African American Life in Antebellum Virginia
The 60,000 free African Americans in Virginia at the start of the war accounted for approximately 10 percent of the state's black population. While they benefitted materially from the diversity and general growth of the state's economy late in the antebellum years, free blacks found themselves under mounting scrutiny. In the aftermath of Nat Turner's 1831 rebellion, state officials placed new restrictions on free African Americans. The most significant of these provisions required that any slave granted his or her freedom leave the state within one year of manumission, although between 1831 and 1860 some black men and women received special permission from the General Assembly to remain in Virginia. Those allowed to remain typically possessed special skills (blacksmithing or midwifery, for example) that could benefit a particular white community, and had strong support from prominent white men in their counties. All free blacks were expected to register annually with the county court, carry notarized documents indicating their free status, and appoint a white man to act as a "guardian" in all legal matters. African Americans were not allowed to testify in courts, serve on juries, or vote, but they could own property, and several did. Free black men were also routinely subject to labor levies by county and local governments, and thus were forced to repair public property alongside enslaved men.
Free blacks walked a fine line when interacting with slaves. Many free black families had enslaved members, especially as manumission grew more rare in the years preceding the Civil War. In cities and small towns, hired slaves and free blacks shared employment, housing, and social lives, including religious communities. Indeed, the late antebellum period saw a rise in the number of independent African American churches across the South, especially in urban areas, and these churches boasted both free and enslaved members. On the other hand, free African Americans required the patronage and support of white community leaders (most of them slaveholders), who tended to see close relationships between free and enslaved blacks as dangerous to the institution of slavery.
African Americans Respond to the Outbreak of War
When the state of Louisiana announced its secession on January 26, 1861, a group of free black men from New Orleans offered their services to the state, and were organized as the Louisiana Native Guards. Most were creoles, or people of mixed French and African ancestry, and many had been free since the Natchez Rebellion of 1729, long before New Orleans was even part of the United States. Some even owned slaves themselves. The state, and then the Confederacy, accepted the unit and occasionally gave its members roles in ceremonies or parades, but refused to allow them into battle. When New Orleans fell to Union forces in April 1862, the Louisiana Native Guards embraced the change, and offered their unit's services to Union general Benjamin F. Butler. Butler initially refused, but in September 1862 the First Louisiana Native Guards was mustered into United States service. Two additional regiments soon joined them.
Another element of the Native Guards' story—the fact that the Confederate and state governments did not trust them—was also evident elsewhere. Across the South, free and enslaved African Americans faced new restrictions on their movements and activities. In Georgia, Savannah's famed black fire companies were eliminated. In Virginia, the Richmond city council attempted to outlaw the practice of hired slaves living independently of their owners. Newly formed white militia units chose to drill near independent black churches, perhaps as a means of intimidation. As the war progressed and the much-feared slave insurrection failed to materialize, some of these restrictions eased, but it is clear that many white Southerners viewed African Americans, whether slave or free, as potential liabilities in their war for independence.
Black Southerners and the Emancipation Proclamation
If approximately half a million Southern slaves escaped to Union lines during the war, then at least three million remained with their owners, even after the Emancipation Proclamation. In general, able-bodied young men were the most likely to run away, while women with children chose to stay behind unless they lived close enough to Union lines to safely bring those children with them. Men with families also may have elected to remain at home, believing that, if they escaped, their wives, children, and parents would face retribution from frustrated owners who faced mounting labor shortages as the war progressed. Most slaves lived too far from a semipermanent Union encampment to hazard the journey, especially if they risked encountering Confederate forces along the way. Confederate officers who captured runaway slaves either returned them to their owners or put them to work on Confederate fortifications, so it is impossible to know how many slaves unsuccessfully attempted an escape to Union lines.
Confederate Policies Regarding Black Soldiers
A few leaders disagreed. In December 1863, Confederate general Patrick R. Cleburne wrote a memorandum advocating the emancipation and enlistment of black men as Confederate soldiers. He circulated the proposal among his peers and gained fifteen additional signatures before sending it to his commanding officers, Secretary of War James A. Seddon, and President Davis. The Davis administration, receiving the proposal in January 1864, not only declined to present it to Congress, but also ordered Cleburne and his colleagues to cease all discussion of the subject. Despite this order, and despite Cleburne's death at the Battle of Franklin (1864), the debate was never fully squelched, and it gained wide circulation in November and December of 1864 as Confederate leaders sought to address their increasing numerical disadvantage on the battlefield.
The War Department, however, acted quickly upon the new legislation, and General Orders No. 14 authorized the enlistment of free blacks as well as slaves whose masters signaled their approval by manumitting them before enlistment. No men still enslaved would be accepted as Confederate soldiers. Newspapers throughout the Confederacy immediately reported the widespread enlistment of thousands of black soldiers, but the actual results were far more modest. Only two units were ever created, both in Richmond. The first enrolled approximately sixty orderlies and nurses from Winder and Jackson Hospitals; the second, created at a formal recruiting center, never numbered more than ten recruits. The first company was hastily put into the trenches outside Richmond for a day in mid-March, but the unit canceled a parade scheduled for the end of the month due to the fact that the men lacked uniforms and rifles. Based on this, it is unclear how much fighting they could have done. The second unit was housed in a former prison and carefully watched by military police, suggesting that white Confederate officers did not trust these new black soldiers.
Black Confederates in Memory and Imagination
Most likely, those men had served as body servants rather than actual soldiers during the war. Black men had formed a large and highly visible portion of the population at every major Confederate army encampment, but not as soldiers. They washed clothes, cooked meals, cared for the personal property of individual owners, groomed horses, drove wagons, unloaded trains, built walls and bridges, and nursed the wounded. One former slave, when interviewed by an employee of the Works Progress Administration, claimed he had done a soldier's work during the war, and this was certainly a valid interpretation. Black men serving the Confederate army did almost all of the tasks that actual Confederate soldiers did on a regular basis—everything except fighting in battle. And while it is possible (perhaps even probable) that a few of the personal body servants or hired slaves working in camp could have picked up a gun and joined a battle at one point or another, there is no credible evidence to suggest that large numbers of them did so. Certainly, their numbers are statistically insignificant when compared with the thousands of black men who were forced to perform manual labor for the Confederate armies.
In recent years, anecdotes about black men who may have served in this capacity, or who demonstrated some aspects of Confederate patriotism or loyalty, have become a staple feature in online discussions of the Civil War. White southern "heritage" groups like the Sons of Confederate Veterans have often been at the forefront of this publicity, although stories of black Confederates also come from African Americans who wish to emphasize the heroism and manhood of their ancestors rather than a legacy of slavery. Many of these groups are motivated by a laudable desire to acknowledge the shared histories of black and white Southerners, rather than telling the story of the Civil War from a purely white perspective, but they go too far when they suggest that black Southerners' service on behalf of the Confederacy demonstrates voluntary support for its objectives. The history of the Louisiana Native Guards or the "hospital" company formed in Richmond in March 1865 demonstrates that there were certainly black men who chose to fight for the Confederacy as a means to obtain personal or familial goals, although it is important to remember that their freedom of choice was often limited by the legal prescriptions of slaveholding societies. Even more important is that these examples of black Confederates should not undermine two fundamental realities: the Confederate States of America was founded primarily to protect the institution of slavery, and slavery was at its heart an institution based on violence and exploitation.
August 6, 1861 - With the First Confiscation Act, the U.S. Congress sustains Fort Monroe commander Benjamin F. Butler's "contraband of war" decision. It declares that any slave used for military purposes against the United States can be confiscated.
July 17, 1862 - The United States Congress passes the Second Confiscation Act, which calls for a fine, a prison sentence, possible execution, the confiscation of property, and the emancipation of slaves of anyone convicted of treason against the United States.
December 1863 - Confederate general Patrick R. Cleburne writes a memorandum advocating the emancipation and enlistment of black men as Confederate soldiers.
January 1864 - Confederate president Jefferson Davis receives a proposal from General Patrick R. Cleburne and others advocating the emancipation and enlistment of black men as Confederate soldiers. Davis refuses to consider it and orders Cleburne to stop discussing it.
March 1865 - The General Assembly passes a law explicitly allowing black men to carry rifles. Two Confederate units of black men are formed in Richmond; evidence suggests they did not fight and were not trusted by white Confederate officers.
Cite This Entry
- APA Citation:
Martinez, J. A. Black Confederates. (2012, January 19). In Encyclopedia Virginia. Retrieved from http://www.EncyclopediaVirginia.org/Black_Confederates.
- MLA Citation:
Martinez, Jaime Amanda. "Black Confederates." Encyclopedia Virginia. Virginia Foundation for the Humanities, 19 Jan. 2012. Web. READ_DATE.
First published: April 13, 2011 | Last modified: January 19, 2012
Contributed by Jaime Amanda Martinez, an assistant professor of history at the University of North Carolina at Pembroke. She received a PhD from the University of Virginia in 2008 and is currently revising her dissertation on Confederate slave impressment for future publication.