What’s a Soldier? Who’s a Soldier?

One of the flash points in the ongoing (and seemingly never-ending) debate over “black Confederates” is the definition of a “soldier.”  I’m not quite sure why that is.  A soldier in the Civil War enlisted or was conscripted to service for a period of time.  That term of service varied (there were 90 day terms, nine month terms [Stannard’s Vermonters at Gettysburg], and terms of one, two, and three years), and sometimes there was a debate as to a term’s precise length (state service versus federal service, for example).  On the whole, however, everyone at the time seemed to understand the definition of a soldier as someone who had enlistment papers, was listed on the unit roster and classified as a soldier, and so on, with additional documentation for officers.  One would identify such soldiers in federal service, for example, by examining what are called “Combined Service Records.”

During the Civil War the area where such status was often debated concerned irregulars or guerrillas.  There was a debate as to whether such people were to be treated as soldiers or outlaws, subject to summary punishment, and the laws of war at the time recognized such distinctions.

Recently, however, advocates of casting a broad net in hopes of defining certain African Americans (usually enslaved ones) as “soldiers” have decided to craft their own definitions of “soldier.”  Some are ahistorical or unhistorical, which seems ironic for people who claim they are committed to accurate history.  After all, it really doesn’t matter what definitions operated in ancient times: it matters what definitions operated in 1861-65.  Others argue that one’s activities determined one’s status.  That means that slaves who were servants, cooks, teamsters, and so on, were de facto soldiers, at least in the eyes of certain people who would like to define them as such.  Or say that in the heat of the moment, a slave served on a gun crew or fired a weapon or risked life and limb to save a soldier, perhaps an owner.  Does that act make them a soldier?  And, given this, should we not honor them for their service?  Finally, I’ve come across the argument that slaves were not all that different from conscripted men, because in both cases there was no service born of volition, and, since we honor the service of draftees who served, why not do the same with enslaved blacks who were forced to serve with the Confederate army?

I find these lines of argument curious, especially when they come from people who declare that they are committed to historical accuracy or who say that we should judge people by the standards of their time, not ours.  Well, folks, if you really, really believe that, then enslaved blacks aren’t soldiers.  Simple as that.  You can wish as hard as you want for what you want, and that won’t change a thing.  By the standards and definitions of their time, enslaved blacks weren’t soldiers; their legal status was different than that of draftees; the Confederacy was quite specific about this; and that’s that.  One could be generous and claim that one could make an argument based on the distinction between combatant and non-combatant, but, as we’ll see, that creates its own problems.

Perhaps the best way to address this problem of definitions is to ask certain questions.

1.  Was John Burns a soldier at Gettysburg?  After all, he picked up a weapon, and he fought alongside soldiers.  Did that make him a soldier?  No.

2.  Was Jennie Wade a soldier?  After all, she was making bread for Union soldiers.  That’s just like cooking, right?  And yet no one argues that Jennie Wade was a soldier (or even a combatant).

3.  Was Ulysses S. Grant’s body servant Bill Barnes a soldier?  Barnes was a free person of color employed by the general.  Yet no one’s called Barnes a soldier.

4.  Was Julia Grant’s slave, known as “Black Julia,” a soldier?  After all, she accompanied Mrs. Grant to the front (and later escaped).

5.  Was Clara Barton a soldier?  After all, she treated wounded soldiers on battlefields.

6.  Should we support legislation to construct a monument to commemorate the “service” of Halliburton personnel in combat areas?  Are they not (according the definition used by broad net definers of black Confederates) soldiers as well?  How can you honor the service of “black Confederates” if you don’t support such legislation?

If you believe in the definitions used by broad net advocates of defining black Confederates, the answer in each case is yes, these are all soldiers, equal in status to the veterans we claim to honor.

Yeah, right.

Sometimes the best way to examine the merits of an argument is simply to follow the logic of the argument.  I’ll leave it to you to determine the merits of the arguments employed by the broad net camp in light of this exercise: advocates of that position will have to explain why they adhere to ahistorical/unhistorical premises and definitions even as they claim that what they are after is accurate history, not some sort of bizarre propaganda.

40 thoughts on “What’s a Soldier? Who’s a Soldier?

  1. Jeffry Burden March 24, 2011 / 5:44 am

    And therein’s the problem: advocates will try to slip in the term “soldier” until the claim is refuted by logic, then switch gears and say, “Well, what we really mean is anyone who supported the war effort” (not bothering to distinguish between voluntary and involuntary). The argument that really gets me is: “Well, the buck private peeling potatoes today at Fort Campbell is a soldier, so why not the bodyservant peeling potatoes in 1864?” Ummm, because the guy peeling potatoes today has been formally enlisted, trained, equipped, uniformed, paid, and is subject to the command of superior officers and to a code of military justice. Other than that, yeah – they’re JUST the same.

    • Bob Huddleston March 24, 2011 / 9:53 am

      That is a good analogy. When I was in Basic Training (Fort Knox, Summer 1963) I did my share of KP. I was a duly enlisted private in the Army of the United States. “Mess halls for the modern U.S. military are often contracted out to civilian firms, making KP duty less common today than it once was.” — (Wikipedia sv KP) I remember reading that this was done when the all-volunteer army needed to recruit more volunteers. By the standards of “BC” supporters, these non-military civilians running a mess hall are soldiers. Wait until they try to apply for a pension!

  2. Scott Manning March 24, 2011 / 7:06 am

    I understand the logic and I am not arguing that there were black Confederate soldiers, but consider my grandfather who served a year in Korea. He started out as a cook until they discovered he could type 45 wpm. They moved him to Pyeongtaek where he spent a year typing reports and other documents. He once reflected on his service, “I was no hero. I didn’t shoot nobody and nobody shot me. It was a pretty good deal.” Yet, he still has his uniform and he has “veteran” status.

    I fear by using your “logic” approach, we run the risk of excluding men like him. I understand he was not a slave forced to serve, but he was drafted. Obviously the two are very different, but neither is voluntary. I understand he has a service record whereas as blacks in the Confederate army did not. However, he also has no pension record due to his short service whereas some of the blacks who were in the Confederate army do (one? a few?).

    So with the logic argument, where does that put my grandfather? I guess we acknowledge that he was officially recognized by the government as serving in the army during wartime, but not in a combat capacity. I am not sure. Until all this talk of black Confederates, I never considered him anything other than a wartime veteran, a soldier.

    I should probably shine the BLACK CONFEDERATE symbol in sky, so I can get Kevin Levin’s perspective as well.

    • Andy Hall March 24, 2011 / 7:25 am

      Scott, your grandfather was enlisted, held rank, and (willingly or not) was formally and legally part of the U.S. military. African Americans who worked in similar capacities with the Confederate army were not — most were slaves, some free men employed willingly or conscripted.

      I personally don’t find analogies to other times, other wars, useful at all in this. The only definition that matter is the one used at the time, recognized by the army and Confederate government. The regulations were clear:

      1399. Any free white male person above the age of eighteen and under thirty-five years, being at least five feet four and a half inches high, effective, able-bodied, sober, free from disease, of good character and habits, and able to speak and understand well the English language, may be enlisted. This regulation, so far as respects the height and age of the recruit, shall not be extended to musicians, or to soldiers who may “re-enlist,” or have served honestly and faithfully a previous enlistment in the army.

      As a practical matter, there’s absolutely some squishiness in the difference between what was official policy and what actually happened. There’s the matter of mixed-race men who “passed” to enlist, and then there’s a question of African Americans serving as musicians, who (again, by regulation) were considered administratively distinct and separate from privates and non-commissioned officers serving in line units. But always, we need to look at these mens’ status through the perspective of that time and place, and no other. If, by contrast, you take one (or all!) of the approaches Prof. Simpson describes, one ends up with a definition of soldier that’s so hopelessly broad that it has no real meaning at all, and certainly not one that was understood in 1861-65.

      • Brooks D. Simpson March 24, 2011 / 7:39 am

        The fact is that if you fabricate soldier status for people who were not soldiers, you denigrate the service of soldiers. Is that what big tent advocates seek to do? Because that’s certainly the result.

        Next someone will tell me that my two years in ROTC makes me a soldier and a veteran. Right. I would not seek to denigrate the service and sacrifice of the real veterans in my family by making that bogus claim.

      • Scott Manning March 24, 2011 / 8:00 am

        Andy, I think the most compelling argument is that blacks did not hold rank in the Confederate army, if I understood you correctly. If so, you guys should really start every discussion with that statement: “Blacks did not hold rank.” Done. End of debate.

        • Andy Hall March 24, 2011 / 8:10 am

          If so, you guys should really start every discussion with that statement: “Blacks did not hold rank.” Done. End of debate.

          If only.

          • Marc Ferguson March 24, 2011 / 9:49 am

            I had a discussion once with someone who insisted that musician was a rank.

          • Andy Hall March 24, 2011 / 10:04 am

            The regs distinguish between officers, non-commissioned officers, privates and musicians. It’s not entirely clear where a slave acting as a drummer (e.g., Bill Yopp, Henry Brown) would fall in practice, but the wording of the regulations notes a difference. The drill/training in the regs seems to be different, as well. Based on my read of them, a musician is a different category of personnel.

            Working on a blog post on this, if I can ever sit down and knock it out.

          • Brooks D. Simpson March 24, 2011 / 11:30 am

            Musicians are a special category, as I can testify (being descended from one who was with the 23rd Pennsylvania).

          • BorderRuffian March 24, 2011 / 11:40 am

            “Based on my read of them, a musician is a different category of personnel.

            Working on a blog post on this, if I can ever sit down and knock it out.”

            Musicians not soldiers? Can’t wait to see that one…

          • Andy Hall March 24, 2011 / 12:04 pm

            “Musicians not soldiers?”

            Your words, BR, not mine.

          • Marc Ferguson March 24, 2011 / 1:53 pm

            I should have been more explicit that my dispute was with the claim that since a slave who had been captured and held in a prison camp was listed as a slave, he must be considered to have been a soldier. My understanding is that musicians occupied something of a gray area as a category, but it would seem odd to me if “musician” was actually viewed as a military rank. Did they undergo the same training as privates, including use of forearms? Was there a difference between how musicians were categorized in the Union army and the Confederate army? Finally, what indication is there that a black man, free or enslaved, who functioned as a musician in the Confederate army was considered a soldier administratively, by other soldiers, by officers or by the government? Andy, I look forward to your blog post on this topic.

          • Marc Ferguson March 24, 2011 / 1:57 pm

            Oops! I wrote: “… the claim that since a slave who had been captured and held in a prison camp was listed as a slave, he must be considered to have been a soldier.”

            What I meant to write was:

            …a slave who had been captured and held in a prison camp was listed as a musician in the NPS Civil War Soldiers and Sailors database, he must be considered to have been a soldier.

          • BorderRuffian March 24, 2011 / 11:38 am

            It is/was.

          • BorderRuffian March 24, 2011 / 11:43 am

            That was in reply to Marc Ferguson:
            “I had a discussion once with someone who insisted that musician was a rank.”

          • Marc Ferguson March 24, 2011 / 12:46 pm

            Would you claim that free and enslaved Blacks employed/empressed by Comfederates as musicians were enrolled as soldiers, and considered soldiers by other soldiers, officers and and Confederate government?

          • BorderRuffian March 24, 2011 / 2:08 pm


          • Jeffry Burden March 24, 2011 / 2:39 pm

            …and that would be a conclusion of fact, based on evidence from that time period, that they were mustered / trained / equipped / armed / paid / commanded / judged and otherwise regarded as soldiers, whatever their other musician duties may have been. I haven’t seen it.

          • Margaret D. Blough March 25, 2011 / 11:27 am

            Was any free or enslaved Black employed/empressed by Confederates as a musician ever promoted or even proposed or considered for promotion to any rank definitely held by any white soldier who formally enlisted or was conscripted into the Confederate army?

        • Andy Hall March 24, 2011 / 8:57 am

          Scott, it’s really important to understand that the people who push the BCS meme hardest believe in the truth of it because, for whatever reason, theyhave a need to believe it. Some of these folks are outright charlatans, but far more (IMO) latch onto this idea cling tightly to it because it helps to smooth over the the very cognitive dissonance that comes with the conflict between the institution of slavery (immoral, evil) and their chosen view of the Confederacy (noble, honorable). This has been going on for well over a century; the black Confederate soldier is little more than the old “faithful slave” trope, outfitted with a new butternut uniform and Enfield rifle.

          There’s a great saying I heard that applies here: “you can’t reason someone out of a position they didn’t reason themselves into in the first place.” The idea of thousands of black Confederate soldiers, taking up arms against the Yankee invader to defend hearth and home, willingly and out of a sense of unblemished patriotism and Southern pride, fulfills a deep and abiding need for some folks that mere evidence and reason cannot penetrate.

          • Scott Manning March 24, 2011 / 10:15 am

            Andy, I understand, but for the sake of the rest of us history enthusiasts and everyday folk, and I think we are the majority, could you guys at least start off each discussion with “blacks never held rank in the Confederate army”? That will convince the majority of the people. Anything that follows is purely academic.

          • Margaret D. Blough March 24, 2011 / 10:24 am

            Andy-There’s also the point that the conscription statutes to draft soldiers into the Confederate army were separate and distinct from the statutes governing impressment of slaves and free blacks to provide labor to the army. I’ve seen people claim that the slaves were paid the same as soldiers. They leave out that any payment by the military for a slave’s labor did not go to the slave but to the slave’s owner and, if the “property” was damaged or destroyed while under military control, payment did not go to the slave’s family but to the owner. Even in the Union army, teamsters and sutlers, while subject to military control, were never considered soldiers.

    • Brooks D. Simpson March 24, 2011 / 7:34 am

      Simple questions: was your father enlisted in the army? Did he wear a uniform? Did he have rank?

      Again, why do people compare military status from different eras? And who determines soldier status? Not the individual, and not some retrospective musings.

      My father was drafted. He went through basic at Fort Hood. He served in West Germany with 2nd Armored. I’ve never had cause to question his status as a soldier. He did KP on occasion. So? How does that bear on whether enslaved blacks were soldiers?

      • Scott Manning March 24, 2011 / 10:22 am

        Again, why do people compare military status from different eras?
        People compare virtually everything between different eras, especially the present. It is only natural. History helps us understand how the world arrived at its current condition. Comparing and contrasting is only part of that.

        • Scott Manning March 24, 2011 / 10:23 am

          I meant to use blockquotes on that first line.

          Again, why do people compare military status from different eras?

        • Brooks D. Simpson March 24, 2011 / 11:23 am

          The point is that saying someone would be classified as a soldier in one era really doesn’t bear on the matter of classification in another era. We need to look at the classification as understood at the time.

          • Scott Manning March 24, 2011 / 11:47 am

            Gotchya. I’m with you there.

    • Andy Hall March 24, 2011 / 7:42 am

      I should also add that, while I’ve on rare occasions seen a passing reference in newspaper accounts to black men attending Confederate reunions as having been “soldiers” or “veterans,” I’ve never seen a case of a white Confederate using that term during the war, except in a way that mocks the pretensions of the African American men in that regard. John B. Gordon, first commander of the UCV, repeated such an anecdote in his memoir:

      General Lee used to tell with decided relish of the old negro (a cook of one of his officers) who called to see him at his headquarters. He was shown into the general’s presence, and, pulling off his hat, he said, “General Lee, I been wanting to see you a long time. I ‘m a soldier.”

      “Ah? To what army do you belong—to the Union army or to the Southern army ?”

      “Oh, general, I belong to your army.”

      “Well, have you been shot ?”

      “No, sir; I ain’t been shot yet.”

      “How is that? Nearly all of our men get shot.”

      “Why, general, I ain’t been shot ’cause I stays back whar de generals stay.”

      Forty years after the war, Gordon still found that story — and the idea that the cook thought of himself as a soldier — funny enough to repeat. He considered it funny because to him, to Lee, and to his audience, the idea was preposterous in its face.

  3. David Rhoads March 24, 2011 / 7:54 am

    The status of “soldier” is a legal status defined and determined by the government raising the army in question. It’s as simple as that. The fact that some of the activities performed by soldiers may be the same as activities performed by non-soldiers in no way affects the legal status of either. In the CSA, until the last few weeks of the war, slaves could not be and were not soldiers.

  4. John Buchanan March 24, 2011 / 8:58 am

    You can find a discussion on what makes a soldier here:
    As a student of history and as a retired Army officer I would agree with the overall term of one who serves in a formal status in the armed land forces of their nation. That would mean a formal induction into the service which includes the swearing of an oath.
    Prior to March of 1865 slaves and free blacks working for the CSA DID NOT take the following oath.

    “I [state your name] do solemnly swear, that I will bear true faith and allegiance to the Confederate States of America, and that I will serve them honestly and faithfully against all their enemies or opposers whomsoever; and that I will observe and obey the orders of the President of the Confederate States, and the orders of the officers appointed over me, according to the Rules and Articles of War.”

    This same oath was used for Home Guards as well as the state troops provided to the Confederacy.

    Now the larger question would be what if you were a partisan ranger? Many partisans were sworn in and therefore were soldiers.

  5. Chuck Brown March 24, 2011 / 2:14 pm

    If I go to a rock concert and sing along with the band, that doesn’t make me a band member. My “activity” does not “define [my] status.”

  6. Patrick March 24, 2011 / 5:26 pm

    I think any discussion of this point needs to leave some room for the crucial distinction between the “professional” Confederate Army and the Irregulars – loosely organized and questionably sanctioned units of raiders and guerillas who operated behind the enemy lines and especially on the western frontiers.

    Any student of the war knows that Irregulars were operating all over the place, and that the definition of what would constitute an “official” soldier in the ranks of an irregular unit were VERY different from the one used in Robert E. Lee’s army.

    As far as black confederate soldiers go, were there any in the regular army? No, except for the last weeks of the war when the Confederate congress desperately authorized them well after it was too late.

    Were there black confederate soldiers amongst the motley bands of irregulars operating around the war’s periphery? Quite possibly, and I suspect this is where many of the anecdotal stories of blacks fighting for the south come from. The “citizen militia” nature of these units makes them both (1) hard to document and (2) subject to very different sets of rules than those stated for the regular army by the Confederate congress.

    • Brooks D. Simpson March 24, 2011 / 10:57 pm

      As to your last point … actually, most of the reports of blacks serving in the Confederate army claim that they were part of the regular forces, especially, or so it seems, the Army of Northern Virginia.

        • Andy Hall March 25, 2011 / 7:29 am

          Noland is commonly mentioned, yes, but I’d agree with Prof. Simpson that the large majority of names tossed out (Bill Yopp, Silas Chandler, Weary Clyburn, Richard Poplar, etc.) are associated with regular army units. More important, the accounts (often misrepresented or of dubious veracity) that are commonly presented as evidence of large numbers of African Americans serving in Confederate ranks almost always refer to units of the regular army.

          I agree with your general point, that it would be a bit more plausible to find African Americans serving here or there in guerrilla or “irregular” groups — but that’s never been the emphasis of BCS advocates, nor the main focus of their claims.

        • Brooks D. Simpson March 25, 2011 / 9:28 am

          Really. I can’t speak for your experience, but a single example, however frequently invoked, may not be representative of the experience of others. who have dealt with this issue for a decade or more.

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