Looking for Sean McLachlan? He mostly hangs out on the Civil War Horror blog these days, but feel free to nose around this blog for some fun older posts!

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Thursday, 21 August 2008

Were There Black Confederate Soldiers?

There's an interesting discussion going on at the excellent Civil War Memory blog on whether or not there were really any blacks in the Confederate army. This argument has been going back and forth in academic and amateur circles for quite some time now, but with all my Civil War research, I'm not convinced that there's much truth to the story.

Historians far more knowledgeable than I agree. One researcher who studied 100,000 Confederate service records found only 20-30 identifiably nonwhite recruits. Some of these were blacks who could "pass" and once they were discovered were kicked out, which doesn't really fit with the whole "black people were welcome in the rebel army" idea. Why they joined in the first place is anyone's guess.

Of course, Confederate officers sometimes brought a slave along as an assistant, dressing them up in a uniform and giving them a bugle or drum, but that doesn't count. In March 1865, a month before Lee's surrender, the Confederacy decided to arm slaves with the promise of freedom, but only after a huge controversy in the Confederate Congress, and most states decided not to.

While this whole debate may seem silly, there's an insidious side to it. If it could be proven that large numbers of black Southerners volunteered to fight for the South, it would undercut the idea that the Civil War was fought over slavery. Well, I hate to burst the Neo-Confederate bubble, but there is no proof of any significant number of black Confederate soldiers, and the Civil War was to a great extent about slavery. It wasn't the only cause, but it was a major one.

Interestingly, while researching my book for Osprey on Guerrilla and Partisan Ranger Tactics in the Civil War, I came across a couple of mentions in the Official Records of Union soldiers being fired upon by bands of bushwhackers (guerrillas) and later finding one of the guerrillas was black. While Southern apologists would love to pounce on this as more support for their thesis, I have to point out that the term "bushwhacker" was used for any group of armed men not attached to the regular army, and Louisiana and Florida, where these incidents occurred, had plenty of bandit groups taking advantage of the chaos of war to commit crimes. These black bushwhackers may simply have been bandits.

But the controversy will continue, as is always the case when people desperately want history to be something other than what it was.

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