African American Life in Antebellum Virginia
On the eve of the Civil War, Virginia’s slave population stood at approximately half a million, making Virginia the largest slaveholding state in the country. While the overwhelming majority of those slaves worked as agricultural and household laborers, the range of possible employments for slaves—especially enslaved men—grew dramatically during the 1850s.
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, 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. Inand 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. Butler initially refused, but in September 1862 the First Louisiana Native Guards was mustered into United States service. Two additional soon joined them.
While the story of the Louisiana Native Guards is unique, some elements of the unit’s experience were more common. At the outset of the war, some free African American men offered their services to the Confederacy, although most often as manual or skilled laborers rather than soldiers. These men had three likely motivations. Based on their antebellum experiences, many no doubt anticipated that local and state governments would eventually press them into service, and were attempting to maintain some control over their work assignments by volunteering. In addition, those free African American families who survived and thrived in the antebellum South did so because they had the support of prominent white community members. By offering to serve the Confederacy, they hoped to solidify that support and perhaps make a claim for postwar citizenship in the new country. The story of the Louisiana Native Guards is instructive, as the unit’s members chose to align themselves with whichever army was in power. Finally, free blacks had homes,, farms, and businesses to defend, and no logical reason to believe that the invading Union army would treat them any better than their white neighbors.
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, thecity 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.
Yet if state and local leaders feared the potential violence of black men, they also recognized the value of those men’s labor. While some free blacks volunteered to work on behalf of the Confederacy, many more were forced to do so. The practice of impressing free and enslaved black men to perform manual labor for the army, particularly the Engineer Department, began at the local level with individual commanders and city leaders. But impressment became more centralized over the course of the war. Many states enacted legislation regulating the impressment of free and enslaved blacks in the fall and winter of 1862. The Confederate Congress passed its own law in March 1863. Routine impressment calls throughout the rest of the war forced thousands of free and enslaved black men at a time into service. These men typically served terms of two to three months digging trenches or building fortifications for the Engineer Department. Many other departments and units within the Confederate army regularly hired free and enslaved African Americans, as did private companies that provided services or materials to the government. Black Southerners, most often under some form of compulsion, thus worked as teamsters, tanners, carpenters, blacksmiths, mechanics, nurses, cooks, and laundresses for the benefit of the Confederate war effort.
Black Southerners and the Emancipation Proclamation
Some black Southerners, rather than working for the Confederate army (either by force or by choice), chose to offer their assistance to the Union army. Approximately 500,000 slaves, mostly young men,to Union lines over the course of the war. Initially, they met with a mixed response. Some commanders insisted that the “contrabands,” as they soon came to be called, be returned to their owners, but many saw the logic in employing these men to perform the same types of tasks for the Union cause that they had been performing for the Confederacy. (Benjamin Butler helped to initiate this policy by accepting contraband labor at in Virginia.) The First Confiscation Act of August 1861, the Second Confiscation Act of July 1862, and eventually the Emancipation Proclamation of January 1863 treated these runaway slaves as confiscated property that could now be used for the benefit of the Union armies.
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
Although the Confederate Congress and high command would, in the waning weeks of the war, allow the enlistment of black men as Confederate soldiers, their initial reaction to the decision of the Union army to put black men in uniform was one of horror and disgust. The United States began actively recruiting black men for military service in September 1862, after United States president Abraham Lincoln issued his Preliminary Emancipation Proclamation. In white Southerners’ eyes, those black soldiers were rebellious slaves and their white officers guilty of inciting servile insurrection. Both could be executed under Southern state laws, and Confederate presidentordered that all black men captured in Union uniforms be either executed or re-enslaved. More often, they were put to work on Confederate fortifications alongside impressed slaves. As far as Confederate leaders were concerned, black men were laborers, not 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.
On February 10, 1865, with support from the Davis administration, Congressman Ethelbert Barksdale of Mississippi introduced a bill granting Davis the power to accept black men as soldiers, but only with their masters’ permission. Masters were also permitted, but not required, to emancipate slaves who completed terms of service in the Confederate army. After strenuous debate, and with the endorsement of General, the House of Representatives narrowly passed this bill on February 20 and sent it to the Senate. That body had already defeated a bill calling for the involuntary enlistment of 200,000 black men, and would likely have defeated the Barksdale bill had not Virginia’s two senators, R. M. T. Hunter and Allen T. Caperton, changed their votes due to instructions from the General Assembly. The Senate, by a one-vote margin, approved a slightly amended version of the Barksdale bill on March 8; Davis signed it into law on March 13, 1865. In the intervening days, the General Assembly passed a law explicitly allowing black men to carry rifles, which state law previously had prohibited. North Carolina’s elected officials, by contrast, published their objections to the measure in a series of legislative resolutions.
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. 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
After the war, many different groups and governments proposed interpretations of African Americans’ service to the Confederacy. The Southern Claims Commission, established by the United States Congress to compensate loyal Southerners for property taken by Union forces during the war, tended to assume that black Southerners (especially slaves) had remained loyal to the Union. They saw black service on Confederate fortifications or in businesses supporting the Confederate war effort as the result of force rather than inclination. Early in the twentieth century, most southern states expanded their pension laws to offer compensation to black men and women who had worked on behalf of the Confederacy, but those laws contained no provisions suggesting that black men could claim pensions as soldiers. Theproposed a series of monuments to “loyal slaves” as part of its commemorative efforts late in the nineteenth century, while the United Confederate Veterans took pains to highlight the occasional black man who attended a reunion wearing a Confederate uniform. (The “loyal slave” is a traditional feature of the view of the war.)
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 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.