One way to address assertions that many blacks served as soldiers in the Confederate armies is to look at what happened to blacks captured by Union forces. How were they treated? How were they classified? What happened to them?
As James M. Paradis’s study of African Americans during the Gettysburg campaign reminds us, Union forces did capture blacks at Gettysburg as well as during the entire campaign. Many of them were sent to Fort McHenry in Baltimore Harbor. There Brigadier General W. W. Morris reported that of the sixty-four blacks who arrived at his installation, they were servants of officers. Sixteen enlisted in Union ranks; four more enlisted as cooks in an artillery regiment; four decided to cast their fortunes with a New York militia unit (and then left the area), and forty were still present, “chiefly employed in police duty.” Some of them were now working for Union officers (and were paid); others were free Negroes who wished to return to their families.
Paradis describes an ensuing discussion of the status of these captured blacks and their disposition. Were they prisoners of war (and thus subject to exchange)? Was it better to put them to work “as paid laborers and teamsters,” allow those blacks who were free to return home (whether counted as exchanged prisoners or not), or should Union authorities retain them “as prisoners, but not prisoners of war”? A November 1863 accounting of the remaining thirty-two blacks at Fort McHenry showed that sixteen were being employed, ten were now cooks with the volunteer artillery regiment stationed there, and six had escaped.
The following month the War Department issued new regulations concerning these captured blacks. They would not be part of any exchange of prisoners; they would be given a chance to take the oath of allegiance, and, if they did, they would be released. Those blacks who did not take the oath of allegiance would be retained as prisoners of war. As to how many blacks did (and did not) take the oath of allegiance at that point, Paradis does not say.
Note the absence of any captured blacks classified as soldiers. Note also the fact that many of those loyal servants took the chance of their imprisonment to strike out on their own of choose to become employees of Union officers.
What do we make of this?
UPDATE (June 18, 2013): Thanks to a friend (and the administrative portions of this blog platform), I’ve learned that this blog entry has been the subject of some recent discussion (some of it heated and personal) at CivilWarTalk.com. You can read some at least some of the archives without joining. Here’s the link to a report in a Richmond paper in October 1863 concerning the forty or so blacks who remained at Fort McHenry after arrangements were made for some of the sixty four men who arrived. The paper quotes a person named R. W. Daniel who had been imprisoned at Fort McHenry as follows:
Lieut. Daniel informs us that there are some 35 or 40 negroes also in Fort McHenry, all of whom were taken at Gettysburg. He says they profess an undying attachment for the South. Several times Gen. Schenck has offered to release them from the fort if they would take the oath of allegiance to the Federal Government and join the Lincoln army. They have peremptorily refused in every instance, and claim that they should be restored to their masters and homes in the South. They say they would prefer death to liberty on the terms proposed by Schenck.
Note that nothing in this report (which escaped Paradis’s view) concerns the issue of the blacks as soldiers. So we can set that aside. What might interest others, of course, is the claim that these fellows “preferred death to liberty” and declined to join the Union army.
Perhaps … yet a month after this report appeared, only six of the blacks appeared to have risked death by liberating themselves, and we don’t know where they went. The remainder apparently reconsidered their decision, and were now employed in one way or another, with ten having enlisted as cooks for the New York artillery unit there.
Since Paradis was not aware of this, I was unaware of it, but this newspaper item needs to be read in context. Not a single captured black argued loyalty to the Confederate cause. Understandably some of them wanted to go home. However, we may conclude that perhaps Daniel or a reporter embellished the story, given the situation bu the end of November. Apparently some of those men preferred liberty to death after all.
As I said, there’s a vigorous discussion about this at CivilWarTalk, which I found interesting as well as amusing (it goes on for several screens, breaking down as it proceeds). It would seem that if the fellow (only a screen name shows) who brought this report to light was truly interested in increasing historical understanding (instead of using the information to cast aspersions and to engage in all sorts of speculation), he would have forwarded the information to this blog. Instead, he exclaims: “I wonder why Simpson didn’t use this account of the same event, didn’t fit his agenda?”
My agenda was simply to find out what happened, and I thank the mystery poster … although it was someone else who brought it to my attention. As to why the mystery poster failed to do so, or why he failed to place it into context with the information already available to him, well, you’ll have to join the group and ask him. Maybe it didn’t fit his agenda. 🙂