In a variety of ways, ranging from the popular movie Glory, to a planned memorial in Washington, D.C., African-American soldiers who fought for the Union during the Civil War have begun to receive the praise and recognition they have long deserved. But there were other African-Americans who fought in the Civil War who have been largely forgotten — those who fought on the side of the Confederacy.
Throughout the entire war, the slaves worked as noncombatant soldiers. Working as cooks, launders, medics, and carriers, the African-Americans were involved in the war that was meant to make them slaves (Geary, 68-69). In addition to serving as laborers, African-Americans fought for the South even in the beginning of the war, filling in companies and regiments all through the country (Pohanka 74-77). Although they were not formally recognized as were the whites. Newspapers at the time report African-American units serving with southern militia at Charleston, South Carolina; Mobile, Alabama; Nashville, Tennessee; New Orleans, Louisiana; Bowling Green, Kentucky; and Lynchburg, Virginia (Coulter, 106).
While most slaves longed for the freedom the North promised, those who fought for the South preferred the familiarity of their homes to the strange, new, and sometimes hostile and racist world of the North (Jordan, 86-87). Also, the opportunity for the slaves to fight meant getting away from the hardships that they were enforced to endure every day on the plantations. Many slaves had grown accustom to their surroundings in the South, and had no education or training to perform any other task but what they had been bought to perform. Due to the offer of freedom by the Confederate leaders, some of the Southern slaves looked forward to the chance of fighting in the war (Lyman, 325-327). Nevertheless, despite all these reasons for the Southern slaves to fight for the Confederacy, they do not prove that the slaves believed in the cause of the South. In fact many of the Southern slaves were anti-Confederacy, and some of the slaves dwelled upon their hatred toward the Southerners.
For a long time, the Confederate government resisted the formal inclusion of African-American soldiers within their army’s ranks (Coulter, 101-102). The Southerners were force to face many demoralizing decisions. For instance, the slaveowner’s believed that after forcing the slaves to fight for their racist freedom, they could never look the slaves in the eyes again, knowing that they owed their captive slaves their freedom (Higginson, 209-211). Also, if the Congress allowed for the enlistment of African-Americans in the Confederate Army and it failed due to lack of participation from the slaves, the conflict in the South would be aggravated even more, and the North would win yet another moral victory. Many reasons not to enroll the slaves lingered in the back of Confederate leaders’ minds, and morally the whites could never ask the slaves to fight for their captivity.
Yet, the quest for men had come full circle. The war dragged on, and the Confederacy eventually loosened its grip on the institution of slavery, and even considered offering the slaves their freedom in exchange for their taking up arms for the South. Possibly the final straw that helped the leaders make their final decision to arm the African-American slaves was a remark made by General Robert E. Lee, commander of the Confederate Army of Northern Virginia, “My own opinion is that we should employ [African-American soldiers] without delay (Jordan, 86).” Finally on March 13th 1865, the slaves were armed for the South by a law passed in the Confederate Congress. Still, no formal agreement of freedom was ever made to the slaves who chose to fight (Pohanka, 76).
Confederate Major General Patrick Cleburne wrote, “By arming the African-American man and training him and making him fight for his country, every consideration of principle and policy demands that we shall set him and his whole race, who side with us, free” (McPherson, 117).
Another stunning remark by a well respected Southerner, Confederate Secretary of War Judah P. Benjamin, he wrote, “The Negroes will certainly be made to fight against us if not for our defense … if they are to fight for our freedom, they are entitled to their own” (Rice, 36).
These statements by beloved leaders of the South are proof that the Southerners knew that if they were to arm the slaves and ask them to fight, the slaves deserved to be free. However, history did not stand to show what would have really happened had South won the war.
After the Confederate President Jefferson Davis signed the “Negro Soldier Law,” authorizing the enlistment of Southern African-Americans, a very interest decision was made. While African-American soldiers in the North did not receive the same pay and treatment as their white counterparts, in the South, African-American soldiers were to “receive the same ration, clothing, and compensation as allowed other troops in the same branch of service”(Lyman, 330). Quickly, a few regiments of African-American soldiers were raised in the South, but almost before they could dirty their new uniforms. Richmond fell, and no soldiers, white or black would fight anymore; the war was over. Ever since, many people have asserted that, had the Confederacy enlisted African-American men earlier and destroyed slavery, it would have won its independence (Geary, 74).
These victimized soldiers were willing to fight in a bloody and deadly war; yet, they did not even believe in the cause of that very same war. Courageous were these soldiers, and even after their regiments were formed, they received no credit from the victorious North or from the defeated South.
historians, including Benjamin Brawley and W.E.B. DuBois, rejected the slave Confederate soldiers, referring to them as “misguided” (Higginson, 213). Even a planned memorial in Washington D.C., will honor only those African-American soldiers who fought for the Union (McPherson, 124). These examples show that how na?ve more modern day men can be, never experiencing the hard ships that plagued the slaves every hour of every day.
Perhaps the most telling example of a prejudice against the African-American Confederates occurred at a reunion of veterans at Gettysburg, 50 years after the bloody battle. Reunion organizers had provided accommodations for African-American Union veterans, but none for returning African-American Confederates. Reunion organizers hastily offered the men straw pallets in the main tent. But concerned veterans from Tennessee, upon hearing this, assigned the African-American southerners one of their own tents, and, according to one account, tended “to their every need”(Coulter, 111).
History has proven that these African-American Confederate soldiers have never received any sort of recognition to honor or disapprove of their efforts. There is no proof that what those soldiers committed to, was uncalled for or cowardly. No room is allowed for either of these characteristics in war.
Conceivably the time has come to honor these men for being brave enough to fight for their homes and for their freedom — while enduring harsh criticism from all sides. For as one former slave who fought alongside his Southern master said to a Union officer, “I had as much right to fight for my Native State as you had to fight for yours” (Rice 36-37).
2.Geary, James W., We Need Men. Northern Illinois University Press; DeKalb Ill. 1991, pp. 67-77.
4.Jordan, Ervin L., Black Confederates and Afro-Yankees in Civil War Virginia. University Press of Virginia: Charlottesville and London. 1995, pp. 85-89.
7.Pohanka, Brian C., Don Troiani’s Civil War. Stackpole Books: Pennsylvania. 1995, pp. 74-96.
8.Rice, Charles., America’s Civil War Magazine, “Commands.” Nov. 1995, pp. 29-37.