Did blacks fight in combat for the Confederacy?
March 13, 2008 in 1865, Did you know?
One of the more interesting questions related to blacks serving in the American Civil War is this, did blacks (free or slave) serve in combat roles in the Confederate Army? Unquestionably the historical evidence is strong that some blacks – perhaps several thousand – did serve in the Confederate Army in unofficial, non-combat roles as servants, laborers, teamster, musician, cooks, etc. But the official record is very unsupportive that thousands of blacks served as official soldiers in the ranks of the Southern soldiers’ rosters.
When we use the word official we mean that a black soldier would have been documented through the same paperwork process as a white man would have in terms of enlisting, mustering in or out, and perhaps applying for pension benefits after the war. It is this logistical paperwork process that leaves a trail for historians to study and interpret.
But how strong is the primary historical evidence – letters, diaries, first-hand accounts, military records, etc., – that blacks served in combat roles for the South? It is an important question.
Besides the fact that it is important to preserve accurate history it is also important to “get it right” when it comes to knowing who fought in the Civil War so that these individuals can be properly honored and their place in history duly noted. Some who favor a Southern perspective on the war, particularly defending the proposition that the South did not fight to preserve or defend slavery, have argued that thousands of slaves fought on behalf of the South thereby proving that they were generally supportive of the Southern way of life.
Some people have suggested that as many as 30,000 blacks took on the uniform and actually fought for the South, but does the historical record support that amount? What exactly does the historical record provide us with any kind of confidence to be able to answer this question?
In short, if one sticks solely to the historical record for primary evidence of the black soldier picking up arms and fighting for the South, one can only conclude that the support for such a claim is scanty at best – merely anecdoctal – and entirely unsubstantiated at worst. Instead of the widely claimed and purported number of 30,000 fighting black soldiers for the Confederacy, an honest look at the historical record leads one to the conclusion that as little as under a hundred to as many as several hundred blacks may have actually engaged in combat for the South during the Civil War by actually carrying and discharging a weapon. How to interpret that evidence – or lack thereof – is left to the professional and armchair historians to debate.
It is widely accepted by historians that perhaps as many as 200,000 blacks served in the Union Army. That is a sizable number when one realizes that only 750,000 to 900,000 men even fought for the South during the entire Civil War. According to historian and Professor James I. Robertson, Jr., “Approximately 180,000 blacks served as Federal soldiers. This figure represents 9 percent of the North’s fighting force. One-third of the blacks (68,178) died in the service, with sickness causing thirty times more deaths than battle.” Soldiers Blue and Gray: p. 35.
For the Union side at least, the historical record is fairly definitive and clear: we know that about 9-12% of the Union Army was filled by black troops, depending on if one goes with the figure of 180,000 or 200,000 black Union troops serving. Black Union soldiers participated in at least 41 major battles and roughly 450 smaller actions. 37,000 black Union soldiers died in the Civil War. Though early black troops were not aggressively deployed as bearers of arms, it is the case that by the middle of the war, at least, more and more black Union troops were entrusted to carry arms and to perform in combat action.
CWG has discovered that historians and staff – notably Robert Krick – at Spotsylvania National Battlefield Park have sifted through about 100,000 soldiers’ records to see how many non-whites were represented. Non-whites could be blacks, Native Americans, and mulattoes. They found that only 20-30 non-whites were found out of 100,000 soldiers’ records. That is less than 1/300th of one percent. Taking into account that the following estimate involves more conjecture than a good historian would be comfortable with applying to acceptable methods of reliable historical inquiry, one can still get a fairly solid “finger in the air” estimate that if that same ratio of 1/300th was applied to the figure-range of 750,000 – 900,000 Confederates serving during the war from 1861-1865, then one could only reasonably conclude that, at best, between 250-300 black soldiers may have served in the Confederate Army, and of those an even much smaller percentage would have been entrusted to take up arms.
This might seem surprising but a leading Civil War historian, Professor James McPherson, who won a Pulitzer prize for a Civil War book he wrote, has gone on record to say that of the more than 25,000 soldiers’ letters he has personally read over the years, he has only found evidence that perhaps 6-12 black Confederate soldiers were even mentioned.
The reality is this, looking at the historical record itself when it comes to answering the question – did many black men, free or slave, take up arms for Confederacy - one can only confidently say that perhaps a few, maybe scores, did but anything beyond that is highly conjectural and suspect. The larger the number of fighting black Confederates grows by one who would purport that thousands, even tens of thousands of blacks actually carried arms and faced combat during the Civil War, the more any objective observer would have to wonder what his or her agenda really was.
The best evidence that blacks even served in the butternut uniform as official soldiers is suggested by records related to some blacks serving in a regiment from Louisiana and one perhaps from South Carolina.
Civil War Gazette (CWG) turned to a couple leading Civil War historians to address the question, how many blacks actually took up arms and fought for the South?
CWG asked Professor and Civil War historian-author Steven Woodworth about the number of blacks who fought for the Confederacy:
“It would be hard to prove that absolutely zero blacks fought in the Confederate army, but I think it must have approached that level. I wonder if “non-white” includes American Indians. I suspect it does and further suspect that American Indians would have been much more prevalent than blacks in Confederate ranks. I haven’t kept a count of how many Civil War soldiers’ diaries and letters I’ve read–I guess it has been quite a few–but I’ve never come across a single instance of a black serving in the Confederate army. Whatever may have been the number of blacks serving and actually fighting as soldiers in the Confederate army, it must have been a minuscule percentage–completely insignificant for anyone trying to make the argument that blacks saw the conflict as a war of Yankee aggression, felt it was their war too, and joined up to fight for the Confederacy. That’s just a fairy tale.”
CWG also asked Civil War author and historian Wiley Sword about blacks serving in the Confederate army as soldiers:
“The majority of black Confederates who actually fought were essentially with the army as servants or personal attendants for officers. This was especially true in the initial part of the war (1861-62), I have read occasionally about these slave/servants taking up a rifle and fighting in the ranks with their master. Otherwise, various mulattoes or persons with light complexions may have been directly enrolled in the army. Since it was against C.S.A. policy to enlist blacks in the fighting army (until the very last
in 1865), I doubt if formal records will show the extent of black combat participation. I’m convinced some did fight, but how many is a very subjective guess.”
For further reading on the role of blacks serving in the Confederacy check out:
Black Southerners in Gray, Essays on Afro-Americans in the Confederate Armies, edited by Richard Rollins
The Journal of Confederate History Series, Vol. XI, published in 1994 by Southern Heritage Press, Murfreesboro, Tenn.
“Blacks in Gray”, by Jason H. Silverman. North & South Magazine, Vol 5, Number 3, April 2002: 35-45.
“Black Confederates”, by Bruce Levine. North & South Magazine, Vol 10, Number 2, July 2007: 40-47.
“United States Color Troops”, by Gregory J.W. Urwin in Encyclopedia of the American Civil War, edited by Heidler and Heidler: 2002-2003.
“African-American Soldiers, C.S.A.”, by Frank E. Deserino in Encyclopedia of the American Civil War, edited by Heidler and Heidler: 16-18.
“African Americans in the Confederacy”, by Edgar A. Toppin in Encyclopedia of the Confederacy, Volume One. Edited by Current: pages