by NJ Rebel

Black Confederates

Say what? Black Confederates! Is not the term an oxymoron, like "jumbo shrimp"? Weren't African Americans supposed to be fighting against the purposes of the Confederate States of America, rather than for a republic, which, if successful, would see to the preservation and perhaps, even extension of slavery?

The question is, indeed, a very controversial one. Sad to say, the very question of whether African Americans actually served as members of the military forces of the Confederacy has also become a political hot potato. Here is what this writer knows about the issue: (1) Maj. General Patrick Cleburne, the "Stonewall" of the Western Theater, wrote a memorandum in January, 1864 in which he broached the question of freeing some of the slaves and training them to fight in the Confederate armies. The memorandum, when it reaches the desk of Confederate President Jefferson Davis, creates a furor and costs Cleburne a promotion to Lieut. General, Provisional Army of the Confederate States. (2) In February of 1865, an experimental company of African Americans is formed and trained. To the amazement of white onlookers, the men in the experimental company performed their soldierly duties as well as their white counterparts. The fighting, however, ended before any African Americans ever fought in the Confederate armies.

That said, how does one explain the presence of "black Confederates"? Many officers in the Confederate army did have a slave or two accompany them when they went off to war. African Americans did indeed participate in the campaigns of the major Confederate armies but not in combatant roles. They performed duties which we would today give to support troops: driving the wagons, driving the beef herds, etc. There are reports from Union enlisted and officers of seeing African Americans actually staffing artillery crews. While this is hard to confirm with precision, this writer has heard that African Americans attached in support roles to Confederate artillery units were often trained as emergency replacement to the gun crews.

There is a most interesting picture hanging in the Veterans portion of the exhibits at the National Civil War Museum in Harrisburg, Pennsylvania. That picture shows a reunion or gathering of African Americans who had participated in the campaigns of Confederate military forces. You can imagine this writer's surprise to see such a picture!

After the war, pensions were granted to African Americans who had served alongside their white counterparts in the states of the former Confederacy. However, each claimant had to have the corroborative signatures of two white Confederate veterans. In addition, many African Americans who may have served would have been used in local defense units or in state troops units rather than in the actual Confederate armies.

I bet you thought the Civil War was fought for the African American to gain his freedom. The reality, as happens with so much of this war, is a lot murkier than that.

© 2002
Editors Note: Mr. Mayers is a feature writer on the writers staff. He can be contacted at