Research Exercise: The Forgotten Black Confederates

We hear a great deal about the debate over the military service of African Americans, slave and free, in the Confederate army. Usually this debate focuses on identifying individuals and defining their service. Were they soldiers? Were they enrolled? Were they serving the Confederacy or simply their masters? Did they really have any choice? We have far less to go on when it comes to describing motivation, leaving people to rely on speculation that tends to reinforce their own prejudices and preferences.

That this discussion is marred by fabrication, distortion, and ignorance doesn’t help matters.

But most people acknowledge that near the end of the war that a handful of African Americans did make their way into Confederate service as soldiers under the terms of legislation passed in 1865 by the Confederate Congress and implemented by the Davis administration and Confederate military authorities. Reports exist of two companies of blacks forming part of a battalion that saw action at Petersburg. But that’s just about it. Information is scarce about these men. Who were they? Where did they come from? Under what terms did they enter Confederate service? What happened to them?

You tell me.

38 thoughts on “Research Exercise: The Forgotten Black Confederates

  1. Kevin Dally March 18, 2015 / 2:05 pm

    I can never accept the title, or name of “Black Confederate(s)” because it makes them sound like they were actual citizens of something called the “Confederacy”. Blacks in the Confederacy didn’t have the rights that Whites did. I will always think of them as “Blacks (or) Slaves in the Confederate Ranks!”
    How much did the writer reporting that “they behaved in a extraordinary acceptable manner” was pushing for wide scale black enlistment in the South? In the end it was the slave owners who had the ultimate say as to their property signing up for the Confederate Army. So, those Blacks in the ranks the report writer talks of, were they actually there of their free will, or at the insistence of their owners?

    • Brooks D. Simpson March 18, 2015 / 2:40 pm

      That’s one issue worth investigating. The fact is that we don’t know much about these people.

  2. Will Hickox March 18, 2015 / 2:51 pm

    I could not find the Jackson Battalion in the Confederate service records on Fold3, nor a record for Lt. Col. Shipp. Perhaps the unit had an additional title.

    • Al Mackey March 18, 2015 / 3:07 pm

      Scott Shipp was the Commandant of Cadets at VMI. That might explain why you couldn’t find a record for him.

      • Ken Noe March 19, 2015 / 7:43 am

        Also president of Tech for about a week.

    • C. Meyer March 18, 2015 / 4:15 pm

      Have you found the Battalion of Cooks found by Ann DeWitt?

  3. Joshism March 18, 2015 / 3:30 pm

    “I could not find the Jackson Battalion in the Confederate service records on Fold3, nor a record for Lt. Col. Shipp.”

    I don’t know about the Jackson Battalion, but Shipp should be easy to find a record for since he also lead the VMI cadets at New Market.

  4. hankc9174 March 18, 2015 / 3:46 pm

    Were southerners conscripted into the CSA army ‘Confederates’?

    How about CSA soldiers who deserted?

    What about ‘galvanized yankees’?

    or the North Carolina men captured and executed in Kinston in 1864?

    were these men ‘Confederates’ whether they served willingly or not?

    • Brooks D. Simpson March 18, 2015 / 5:13 pm

      Recall that I called these men black Confederates. They were clearly soldiers.

  5. ironrailsironweights March 18, 2015 / 4:17 pm

    I would imagine that the Confederate Army used blacks out of sheer desperation. Similar to the way the German Army used 12-year-old boys as soldiers in March and April 1945.

    Peter

  6. BorderRuffian March 18, 2015 / 4:20 pm

    There were three battalions organized from the hospitals- Chimborazo, Jackson, and Winder.

    The battalions of Jackson and Winder each had one company of black troops.

    The two companies numbered about 150 men.

    They were not organized under the law passed March 13, 1865, but under the Local Defense Act.

    The battalion from Jackson was officially known as Scott’s Battalion. That is how it is filed at Fold3.

    • Neil Hamilton March 19, 2015 / 1:44 am

      BorderRuffian,

      I was under the impression that you believed Joy Masoff was correct in her view there were “thousands of black Confederate soldiers.” Yet you list 150 men in two companies.

      Have you changed your views on the number of black Confederate soldiers?

      Sincerely,
      Neil Hamilton

    • John Foskett March 19, 2015 / 7:47 am

      They are classified in another study as a “medical battalion” formed from “detailed men, assistants, and convalescents at the Jackson Hospital”. Apparently one company of 60 was comprised of blacks. Although there is a vague reference to combat on March 11, 1865, there does not appear to have been anything rising even to a skirmish at Petersburg on that date. Perhaps it means that they were in the trenches and subject to fire on March 11.

    • BorderRuffian March 20, 2015 / 10:55 am

      from Gen. Ewell’s report of the Appomattox Campaign-

      “On the night of Saturday, April 1, I received a dispatch from General Longstreet telling me he was going to the south side with two divisions, that Kershaw would be left on the lines, directing me to move whatever troops I could collect down the Darbytown road, and to ride by his headquarters for further instructions. I left my staff to see to the movement and collection of troops (of which only the cadets and three battalions of convalescents from the hospitals were in town) and rode down, but General Longstreet had gone before I reached his headquarters, and I received orders from his assistant adjutant-general, Colonel Latrobe, to relieve and send forward two brigades left on picket, which was done soon after sunrise by Colonel Shipp, commanding the cadets and convalescents.”

      *****

      “…so far as I know…”

      “….I was wounded on May 12, 1864, at Spotsylvania Courthouse, Va., and was in Winder Hospital, Richmond, when the city was surrendered. I was sergeant of the Winder Guards. General Ewell was commander of the post at Richmond and issued orders for the soldiers in the hospitals not able for field duty to organize to defend the city against Yankee cavalry. Winder and Jackson Hospitals each organized a white and a negro company, making a battalion. The negroes were helpers in the hospital—and Dr. Chambliss, of Winder, was commander of the battalion. The Winder Guards elected me captain of the white company. The negro helpers of the two hospitals made two companies. We had dress parade several times on the Capitol grounds, and the city papers praised our manual of arms and drill. These were the only negroes to take arms in defense of the South, so far as I know, and, if living, I believe they should be pensioned.

      The day that President Davis and his cabinet left Richmond our battalion was on the line at Seven Pines, and we were ordered back to the city that afternoon. General Ewell told us the President and cabinet had gone, and ordered us to take all papers and documents out of the Capitol and burn and destroy all government supplies and liquor. ‘The Yankees,’ he said, ‘will occupy the city to-morrow morning.’ We obeyed the order. The Yankees had planted their flag on the Capitol before I left next morning….”

      – A.R. Tomlinson, Confederate Veteran, Volume 30, p.141.

  7. chancery March 18, 2015 / 6:13 pm

    Didn’t Bruce Levine cover this in “Confederate Emancipation?” I read a library copy, so I don’t have it handy, but this quote from David Blight’s review in the Washington Post jibes with my recollection:

    “Only in Virginia were any blacks actually mustered into companies, totaling at most perhaps 200 men. None saw meaningful combat, and, as Levine found, some of those who did wear Confederate gray did so as a means of running away to Union lines.”

    • Brooks D. Simpson March 18, 2015 / 10:05 pm

      That is a fairly vague description. I would like more detail.

      • chancery March 19, 2015 / 8:59 pm

        I’ve located an electronic copy of Levine’s book, and it turns out that I was wrong. Levine goes into some detail about the recruitment and drilling of the confederate black troops, but doesn’t mention the few anecdotes of combat (or at least front-line) experience discussed by Jordan in “Black Confederates” (the book you linked to in your original post), or any others. Levine cites Jordan’s book a few times, but not for its discussion of combat.

        Looking again at the passage I quoted from the Washington Post review, it seems likely that Blight was not relying on Levine’s book when he wrote: “[n]one saw meaningful combat.”

        So “never mind.” Sorry.

        • chancery March 19, 2015 / 9:22 pm

          Grr, I see I missed one passage in Levine’s book (p. 125) mentioning that the Jackson Hospital companies spent a few days on the line at Petersburg and “behaved in an extraordinary [sic] acceptable manner,” but comments that evidence from several newspaper articles to that the men had not yet received arms suggested that “their active role on that occasion was likely limited.”

          Still a briefer treatment than the one in Jordan’s book, itself pretty sketchy.

  8. Spelunker March 19, 2015 / 8:35 pm

    Excerpted from The Daily Kansas Tribune, March 12, 1865 issue, Page 2

    http://www.newspapers.com/image/59935677/?terms=petersburg

    (Afternoon Dispatches, New York, March 10)

    “Rebel soldiers were deserting in companies, and in some cases, in regiments. Some of them were returning to their homes. The people pay but little attention to Gov. Vance’s proclamation, calling them to arms. In many places in North Carolina they go forth to meet Sherman with words of welcome, and are not particular about placing their stock and supplies out of his reach.

    Quite a panic prevails among the negroes in North Carolina since the announcement that they are to be conscripted to fight in the rebel army. The rebels are now gathering them up.

    A strong combination exists among conservative slaveholders to resist the measure, some of whom are arming their slaves, in order to defy the rebel authorities, and thus retain their servants, who exhibit a readiness to fight for their masters and homes, rather than for the Confederacy.

    Great numbers of negroes were flocking to Sherman’s army.”

    (Night Dispatches, New York, March 11)

    “The rebels commenced removing the entire body of prisoners as Sherman advanced towards that place, and ten to twenty made their escape. The rebel guards were mostly boys from 14 to 16 years old, and were hardly able to bear the hardships of the service or meet the requirements of veterans.

    The prisoners who came in report that they were first taken to Wilmington, and as they were being removed to Salisbury effected their escape on the 22d of February. They were several days getting to our lines. The rebels are conscripting all the boys they can find. The negroes are arriving in droves being terrified at the prospect of the rebels taking them into their armies. They say if they must fight they would rather fight for the North.”

  9. Andy Hall March 19, 2015 / 9:43 pm

    The local authorities seem not to have been able to get their heads around the new soldiers’ status — and the local press had its doubts about them, as well. Richmond Whig, March 31, 1865, p. 2

    Two negro [sic.] soldiers, Ned, slave of J. H. Harwood, and Bob, slave of Thos. Edmonds, found their way into the criminal’s box, this morning, having been arrested by the officers for having no pass, and for being supposed runaways. The Mayor returned them to the charge of Capt. Bossieux.

    In regard to these negro soldiers there should be some definite understanding. Being soldiers to all intents and purposes, they should be furnished with passes, so as to walk the streets, if necessary, unmolested, and not be liable to arrest as runaways. Otherwise, the Mayor will be over head and ears in business of this nature, and the court-room will be crowded daily with detachments of the various black companies now in the process of formation. Sambo is going through the crucible at present, and it is hard to invest him with military attributes. After a while, however, we suppose that some system will be inaugurated whereby those black sons of Mars, who carry the musket and “follow the drum to Macedon,” will be relieved of the suspicion of being runaways – at least upon the city streets, if not upon the tented field.

    That was on a Friday. Richmond was evacuated on Sunday.

  10. Kenneth Almquist March 19, 2015 / 11:06 pm

    “So, those Blacks in the ranks the report writer talks of, were they actually there of their free will, or at the insistence of their owners?”

    General Orders 14 specifies that: “No slave will be accepted as a recruit unless with his own consent and with the approbation of his master by a written instrument conferring, as far as he may, the rights of a freedman, and which will be filed with the superintendent.” If this directive was followed, that would mean that the blacks entered the military voluntarily (perhaps induced by the promise of freedom).

    General Orders 14 can be found here: http://ebooks.library.cornell.edu/cgi/t/text/pageviewer-idx?c=moawar;cc=moawar;idno=waro0129;node=waro0129%3A3;view=image;seq=1173;size=100;page=root

  11. E.A. Mayer March 20, 2015 / 1:29 am

    I think Jordan is using license when he says they saw limited combat, unless by ‘limited’ he means none. That a unit was formed, however meagerly, and then put in a quiet sector, or preparing further rear defenses, does not mean that they “saw combat”, even “limited.” As Bruce Levine points out, (p125) they had to cancel a parade for the unit a few days later as they had not yet received any weapons. It seems as much; or more likely they were employed the same way the CSA had already been using blacks, as laborers to prepare defenses, not really man them. This is the problem I have with Jordan, he seem to read into sources things they really don’t say, or take dubious sources at face value without critique, and seemingly without investigation as to its possible veracity. As he did with William Mack Lee’s story, swallowing it whole cloth and regurgitating it in that very same book.

    Overall Bruce Levine’s book is the better of the two on the topic. But beyond that there’s this from the Encyclopedia of Virginia web site written by Jaime Amanda Martinez

    “Only two units were ever created, both in Richmond. The first enrolled approximately sixty orderlies and nurses from Winder and Jackson Hospitals; the second, created at a formal recruiting center, never numbered more than ten recruits. The first company was hastily put into the trenches outside Richmond for a day in mid-March, but the unit canceled a parade scheduled for the end of the month due to the fact that the men lacked uniforms and rifles. Based on this, it is unclear how much fighting they could have done. The second unit was housed in a former prison and carefully watched by military police, suggesting that white Confederate officers did not trust these new black soldiers.”

    http://encyclopediavirginia.org/Black_Confederates#start_entry

    And one has to wonder, although it would be hard to prove, just how it came to be that the hospital orderlies “volunteered”. We don’t know the status of these men but we do know that the Confederacy did use slaves as orderlies. It would not be too difficult to imagine that they were just told they were enlisting despite what the white Confederate Surgeon F.W. Hancock, the only source, states. And it seems from Levine’s language in that section that he seems dubious of that also. It made little sense for the blacks to fight for the Confederacy at that point no matter what they were promised about freedom, all they had to do was wait for the Union Army for assured freedom, and they knew that. Jordan’s OK for gleaning his notes for sources, but I think I’ll stick with Levine on the topic.

  12. Spelunker March 20, 2015 / 4:57 am

    I found these two passages of General Order 14 especially pertinent to the discussion because theoretically there should be documentation of the large numbers of slaves that were conscripted:

    “The enlistment of colored persons under this act will be made upon printed forms, to be furnished for the purpose, similar to those established for the regular service. They will be executed in duplicate, one copy to be returned to this office for file.”

    “The superintendent in each State will cause a report to be made on the first Monday of every month showing the expenses of the previous month, the number of recruits at the various depots in the State, the number that has been sent away, and the destination of each. His report will show the names of all the slaves recruited, with their age, description, and the names of their masters. One copy will be sent to the General-in-Chief and one to the adjutant and Inspector General.”

    Does anyone know where we might find this documentation? Perhaps we should reach out to the Heritage crowd? I do believe they have already done a large amount of the leg work on this issue and likely have this information readily available to share.

  13. Spelunker March 20, 2015 / 5:17 am

    Harpers Weekly, March 11, 1865

    http://www.sonofthesouth.net/leefoundation/civil-war/1865/march/general-lee-slave-troops.htm

    “WE commend to our Copperhead friends, who have always sneered at the policy of enlisting colored soldiers, the report prepared by an Adjutant of General LEE’S. Now that the rebels concede the valor and value of such troops their allies at the North will agree that they are most excellent material for an army. Fort Wagner, Milliken’s Bend, Port Hudson, and every field upon which black troops have fought, could not prove their bravery and discipline ; but the word of LEE’S Adjutant will doubtless convince those who have never had any opinions until they received them from slave drivers.
    The paper of which we speak cites the conduct of the colored soldiers in our army, as well as the experience of every nation by which they have been employed, as proof of their peculiar fitness for the service. But the remarkable point of the document, which contains nothing new to those who are familiar with the question, is the admission throughout of the bitter wrong of slavery.

    The plan proposes to give immediate freedom to those who do best, not the promise of freedom at the end of the war to all who fight. This is offered as the highest conceivable incitement to bravery and fidelity. But how can it be so if the blacks were made for slaves, and are happy and contented in that condition? What kind of an incitement would it be to an ox to tell him that if he moved fast he should be thrown into the river at night ? How would a fish be stimulated by the promise of being laid in a clover pasture?
    Again, the plan argues elaborately to show that a soldier does not think ; that an army is a machine ; that discipline makes a man fight equally well upon any side. But what is the point of the argument ? Slavery being the divine appointment for all men of African descent, and being also the most delightful position for them, why rely upon discipline to prevent their thinking ? The more they think they are fighting to perpetuate their bondage the more heroically they will behave, if it be true that they are born for it.
    Since this debate was opened among the rebels, every word they say has convicted them of the consciousness of the foul injustice of slavery. It disproves every thing they have asserted about the colored race ; and how thoroughly contemptible it leaves the Northern toadies of the delectable system ! What says Bishop HOPKINS to this flying in the face of Providence ? What says the Reverend Mr. VAN DYCK to this departure from the divine ordination ? What have become of the curse upon HAM, and the conclusive precedent of ONESIMUS? Whither has disappeared the divine purpose indicated in heels and shin bones? The whole ghastly imposture collapses before the dire necessity of facts. They are as good men as we are, if they will only fight for us, cry the pale rebel chiefs as they feel the wind rushing before the coming of SHERMAN.”

  14. Spelunker March 20, 2015 / 6:48 am

    I also found this from the New York Herald, April 13, 1865:

    http://www.mdgorman.com/Written_Accounts/NYC_Papers/new_york_herald,_4_13_1865.htm

    “RECRUITS FOR THE ARMY.

    There were over three hundred negroes around the Capitol yesterday, trying to find out the officers who are to enlist them. The negroes here see the enviable condition of our colored troops, and they want to “in” at once, especially for the rations.”

    It’s difficult to find any information on individuals.

    • Andy Hall March 20, 2015 / 8:34 am

      It’s difficult to find any information on individuals.

      They weren’t especially perceived as individuals. In the Richmond Whig story above, they aren’t even credited surnames — instead it’s, “Bob, slave of Thos. Edmonds,” and the local authorities would only release them to the supervision of a Confederate officer, even after their status was established. Oh, and the newspaper suggested they should have to carry passes around with them, just like they would have carried to present to slave patrols in peacetime. Not really surprising, but it’s a shitty way to treat men who are expected to defend the country with their lives, if necessary.

      • Spelunker March 20, 2015 / 9:52 am

        Excellent point. There was little to
        no respect afforded to blacks at the time by the Confederacy. Consider these two letters:

        http://www.historynet.com/robert-e-lee-on-black-troops-and-the-confederacy-february-1998-civil-war-times-feature.htm

        “Harshness and contemptuous or offensive language or conduct to them must be forbidden and they should be made to forget as soon as possible that they were regarded as menials.”

        Even the venerated General Robert E. Lee was apparently a willing participant in the vast Northern conspiracy to debunk the Black Confederate myth? Will the carpetbaggers and scalawags stop at nothing to impose their version of history upon the honorable men and women of Dixie?

  15. Spelunker March 20, 2015 / 9:54 am

    I do think it would be a good idea to draw those who have done considerable work on the evidence of the Black Confederate soldier into the discussion so that they can share their research.

    • Bob Huddleston March 22, 2015 / 1:54 pm

      A few years ago, Dr. Tom Lowry posted a bet in _Civil War News_, offering $50 for each authenticated BC. Since it was his money, he set some guidelines. I don’t have the original letter to the editor, but he wanted documentary proof, in government records, that the BC was a duly enlisted soldier. I am guessing based on his $50 prize that Dr. Lowry expected to pay out for a few dozen BCs. And I expected he would have to. To my surprise, and I suspect to Dr. Lowry’s, no one could come up with a genuine BC. Most of the nominees were word of mouth or some Yankees claiming to have seen hundreds of BCs.

    • Andy Hall March 20, 2015 / 1:16 pm

      Collier is an interesting person. He is one of the very few men cited as a black Confederate whose wartime activities really do seem to cross that threshold into serving as a scout and soldier. Even though he was still in his teens, he was apparently a crack shot and an accomplished tracker. He gained a measure of fame in his later years as a hunting guide, with Teddy Roosevelt being among his patrons:

      http://www.civilwarmonitor.com/front-line/the-day-holt-collier-killed-hogzilla

      Contrary to the rank inscribed on his (modern) headstone, there’s no contemporary evidence that he was ever enlisted in the Confederate military, even though his skills were highly valued. He applied several times for a pension, claiming at different times to have been both a body servant and a soldier:

      http://deadconfederates.files.wordpress.com/2013/07/holtcollierpensionfiles.pdf

      So Collier is quite a story in his own right, but he’s distinctly unrepresentative of the men usually presented as “black Confederates.”

  16. Bob Huddleston March 22, 2015 / 1:56 pm

    In any event, against a hundred, or maybe less, BCs, there were the 186,000 United States’ Colored Troops, almost all of whom were residents of slave states, and, indeed, most were former slaves. Another 15-20,000 African-Americans served in the United States Navy during the Civil War. And there were something on the order of 100,000 white men, residents of the seceded states, who chose to wear Union Blue.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s