Virginia and the Black Confederates

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.]

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.]

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.


  • So glad you addressed this! When I read the WP article, I wondered what the “watercooler” conversations at Mason would be like. I’m curious as your thoughts on VA’s textbook adoption process.

  • […] This post was mentioned on Twitter by Tad Suiter, Mike O'Malley. Mike O'Malley said: Did black men fight for the Confederacy? […]

  • theraven wrote:

    I certainly agree that it is absolutely absurd to argue that large numbers of black men fought for the Confederacy. But I have an idea of where this may have come from. Although black men didn’t fight on the front lines, I’ve read many times (and it makes sense) that thousands of slaves were pressed into menial labor for the confederacy’s war effort: digging graves or trenches, serving officers, etc. So technically they were “serving” the Confederacy. And the uniforms could simply be a result of slaves needing clothes and finding them on dead soldiers. In other words, the words “large numbers of black men served the Confederacy” could technically be true – black men who were slaves being forced to serve. However, the way it is being presented as a choice of black men, as a form of loyalty, fighting on the front lines is complete bunk.

    I also see this argument as an outgrowth of propaganda very useful both then and now. The Confederacy was able to fudge the details enough to argue that slaves and black men were actually on their side, which could be terrifying to those northerners who were fighting for “union” and not equality. What is upsetting is that it doesn’t seem that we have moved beyond 19th-century propaganda.

  • Meredith wrote:

    We’ve been discussion the Civil War in collective memory lately, so I’m going to share this with my class. Nicely done!

  • Excellent job.

  • I’ve been trying to remember where I saw a quote about the shelling of Petersburg or Fredericksburg, where black residents were angry at Union troops for shelling their homes – they weren’t necessarily loyal to the Confederacy but their homes were being invaded and attacked by a hostile force. This argument doesn’t have to be about “loyalty” – in fact, I think there comes a point when “loyalty” only muddies the water.

    The argument is an ideological one rather than a factual one, and this quote, and the points that theraven brought up above, are unfortunately distorted for ideological purposes. I think theraven made an excellent point – the truly upsetting point about this whole thing is that we are still being subjected to 19th century propaganda. I think that one of our jobs as responsible historians is to set the record straight in cases like this.

  • Thank you for this post. How ironic is it that the mental image of thousands of armed slaves became, at some point, an exercise in wish fulfillment for neo-Confederates? When did that particular piece of mental gymnastics take place?

  • […] as history blogger Aporetic points out, Steiner’s observation is included in a larger work that mocks the Confederates generally, is […]

  • […] And this skep­ti­cism about peer review among the gen­eral pub­lic is not just some momen­tary blip: because global warm­ing skep­tics  and Nazi reen­ac­tors can find any kind of agree­able crap on the inter­net, they have no rea­son to depend on or accept the wis­dom of peer reviewed aca­d­e­mics. And so  we find our­selves in a sit­u­a­tion, here in Vir­ginia for exam­ple,  where the State’s fourth grade text­book cur­rently claims Stonewall Jack­son com­manded two bat­tal­ions of black Confederates. […]

  • BorderRuffian wrote:

    Steiner did not say the 3,000 were soldiers (though some may have been)…but he did say most were armed. Shocking!

    Check Fremantle’s account- _Three Months in the Southern States_.

    As far as numbers are concerned it agrees with Steiner.

  • ??? I just looked at Freemantle–it’s on Google books. I cannot see how it agrees with Steiner. For one thing, it does not mention Frederick, and I could find no mention at all of black Confederate soldiers.

    Do you have any specific citations? Page numbers?

  • For anyone interested, the full text of Fremantle’s “three years” is here:

    Fremantle was an English lord who toured the SCA during the war. He gives many accounts of slaves professing loyalty, but he does not mention slaves in the Army of the SCA, not does he mention Frederick, MD, so I’m not sure he can be said to agree with Steiner in any way. But the text is there, look for yourselves

  • BorderRuffian wrote:

    It’s not the same campaign but it’s the same army (Lee’s). One account is in Sept. 1862, the other in June 1863.

    Steiner’s estimate was 3,000 blacks in a total force of 64,000 – about 5%.

    Fremantle observed part (two brigades) of Lee’s army on the march during the Gettysburg Campaign. 3,000 men in eight regiments. He estimated 20 to 30 blacks attached to each regiment. That would be at least 160 (20 x 8). The 160 represents about 5%.

    The percentage is consistent.

  • You need to be more specific, friend. Fremantle was in the US from April through July 16, 1863–he cannot have been posting from the US in September.

    From what source are you getting this?

    Look at the document I posted above, the full text of his book. He arrives April 2 and leaves July 16, 1863. There are no September entries.

  • BorderRuffian wrote:

    “There are all sorts of prob­lems with this. A: was Steiner right about the num­ber?”

    He was far more accurate than Pinkerton who estimated the Confederate army at 200,000.

  • BorderRuffian wrote:

    “You need to be more spe­cific, friend. Fre­man­tle was in the US from April through July 16, 1863–he can­not have been post­ing from the US in September.”

    Read my post.

  • What post?

    You are not being at all clear about your sources for these claims

  • BorderRuffian wrote:

    This one-

    “It’s not the same cam­paign but it’s the SAME ARMY (LEE’S)…”

  • And now, we have a member of Mason’s Econ Dept. playing dress-up as an historian:

  • […] many many errors in the his­tory texts used in the  Vir­ginia pub­lic schools, includ­ing the really nasty one about the black con­fed­er­ates but many many more.  But what’s really ter­ri­ble about it isn’t the wrong dates. It’s the […]

  • This article overlooks a large amount of historical evidence. The fact that several thousand blacks fought for the Confederacy is documented in official Union reports, in letters from Union soldiers, and in Northern and Southern newspapers, among other sources. I document this in my article “Black Confederates, Political Correctness, and a Virginia Textbook”:

    Even black abolitionist Frederick Douglass complained, in writing, that there were “many” black Confederate combat troops, and he added that this was “pretty well established.”

  • The Steiner evidence is really highly suspect–for the reasons I mentioned, which you seem not to have read. He has Howell Cobb marching into Frederick: the same Howell Cobb who, two years later, would be vehemently talking about arming black men as an experiment that must never be tried. Cobb talks as if he has never seen a black soldier in a Confed. uniform, which means that either Cobb is lying in 1865, or Steiner is wrong. There are no other mentions to back up Steiner.

    There is no doubt that some black men served the confederacy. I do not believe they were armed. If out of the 4 million African Americans in the South, 4000 served the Confederacy directly, it amounts to small beans at best. And of course, your evidence doesn’t get to motive–it presumes that they fought for the confederacy, rather than for specific local gains.

  • You don’t believe they were armed?

    “They had twenty pieces of artillery, among which was the Richmond Howitzer Battery, manned by negroes.”

    Source from Colonel John W. Phelps (1st Vermont Infantry):

    “There were also quite a number of negroes attached to the Texas and Georgia troops, who were armed and equipped, and took part in the several engagements with my forces during the day.”

    Source from John G. Parkhurst (9th Michigan Infantry):

    “It had to be prosecuted under the fire of the enemy’s sharpshooters, protected as well as the men might be by our skirmishers on the bank, who were ordered to keep up so vigorous a fire that the enemy should not dare to lift their heads above their rifle-pits; but the enemy, and especially their armed negroes, did dare to rise and fire, and did serious execution upon our men.”

    Source from Brigadier General D. Stuart (U.S. Army 4th Brigade and Second Division):;cc=moawar;q1=rise%20and%20fire;rgn=full%20text;idno=waro0024;didno=waro0024;view=image;seq=0652

    Those are a couple pieces of evidence about it. Also found from interviews given to ex-slaves in the early 1900’s is the following:
    Texas Narratives, Volume XVI, Part 1: Pgs 194

    James Café (ex-slave)

    “One day Marster Bob comes to me and says, ‘Jim, how you like to jine de army?’ You see, de war had started. I says to him, ‘What does I have to do?’ And he says, ‘Tend hosses and ride ‘em.’ I was young den and thought it would be lots of fun, so I says I’d go. So de first think I knows, I’s in de army away off east from here, somewhar dis side of St. Louis and in Tennessee and Arkansas and other places. I goes in de army ‘stead of Dr. Carroll.

    After I gits in de army, it wasn’t so much fun, ‘cause tendin’ hosses and ridin’ wasn’ all I does. No, sar, I has to do shootin’ and git shooted at! One time we stops de train, takes Yankee money and lots of other things off dat train. Dat was way up de other side of Tennessee.”
    Alabama Narratives, Volume I: Pgs 270-271

    Tom McAlpin (ex-slave)

    “Dem niggers fought right side of dere masters. Some went as body guards an’ some went as soldiers.”
    South Carolina Narratives, Volume XIV, Part 2: Pgs 247 & 249-251

    Charlie Harvey (Charlie appears to be a born freeman whose father was an ex-slave before the ACW)

    “When I was twelve, my father went to the Confederate War. He joined the Holcombe Legion of Union County and they went immediately to Charleston.

    My own father was shot down for the first time at the Second Battle of Manassas. Here he got a lick over his left eye that was about the size of a bullet, but he said that he thought the lick came from a bit of shell. They carried him to a temporary make-shift hospital that had been improvised behind the breastworks. A soldier who was recovering from a wound nursed him as best he could.

    The second time my father was wounded was in Kingston, N. C. He shot a Yankee from behind a tree and he saw the blood spurt from him as he fell. Just about that time he saw another Yankee behind a tree leveling a gun at him. Father threw up his gun but too late, the Yankee shot and tore his arm all to pieces. The bullet went through his arm and struck the corner of his mouth knocking out part of his jaw bone. Then it went under the neck vein and finally it came out on his back knocking a hole in one of his shoulder blades large enough to lay your two thumbs in. His gun stock was also cut into. He lay on the battlefield for a whole day and night; then he was carried to a house where some kind ladies acting as nurses cared for him for over four months. He was sent home and dismissed from the army just a mile below Maybinton, S. C. in Newberry County.

    I think Abe Lincoln would have done the South some good if they had let him live. He had a kind heart and knew what suffering was. Lee would have won the war if the mighty Stonewall Jackson had lived. Stonewall was ahead of them all. I had two uncles, Jipp and Charlie Clark in Stonewall’s company. They would never talk much about him after his death. It hurt them too much, for Stonewall’s men loved him so much. Jeff Davis was a great man, too.”

  • I think I’ll make a post about this

  • […] slaves, he never imag*ines they will freely choose to fight: they will have to be forced. Virginia and the Black Confederates – The Aporetic Yep, love the way they were gently asked to fight to remain in bondage. You further attempt to […]

  • May I please offer one small bit of information? (Note: while I believe there had to be some blacks fighting for the South in no way do I believe there was a large number). The arguement here and else where it is said in part “there’s the fact that the govt. of the CSA for­bid the enlist­ment of slaves…”. Stop me if I am wrong but wasn’t it not too long ago that it was against the law to be gay and in the service? Gary.

  • Yes but being gay isn’t outwardly visible in the way that being black is. There is no way that a “don’t ask don’t tell” policy would have worked. They hardly seem comparable, in less you want to argue that there were thousands of secretly black people in whiteface makeup and wigs

  • […] as history blogger Aporetic points out, Steiner’s observation is included in a larger work that mocks the Confederates generally, is […]

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