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 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 pored 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.