History Thread: Black Confederates, or a Study in “Alternate Facts”

On November 23, 1861 New Orleans hosted a military review like no other. A force of nearly 800 officers and men, most of them people of color, paraded through the Crescent City to the cheers of assembled citizens. One journalist gushed that it was “the greatest and most imposing sight ever presented by the population of the Crescent City” and assured readers that “our free colored men…are certainly as much attached to the land of their birth as their white brethren.” Recognized as the Louisiana Native Guard, they exemplified the loyalty of Blacks to the new Confederate States of America.

New Orleans, of course, was unique in the antebellum South. It had a large population of freedmen, many of them merchants, doctors and small business owners; these, along with mixed-race Creoles, carved a degree of power and freedom available neither to slaves nor free Blacks in most of the country. They were, perhaps, motivated by patriotism, though others clearly by pragmatism. Arnold Bertonneau, a wine merchant who enlisted in the Guards, recounted that “the condition and position of our people were extremely perilous…When summoned to volunteer in the defence of the State and city against Northern invasion…could we do otherwise than heed the warning?”

The Louisiana Native Guard: From Rebels to Yankees

If the Guards hoped to play an active role in the war, they were disappointed. For several months they were assigned to menial duty by Confederate commanders who seemed unsure how to handle them; the city’s white population soured on the Black soldiers, fearing they would upset New Orleans’ delicate racial balance. Finally, in February 1862 they were disbanded after the Louisiana State Legislature proclaimed that only whites would be accepted for militia service. Their main purpose, historian James G. Hollandsworth comments, was “for public display; free blacks fighting for Southern rights was good copy for the newspapers.”

The Guards were briefly reorganized to defend the city against Union attack that April, but surrendered without resistance. Many offered their services to Union General Benjamin Butler, whose contraband order accepting runaway slaves in Virginia had helped turned the conflict, in fact if not yet intent, into a war of liberation. Although skeptical, Butler was impressed after meeting several of the Guards’ Black enlistees and authorized their recruitment. “They were intelligent, obedient, highly appreciative of their position, and fully maintained its dignity,” he enthused. Butler authorized the creation of not only one, but three Native Guard regiments, which (unlike later units) maintained Black officers.

Under Butler and his successor, Nathaniel P. Banks, the Guards fought at Baton Rouge, Port Hudson and Millikan’s Bend in the spring of 1863. Andre Cailloux, a Creole captain, led the 1st Guards in a suicidal charge at Port Hudson (May 27, 1863) “with his bloody arm hanging lifeless at his side” against well-entrenched rebels; point-blank musket and artillery fire killed or wounded nearly 300 of the regiment’s 500 men. But their sacrifice confirmed for skeptical whites that Colored Troops could, in fact, fight. Francis Dumas of the 2nd Guards exulted that “my boy may stand in the street equal to a white boy when the war is over.”

Siege of Port Hudson

The Louisiana Native Guard was among several Black militia units organized early in the Civil War across the South. All were swiftly disbanded; between the Confederacy’s outspoken white supremacy and lingering fear of a slave revolt, arming Blacks seemed too risky a prospect. The idea resurfaced periodically throughout the war, only to be smacked down by racist politicians and skittish military leaders. It took nearly a century before people began inventing “Black Confederates,” based less on history than a dubious political agenda.

Blacks, of course, “served” the Confederacy in a literal sense. Tens of thousands of Black slaves worked with the Confederate armies as cooks, laborers and other other menial roles. One historian estimates up to one-tenth of Confederate soldiers brought their personal slaves to the battlefront; during the Gettysburg Campaign, Robert E. Lee’s Army of Northern Virginia included up to 10,000 slaves alongside 75,000 men at arms. The experiences of these slaves are well-documented, though often secondhand through their masters and other white sources. They suggest that the combination of paternalism and brutality, subservience and rebellion, which pervaded slave culture followed them into the military.

Let the case of Silas Chandler stand for many. Silas, a young slave from Mississippi, accompanied his master Andrew into the Army, posing for a famous daguerreotype with prop Bowie knives and a military style jacket. Silas followed Andrew faithfully into battle with the 44th Mississippi, which served with the Army of Tennessee. At the Battle of Chickamauga (September 19-20, 1863) Andrew was severely wounded in action; Silas rescued him and carried Andrew to a hospital in Atlanta, where according to family legend he prevented surgeons from removing his master’s leg. Silas accompanied Andrew home to the family plantation at West Point, Mississippi and later joined Andrew’s brother in a cavalry regiment.

Silas Chandler (right) with Andrew

Historian Kevin Levin notes that “Silas may have felt other concerns for his master that were the result of a shared experience…what is often ignored is that, along with Andrew, Silas also had a family waiting for him in Mississippi, including a wife and newborn child. In escorting Andrew…Silas also brought himself one step closer to a reunion with his own family.” Levin adds that slaves like Silas “may also have considered their failure to return (with or without their masters) a threat to the safety of their loved ones.” Since Silas did not record his thoughts, his motives can only be inferred; loyalty, fear, self-interest, a combination of all three.

Motives were surely as varied as the experiences of slaves themselves. Some served their masters bravely, at risk to their own lives; at Baton Rouge (August 15, 1862) a “huge negro…armed and equipped with knapsack, musket, and uniform” fought alongside Rebel troops. Others, like the slave of artilleryman E. Porter Alexander, required “a little licking” to behave themselves. Many slaves remained alongside the Confederates through thick and thin; others took advantage of the chaos to flee to safety. Some wore or purchased military uniforms, often at their peril; soon after the Battle of Gettysburg, Union cavalry shot a slave named George who was wearing a gray uniform.

No matter how well-treated or courageous these men may have been, there’s no doubt that they were slaves, not soldiers. Their service was not voluntary; they were not paid; their personal feelings did not matter. An incident from 1862’s Peninsular Campaign graphically illustrates their predicament; a Confederate artilleryman compelled two slaves to load and fire a cannon at enemy positions outside Yorktown at gunpoint. Executing this task, both were killed by Union sharpshooters. A correspondent from Harper’s Weekly witnessed this event through a spyglass, and sketched it for the magazine.

“Black Confederates,” sketched by Harper’s

Plans to enlist Blacks vanished as freedmen flocked to the Union Armies. Along with continued desertions by slaves throughout the South, the complacency of slaveowners vanished; the threat to white hegemony seemed amplified. Negroes became, in the words of one outraged Alabamian, “the most treacherous, brutal and unfaithful race on the face of the globe.” As the United States Colored Troops proved their worth (while also suffering massacres, executions and even enslavement by their opponents), Confederates feared that arming slaves on their own behalf would hasten their destruction.

But by late 1863, the war turned against the Confederacy and some began to reconsider. Patrick Cleburne, a division commander in the Army of the Tennessee dubbed “Stonewall of the West,” proposed arming freedmen, or even slaves, to reverse the tide. “The measure will at one blow strip the enemy of foreign sympathy and assistance, and transfer them to the South,” he argued; “it will dry up two of his three sources of recruiting; it will take from his negro army the only motive it could have to fight against the South, and will probably cause much of it to desert over to us; it will deprive his cause of the powerful stimulus of fanaticism, and will enable him to see the rock on which his so called friends are piloting.”

Cleburne made his proposal in early 1864, soon after the Battle of Chattanooga (November 23-25, 1863) opened Sherman’s road to Atlanta. It was received coldly by his superior, Joseph Johnston, who ordered Cleburne to drop the idea; another general, William H.T. Walker, forwarded it to President Jefferson Davis, warning that enlisting slaves “would ruin the efficacy of our Army and involve our cause in ruin and disgrace.” Not only did Davis blanch at the idea of arming Blacks; many historians believe that Cleburne’s proposal derailed his career. He was passed over for promotion by John Bell Hood, who led the Army of Tennessee to destruction at Atlanta, Franklin and Nashville.

General Cleburne at Franklin

Around the time of Cleburne’s death at Franklin (November 30, 1864) President Davis finally adopted his cause. Addressing the Confederate Senate, as Union troops besieged Richmond, Davis urged them to authorize the conscription of 40,000 Blacks for noncombat roles in the military, holding out a possibility of freedom after the war. This suggestion inspired immediatelybacklash: Howell Cobb, a Georgia Congressman-turned-General, branded it “the most pernicious idea that has been suggested since the war began.” In a letter to Secretary of War James Seddon, Cobb asserted that “the day you make a soldier of [slaves] is the beginning of the end of the Revolution. And if slaves seem good soldiers, then our whole theory of slavery is wrong.”

Cobb wasn’t alone. Robert M.T. Hunter, leader of the Senate opposition, asked bluntly “What did we go to war for, if not to protect our property?” The Richmond Daily Examiner agreed, arguing that “if a negro is fit to be a soldier he is not fit to be a slave.” A Confederate private bemoaned that “if they are put in the army the[y] will be on the same footing with the white man.” Even imminent defeat did not prevent these men from valuing white supremacy over national survival. Nowhere did either advocates or opponents mention (or even suggest) that Blacks were already serving in the Confederate Army.

With Robert E. Lee’s support, the Confederate Senate finally authorized the arming of Blacks in March 1865. A few dozen freedmen enlisted, though without enthusiasm; after the first batch of recruits quickly deserted, a second wave of “Black Confederates” was quartered in a tobacco barn under armed guard. Placed under the command of Major Thomas Turner, this company never numbered more than 35 men. One Rebel who reviewed Turner’s men concluded that “they regarded their present employment in no very favorable light.”

Howell Cobb, arch skeptic

Richmond fell on April 3rd (with the 36th United States Colored Troops among the first to enter) and Major Turner’s company joined Lee’s retreat to Appomattox. Their only combat experience was decidedly nonheroic; Confederate courtier R.M. Doswell witnessed a skirmish outside Paineville on April 5th, where a party of “Negro soldiers” defended a supply wagon from Union cavalry. After a brief exchange of fire, the Black Rebels surrendered, having evidently suffered no casualties in the affair. A handful of Turner’s men escaped and surrendered outside Farmville two days later.

This is the story of “Black Confederates”: a few failed experiments in recruitment, resisted by military and political leaders until the war’s waning moments; the use of slaves for labor and commissary positions. Nonetheless, an elaborate myth of Blacks serving the Confederacy has arisen in recent decades, gaining traction despite its disconnect from reality. It bears all the hallmarks of pseudohistory: a few superficially convincing contemporary sources that are garbled, torn from context or misinterpreted by untrained historians – or deliberately distorted by neo-Confederates.

Soon after the First Battle of Bull Run (July 21, 1861), rumors circulated that Black soldiers took part in the Confederate victory. Repeated in numerous newspapers of the time, the claim received its widest circulation in an essay by Frederick Douglass. “It is now pretty well established, that there are at the present moment many colored men in the Confederate army doing duty . . . as real soldiers,” Douglass asserted soon after Bull Run. Douglass would later cite a “Virginia fugitive” who insisted that he had witnessed “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.”

Frederick Douglass

Douglass, like other abolitionists, promoted such stories to goad President Lincoln to allow the enlistment of Black troops; they recognized military service’s importance to their race’s future. “Once let the black man get upon his person the brass letters U.S.,” Douglass said, “let him get an eagle on his button, and a musket on his shoulder, and bullets in his pocket, and there is no power on earth or under the earth which can deny that he has earned the right of citizenship in the United States.” Douglass’s efforts finally prevailed; in fall of 1862, Lincoln authorized the creation of colored regiments, with several of Douglass’s sons enlisting in the 54th Massachusetts.

Still, Douglass was a shrewd political operative; he grasped eagerly at any story, however dubious, to affect his suggestions. It appears that Douglass’s “fugitive” was John Parker, a slave who recounted being forced to fire a cannon at gunpoint by Confederate officers. By Parker’s own account, his participation was not enthusiastic: “we would have run over to [the Federals’] side but our officers would have shot us if we had made the attempt.” Parker’s basic story seems believable enough (certainly it parallels the later incident witnessed by the Harper’s correspondent) though it graphically contradicts the idea of voluntary service promoted by neo-Confederates.

Still, a thoughtful reader encounters difficulties in Parker’s account of Black units at Bull Run. Three whole regiments of Black soldiers, from three different states, served in the Confederate Army? What were the names of these regiments? Where can their existence be verified in Confederate records? Allowing for anecdotal instances of individual Blacks taking up arms, what extant accounts of the battle mention hundreds of Black soldiers going into action? Parker, of course, couldn’t have known these things; but historians can easily check.

Bull Run

Anyone who’s researched the Civil War can attest that it’s absurdly well-documented. All of the claimed states raised dozens of regiments for Confederates service; Virginia alone provided 50 infantry regiments, not to mention cavalry and artillery units. Regimental histories exist, detailing not only their dates of service and battlefield actions but detailed musters of individual officers and soldiers. The more detailed histories record dates of enlistment and mustering out, noting whether an individual was killed or wounded, etc. The idea that entire regiments of Black soldiers existed, were only sighted once before (not during) a battle and then vanished without being recorded, goes beyond speculation to fantasy.

Unfortunately, Parker’s recollections grew more elaborate over time. Interviewed by the New York Evening Post, Parker now claimed that the combined Confederate forces, under Joseph Johnston and P.G.T. Beauregard, contained “twelve regiments of negroes in the vicinity of Bull Run and Manassas Junction” (emphasis original). For reference, Johnstown and Beauregard fielded 46 regiments for a total of 32,000 men (only about 18,000 of whom saw combat). To believe Parker’s statement, over a quarter of the Confederate Army at Bull Run was Black, a stupendous claim which not only goes unmentioned in official records, but was evidently unnoticed by any other participants.

Other sources are similarly unreliable. Dr. Lewis Henry Steiner of the United States Sanitary Commission, who visited Frederick, Maryland shortly before Antietam (September 17, 1862) claimed to spot “over 3,000 Negroes” serving with the Army of Northern Virginia, who “were manifestly an integral portion of the Southern Confederate Army.” In isolation, Steiner’s claim seems strong, but unravels upon examination. Steiner’s report has a satirical edge, caricaturing the “dirty and ill-smelling” Confederate Army in clearly tongue-in-cheek fashion. Bizarrely, he names as commanding officer the same Howell Cobb who, two years later, proclaimed the proposed enlistment of Blacks as an abomination.

Lewis Steiner

As with Parker, corroboration for Steiner’s story doesn’t exist. No other witnesses (not Confederate survivors, not Union troops opposing them, not the civilians of Frederick where Steiner supposedly encountered these men) made similar claims. Nowhere do these “3,000 Negroes” appear in Confederate reports or muster roles, even though Robert E. Lee could easily have used 3,000 extra soldiers at Antietam, where his 40,000 man army was nearly annihilated in the war’s “bloodiest single day.” Placed in context, Steiner’s account of Lee’s Negroes (if not meant as a joke) seems as credible as your average Bigfoot sighting.

One notices a consistent obliqueness to “contemporary” accounts of Black Confederates. Advocates point to a smattering of reports sampled from The War of the Rebellion, the 127 volume official history of the war, as irrefutable evidence. The problem with citing these cases is that a) most of them are so anecdotal as to be worthless (example: “Captain Hennessy, Company E, of the Ninth Connecticut…captured a colored rebel scout, well mounted, who had been sent out to watch our movements.”), b) they are exclusively from the Union point of view. No such incidents appear in Confederate reports and documents included in War of the Rebellion, or anywhere else.

No doubt Federal soldiers perceived these events as reported; in the above case, Captain Hennessy probably captured a slave serving with the Rebels and assumed he was a soldier, as laborers captured at Fort Fisher were mistakenly recorded as combatants. But we can’t know from such an isolated tidbit, and the actual report (detailing military operations in Louisiana in December 1862) doesn’t provide much illumination. Even taken at face value, it’s unlikely that this trivial incident, or even a dozen similar accounts, amounts to a widespread pattern. Ripping this from context, and employing it to “prove” broader claims about Black Confederates, shows the necessity of caution in reviewing primary sources.

The 54th Massachusetts: storming Ft. Wagner

It’s likely that white-passing Black men enlisted in the Confederate Army. Ta Nehisi Coates uncovered the case of Randall Lee Gibson, who served in a Louisiana regiment despite being descended from slaves. No doubt there are other cases waiting to be discovered; but the very fact that they had to “pass” as white to serve negates the claims of neo-Confederates that Blacks openly enlisted. In any case, similar things occurred in the Union Army: freedman Nicholas Biddle enlisted in a white regiment in 1861 and was injured in that April’s Baltimore Riot. Black laborers took up arms to defend Wrightsville, Pennsylvania from Confederate raiders during the Gettysburg Campaign. These stories are interesting precisely because they’re exceptions to the rule.

The strongest “evidence” comes in the undeniable existence of camp slaves, who served in tens of thousands. But though they often risked their lives (or, from another perspective, were endangered by masters) on battlefields, they were pointedly not considered soldiers. When F.R. Hoard, a slave to a Tennessee officer, applied for a military pension in 1920, he was rejected because he was merely “the servant of a soldier, and therefore you are not pensionable.” After some lobbying from Confederate veterans’ groups, a few Southern states extended pensions to surviving camp slaves later in the decade; but recognition as soldiers did not follow.

Nor were the camp slaves invited to postwar reunions considered soldiers. These included men like Steve Perry, who as “Uncle Steve Eberhart” gave minstrel-like performances (carrying chickens and performing dances and plantation ballads) to the delight of former Rebels. Another man, Howard Divinity of Mississippi, branded himself “the Champion Chicken Thief of the Confederacy.” Most famous was Mack George, who gave speeches to the Georgia legislature proclaiming “his perfect faith in the white man of the South doing the right thing for his race.” They became symbols of the Lost Cause and of African Americans as subordinate and loyal (as opposed to slaves who fled their masters, or freedmen who fought them), figures of condescension and ridicule; they were not equals.

“Uncle Steve” with his prized chickens

One understands how this myth gained traction. Its point is to deflect or obfuscate the war’s underlying causes, much like neo-Confederate focus on Abraham Lincoln’s racism (true enough, but not relevant to why southern states seceded) or claims that Union soldiers didn’t care about slavery (debatable, at best). Never mind that these causes were clear enough to Confederate leaders at the time, and explicitly cited in most states’ ordinances of secession. How can the war have been about slavery – how can the Confederacy have been premised on white supremacy – if Black men served in the Confederate Army?

Let us suppose that individual freedmen joined the Confederate Army, or even (for the sake of argument) that a handful of Black regiments existed. Does the experience of these “Black Confederates” void Alexander Stephens’ notorious cornerstone speech proclaiming that the Confederacy “rests, upon the great truth that the negro is not equal to the white man; that slavery subordination to the superior race is his natural and normal condition”? Does a few Blacks enlisting with the South balance out the 180,000 men who joined the United States Colored Troops? Does an individual slave saving his master under fire negate the atrocities at Fort Pillow, Olustee and Petersburg?

Unaltered: photograph of Black recruits with white officer in Philadelphia

Nonetheless, since the 1970s “Black Confederates” have permeated popular culture. With increasing awareness of Black roles in the Civil War and slavery’s part in American history, the Sons of Confederate Veterans promoted the myth as counternarrative. Magazine articles begat books, documentaries and even proposed monuments dedicated to nonexistent Black soldiers. Their lies found their way into textbooks in Virginia and National Park Service documents in New York. “The overwhelming majority of blacks during the War Between the States supported and defended, with armed resistance, the cause of Southern Independence,” SCV leader Dean Boggs claimed, asserting up to 65,000 Blacks served the Confederacy.

The stories of Silas Chandler, John Parker and others became grist for misinformation. When these weren’t sufficient, neo-Confederates distorted or invented other men’s stories. A famous photograph of Black recruits for the Union Army in Philadelphia was cropped (removing their blue-clad white officer) and identified as the Louisiana Native Guard. A white Texan named Peter Phelps was remade into a “Negro in Grey”; Samuel K. Brown, who served in the 137th United States Colored Infantry, posthumously “became” a Confederate. Employing such rigorous standards, one could “prove” Frederick Douglass commanded Rebel troops at Gettysburg.

Altered: Yankees become Confederates

A handful of African Americans latched onto the movement, perhaps preferring to see “Confederate” ancestors as soldiers with agency than slaves. H.K. Edgerton, a former leader in the North Carolina NAACP, has spent several decades promoting the myth. He gives speeches praising the “love between the African who was here in the Southland and his master,” and once led a 1,300 mile “heritage march” through the South carrying the Stars and Bars. He’s even met with leaders of the Ku Klux Klan, whom he boasts “shook my hand.” Though not all whites appreciate his efforts: a League of the South organizer, spotting Edgerton with a white woman, claimed that in slavery days “he would have known that the men would not put up with this violation of a Southern White female!”

Harder to understand are mainstream historians who endorse the myth. In 2015, Harvard Professor John Stauffer published a widely-shared article in The Root insisting “Yes, there were Black Confederates.” Stauffer cites the same dubious anecdotes to assert that 3,000 to 6,000 Black men served in Confederate gray. Henry Louis Gates flirted with the idea on numerous occasions, including his PBS show Finding Your Roots; once, he responded to criticism by claiming that historians were too politically correct to face uncomfortable truths. Gates, at least, has backed off the contention: “I would worry if anything I wrote lent credence to the notion that tens of thousands of black men served as soldiers in the Confederate army,” he admitted to Ta Nehisi Coates.

Black Confederate: H.K. Edgerton

Perhaps the best response comes from the descendants of an alleged “Black Confederate.” In September 1994, a Mississippi chapter of the Sons of Confederate Veterans dedicated a monument to Silas Chandler and bestowed upon him The Cross of Honor. “I think it’s interesting to understand the place of stories in family histories,” Chandler Battaile, a descendent of Andrew Chandler, observed. “Obviously, the story that we’ve shared is one that is very comfortable, and comforting to believe. But,” he cautioned, “without documentary evidence, it is a story.”

Myra Chandler Sampson, Silas’s great-great-granddaughter, was blunter. While visiting Mississippi she discovered the monument and was appalled. Silas “was taken into war for a cause he didn’t believe in,” Sampson said, emphasizing his lack of agency in the decision. The SCV, and other Black Confederate promoters, “perpetuate myths in attempt to rewrite and sugar-coat the shameful truth about parts of our American history for political and financial gain.” Which perfectly summarizes this whole distasteful topic.

Sources and Further Reading

I commend anyone looking for a deeper dive into this subject to Kevin M. Levin’s Searching for Black Confederates: The Civil War’s Most Persistent Myth (2019). Levin’s blog Civil War Memory, along with Andy Hall’s Dead Confederates, also provide many articles exploring the Black Confederate myth. For the Louisiana Native Guard, see James G. Hollandsworth’s Louisiana Native Guards: The Black Military Experience During the Civil War (1995). As a general resource on real Black soldiers, Noah Andre Trudeau’s Like Men of War: Black Troops in the Civil War, 1862-1865 (1998) cannot be bettered.