Recently the news was full of the fact that VA’s fourth grade history textbook described large numbers of black men serving in uniform for the confederacy. The claim is these slaves were loyal to their masters and fought to preserve slavery. This is simply absurd: it’s wishful thinking.
It’s true that late in the war, Confederate politicians and editors began talking about the possibility of arming slaves. This editorial, from a Jackson Mississippi newspaper in late 1863, is typical:
“We are forced by the necessity of our condition to take a step which is revolting to every sentiment of pride and to every principle that governed our institutions before the war..we can make them fight better than the Yankees are able to do. Masters and overseers can marshal them for battle by the same authority and habit of obedience with which they are marshaled to labor”[1. McPherson, Battle Cry of Freedom,p. 831]
On thing to notice here is that even though this editor seems to favor enlisting slaves, he never imagines they will freely choose to fight: they will have to be forced.
Did some slaves fight for the Confederacy? Well, consider that the Confederate Congress completely banned the enlistment of slaves until March 16, 1865. Lee surrendered three weeks later. They only considered enlisting slaves as a desperate necessity, and even then:
“Referring particularly to the employment of negroes as soldiers [Mississippi Congressman H.C.] Chambers said that he was “ashamed to debate the question. All nature cries out against it. The negro was ordained to slavery by the Almighty. Emancipation would be the destruction of our political and social system. God forbid that this Trojan horse should be introduced among us.” [John] Goode of Virginia was opposed to the suggested use of the negroes because it was “a confession of weakness to the enemy”; because he thought “it would end in abolition”; and because it was ‘degrading to our men.'” [2. Thomas Robson Hay, “The Question of Arming the Slaves,” in Mississippi Valley Historical Review, June, 1919 v. 6]
Even though General Lee in January 1865 requested that the CSA Congress enlist slaves, they still resisted the idea. Howell Cobb of Georgia in January of 1865 called the use of negroes as soldiers “the most pernicious idea that has been suggested since the war began,” continuing, “you cannot make soldiers of slaves or slaves of soldiers. . . . The day you make soldiers of them is the beginning of the revolution. If slaves will make good soldiers, our whole theory of slavery is wrong.”[3. Hay, “The Question of Arming the Slaves.” p. 63]
So even in November of 1864, when the rebel army was starving, and in desperate straits, the CSA congress still opposed enlisting slaves, and it was not legal to do so until March of 1865.
So where does the claim of black Confederate soldiers come from?
Well, when Richmond fell the Union Army did find some partial companies of slaves who were training as soldiers–the exact number is unclear, 200 at most, says David Blight.[4. http://www.davidwblight.com/levine.htm]
The single biggest source for this, though, is very startling and worth looking at. Northern Dr. Lewis H. Steiner witnessed the Confederate capture of Frederick, MD in 1862. Steiner wrote “Over 3,000 Negroes must be included in this number [of Confederate troops]. These were clad in all kinds of uniforms, not only in cast-off or captured United States uniforms, but in coats with Southern buttons, State buttons, etc. These were shabby, but not shabbier or seedier than those worn by white men in the rebel ranks. Most of the Negroes had arms, rifles, muskets, sabers, bowie-knives, dirks, etc…..and were manifestly an integral portion of the Southern Confederate Army.”[5. Lewis H. Steiner, Report of Lewis Henry Steiner, inspector of the Sanitary Commission, containing a diary kept during the rebel occupation of Frederick, Md. (Washington DC 1862) p. 19-20]
People who want to believe that loyal slaves fought for the Confederacy take this very strong account, and assume that it represents the average number of black soldiers in the Confederate Army, and conclude that as many as 50,000 black men fought for the confederacy! [6. http://www.usgennet.org/usa/mo/county/stlouis/blackcs.htm]
There are all sorts of problems with this. A: was Steiner right about the number? B: was he right that he saw soldiers, and not slaves in support units? C: can you extrapolate what he saw to apply to the rest of the Confederate Army D: what was Steiner’s agenda?
Steiner’s account, which can be read on Google Books, is worth examining. Steiner was a partisan: a dedicated Yankee, his account of the Confederate Army is clearly designed to ridicule and belittle. He mocks the CSA soldiers for being dirty and ill smelling. He writes, of the black soldiers: “The fact was patent, and rather interesting when considered in connection with the horror rebels express at the suggestion of black soldiers being employed for the National defence.” Was he reporting an accurate number, or trying to mock the CSA and its Army? It’s also worth noting that Steiner’s account describes Howell Cobb, quoted above, as marching into Frederick with this column of 3000 black troops–the same Howell Cobb who would write, less than three years later: “you cannot make soldiers of slaves or slaves of soldiers. . . . The day you make soldiers of them is the beginning of the revolution. If slaves will make good soldiers, our whole theory of slavery is wrong.” Can Steiner be right?
Meanwhile, none of the other accounts from the occupation of Frederick support this observation. None of the confederate soldiers who were at Fredrick write about black Confederate soldiers–in fact, as Chandra Manning points out, white CSA soldiers were for the most part strongly opposed to using slaves in the Army. And again, there’s the fact that the govt. of the CSA forbid the enlistment of slaves in 1862, when Frederick fell.
There are no accounts from natives of Frederick of describing 3000 armed black men in town. There are very few accounts from northern soldiers of black troops in arms for the CSA. And keep in mind Civil War battles were heavily covered by reporters. Frederick is not far from Washington. There are no contemporary accounts from reporters of large numbers of armed black soldiers in the CSA.
So we have a case of one source–Steiner–being taken as gospel and then enlarged to the point where it has turned into 50,ooo black soldiers, approximately 1/3 the total CSA Army in 1865.
It’s a case of wish fulfillment. People want to believe in black Confederates, and they reuse to let historical evidence stand in their way. It’s possible some black men fought for the confederacy: it’s a big country, there are a lot of people in it with a lot of motives. It’s very likely some slaves and possibly free blacks served in support positions and as servants. Nostalgia, after the war, might remember that service as soldiering. To turn it into a large scale phenomenon of black men fighting for the Confederacy, you have to ignore the facts.