“Does Any One Remember Negro Confederates?”

lee-black-confederatesOn a number of occasions over the past few years I have announced a cash award for anyone who can locate a piece of wartime evidence that points to the presence of black men fighting as soldiers in the Confederate army. I would love to find a letter or diary entry from a Confederate soldier or newspaper article that points to their presence in the army. I thought a cash award, along with the opportunity to humiliate me publicly, would be sufficient to inspire at least one reader.

As I was filing some documents earlier today I came across this little gem, which may help us better understand why no one has yet to claim the prize. It is a letter-to-the-editor that was published in The Times-Dispatch in March 1915 by a Confederate veteran from Sutherlin, Virginia. 

The title, “Does Any One Remember Negro Confederates?”:

Sir,–Just fifty years ago to the very day, the writer remembers, Major James Pegram was drilling a “squad” of his negro soldiers on a vacant lot just above Henrico County Courthouse, lower Main Street. I was returning to the camp of the Third Howitzers from a brief “leave of absence,” and came unexpectedly upon the handsome and very attractive looking major and his new sort of Confederate soldiers. These latter looked well and were learning fast. On reaching camp the report I made to the “boys” caused a sensation, I can tell you. Just here I would like to enquire if there is one other survivor of those times who saw these Confederate negro soldiers at drill? Some weeks before I remembered hearing General W.C. Wickham make a fine speech in the Confederate Congress against the enlistment of the negroes. The old “war news” was held and still holds, the stage splendidly, but oh! the sadness of it now!

There is a good deal that can be unpacked from this brief source. Notice this veteran’s surprise at having come across black men drilling as soldiers in the streets of Richmond. His fellow soldiers back in camp were just as surprised by the news, which suggests that no one in camp had ever come into contact with a black soldier before this moment. One can surmise that neither the author or the men in camp had heard that the Confederate Congress finally passed legislation authorizing for the recruitment of black soldiers.

It would be interesting to know why this veteran took the opportunity to write in about this particular subject fifty years later. The letter at least suggests that witnessing black soldiers training as soldiers stood out from everything else that was experienced during the war and that it could not be easily forgotten.

So, black Confederate soldiers did exist and it is a fact that should not be denied. They existed for a few short weeks at the very end of the war. Understanding why they were not employed earlier opens up a window into the “Cornerstone of the Confederacy.”

26 comments add yours

  1. It’s an interesting anecdote and certainly speaks to the reality that soldiers of African ancestry in Confederate service in 1861-65 were not, obviously, the norm.

    The question as to what prompted the anecdote is an interesting one; is there any context?

    It is worth noting that in the postwar era, the organized state militia, the Virginia Volunteers, did in fact include “black” units, designated as such, both separate companies and even at least one paper battalion, and some of these troops were called out in the 1870s-1890s for the typical “aid to the civil power” state missions. In addition, in 1898, Virginia-raised units of the separate Volunteer Army (6th Virginia, IIRC) and of the wartime federal volunteers (10th USVI, IIRC) were made up of black enlisted and junior officers and white company and field grade officers.

    When the Virginia state troops were reformed after the war as the Virginia National Guard, there weren’t any black units; in 1915, it is possible there was some discussion of forming black units, which may have prompted the story.

    Best,

    • I am going to have to look into it.

      I wrote about black Virginia militia units in my Crater book, but you are correct to point out that they were banned by 1915.

      • The mobilization for the 1898 war with Spain and the subsequent operations in Cuba and the Philippines is interesting; it came during the Progressive era, in the middle of the era of the politics that led, in different decades, to New South/Fusion/Atlanta Compromise movements … and there were “black” militia units, including senior officers, in several states at the time, and elements of these organizations – or at least some of their manpower – found their way into the USVs, both those organized under state and federal aegis. At one point, there was an entire brigade (3 regiments, so nominally ~3,000+ officers and men) made up of “Colored” units in the Cuban occupation force.

        The contrast with the WW I -era mobilizations, both for the AEF and the forces deployed along the Mexican border in the same period, is striking.

        Best,

        • Ambrose Bierce endorsed the enlistment of African American troops for the Spanish War, drawing on his own experience on General Hazen’s staff more than 30 years before at the Battle of Nashville — “better fighting was never done.”

        • Bierce:

          The front of the enemy’s earthworks was protected by an intricate abatis of felled trees denuded of their foliage and twigs. Through this obstacle a cat would have made slow progress; its passage by troops under fire was hopeless from the first — even the inexperienced black chaps must have known that. They did not hesitate a moment: their long lines swept into that fatal obstruction in perfect order and remained there as long as those of the white veterans on their right. And as many of them in proportion remained until borne away and buried after the action. It was as pretty an example of courage and discipline as one could wish to see.

        • David C. Turpie’s recent article in the Journal of Southern History explains how white southerners approached the 1898 war with anything but enthusiasm. This was at the nadir of race relations and white southerners expressed fear at leaving their women undefended by marching to war. African American units picked up the slack in southern states’ enlistment quotas.

  2. Interesting post. As to the last sentence of what you wrote though, I would ask whether you know that Davis was actually quite displeased with Stephens “cornerstone speech.” We won’t get into that though.

    Nathan Towne

      • Kevin,

        In all honesty, I was really just making a comment in passing. I am not sure if I was really making much of a point.

          • I was really just making a comment based on you using the word “cornerstone,” essentially throwing out what amounts to a factoid. It seems to have come across as if I was diminishing Davis’ commitment to the defense of slavery which was completely not my intention. As you know, I am not even remotely close to that crowd.

      • I was really just asking a question off of the cuff. I should be more careful to make myself more clear.

    • Jefferson Davis was very clear about his stance on the institution of slavery within the Confederacy and his belief about the superiority of the white race, even up until the very end of the war. In a speech Davis gave on October 4, 1864, barely six months before Lee would surrender to Grant at Appomattox Courthouse, VA, Davis had this to say about the possibility of negotiating peace terms with Lincoln:

      “But suppose this were possible, what are the terms offered? If you will acknowledge your crime, lay down your arms, emancipate your slaves and turn over your leaders — as they call your humble servant — to be punished, then you will have permission to vote together with your negroes upon the terms under which Mr. Lincoln will be graciously pleased to allow you to line as a part of the nation over which he presides. If there be a man within the sound of my voice who contemplates such a proposition. I pity him from the bottom of my heart.”

      To the very end Davis was fear mongering in the South by warning Southerners about the possibility of their slaves becoming their equals if the South capitulated to Lincoln and the Federal government. These views, expressed publicly and published in Southern newspapers, is exactly aligned with what Stevens said in his Cornerstone speech ideologically, politically and socially. So I don’t see how you can make the claim that Davis didn’t like what Stevens said in his Cornerstone speech since Davis said the exact same thing as Stevens publicly on multiple occasions throughout the war even to the very end.

      • Davis gave that speech in Columbia, SC on October 4, 1864. The full transcript of Davis’s speech was published in the South Carolinian newspaper on October 6, 1864 for those of you who would like to look up and read the entire speech.

      • I appreciate the comment. Yes, of course he was. I am entirely aware of Davis’ positions and I would by no means attempt to diminish his determination to protect and perpetuate the institution of slavery. Mr. Levin can attest to that I am not someone who diminishs the centrality of slavery to the conflict in any way.

        His objections to the speech had nothing to do with Stephens defense of the institution. They had to do with Davis’ perception that Stephens was implying that the Confederate cause was inconsistent with the Declaration of Independence, which Davis took objection to.

        I apologize for the misunderstanding.

        • I appreciate that. I simply wanted to make that point of clarification with actual documented primary sources because I could very easily see others who read this blog misconstruing your comment to mean Davis didn’t believe the Cornerstone of the Confederacy was built upon the peculiar institution and the principles of white supremacy.

          • I concede that my original comment was poorly worded as that was not my intention at all. Based on the substance of Kevin’s post, I appreciate that that is the way it came across.

            I am fully aware that the Confederate experiment was grounded in the long-term protection of the institution of slavery and that Davis was absolutely committed to that cause.

            I was trying to comment on the use of the term “cornerstone of the Confederacy,” which was the phrase used by Stephens in his famous speech in Georgia and how it is interesting that it has been appropriated as it has been in that it was made in a speech which caused quite a stir. Stephens said that “cornerstone of the Confederacy rests in the principle that not all men are created equal…,” a statement that Davis objected to in because it implies a repudiation of the Declaration of Independence as being central to the Confederate cause. Davis found this implication to be odious as he understood slavery to be an institution entirely consistent with American values of freedom and equality under law, fully ingrained by the nation’s forefathers into the American fabric.

  3. To me, what neo-Confederate memory of the war including great numbers of Black soldiers in gray uniforms represents is a testimony to the success of integration… the very integration White Southerners fought against becoming a reality. As others have mentioned, White Southerners during the war would have been appalled by the notion that so many of the heirs to their Lost Cause purport that Black and White men fought in integrated units for the Confederacy. Indeed, I’m quite sure that the late-war authorization of Black men becoming soldiers was the bitterest of bitter pills.

  4. I have not looked too deeply into the research, but Chris Calkins in his book “The Appomattox Campaign,” writes on page 183 that on April 5th a black Confederate unit was…
    “attacked by General Henry E. Davies’ troopers. A Southern soldier remembered that “I saw a wagon train guarded by Confederate negro soldiers.
    When within about one hundred yards of and in the rear of the wagon train, I observed some Union cavalry a short distance away on elevated ground forming to charge and the negro soldiers forming to meet the attack, which was met successfully… The cavalry charged again, and the negro soldiers surrendered.”

    As I recall, the fight of April 5th was a real catch for Crook’s 2nd Cavalry Division resulting in loads of captured men, material and battle flags. It might be worth looking at the record of Davies’ cavalry regiments to see if it was a fight, or a “hey man, I’m ready to surrender!”

  5. Kevin, you may already be aware but this is the only mention that I was ever able to find of a “black confederate” for my book on the Civil War in Spotsylvania. It is questionable to say the least and I present it as so. My sources for this were published in the early 1900’s based on the recollections of Captain J.E. Anderson (1912). Miller is also featured in issue XXIX of The Confederate Veteran (1921). In it they refer to him as “Confederate Veteran.”

    …One of these rare individuals who is said to have served in both capacities (slave and soldier) was Levi Miller. Born in Rockbridge County, Miller accompanied his master
    into the field as a body servant and was later called upon to nurse him back
    to health following a serious wounding at the Battle of the Wilderness.
    Following his master’s recovery, Miller is said to have been voted into the
    regiment as a full-fledged member. He is then said to have fought in multiple
    engagements, with the most notable occurring at the bloody Battle of
    Spotsylvania Courthouse. According to an account by Captain J.E. Anderson, Miller served with courage and honor. He wrote, “About 4 p.m., the enemy made a rushing
    charge. Levi Miller stood by my side—and man never fought harder and
    better than he did—and when the enemy tried to cross our little breastworks
    and we clubbed and bayoneted them off, no one used his bayonet with more
    skill, and affect than Levi Miller.” Following the South’s surrender, Miller
    received a pension from the State of Virginia as a veteran…

    • Hi Michael,

      There are literally hundreds of such accounts in Confederate Veteran. You will find a wide range of references to former camp slaves in postwar sources. Some of these men were welcomed into UCV camps as honorary members, but even here there is plenty of indication that we are talking about a slave and not a soldier.

  6. Hi Kevin,

    I am researching North Carolina’s involvement in the Civil War for a historical, and came across some of your articles. You obviously know of what you speak/write. Like you, I would love to know if (and to what extent) African-Americans served within the Confederate ranks. This won’t likely be a part of my story, per se, but I am so damn curious about this now.

    After a quick google search, I found two different direct quotes from Fredrick Douglass himself; from his newspaper. He wrote about slaves fighting alongside Confederates. I am sure you are familiar with the illustration of the two negro men loading a cannon. He also interviews a negro with a story in line with this illustration.

    So, are you arguing the authenticity of this? Are you saying the Frederick Douglass except is fabricated? Or, do you believe he was misinformed? I believe there are also examples.

    If you accept these accounts, are you arguing that negro men did fight, but not voluntarily or without threats or promises of emancipation? To me, it would make sense that — at the very least — negro men served as musicians or encampment cooks; and perhaps medics or vivandiers.

    Could you please clarify? If you are stipulating there is no official records of negro men serving, that makes sense. But, I would think that, especially toward the latter months of the war, much of what was happening was unofficial.

    Thanks so much. I look forward to your reply.

    • Hi Ina,

      I can’t stress enough that you need to be very careful with how you go about searching for information on this subject on the Internet. The Frederick Douglass quotes are a perfect example. They are almost always cited without any historical context. See here and here for more information on that issue specifically.

      On the subject of black Confederates I recommend that you read three of my own published papers, which you can find here, here, and here.

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