While the Civil War ended nearly 133 years ago, a new battle for public opinion is being waged to claim that black units consisting of free blacks and slaves fought for the Lost Cause.
Those units are said to have existed in the South’s main cities, including Mobile. Some historians saw such regiments – if they can be called such – never were officially mustered into the Confederate ranks and therefore did not "serve" in a fashion similar to that of white soldiers.
The crux of the controversy may be in applying the modern-day definition of "black" to antebellum free people of color. Historians say those non-whites who volunteered with the Confederacy would not appreciate being referred to as "black."
"More than 80 percent of the free black population in New Orleans in 1860 had European blood in their veins," wrote James Hollandsworth in his book The Louisiana Native Guards: The Black Experience during the Civil War.
"In contrast," he wrote, "fewer than 10 percent of slaves in Louisiana gave evidence of white ancestry. Because skin color and free status were highly correlated, many free blacks identified more closely with Southern whites than with African blacks."
A similar case existed in Mobile. Those with mixed African and European blood formed a special class. Their special status in society elevated them above the black slaves, a circumstance they wanted to protect when the Civil War started, said Sheila Flanagan, assistant director of the Museum of Mobile.
What developed was a color-caste system: The closer one’s skin tone was to white, the higher the status.
Some local historians believe that pro-Confederates want to push the issue of black participation on the Confederate battle front as a way to dilute, even eliminate, the shadow of racism often associated with the Confederacy.
Pro-Confederates maintain the opposite view. One Internet Web site report states that "65,000 Southern blacks were in the Confederate ranks." Of those, they say, 13,000 met the enemy in combat. In addition, some "180,000 Black Southerners, from Virginia alone, provided logistical support for the confederate military."
"Because they were non-white, people now want to call them black," Ms. Flanagan said. These Creoles "wanted to be black about as much as whites wanted to be black. Because of the social and political fall out, they didn’t want to have anything to do with blacks."
It was the status afforded the lighter-complexioned blacks that led to the formation of the Louisiana Native Guards, know in French as the Corps d’Afrique. On Nov. 23, 1861, they made their debut – 33 black officers and 731 black enlisted men – along the banks of the Mississippi River next to their white counterparts.
"Free blacks joined the Louisiana militia for varied and complex reasons," Hollandsworth wrote. "Some free blacks thought that would lose their property." Others fought for economic self-interest.
"The Defenders of the Native Land," he continued, "were men of property and intelligence, representatives of a free black community in New Orleans that was both prosperous and well-educated. There were even slave owners among its ranks. Now even New York City could boast of having more black "doctors, dentists, . . . silversmiths, portrait-painters, architects, brick-layers, plasterers, carpenters, tailors, cigar-makers, &c."
"Furthermore, the ‘hommes de couleur libre,’ as they were called in New Orleans, enjoyed privileges not afforded blacks elsewhere in the South, allowing them by 1860 to accumulate more than 2$ million worth of property. It was not surprising, therefore, that free blacks were eager to defend their holdings."
Once a Negro . . .
While the free men of color may have been excited about their service on the Confederate front, total and complete acceptance never came.
"They were never mustered into the Confederate Army," said Hollandsworth, Associate Provost at the University of Southern Mississippi in Hattiesburg.
Their enthusiasm for the Confederate cause began to wane as they soon realized that "Confederate authorities did not intend to provide the Native Guards with either the status or support they afforded the white soldiers."
In September 1861, when the first Union prisoners captured at Manassas were to arrive in New Orleans, white militia men, instead of the Native Guards, were selected to escort them.
Then, when New Orleans fell to Union forces in April 1862, the Native Guards were sent in as last-minute substitutes to defend the French Quarter. The white Confederate troops headed to their training ground some 80 miles north of the city.
"The Confederate authorities never intended to use black troops for any mission of real importance," Hollandsworth wrote. "If the Native Guards were good for anything, it was for public display; free blacks fighting for Southern rights made good copy for the newspapers."
Ironically, the war’s end would find the Native Guards on the Union side as three regiments of the United States Colored Troops. Now with considerably different personnel than its original formation, the unit ultimately found itself battling the Confederacy on Blakely Island, near Spanish Fort, on the same day as the surrender at Appomattox.
Not in Mobile
No unit of free men of color comparable to the Corps d’Afrique existed in Mobile, Ms. Flanagan said.
"There was no black Confederate unit in Mobile," Ms. Flanagan said. "It was a Creole unit. It would be a long, long stretch to say that it was a black unit. There was no counterpart to the black divisions that fought on the Union side."
Local historians acknowledge that little is known about the Creole fire department believed to be that non-white Confederate unit. What they do know is that it was a paramilitary unit that wanted to volunteer for the Confederate Army as did those white fire departments, said George Ewert, director of the Museum of Mobile.
"Because of their race they were not allowed to enlist as regular soldiers," Ewert said. "They acted as part of the home guard."
During the early days of the Civil War in Mobile, slaves were ordered to build the earthworks used to protect Mobile. In 1862, the Alabama Legislature gave free blacks permission to enlist for the defense of Mobile. But they did not form actual armed regiments.
While some neo-Confederates believe that men of color were welcomed into the Confederate ranks with the same privileges as white soldiers, historical accounts indicate that these fighting men were not comparable to those who served with the 54th Massachusetts, immortalized in the feature film "Glory."
The historical accounts of free blacks or slaves serving on the Confederate side depict them doing pretty much what they did as slaves: Running behind their masters. They were attached to white officers, acting more as bodyguards or personal servants or both, Bradley said.
"Even privates would take servants out on the battlefield with them," he said. "They found out pretty quick that it wasn’t such a good idea."
Historical accounts don’t show blacks leading charges, fighting hand-to-hand combat or even shooting at the enemy.
Free blacks and slaves worked in non-military ways: They mostly took care of horses and equipment, cooked meals, hauled supplies, washed clothes and carried the wounded and dead from the battlefields. They graded roads, constructed railroads, drove supply wagons, and labored in iron foundries and munitions industries.
Slaves built defensive installations, especially in Mobile. Mostly their labor was involuntary.
The Confederate government in Richmond, Va., had discussed raising black troops in 1865. Id did give John Tyler Morgan permission to organize black troops for the Confederacy, but by then the war was nearing an end.
Researchers at the Alabama Department of Archives and History ran across a transcription of a letter regarding an actual regiment of free blacks established by a man in the Prattville area in early 1861, before the war started, said Bob Bradley, the chief curator. But researchers do not know what happened to that particular unit – whether it remained with the Confederacy or switched to the Union side.
The state archives has evidence of blacks who attended Confederate veterans’ reunions, some even wearing uniforms. It is believed that those slaves who went to the battlefield were possibly "treated better" in a plantation household and felt that they could best serve their own interests by remaining with the master.
But the story of John Smith indicates that the slaves indeed had their minds of their own. Smith, a slave from Selma, went off to war with his master, who was killed near Blue Mountain. Smith then joined the Union troops and was with Gen. James H. Wilson when he captured Selma.
The Union shall set you free
Somewhere in Arlington, Va., stands a monument to the Confederacy. Incorporated within its relief is a little-known tribute to the slaves – or possibly the free men of color – who helped the South’s cause.
Many of those former slaves, especially those living in occupied areas, attached themselves to and eventually joined the Union regiments. Recently, the descendants of those who formed the United States Colored Troops dedicated a statue in Washington in honor of those soldiers and their efforts to preserve the young nation.
Some neo-Confederates said they felt that those same descendants should also have honored those men of color who fought for the Confederacy. The descendants of the U.S.C.T. – many of whom still live in the South – believe it’s not worth the trouble.
Bradley sums up their sentiment: "Anybody running away from a situation is unhappy with their situation."