John Stauffer Goes Looking For Black Confederates and Comes Up Empty…Again

I was surprised to see that John Stauffer has once again decided to wade into the debate surrounding black Confederates. You may remember that back in 2011 Stauffer gave a talk at Harvard on the subject, which I attended. Though we had a spirited exchange, I left feeling incredibly disappointed with his overall argument. Earlier today Stauffer published in The Root what is essentially a slightly revised version of his 2011 talk.

Stauffer was generous enough to note that discussions about this subject have appeared on a fairly regular basis on this blog. Unfortunately, his link to this site does not go to a post that I wrote in response to his Harvard talk. To kick things off Stauffer criticizes folks like me, Brooks Simpson, James McPherson and Ta-Nehesi Coates for not taking the existence of black Confederates seriously. Other scholars such as Joseph Reidy, Juliet Walker, Henry Louis Gates and Ervin Jordan apparently have, though apart from a brief quote from Jordan’s book no attempt is made to lay out their arguments.

The confusion behind Stauffer’s conclusions begins with the way he frames his argument:

How many supported it [the Confederacy]? No one knows precisely. But by drawing on these scholars and focusing on sources written or published during the war, I estimate that between 3,000 and 6,000 served as Confederate soldiers. Another 100,000 or so blacks, mostly slaves, supported the Confederacy as laborers, servants and teamsters. They built roads, batteries and fortifications; manned munitions factories—essentially did the Confederacy’s dirty work.

We know that blacks made up more than half the toilers at Richmond’s Tredegar Iron Works and more than 75 percent of the workforce at Selma, Ala.’s naval ordnance plant. And slaves grew the crops that fed the Confederacy. As Frederick Douglass noted, blacks were “the stomach of the rebellion.”

The total number of black Confederate soldiers is statistically insignificant: They made up less than 1 percent of the 800,000 black men of military age (17-50) living in the Confederate states, based on 1860 U.S. census figures, and less than 1 percent of at least 750,000 Confederate soldiers.

There are two separate claims being made that desperately need to be parsed out. First, no historian that I am aware of denies that the Confederate government mobilized a significant number of slaves to help with war related projects from digging trenches to laying rail lines. [See Jaime Martinez’s, Confederate Slave Impressment in the Upper South] A certain number of free blacks were also utilized in various capacities. Again, no one disputes this fact. The problem, as I see it, is that Stauffer confuses the crucial distinction between serving as a soldier in Confederate ranks and being impressed by the government and/or military for some purpose.

Unfortunately, even in the passage quoted above Stauffer runs rough shod over it. He begins with the claim that 3-6,000 served as soldiers to a claim about laborers and teamsters and back again to the statistical significance of that number.

If his interest is the number of blacks that served as soldiers than Stauffer ought to stick with that alone. Such a claim must involve a thorough search into military records. If he is interested in the tens of thousands of impressed slaves than he ought to stick with that. And then there is the distinction made between having supported” and “served” the Confederacy.

The problem: What is exactly is a black Confederate, according to Stauffer?

Stauffer’s claim about soldiers can be dispensed with easily. He presents not a shred of evidence for why he believes the number to be no higher than 6,000. Stauffer is silent as to how he arrived at his number and it might be the most embarrassing of all the claims made in this essay. It’s no better than the claims made on hundreds of websites that estimate the number of soldiers to be between 1,000 and 100,000.

The one promising place where Stauffer’s observations dovetail with at least one recently published book has to do with the influence that reports of black Confederate soldiers early in the war had on Union policy related to emancipation and the recruitment of black soldiers. Stauffer correctly notes that Frederick Douglass and others highlighted reports of these men in Confederate ranks as a means to convince politicians in Washington, D.C. of the necessity of emancipation as a war measure.

Douglass repeatedly drew attention to black Confederates in order to press his cause. “It is now pretty well established that there are at the present moment many colored men in the Confederate army doing duty not only as cooks, servants and laborers, but as real soldiers, having muskets on their shoulders, and bullets in their pockets,” he wrote in July 1861. Slaveholders “accept the aid of the black man,” he said. “Why should a good cause be less wisely conducted?” (Douglass and most other observers ignored blacks’ service in both the Union and Confederate navies from the beginning of the war.) In refusing to use blacks as soldiers and laborers, the Lincoln administration was “fighting the rebels with only one hand”—its white hand—and ignoring a potent source of black power.

Stauffer would do well to read Glenn David Brasher’s new book, The Peninsula Campaign and the Necessity of Emancipation: African Americans and the Fight for Freedom, which explores these accounts in great deal during the spring/summer campaign in Virginia.

Unfortunately, Stauffer once again gets sloppy:

What were Douglass’ sources in identifying black Confederates? One came from a Virginia fugitive who escaped to Boston shortly before the Battle of First Manassas in Virginia that summer. He saw “one regiment of 700 black men from Georgia, 1000 [men] from South Carolina, and about 1000 [men with him from] Virginia, destined for Manassas when he ran away.” …. For historians these are shocking figures.

Where before Stauffer seemed to be treating these reports for their political impact he now appears to take them at face value. He is also correct that such figures should be shocking to historians, but Stauffer makes absolutely no attempt to identify two regiments of black Confederates from Georgia and South Carolina. Does he not know which sources to consult? Does Stauffer really expect his readers to simply accept these claims at face value?

The height of confusion in this essay comes with Stauffer’s analysis of John Parker, who was present on the Manassas battlefield as a slave and was involved in the fighting. It should be noted here that no historian that I know of has ever denied that, on occasion, personal body servants ended up on battlefields with weapons. Stauffer correctly notes that Parker was coerced by his master to fight and later escaped to Union lines to his freedom. But if he characterizes Parker’s status correctly, Stauffer’s next claim takes his readers once again into the deep end.

Most black soldiers, at First Manassas and elsewhere, were free blacks. They were either conscripts who built breastworks and then, like Parker, were ordered to fight or were volunteers.

Where did this reference to “black soldiers” come from? Is Stauffer claiming that Parker was an enslaved black soldier? My head is spinning.

Toward the end of the essay Stauffer makes a claim that he doesn’t seem to realize completely undercuts his argument re: the existence of 6,000 black soldiers:

The vast majority of eyewitness reports of black Confederate soldiers occurred during the first year of the war, especially the first six months…. Beginning in 1863, reliable eyewitness reports of blacks fighting as Confederate soldiers virtually disappear.

Stauffer correctly asserts that the reasons had to do with the fact that Union policy, beginning with the Confiscation Acts and ending with Lincoln’s Emancipation Proclamation, had rendered such assertions unnecessary. If all Stauffer was trying to show was this he would be on safe ground, but what about the black men that he claims fought as soldiers? A claim that he makes one last time at the very end of the essay:

Ironically, the majority of blacks who became Confederate soldiers did so not at the end of the war, when the Confederacy offered freedom to slaves who fought, but at the beginning of the war, before the U.S. Congress established emancipation as a war aim.

Again, I ask where is the evidence that these men existed? Where are the military records that I assume Stauffer poured through in preparation for his talk and this essay?

In the end, what John Stauffer doesn’t seem to understand is that Confederate authorities (civilian and military) were very clear about who was and who was not a soldier. Stauffer, like the vast majority of neo-Confederates seem to have no problem trotting out Union accounts purporting to show that there were black soldiers in Confederate ranks.

I will issue the same challenge to Stauffer that I have to anyone who has made claims about the existence of black Confederate soldiers. Please find me one wartime account from a Confederate soldier, officer or politician who mentions that black men fought as soldiers in the army. I am not asking for fifty or one hundred, just one.

21 comments… add one
  • Nicely dismantled, Kevin. Our Twitter exchanges seemingly to the contrary, I think we are in pretty much agreement. His use of “soldier” is very problematic (and he repeatedly uses it, so the word choice seems to have been carefully intended), and the attempt to estimate numbers is in some ways nothing short of laughable. The reason I had less problems with it than you, however, is that I think the point needs to be made as much as possible that the reasons for why some blacks may have fired guns for the Confederacy had absolutely nothing to do with supporting the Confederacy. Yes, (as Brooks Simpson pointed out on Twitter) there is nothing new in that assertion, but it is a point that still needs to be made to combat the neo-confeds that believe otherwise, and in the end I think that was his main purpose. The big problem that I have with it (besides using “soldiers” and trying to use numbers) is that he asserts that the eyewitness claims began to disappear in 1863 because emancipation policies encouraged black desertions and because masters refused to have their slaves impressed by the Confederacy. Actually, a bigger reason is because these claims largely steamed from exaggerations as a form of propaganda to encourage emancipation (as you know, this is a major thrust of my book and my position on “black confederates”). I could show him specific instances when reports by soldiers in the field were overblown and exaggerated for this purpose once they got into the hands of the northern public and politicians, and it is those exaggerations that he is using to come up with his numbers (I assume). Further, he probably needs to put down McCurry, and pick up Jaime Martinez so that he can learn that slave impressments did not end in by 1863 with the complaints of slaveholders, but in fact they become more efficient as the war progressed.

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    • Hi Glenn. Thanks for adding your voice to this post. He really does need to read your book as well as Jaime’s.

      I don’t like the way Stauffer references other historians on this subject. He mentions Joseph Reidy, but fails to cite anything that he has written on the subject. He links to a post by Gates, which has nothing to do with the discussion. Finally, he mentions a footnote by William Freehling from his book, The South v. The South. Now, I am a big fan of Freehling’s work, but he has never written anything specifically on this subject. More troubling is that included in his book is an image of Silas and Andrew Chandler and included in the caption is the claim that Silas was Andrew’s “ally.” Now, given the available evidence that is certainly questionable.

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  • Rather than facts, Professor Stauffer is relying on his prestigious post at Harvard and literary output to make a case from his ivory (or in this case ebony?) tower.

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    • I think we should stick with the content of his argument. Thanks.

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    • Jerry, I agree with you. What is exasperating about Stauffer is that he is refusing to play by the rules of academic argument. If someone makes a well-founded criticism of your position, you are supposed to address the criticism, rather than ignore it, or passively aggressively ignore it by acknowledging it but failing to respond. His line about “I estimate…” is particularly egregious – it is no better than som SCV nitwit making up a number. As a Harvard professor, Staufxfer has a responsibility to abide by high intellectual standards.

      If you didn’t know anything about the subject, you might be tempted to think “hmmm, Harvard professor in disagreement with High School teacher and blogger – clearly this Levin clown is out of his league”. The fact is, the opposite is true – Stauffer is being intellectually lazy and arrogant.

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  • John Stauffer’s logic is similar to saying that the inhabitants of Nazi concentration camps and other forced laborers were voluntary supporters of the Third Reich’s war effort because they were there.

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  • Kevin,

    I followed a lead you provided here some time back regarding an email you received about 20 “free negroes” who appear in the Compiled Service Records of the 25th TN Infantry. There is no doubt that the records show them as enlisted soldiers holding the rank of private. I have begun looking up these men in the 1860 census. Much remains to be done but two important issues arose immediately. First the soldiers enlisted in the late summer of 1861 but all of their records abruptly end in December 1861. Second, the two men whose census records have been examined (I did one search and a colleague did a second) show men who were difficult to define racially. The soldier’s father I followed was listed as a “mulatto” married to a white woman. The other man who was listed as “mulatto” in the 1860 census was later listed as “Indian” and on his death certificate listed as “white.” These men occupied ambiguous racial terrain and did so in a region of TN (western edge of the Cumberland Plateau) with very few slaves and very few free blacks. I will return to this interesting group of men later. What was their status in the community? How was their racial identity defined? Why were they apparently dropped from the roll in December 1861? As to estimates of total numbers – Bruce Levine shows about 200 men enlisted in March 1865. Add to that these 20 men who served as soldiers for no more than 4 months and you end up with no more than 250 enlisted soldiers of African descent in the Confederate Army.

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    • I think this is one place that could bear some fruit in regard to how race shaped the Confederate war effort.

      What was their status in the community? How was their racial identity defined? Why were they apparently dropped from the roll in December 1861?

      Great questions and I look forward to hearing more. Thanks.

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  • The white/black racial line was far more porous than you ever imagined. Far more dreaded black ancestry was knowingly allowed into the “white race” than you ever imagined.

    This is the most comprehensive book on the subject:

    http://www.amazon.com/Legal-History-Color-Line-One-Drop/dp/0939479230/

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    • I’ve said before that this is an area that is worth further exploration in connection to the racial profile of the Confederate army.

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  • The question I’ve never gotten a good answer to: if there were black Confederates, why were entire cities oblivious them?

    Norfolk had three newspapers, ranging from the rabidly secessionist “Day Book” to a Colored paper called “True Southerner.” All off the above used “Negro soldiers,” “black soldiers” and “colored troops” to refer to USCTs. An article in the Norfolk Virginian blamed racial violence on the act of “arming negroes,” which was treated as a universal wrong.

    William Mahone forced captured Yankees to march side-by-side with USCTs as a form of humiliation. Diaries of soldiers in the Norfolk Blues (attached to the Richmond Howitzers) mock the idea that black soldiers could fight as well as whites. An 1877 account of the Crater battle says that “revenge must have fired every heart.” These men are all reacting to the FIRST black soldiers they’ve ever encountered: “it was the first intimation we had to fight negro troops” (Norfolk-Virginian, 1877).

    However, we DO see accounts of Confederates trying to FORCE blacks to fight, until they ran away. Early in the war, three slaves were ordered to man batteries at Sewell’s Point and they fled to the Yankees at Fort Monroe, where Benjamin Butler declared them “contrabands of war.” This started a cascade effect at “Freedom’s Fortress,” where thousands of slaves flocked into the fort seeking freedom. It was a very big deal, and it got a lot of angry press coverage. No one on either side seemed to remember that 10,000 black men were serving under Stonewall Jackson. :p

    Speaking of Butler, he left Norfolk and took command of New Orleans, where he allowed the black members of the Native Guard joined the Union Army. The Native Guard is frequently mentioned as evidence of Black Confederates, but they actually fought for the North.

    “Beast Butler” was already the most hated man in Norfolk, and his leniency on black people and colored troops only made it worse. Norfolk residents were IRATE about black soldiers, and none — not a single original source — mentions a Confederate equivalent.

    That’s really all the proof I need.

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    • It’s not that the newspapers are oblivious to the existence of these men. As far as I know not one Confederate soldier wrote home about or jotted an entry in his diary noting that he was fighting alongside black men.

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    • The Louisiana Native Guard would have been Confederate soldiers if the Confederate government had accepted them into national military service. They didn’t, and after a few months the State of Louisiana re-wrote its laws governing state militia to exclude non-white persons, effectively disbanding the unit in early 1862.

      The Native Guard is actually an excellent example of the Confederate view of black soldiering, just not in the way it’s usually presented.

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  • I have some thoughts here: Was the slave John Parker a “Black Confederate?”

    I am particularly concerned that Stauffer calls the slave John Parker a “Black Confederate.” Stauffer never really explains how it is that locating enslavement near the site of a battlefield elevates or otherwise transforms a slave to the condition of a “Confederate.” I discuss the legal and political implications of the term “Black Confederate” at the link.

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  • As always, thanks for your careful and insistent work on this, Kevin.

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    • Hi Steve. I appreciate that. I do the best with what I got.

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  • If you are willing, have a look at Charles F. Lutz, 8th Louisiana Infantry, and William Colen Revel, 21st North Carolina Infantry (there are four more as well in that regiment). And the essays in Richard Rollins “Black Southerners in Gray” are rather enlightening and worth a good dismantling.

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  • Conscription wasn’t limited to “Southern” Blacks…and has been a staple of American involvement in wars for some time…ending in the 1970’s. Most veterans are proud of their service for their country…and there are records which substantiate their service (e.g., veteran pension).

    Furthermore…the vast majority of “surviving” veterans were “noncombatants”…that is the nature of war…many are needed to support the few who actually fight!

    It is a disgrace that anyone would desire to erase the service of many brave and honorable soldiers: the efforts of cowards are felt by many…while heroes are known by few!

    J.W.Lee

    Maxim: What you find depends on how hard you look…and how objectively you search!

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    • African Americans received pensions for their presence with the army as slaves and not as soldiers. Confederates were very clear as to was and who was not a soldier.

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