One of the most amusing claims offered by folks who insist that a good number of African Americans served willingly in the ranks of the Confederate military is the assertion that the Confederate army was an integrated force, in contrast to the use of black soldiers by the Union army, where they were in segregated units. Of course, given that the officers were white in Union regiments, that would make them integrated, too, by such standards, but I won’t hold my friends who embrace the notion of thousands of black Confederate soldiers to standards of consistent logic, standards, and definitions. Nor will I ask these folks who tell me all about Confederate heritage about what happened to this legacy of integration after the war, although you would think that as committed as they were to integration, white Confederates would make sure that commitment to their fellow black Confederates would persist after the end of the war. Someone will have to explain why this wasn’t the case.
For maybe there’s another reason for such integration, a reason hinted in a question I often pose. Let’s say you are a Confederate infantry division commander in 1865, and all of a sudden a brigade of newly-trained black Confederates appears at your headquarters. The officer commanding the brigade (a white officer, but I digress … somehow the Confederacy never got around to making blacks officers, lest they might actually issue orders to white enlisted men, something that would have to happen in those “integrated” units) comes to your tent, reports for duty, and asks you where to deploy his brigade. Let’s make this even more interesting and say the men have already been issued their weapons, as would be the case if they were white.
Now, remember, you’ve grown up in the South, and one of the nightmares you’ve wrestled with is the image of an angry slave holding a weapon. Now you have several thousand men, all with weapons, all waiting to go off to war, which, in case you have forgotten, means fighting between people who, among other things, are angry (although soldiers can also get angry over the quality of their rations). Where do you deploy these men?
–On the front lines? Do you trust that they will stand and fight, or might they simply surrender when attacked? Might they not even roll out the red carpet for the Yankees?
–In the rear, as a mobile reserve, positioned so that your white soldiers have turned their backs to black men with weapons?
–Do you take away their weapons and give them entrenching tools, although you may have heard about the work slowdowns on some plantations, including the mysterious breaking of tools?
–Do you place an armed guard over them, which seems to me counterproductive, as that means the black Confederates create a net loss in terms of white soldiers available to fight?
Problems, problems. But these problems suggest one possible reason why perhaps Confederates chose “integrated” units. By spreading out blacks among white soldiers instead of consolidating them in units, whites were able to inhibit blacks talking and working together, getting in mischief, or getting the wrong idea in their heads about who exactly was the enemy. And if a black man picked up a rifle with any idea in his mind about targeting someone in gray, well, he’d be all alone and would face near-certain death in due course. Indeed, one might even argue that integration was a measure adopted to ensure the security of white and black Confederates alike.
I’m just waiting for the website that cites this post as one historian’s explanation of the advanced racial thinking of white Confederates. I’ll then know how Ed Bearss feels.