Could This Be a Real Black Confederate Soldier?

Black Man in sack coatI was browsing some web pages and came across a very interesting link to a website that seems tailored (no pun intended) to Civil War reenactors/enthusiasts, with an interest in uniforms. This photograph of a young black man was taken in Richmond in April 1865. He is wearing what was called a sack coat. The description that accompanies the image offers a few interpretations.

Picture 10: A very distinct image taken in occupied Richmond, Virginia, April 1865, depicts a group of black freedman, some of them wearing Confederate uniforms. Those wearing the uniforms may have acquired them from government store houses at the fall of Richmond, or they may have been serving in Confederate Army in some capacity.  It is possible that may have been in the Confederate “Black Brigade,” formed in the last months of the war, that consisted of two or three battalions of infantry.  In any case, one of the freedmen wears a Confederate military sack coat and matching fabric pants.  The coat has four brass military buttons, but no exterior breast pocket.  It is similar to the Brooke coat in that the bottom edge extends almost down to the cuff.  The stand collar has no contrasting facing.  What is certain about this coat is that it represents the type used by the Army of Northern Virginia at the close of the war.  Image courtesy of the Library of Congress.

I would love for this to be a photograph of a soldier. The few black recruits that marched through the streets of Richmond at the tail end of the war are an incredibly elusive bunch, which I suspect will remain so. More than likely the uniform was acquired following the evacuation of Richmond. I am no expert, but that uniform looks to be in pretty good condition.

11 comments… add one
  • Bryan Cheeseboro Mar 15, 2014 @ 10:39

    Hi Julian,
    Thanks for your recent response to this discussion. The key phrase in what I said on September 9, 2013 was “typically speaking.” I did not say 4-button Confederate sack coats never existed. Even the article you linked backs up what I was trying to say: “The Confederate depot sack coat has been overlooked by Confederate uniformologists, perhaps with good reason: few were made.”

    But we should also keep in mind that sack coats, frock coats and great coats were common terms to describe coats- both military and civilian- of the period. And the article talks about “citizen” sack coats and getting them sent from home.

    Julian, I haven’t had time to read the whole article you linked yet but I still stand by what I said in September. Just like I would say that the forage cap, typically speaking, was an item much more common for Union soldiers of the Army of the Potomac than it was for Confederates in the Army of Northern Virginia.

  • Julian Mar 14, 2014 @ 9:00

    oops – sorry foot in mouth time – I actually posted the same website that triggered Kevin’s first post – but the point is to answer Bryan is that the 4 buttoned jacket is a Confederate uniform according to current research. And yes we can say that the garments the gentlemen is wearing would be understood as having a Confederate military origin – but why and how he acquired it we don’t know. The internet and digital collecting and communicating of images and the ability now to synthesise material distributed though the holdings of collectors and regional museums with digital photography – or even held outside the US as in the case of the Peter Tait jackets is allowing for a lot more precision in working out what pertained to the Confederate soldier

  • Julian Mar 14, 2014 @ 8:14

    Sorry Bryan – amongst the myriads of Confederate uniforms the four button sack coat does exist. This reenactor’s website shows surviving originals and contemporary documents including the very photograph we are discussing. Its interpretation is mature and restrained, it names them as freedmen and states “Those wearing the uniforms may have acquired them from government store houses at the fall of Richmond, or they may have been serving in Confederate Army in some capacity. It is possible that may have been in the Confederate “Black Brigade,” formed in the last months of the war, that consisted of two or three battalions of infantry. In any case, one of the freedmen wears a Confederate military sack coat and matching fabric pants. ”

    Its a very clear image and the uniform looks sound, fresh and clean.

    so no overblown claims that they are part of the forgotten 10s of 1000s of Black Confederates of internet claims, but nor did these men show the a priori alienation from Confederate garmentry and objects that is also now assumed as a given by a different group of bloggers and writers of opinion columns for newspapers. Hey its 1865 – supplies are few and far between in the defeated states – and its a serviceable set of clothes

    I know the 4 button Confederate sack coat exists – I got one off ebay 🙂

  • Bryan Cheeseboro Sep 9, 2013 @ 8:23

    This could be a lot of things but typically speaking, Confederates didn’t have four-button sack coats like Union soldiers did. That’s one thing I learned from reenacting.

  • Yulanda Burgess Sep 9, 2013 @ 6:54

    From History in Full Color website:

    Just because I wear a football jersey when cutting the lawn doesn’t make me a football player.

    I’ve seen the photograph numerous times. I never thought of it depicting a black confederate. Interesting interpretation. Farfetched, but interesting. Clothing of newly freed people is something I’ve read about in diaries, missionary reports and oral histories. Clothing was passed on once the previous owner no longer needed it, and often repurposed. There are accounts of clothing taken from the dead and reused by others. If this man is indeed wearing a confederate sack coat, I would ventured that the previous owner no longer needed it and it being in good condition this man assumed it. Given the possibilities of going naked and wear raiment of an enemy’s uniform I would venture the latter would be more advantageous to the man depicted. Clothing was clothing in a time when supplies were short.

  • Brad Sep 8, 2013 @ 18:11

    Is it possible that uniforms were discarded or this was just war surplus that was picked up or handed out?

    • Kevin Levin Sep 9, 2013 @ 1:05


  • grandadfromthehills Sep 8, 2013 @ 16:59

    The rest of the picture shows some very similar clothing. I am not clothing expert, but one cap looks like a forage cap. Another jacket looks similar as well as another pair of slacks. It would be interesting to hear comments from a pro on the other clothing in the stereo photo.

    Sam Vanderburg
    Gun Barrel City, TX

  • Andy Hall Sep 8, 2013 @ 15:37

    Interesting find. This is a detail from this image at the LoC, taken after the Union occupation. A caption on a duplicate image identifies this as “group of Contrabands at Haxall’s Mill, Richmond, June 9, 1865; negative by A. Gardner.” The water in the background is part of the James River and Kanawha Canal, somewhere (I think) around 15th-18th Streets. The tall ruins in the left background, that appear in so many postwar Richmond images, is the Gallego Flour Mills.

    • Kevin Levin Sep 8, 2013 @ 15:40

      Thanks for passing this along. Fascinating image.

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