James A. Garfield’s Black Confederates

It amuses me when people who claim to be familiar with my writings claim that I have asserted that there were no African Americans in Confederate service, and that none donned the uniform of a Confederate soldier. Such claims reflect poorly on their ability as researchers and call into question their own interpretations of historical evidence.

So let me complicate their lives still more. On May 27, 1862, James A. Garfield, an officer attached to the headquarters of the 20th Brigade, wrote home to his beloved wife Crete about Jim, an African American who had come into his lines the previous January 10 at the conclusion of the battle of Middle Creek, Kentucky. I’ll let Garfield tell the tale:


Note that Jim was the servant of an officer, but that when Garfield encountered him, he was in uniform and carrying a weapon. Would that make him a deserter? A prisoner? Or simply a fugitive slave?

You can find this letter on page 102 of Frederick D. Williams, ed., The Wild Life of the Army: Civil War Letters of James A. Garfield (East Lansing: Michigan State University Press, 1964).

And that’s not all. The following March Garfield told his wife that at the battle of Thompson’s Station, Tennessee, on March 5, 1863, it “appears that the rebels had two Negro regiments against us in that fight.” It would be interesting to see whether the Confederate generals at that engagement, including Earl Van Dorn and Nathan Bedford Forrest, made mention of those regiments, which would have been cavalry regiments.

Enjoy a happy new year.


29 thoughts on “James A. Garfield’s Black Confederates

  1. davidrasch January 1, 2017 / 6:12 am

    I am well aware of slaves who stood by their masters, so much sothat there was no insurrection after the fighting. Slave narratives tell of slaves who stayed with their masters for years. I never came across units of slaves, only individuals who served their master or his sons during the fighting.

  2. TFSmith January 1, 2017 / 7:20 am

    He was an escaped slave, obviously, since he had no agency to volunteer. Armed or not, a slave is a slave.

    • davidrasch January 3, 2017 / 6:30 am

      I am aware slavery fueled the southern economy, doing the greater share of agriculture and an increasing share of mechanics. This helps the war effort as much as a gun. I do not doubt slaves fought as soldiers, especially during sieges such ad Petersburg. But where to find info to put bones and flesh to this?

      • TFSmith January 3, 2017 / 1:40 pm

        As far as “slaves fighting as soldiers,” Kevin Levin is writing a scholarly study of the issue as we speak; given that there’s never been an unequivocal case of an individual southerner of identifiably African ancestry offering their services voluntarily to the rebellion and being accepted, it’s a demonstrably provable fact that none did so, despite the protestations of neo-confederates and slavery apologists for the past three decades.

        As far as slave labor goes, one can make the same statement about Traveler and Little Sorrel, which doesn’t make either of them a soldier, does it?

        • davidrasch January 4, 2017 / 5:36 am

          I’m reading ‘This Republic of Suffering’ and it strikes me that with so few Confederates identified let alone decently buried it’s no small matter slaves would be ignored. Only survivors could speak.

    • Ned January 7, 2017 / 12:11 pm

      “no agency to volunteer” — can the same be said of conscripts?

      • Jeffry Burden January 10, 2017 / 7:51 pm

        Not fundamentally. The basic idea is that a citizen of a nation-state can be compelled to serve as part of his obligation as a citizen — kind of a quid pro quo for all the rights and benefits he obtains by virtue of that citizenship. He may not be happy about it, but the theory is that military service is part of what he owes back to the State. As a contrary example, I as a US citizen could be living in Germany now, and never be compelled to serve in that army. Black residents of the antebellum South, even free blacks, were most decidedly not “citizens” in any meaningful sense of the word, and had no requisite obligation — in fact, for them to serve in the armed forces was a violation of C.S.A. law.

      • TFSmith January 11, 2017 / 9:26 pm

        Conscription in a period of national emergency, enacted constitutionally through law by the duly elected representatives of the people, was (and is) a duty for the free, citizens and otherwise. The enslaved were not free. Is this really that difficult for you to grasp?

        • Ned January 13, 2017 / 12:06 am

          Not difficult to grasp at all. Slave and conscript alike were compelled to be part of the war effort. “Agency” indicates choice, which neither category had. Contrary to your post above, one does not have to offer “their services voluntarily to the rebellion” in order to fight as soldiers.

          • John Foskett January 13, 2017 / 8:11 am

            Um, the slaves were conscripted for life, 24/7. If you’re conscripted for military service it’s, like, temporary and part of the citizenship which otherwise gives you a bundle of extensive rights. But you would appear to lump Confederate conscripts (there were some) and slaves together. By the way, the apologists who push this ahistorical junk want everyone to swallow the contrivance that there were numerous black Confederates who performed voluntary service. I haven’t looked at it but I’d wager that slaves were not subject to the CSA conscription law. Actually, therefore, they were better off than were the poor draftees – right?

          • hankc9174 January 13, 2017 / 2:19 pm

            remember, the conscript could hire a substitute and men holding 20 or more slaves were exempt. regardless, conscription did not apply to blacks as they were not citizens.

          • TFSmith January 13, 2017 / 9:20 pm

            Conscripts were free; if citizens, by definition, have the ability to vote for the representatives who adopted conscription as policy. They also had the right to hire a substitute, if they so chose to, ask for CO status, protest, and, of course, in 1861-65, they had the right to travel to territories where conscription was not imposed. If non-citizen residents, by definition, they had the right to leave the US and return to their home nation, or hire a substitute, or head west.

            Slaves, of course, had none of these rights, or representation, any more than Little Sorrel or Traveler did…

            As much as slavery apologists may wish to deny these realities, they are just that: reality.

            Try again, Reb.

  3. Ken Noe January 1, 2017 / 9:02 am

    Confederates were allowed to draw uniforms for their enslaved servants, so that doesn’t tell us anything. He certainly presented himself as an escaping slave. What I remember most about that section of the letters is that Garfield admired Jim much more than local whites, whom he described as not worth the price of the bullet needed to kill them.

    As for Thompson’s Station, Garfield wasn’t there, and most of the Federals who were ended up as prisoners. So it would be interesting to know who told him that.

  4. John Foskett January 1, 2017 / 11:41 am

    I think we know the answer to your question regarding Van Dorn and Forrest. It’s remarkable how these sizable units of “black Confederates” escaped notice by their commanding officers. Talk about being color-blind. As Ken points out, Garfield, performing duties on Rosecrans’ staff, could not have personally observed these troops in action.

  5. Joshism January 1, 2017 / 7:20 pm

    A great example that a black man in a Confederate uniform with a gun does not a Confederate soldier make. Sounds like he was a slave who made his escape to freedom at what he felt was the first good opportunity.

  6. Michael Bradley January 8, 2017 / 1:26 pm

    The 25th Tennessee Infantry enlisted at Tullahoma, TN, the town where i live. An examination of the enlistment papers of this unit shows 20 names marked “Free Negro” (names appended at the end of this post). These men were assigned rank and placed on the rolls of eight companies, as many as five in Co. A and I and only one in D, E, G, and H, so there is no doubt they were soldiers.
    The service record of one notes he died at the training camp and was buried there.

    The 17th Tennessee, another local regiment, has enlistment papers for three men who were recorded as “Free Negro”. They were a father and two sons. One of the sons died in a hospital in Knoxville on December 4, 1861, while the others served until discharged because of poor health in the spring of 1863. They fought at Fishing Creek, Corinth, Mumfordville, Perryville, and Stones River.

    When I learned that Mr. Kevin Levin was researching the topic of Black Confederated I sent him these names and he acknowledged their receipt on his blog. I do not know what use he has made of the information since.

    The service records of these men are available on Fold3.

    Instead of speculating about who was/was not a Black Confederate soldier and now many of them they were we need to recognize that the answer is available, although accessible only through tedious investigation. An examination of the service records of Confederate soldiers will give an approximate count of how many African Americans volunteered to serve in the Confederate forces. This is a daunting task but the question of Black Confederates deserves more scholarly attention and careful investigation than it has yet received.

    25th Tennessee
    Co. A John Hale, James Harris, William Alban Harris, Abner Rickman, Micajah Scott
    Co. B. Grunton B. Alexander, Rufus Harris
    Co. C William Burgess, Joseph Rickman, Joseph A. Rickman, Alex Scott, Rufus Worley
    Co. D German Anderson
    Co. E James Farley
    Co. G John Cummings
    Co. H Sampson Allley
    Co. I James Fields, William Gibson, Levi Oxendine (died at training camp), L. Walker

    17th Tennessee
    Co. I Andrew Jackson Chavers, Nathan Chavers, Samuel Chavers (died of fever at Knoxville)

      • Michael Bradley January 9, 2017 / 7:46 am

        Your assumption is incorrect. I have seen the original documents and I have spoken personally with the descendants of the Chavers family. The family claims to be of mixed African American and Native American ancestry. They are listed in the census records as “Negro”.

      • BorderRuffian January 9, 2017 / 9:53 am

        Andrew, Nathan and Samuel Chavis (instead of Chavers) appear in the 1850 Census as “mulatto.” They are within the same family unit. On some of the Confederate rolls they are listed as “Chavis.” I have often seen these names (Chavers/Chavis) associated with persons of Native American and/or African descent.

      • David January 9, 2017 / 2:40 pm

        I vaguely remember reading the Confederate government offered freedom to any slave who fought in the army.

        • Brooks D. Simpson January 9, 2017 / 11:26 pm

          I’m afraid that really isn’t a basis upon which to base a meaningful contribution to this conversation. I could just as easily respond, “I vaguely remember where someone disproved that claim.”

        • Andy Hall January 10, 2017 / 9:01 am

          They didn’t. Robert E. Lee, in endorsing the enlistment of slaves near the end of the war, urged that to be one of the provisions adopted, but the Confederate Congress didn’t follow through on that. In fact, the final clause of the legislation adopted in mid-March 1865 — just a couple of weeks or so before Richmond fell — read, “nothing in this act shall be construed to authorize a change in the relation which the said slaves shall bear toward their owners, except by consent of the owners and of the States in which they may reside, and in pursuance of the laws thereof.” So their ultimate status was left to their owners, regardless of their service to the government.

          • BorderRuffian January 11, 2017 / 7:23 am

            From the order issued by the war department-

            “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.”

          • Shoshana Bee January 13, 2017 / 10:58 pm

            ““nothing in this act shall be construed to authorize a change in the relation which the said slaves shall bear toward their owners, except by consent of the owners and of the States in which they may reside, and in pursuance of the laws thereof.”


            I wish there was some sort of permanent cut and paste function, so that I could instantly regurgitate this quote any and every time I hear, see, read the tiresome claim that the “CSA was beginning the practice of gradual emancipation of slaves” blah blah blah. I just made a lttle Word file with just this quote, so that I can lob it into the delusionary universe that is the neo-confederate Lost Cause wasp nest.

  7. Michael Bradley January 8, 2017 / 1:34 pm

    Another hint about the existence of Black Confederate soldiers are the programs of reunions of the United Confederate Veterans (UCV). This organization had a template to be used by communities planning to host reunions the UCV, telling the host towns what committees needed to be formed and what these committees needed to do. One of these committees was “Committee on Housing for Colored Veterans and Servants.”

    First, the UCV distinguished between “veterans” and “servants.”
    Second, there must have been “colored” veterans, else no housing would have been required.
    Third, “colored” would have been used to describe Native American and Hispanic veterans.

    While the existence of this committee does not demonstrate the existence of African American Confederate veterans it does provide an interesting hint about their existence.

    • Kristoffer January 8, 2017 / 9:03 pm

      You say “Third, “colored” would have been used to describe Native American and Hispanic veterans,” then jump from the existence of Native American and Hispanic veterans to the possibility of the existence of black veterans, for… what reason?

  8. Michael Bradley January 9, 2017 / 7:51 am

    The term “colored”, as used in the 19th and 20th centuries, was used to describe any person who was not Caucasian Therefore, the UCV may have meant Native American veterans, Hispanic veterans, OR African American veterans. It is not wise to draw a conclusion about who was covered by the term until there is evidence; but “colored” was used to describe African Americans and may have been so used in this context. .

  9. Michael Bradley January 10, 2017 / 7:50 am

    While I am pleased that there is some discussion of the Chavers/Chavis family I had hoped there would be some response to the proposal that there should be a thorough examination of service records of Confederate soldiers to arrive at an estimate of how many Black Confederates enrolled and how long they served.

    I think this is a project which someone with History majors and Graduate Students might take on.
    Perhaps a group of interested historians could cooperate to make such a survey.

    I hope those whose profession of Civil War history will move beyond looking at isolated individuals and finally go to the original source documents to investigate this question.

    • Brooks D. Simpson January 10, 2017 / 6:13 pm

      And perhaps someone will take this on … someone with sufficient interest as well as history majors and graduate students. I have none of these readily at my disposal.

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 )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ 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 )


Connecting to %s