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.
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.