Black Confederates fighting for the South.


Black Confederate Denial & Its Sinister Implications

Confederate Veterans Reunion, Huntsville, Alabama. Thursday, February 2, 1928. (Photo courtesy of the Alabama Dept of Archives)

Black Confederate Denial can be best defined as an obscene form of historical negationism and that promotes the dehumanization of the Black Confederate Veteran. It is an attempt to negate the established facts of the service of Southern men of color.

Black Confederate denial and distortion are forms of racial bigotry at their core. They are generally motivated by personal hatred of the memory and identities of African-Americans — both living and dead — that reject the established narrative that black Americans were only loyal to the Union.

These acts largely serve to undermine the understanding of the complexities of American history.

In the last decade, or so, a small but somewhat vocal group of largely “politically correct” agenda-driven historians in the American academic community have challenged the legitimacy of these Southern men of color. Their arguments are largely based on little more than accusations as to the alleged motives of the modern-day Sons of Confederate Veterans and the United Daughters of the Confederacy in honoring them. Both the memory of Black Confederates and their proud descendants have come under attack from this vocal group of dubious academics who strongly advocate the Righteous Cause Mythology.

The methodology of these views also holds uncomfortable similarities with Holocaust Denial in the way these same agenda-based academics present history. Black Confederate Denial is historically gaslighting at its worst, largely built on a house of cards made up of half-truths and defended by illegitimate strawman arguments.

In this case Deniers start their arguments by presenting a couple of true historical facts such as the historically true detail that the Confederate government did not formally enroll black Southerners into the Confederate army until March of 1865, and only reluctantly after the serious debate.

While the detail itself is true, it does not accurately present the full story of the Black Confederate loyalist as to an individual, or his experience. But instead of dealing with these men as individuals, the group-think mentality of Leftist identity politics comes largely into play here. Rather than confront an individual story that contradicts the narrative, the Denier chooses to ignore the story and repeat their original talking points ad nauseam.

Another favorite argument of Black Confederate Deniers is to say that black men who preformed service jobs were not legally soldiers since many Black Confederates present in Confederate units were not formally enrolled as soldiers on the unit’s muster rolls themselves. These Deniers also largely reject the service of free men of color in Confederate service ranks, focusing instead on those slaves and declaring their service invalid since slaves had no free will and therefore no choice. This one is called the “slaves not soldiers” argument, in effect saying that these men were “non-people” in much the same way that a Leftists groups today regard non-white social conservatives as “race traitors” (though they don’t use that particular term, mind you) and dehumanize them socially through terrible internalized bigotry.
Worse, Black Confederate Deniers insist that their reasons for doing so are about preserving the integrity of the historical record while at the same time using that as a cover to attack the descendants of these Confederate veterans themselves — the true targets of these mean spirited and hateful people.
Can you imagine anything more hurtful and demeaning than having some triggered academic with a chip of their shoulder saying to someone that their ancestor was “just a ditch digger” and not a soldier? That they did not deserve the dignity of being remembered as anything more than a “slave” regardless if the charge is true?

These reasons alone are more than enough for this writer to actively speak out against this sort of backdoor bigotry disguised as academia.

Black Confederate Denial talking points are also largely quoted by extreme white nationalists who oppose the idea of honoring Confederate Veterans of Color, or promoting what they erroneously term the “Rainbow Confederacy” — a term that is also popular among Deniers themselves.

Ultimately the arguments of Black Confederate Deniers do not hold up well when subjected to scrutiny. When those arguments are challenged, almost all of these Deniers throw up strawman arguments to counter the holes in their chain of logic. They will demand proof of service. When service records or muster rolls are provided, the Deniers cry foul, declare the evidence invalid for whatever reason and then retreat to the same tired and used up talking points, and then declared victory over their opponents. All the while justifying their obscene and dehumanizing actions as efforts to promote “real” Black History and experience.

The following rant taken from Facebook and written by one of the more vocal proponents of Black Confederate Denial historical negationism (an individual whose name I will not post here) is typical of their arguments and how they denigrate the memory of a Confederate of Color — while at the same time pretending to honor the service and experience of African-Americans loyal to the Union:

In its essence, the whole fixation with “black Confederates” reflects a desperate attempt to seek cover from the massive onslaught of facts that establish the decisive role of African Americans in securing the victory of the United States over the slaveholders’ rebellion.

200,000 black men, the great majority former slaves, served as soldiers in the United States Army. A similar number served in every non-combatant role in that army. Their dependents comprised another half-million or more men, women, and children, most of whom also served by working either directly for the government (e.g., on lands administered by the Treasury Department) or in the civilian workforce.
That transfer of labor alone would have destroyed the Confederacy, but its reformation into direct military and labor support for the other side, the side of freedom, hurried the rebellion’s demise to the benefit of all of us today. And that transfer of labor occurred without the initial support (and sometimes in the face of opposition from) the U. S. government, and despite slaveholders’ violence (including forced removals and outright murder), the conditions in ill-prepared “contraband” camps, widespread illness, and general racism.
In all this, African Americans showed all the greatest qualities we like to associate with the American character: initiative, courage, family values, and love of freedom. And yet there remain today innumerable white Americans who cannot process that great truth. Instead, they embrace a mythology founded on the enforced services of the enslaved, the entrapped, the racially ambiguous, and trace minority of people of color employed by a government founded on a cruel racist ideology. Nothing else explains why white people spend so much time on this unicorn hunt while knowing little and caring less about the reality of the USCT and contraband experience.
Some of you all really need to step back, take a look at the big picture, and come to grips with why your perspective has little sway with serious historians. And we all could benefit from focusing more on the experiences of the USCT and contrabands who saved our great country in its hour of greatest need.

This writer would like to offer a small point of correction: the official numbers for the United States Colored Troops is listed at approximately 178,000 men and boys in 175 individual regiments, but then again the individual who wrote that rather long and boring piece made far more than just one factual error.
Now let me show you where he got it wrong.

Defining The Black Confederate 

The term “Black Confederate” is a large general term that has come to describe any Southern-born African-American who has been said to have served in some capacity within the Confederacy during the period of the War Between The States.

It must also be admitted by this writer that some well-meaning people who defend the memory of the Confederate soldier have, at times, inadvertently offered validity to Black Confederate Denial through largely ridiculous claims, about Black Confederate Veterans and their service. Mostly through a combination of exaggerating the number of Black Confederates who served and not clearly defining the difference between someone who performs the duty of a soldier, or as a citizen who acts out of patriotic duty.

Why would a black man serve with and fight for a Confederate government that, if successful in establishing their independence, would almost certainly have resulted in the continued enslavement of many of these men, as well as a large majority of their fellow Southerners of color, including possibly their own families?

Were these men actually slaves without free will forced into Confederate service with rifles put to their heads as Deniers claim? Were they willing Southern patriots, like white Southern men fighting of their own free will to defend their Southern homeland from invasion? Were they both and neither at the same time? How many of them served and do they deserve the designation “soldier” by either 19th or 21st century standards?The answers to these questions are not always so black and white and show the complex nature of the relationship between the two main ethnic groups of the American Southland.

The main problem with the broad term is that it implies that every African-American who had any sort of service in the Confederate military was a Black Confederate, or held loyalty to the Confederacy. Some stories regarding such black men in Confederate service going over to the Union side when the occasions offered argues strongly that this was not always the case.

The most well-known and documented example of this is the defection of Robert Smalls, an African-American slave of mixed ethnicity who served as a pilot for the Confederate transport steamer CSS Planter. Smalls defected to the Union blockade fleet surrounding Charleston harbor along with a crew of other black Southern slaves and their families.

Now add the word “soldier” at the end of Black Confederate and this raises even more eyebrows. Most cases of the service of black Southerners involved manual labor on fortifications around major cities, transportation of supplies, the making of war materials, and service as nurses and stewards in Southern military hospitals. To imply these individuals as a whole served in a field capacity as Confederate soldiers is likewise a broad stretch, though one easily made by some well-meaning folks in the Southern Heritage Defense community. This in no way diminishes the important work done by these people on behalf of the Confederate war effort, but in and of itself does not suggest that all of these men were Southern loyalists.

So what is the proper definition of a Black Confederate?

These are the three best examples of how one can best define a Black Confederate:

(1) Any black male, slave or freeman, who served in the Confederate military in any service capacity (cook, musician, teamster, body servant, or other such service jobs) who, of his own free will and without coercion, fought in defense of an individual Confederate soldier, a Confederate unit, or acted in defiance against the Union military.

(2) Any black male, slaver or freeman, who served in the Confederate military in any service capacity captured by Union forces, imprisoned in Union prisoner of war camps, and refused despite all efforts by the enemy to take the oath of loyalty, desert, or behave in any way disloyal to the Confederate military, or the Confederacy.

(3) Any black Southern civilian who, of their own free will, volunteered their service, or performed any action in support of, or in defense of, the Confederacy against the Union invader.

Black Confederate Loyalty 

Deniers will insist that no black Southerner was truly loyal to the Confederate cause of independence. They state the obvious reasons (at least obvious based on their own rather limited ideals) that the Confederacy was founded on the cornerstone of racial inequality and the establishment of a “slavocracy” in North America.

The argument over whether African-Americans took up arms to fight for a government that enslaved them is a bitter one. Throw in the usual “social justice” balderdash and this leads to some really intense arguments, to say the least.

As I pointed earlier, Black Confederate Denial begins by pointing out at least some historically relevant truth as a foundation.

The very first card in the Denier’s house of cards is the argument that Confederate policy did not allow slaves to be soldiers until March of 1865, and even then only on limited terms. Of all their arguments, this one is the only one that holds a kernel of actual historical truth to it.

In January of 1864, Confederate Major General Patrick R. Cleburne and several other Confederate officers in the Army of the Tennessee proposed the formal enlistment of slaves as Confederate soldiers. The proposal was largely met with disdain by some in the Confederate Congress and by President Jefferson Davis himself. With the war beginning to wind down late in 1864, the Confederate Congress finally took up a very bitter debate on allowing the creation of Confederate regiments of colored troops, as the Union had established with the creation of the United States Colored Troops. On January 11, 1865, General Robert E. Lee himself wrote the Confederate Congress urging them to arm and enlist black slaves in exchange for their freedom. This did not finally happen until March 13, 1865 — less than a month before the fall of Richmond, Virginia and the surrender of the Army of Northern Virginia.

None of these facts are in dispute by anyone on either side of the argument, and even the most ardent Confederate heritage defender will concede the points made. Certainly, this writer does not dispute these historical facts.

Right now I can hear the whoops and cheers of Deniers as they jump up and down shouting in victory.

Yeah, not so fast there, buckaroos.

The argument over the formal enlistment of slaves was largely made over the idea of making whole Confederate regiments out of slaves.

Most Black Confederates who served in the ranks of the Confederate army did so as individuals as part of larger units of already established Confederate regiments on the field. How many of these individuals served in each regiment would largely depend on a number of factors, including what their particular service was in terms of their service job. However, we will get into the debate over the actual number later on.

While it is true that legally a slave could not be a soldier in terms of specific Confederate government policy, this did not stop a number of black Southern loyalists, many of them free men of color, from volunteering their services to their local Confederate regiments to preform whatever job could legally be required by them.

Here come the first laughable Denier strawman folks: “But there weren’t any free black men in the Confederacy!”

Actually that is far from true according to the US Census data taken in 1860. There were over 250,000 free African-Americans in the States that would make up the Confederacy, and border states that were largely divided in their loyalty between the North and South.

Obviously support for the Confederacy among the free black population was mixed, just as it was for a large part of the Southern States. Secession and independence were not universally accepted in the South, and, for that matter, a war to restore the Union was not completely popular with some parts of the North either. When we say War Between the States, we usually just mean the governments of said States as opposed to some of the populations of said States.

Loyalty to community and home was a large factor for many Black Confederates, as it was for the rest of the people in the South. Many people living back in 1860, particularly poor people, knew only the small communities they grew up in. Some folks never traveled more than a couple of days walking distance from their homes for most of their lives. Their families were there, either living their lives or buried in local cemeteries. Some of them several generations that laid their roots there.

Defending those homes, those communities, and those family bonds were the driving factors for young Southern men to join their local regiments and march off. The martial sense of personal duty most Americans believed in at the time was also a factor — not to mention the opportunity to see more of the world and get away from their mundane jobs, or chores, for a time.

There is no doubt that many of the more well-to-do white Southerners that were slaveowners brought one or two with them at the beginning of the war as personal “body servants”. Officers usually kept a personal servant to help with maintaining their laundry and cooking, and many Confederate units had on hand anywhere from a couple to at least half a dozen of these camp servants to help with foraging for food and supplies, or to do the cooking while the rest of the regiment took to the often mundane task of drilling and military discipline. These men also drove wagons and performed manual labor at times, oftentimes beside Confederate soldiers in preparing field fortifications and later digging trenches. Others hired themselves or were entrusted with service and support roles such as cooks, wagoners, field hospital orderlies, musicians, among other jobs, all of which were vital and important in any army.

In a Civil War regiment, there was no place for idle hands or lazy people. Many of these Black Confederates attached themselves to a group of soldiers to help with the duties of camp life — of which there were quite a few, and an extra pair of hands were always welcome for the common foot soldier.

Unlike some of the slaves who were brought with their masters, and likely didn’t choose to come to war willingly, many free men of color hired themselves out to officers as their servants, or volunteered to serve in the ranks at these various service jobs.

During battles, many of these personal servants and service people would sometimes perform acts of great personal courage. For instance, there are many personal accounts recorded of body servants going out into the fields during and after battles looking for their fallen masters — either looking for a wounded man or a body. A number of these black slaves would return the body home to family, then return and offer their services back to the unit they were serving with. Often times they stayed with their group and performed whatever service was required of them until the end of the War.

On many occasions throughout the four years of the War, many of these Black Southern men, in performing the usual duties of camp life, were on many occasions entrusted by those white Confederate soldiers they both served and served with, to perform extra-ordinary services such as foraging for food supplies, guarding prisoners, and even standing armed sentry post along the front lines.

One such case is that of one Mr. Alex Sarter of Union County, South Carolina. Sarter served in the Army of Northern Virginia first as a slave, and then later as a free man of color. William Sarter, his original owner, was appointed captain in Company B, 18th SC Infantry Regiment on August 1862. Captain Sarter later died the following September from his war wounds, but Alex chose to stay on with the 18th SC after William died, and was often trusted with picket duty. He would be captured during the siege of Petersburg in 1864 and later escape Union custody. He survived the war and is listed among the rolls of the United Confederate Veterans.

In many instances some of these Black Confederates would pick up a fallen weapon and join the men they served within the front line ranks, fighting for the defense of Dixie no different than any other Confederate soldier. Many of these acts were documented in personal diaries, and on occasions in newspaper accounts of the time detailing some extraordinary acts of courage.

One good example of this is a small article posted in the New Orleans Daily Crescent on December 6, 1861 which reads:
“It would be impossible to give an account of all the acts of personal valor which took place in the fight; but I cannot omit to mention that Levin Graham, a free colored man, who was employed as a fifer, and attendant to Capt. (J. Welby) Armstrong (Co. G., 2nd Tennessee), refused to stay in camp when the regiment moved, and obtaining a musket and cartridges, went across the river with us.
“He fought manfully, and it is known that he killed four of the Yankees, from one of whom he took a Colt’s revolver. He fought through the whole battle, and not a single man in our whole army fought better.”

Black Confederate soldiers?

Now, this is where Black Confederate Deniers feel they have the greatest advantage in their dehumanizing arguments against the service and humanity of Black Confederates.

If Confederate government policy on arming African-American slaves as soldiers is the first card in the Denier house of cards, then the card that props it up is the argument that individual slaves cannot be soldiers because of this policy. In fact virtually every Denier to a person will gleefully point this detail out in every single argument they make on the subject.

This one is what this writer previously referred to as the “slaves not soldiers” argument. This argument erroneously claims that all African-Americans in the Confederate ranks were not legally soldiers and their service was the work of slaves with no minds and no thoughts of their own, coerced there by white masters against their free will.

The first point in this fact, which has been demonstrated here, is that many Black Confederates were in fact free men of color, rather than slaves. Whenever confronted with this detail, the Denier usually argues that such men were few and far between, or they throw up another little strawman argument: Confederate policy says that before March 1865, African-Americans could not be Confederate soldiers; therefore legally they are not soldiers. 

Yes for the most part the Confederate Government as a federal entity prohibited the enlistment of African Americans — especially slaves — as armed soldiers in the Confederate army. As I stated before, this is an undeniable historical fact backed up a figurative mountain of evidence in just about every American historical text.

However, pay attention to the keywords “national army” in discussing official Confederate policy regarding Black Confederates. This is a really important point.

Unlike the US government, with its strong central government — one that became much stronger as a result of the war, the Confederate States government was a coalition of Southern States, each with their own sovereign State governments. The Confederate national government itself was far weaker in terms of how the Confederate Constitution defined federal power by design.

The Southern States themselves still controlled their own military policies within the Confederate command structure but, unlike the Union, did not entirely surrender total control of their forces as part of a “national army.”

In many ways, this was much like how the original Continental Army was structured during the American Revolutionary War prior to the later ratification of the US Constitution in 1787.

As a result the States and individual units often varied from or ignored outright, many such prohibitions since there were actually very few “national army” regiments at any time during the war with most military units still under state command on loan to the Confederate government.

Some individual states in the Confederacy permitted free blacks to enlist as soldiers in their state militias continuing a longstanding tradition.

One of the first to do so was Tennessee which passed a law on June 28, 1861, authorizing the recruitment of state militia units composed of free persons of color between the ages of 15 and 50:

Sec. 1. Be it enacted by the General Assembly of the State of Tennessee, That from and after the passage of this act the Governor shall be, and he is hereby, authorized, at his discretion, to receive into the military service of the State all male free persons of color between the ages of fifteen and fifty, or such numbers as may be necessary, who may be sound in mind and body, and capable of actual service.
2. That such free persons of color shall receive, each, eight dollars per month, as pay, and such persons shall be entitled to draw, each, one ration per day, and shall be entitled to a yearly allowance each for clothing.
3. That, in order to carry out the provisions of this act, it shall be the duty of the sheriffs of the several counties in this State to collect accurate information as to the number and condition, with the names of free persons of color, subject to tho provisions of this act, and shall, as it is practicable, report the same in writing to the Governor.

W. C. WHITTHOUNE, Speaker of the House, of Representatives. B. L. STOVALL, Speaker of the Senate.
Passed June 28, 1861.

*Source: Public Acts of the State of Tennessee Passed at the Extra Session of the Thirty-Third General Assembly. April 1861. AN ACT for the relief of Volunteers. Chapter 24 [Pg 49-50].