarious tactics even if the north had. By the closing pages of volume two, he did come around to grudgingly support the notion of “arming slaves,” which is how he described the 1865 legislation, but he made it clear that such a step would be both something new and a response to otherwise impending defeat.

        Reply
        1. Kevin Levin Post author

          Thanks for the follow up, Ken. I need to spend more time with the diary. Jones’s eventual position re: slave enlistment places him comfortably in the camp that favored the policy – support enlistment to stave off something even worse.

          Reply
  4. Sam Vanderburg

    Again, good stuff.

    I found A Rebel War Clerk’s Diary very depressing to read because of the human side of the story. In other published journal’s of Rebel soldiers, I find no reference of any regular Confederant soldier of African heritage. I do find the employ of free and slave blacks as cooks and other servile positions to be mentioned.

    This debate will make me reread some of my favorites!

    Reply
    1. Kevin Levin Post author

      Free and enslaved blacks did performed a range of jobs during the war. Many were impressed by the Confederate government to work on earthworks and other military projects. This is not controversial. Of course, they were not soldiers.

      The question is not whether there were black soldiers in the Confederate army. The more interesting issue is how the war effected the Confederate government’s relationship to slavery. I highly recommend starting with Bruce Levine’s book, Confederate Emancipation.

      Reply
  5. Jimmy L. Shirley Jr.

    “We have no armed slaves to fight for us, nor do we fear a servile insurrection. We are at no loss, however, to interpret the meaning of such demoniac misrepresentations.”
    Fair enough comments by one man on the topic. To which someone comments, “This one is gold, Kevin.” Interesting that the written comments by one man, even if by 10,000 men, could be taken as representative of all. For we know that Pat Cleburne “cottoned” to the idea of recruiting and arming the slaves and granting liberty to those who answered the call, if they survived. And what about when General John B. Gordon reported that all of his troops were in favour of Colored troops and that it’s adoption would have “greatly encouraged the army”. Gen. Lee was anxious to receive regiments of black soldiers. The Richmond Sentinel reported on 24 Mar 1864, “None…will deny that our servants are more worthy of respect than the motley hordes which come against us.” “Bad faith [to black Confederates] must be avoided as an indelible dishonor.” What about this?
    And what about the Confederate Monument in Arlington which depicts a Black Confederate soldier? This monument which was set up and dedicated in the 1910s? What about that?

    But then, I just looked and found y’all already covered that back in 2010. You know, y’all make claims of us as being intractable on this issue. Well, so are you and yours here. You are no different than we are, just on opposing sides. Y’all totally reject the notion of Black men willingly serving in the armies of the CSA, even if in an unofficial capacity, and do all you can to destroy the idea. And you have the advantage over us of “political correctness”. And to charge us with misrepresenting “knowable, factual information” can equally be charged against y’all, too.
    The real truth of the matter is this. Unless you and I were there, we dont know what the real truth is. The best we can do is to try and read all accounts as best we can and interpret what we read into what best fits the truth, as we perceive the truth. These things we take on faith. I was not living 2,000 years ago and, therefore, did not witness the life of Jesus. But I take it on faith that there was a man named Jesus and that He was exactly who the Bible says He was. I grew up learning the yankee’s version of what happened, and why, and took it on faith that this was the truth. I never even had a concept of some other version until about 15 years ago.
    See, I get y’all. Y’all dont get me or us. Y’all refuse to even consider y’alls version of the conflict, the very same one I was taught in school, could be flawed. Most likely it would affect your standing in your circle of associates, as well as your pocket.

    We on the other hand, do this from the belief we are right. We get no financial reward, our numbers are smaller. But our faith is stronger. And as these debates are played out in the public sphere of the internet, others will read and begin to question the accepted versions. They will do their own research and arrive at their own conclusions. And more and more of them will come to agree… that the South Was Right after all.

    Thank you for the opportunity to express these views, Kevin. Keep up the good work. We all benefit from these exchanges.

    Reply
    1. Kevin Levin Post author

      Mr. Shirley,

      Instead of worrying about this and that I suggest doing some reading. Start with Bruce Levine’s book, Confederate Emancipation. It’s not long and it covers Cleburne and Lee and the debate toward the end of the war that led to passage of legislation authorizing the enlistment of slaves into the army. I am pleased to see that you came across my post on the Confederate monument at Arlington, which is often cited as evidence of black Confederate soldiers. It’s a perfect example of the shoddy research that one can find on countless websites.

      The rest of your comment tells me nothing about this subject and quite a bit about how you think about this subject. While it’s interesting as a reflection of Civil War memory it should not be confused with a carefully crafted historical interpretation.

      Reply
      1. Jimmy L. Shirley Jr.

        I did mean exactly for a lot of my post to be a reflection of my thoughts about the matter. I think a lot of what we research are “reflections”.
        But I believe research that disagrees with our own should not be characterised as “shoddy”. Those who believe that Blacks did indeed fight and die for their own families, the families of their “owners”, their States or the CSA can level the same charge of “shoddy research” to those whose findings disagree with theirs.

        But be assured I do not “worry” about this lone topic. It is, however, in and among the pantheon of Southern subjects/topics that I seek to clarify and persuade others to accept as historical accuracies.

        Reply
        1. Kevin Levin Post author

          We can level all the charges we want and we can disagree all we want, but what matters is whether we can explain our positions. I believe I have done so on this site and in the two articles that I’ve published on this subject. You cited the Confederate monument in Arlington, which again is constantly raised as evidence that these men existed on scores of websites. Admittedly, you believed it constituted reliable evidence until you read the relevant post on this blog. I would characterize that as shoddy research. If you disagree than all I can say is that we are working with different standards of what constitutes reliable research.

          Reply
    2. Ken Noe

      Mr. Shirley: Jones to be sure was just one man, but he was a man who worked in the Confederate War Department throughout the war, wrote and read reams of correspondence every day, met with the various secretaries of War nearly every day, and frequently spoke with Jefferson Davis. There were few people in the Confederacy who had a better grasp of what was happening in the Confederate army, which is why I think his comments do matter. As for Cleburne, Lee, and Gordon (you could mention Dick Ewell too), remember that all of them were trying to get Congress to do something new, authorize the enlistment of black troops for the first time. It ruined Cleburne’s career, while even Lee didn’t get his act of Congress until a few weeks before Appomattox.

      Reply
      1. Kevin Levin Post author

        Hi Ken,

        I thought about offering something along what you shared here, but in the end I don’t think it really matters to Mr. Shirley. You could also mention that Cleburne’s petition was prevented from being circulated by Jefferson Davis himself. As you know I’ve gone over all of this multiple times on this blog.

        Reply
        1. Jimmy L. Shirley Jr.

          Kevin,
          I fully know Cleburne’s petition was held at bay, and that it did cost him.
          But his eloquence in making the proposition is itself remarkable. I suspect it is not something he thought up sudden like. It had to have been running around in his mind for quite some while. And he surely must have cussed and discussed this with some of those around him in order for him to have mustered the courage to put it down in writing and sent to the Confederate high command in Richmond.

          Reply
          1. Kevin Levin Post author

            We know he discussed the petition with fellow officers. It’s not as if no one raised it before Cleburne as Ken Noe mentioned in his last comment. You can find the topic being raised in Confederate newspapers throughout the war. The difference was Cleburne’s timing as well as his position. The point is that Cleburne never once suggested that blacks were already serving in the army in any numbers. No one has ever read a source from a Confederate soldier acknowledging that blacks were already serving in their units. That is why Cleburne’s petition was so controversial. It represented a step in a radically new direction that many white Southerners simply could not countenance and those that did argued that it was preferable to the alternative, which was surrender and the end of slavery. In other words, even the plan that was eventually adopted by the Confederate government ought not to be understood as a plan of general emancipation in the Confederacy.

            Reply
      2. Jimmy L. Shirley Jr.

        Ken,
        I had never heard John B. Jones before this. So, taking you at your word, and that he was “a man who worked in the Confederate War Department throughout the war, wrote and read reams of correspondence every day, met with the various secretaries of War nearly every day, and frequently spoke with Jefferson Davis.” I can only imagine that he was no more reflective of the thoughts and opinions of the rank and file soldiers in the Southern armies from the captains down, than would Mary Chestnut be the standard of the Southern women’s thoughts and opinions.

        Reply
        1. Kevin Levin Post author

          It is one of the most common diaries from inside the Confederate government in Richmond and as Ken says offers a unique view into its inner workings. That you so casually dismiss it speaks volumes.

          Reply
        2. Ken Noe

          Just a few years ago I researched a book on Confederate soldiers based on the letters and diaries of 320 of them. Jones actually represents their views on the subject pretty well.

          Reply

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