Were there significant numbers of black troops who fought for the Confederacy in the Civil War? Many today who identify with the “Lost Cause” interpretation of Southern history believe there were.
Yet, the historical record is clear that if there were any black soldiers fighting on the Southern side, the Confederates themselves didn’t know about it.
By the start of 1865, many high-ranking Confederates recognized that their armies had lost so many men that, unless something changed, they were on the brink of losing their fight for independence. They began to quietly suggest that slaves should be enrolled in Southern armies, and given (or at least promised) their freedom if they fought well. Robert E. Lee, the most trusted voice in the South at the time, publicly advocated that course as an absolute necessity if the Confederacy was to stave off imminent military defeat.
Public reaction to the talk of having blacks fight for the Confederacy showed clearly that nobody in the South, even at that late point in the war, thought there were black troops already in the ranks. And for most secessionists, putting arms into the hands of slaves, thus elevating their status to some level of equality with whites, would be a denial of the very grounds upon which they seceded in the first place [see What Confederates Said Caused the Civil War]. They would rather go down fighting to keep blacks slaves and nothing more, than win independence at the cost of radically changing the social relationship between blacks and whites.
That absolute unwillingness to even contemplate the use of blacks as Confederate soldiers was the subject of an editorial in the January 13, 1865 issue of the Charleston Mercury newspaper. South Carolina had been the instigator of secession before being joined by other slave-holding states. Calling the very concept of employing blacks as soldiers “lunacy,” the Mercury wanted to make it clear that South Carolina would never accept that idea, no matter what her compatriot states did.
The Charleston Mercury, January 13, 1865
The wild talk prevalent in the official and the semi-official organs at Richmond grates harshly upon the ear of South Carolina. It is still more grievous to her to hear the same unmanly proposition from those in authority in the old State of Virginia…
In 1860 South Carolina seceded along from the old union of States. Her people, in Convention assembled, invited the slaveholding States (none others) of the old Union to join her in erecting a separate Government of Slave States, for the protection of their common interests. All of the slave States, with the exception of Maryland and Kentucky, responded to her invitation. The Southern Confederacy of slave States was formed.
It was on account of encroachments upon the institution of slavery by the sectional majority of the old Union, that South Carolina seceded from that Union. It is not at this late day, after the loss of thirty thousand of her best and bravest men in battle, that she will suffer it to be bartered away; or ground between the upper and nether mill stones, by the madness of Congress, or the counsels of shallow men elsewhere.
By the compact we made with Virginia and the other States of this Confederacy, South Carolina will stand to the bitter end of destruction. By that compact she intends to stand or to fall. Neither Congress, nor certain make shift men in Virginia, can force upon her their mad schemes of weakness and surrender. She stands upon her institutions–and there she will fall in their defence. We want no Confederate Government without our institutions. And we will have none.–Sink or swim, live or die, we stand by them, and are fighting for them this day. That is the ground of our fight–it is well that all should understand it at once. Thousands and tens of thousands of the bravest men, and the best blood of this State, fighting in the ranks, have left their bones whitening on the bleak hills of Virginia in this cause. We are fighting for our system of civilization–not for buncomb, or for Jeff. Davis. We intend to fight for that, or nothing…
The soldiers of South Carolina will not fight beside a [the “N” word] — to talk of emancipation is to disband our army. We are free men, and we chose to fight for ourselves–we want no slaves to fight for us. Skulkers, money lenders, money makers, and blood-suckers, alone will tolerate the idea. It is the man who won’t fight himself, who wants his N- to fight for him, and to take his place in the ranks.
Put that man in the ranks. And do it at once. Control your armies–put men of capacity in command, re-establish confidence–enforce thorough discipline–and there will be found men enough, and brave men enough to defeat a dozen Sherman’s. Falter and hack at the root of the Confederacy–our institutions–our civilization–and you kill the cause as dead as a boiled crab…
Will Virginia stand by us as of old in this rugged pathway? We will not fail her in the shadow of a hair. But South Carolina will fight upon no other platform, than that she laid down in 1860.
After much debate, in March of 1865 some slaves were finally put into training, and allowed to parade around the streets of Richmond. But it was much too little and much too late. The war was over before the experiment of putting black Confederates into combat could be tried. No organized body of black troops ever fought for the Confederacy.
© 2014 Ronald E. Franklin