Sooner or later any student of the War for Southern Independence will run across discussion of “black Confederates,” which may well be the most controversial topic related to the war. From an objective standpoint it might seem odd that there is any controversy at all. The South had a large black population in 1861, mostly slave but some free, and these men and women held a diverse set of opinions, just as the white population did. Simply playing the odds will tell us that someone among the four million black men, women and children in the South would choose to support secession. Slaves had little choice in whether they participated in supporting the war effort (though they had more options than might be expected) but while the “free men of color” as they were often called were not treated as equals by the white population, they were often skilled tradesmen and businessmen who owned property, and many had family who had lived in their home state for several generations, so they had deep roots in the South. Some were veterans of past military conflicts. The idea that they would have an interest in the outcome of the war and might well choose to side with their home states over an invading army should surprise no one, especially early in the conflict before Lincoln’s Emancipation Proclamation changed the calculation by making freedom for the black population into a wartime goal of the Union.
The controversy arises because modern racial politics get injected into the discussion of the past. Historians who should be objective are not, and they insist that black Confederates are “a myth”, and those who promote the “myth” do so because they want to deny slavery as the cause of the war. If black men fought for the south, this line of thinking goes, then the war could not have been about slavery, because black men would not have fought for that cause. Some even insist that no one at all believed in black Confederates until the late 1970s, when the growing attention given to black Union troops in popular culture forced modern Confederate defenders to invent tens of thousands of black troops of their own.
It has been refreshing for me to get away from these modern claims and to spend some time researching what the population who was alive during the war believed. There are many sources of information to choose from, including the Official Records, service records of the enlisted men themselves, post-war pension records, etc., but for the purposes of this article I’m going to focus on a source that I rarely see examined in any depth, contemporary newspapers, a source some of these historians dismiss as almost entirely unreliable. I disagree. Both Northern and Southern newspapers from 1861 to 1865 had a lot to say about black involvement in the Confederate war effort. Willing or unwilling, free or slave, combatant or camp servants, the participation of the non-white population of the South in the war effort was known and reported by both sides, and editors were not hesitant to give their opinions.
A word of caution is appropriate here. There was fake news in the 19th century just as there is today. It’s certainly true that not everything printed in the newspapers was factual. Opinion and editorial comment are often mixed with reporting, so that has to be taken into account. Perhaps most importantly, when discussing what the newspapers said about black support for Southern secession and war, it is important to remember that the reader is nearly always an outsider looking in. We are given an account of what black men are doing, but rarely are we given his stated reasons why he is doing it. We are left to make whatever inferences and deductions that we can, if indeed we can judge motives at all. I think we can in fact make some observations based on the press coverage.
For the purposes of this article, I’m going to steer clear of actual combat stories in favor of what the newspapers can tell us about black support for the war effort on the home front, where the fog of war can be largely avoided. All newspaper articles quoted here are from 1861. I’m only scratching the surface of this topic. There are many more examples than can possibly be given in the limited space available here.
Volunteers for Labor
In early 1861 it’s no surprise that slave labor was employed along the Southern coast to build defenses against the possibility of an attack by sea. Slaves being put to work was a commonplace occurrence and did not rate much news coverage. By contrast, portions of the free black population often volunteered to work on coastal defense or other manual labor, and this did get a lot of press coverage.
“We learn that 150 able-bodied free colored men, of Charleston, yesterday offered their services gratuitously to the Governor, to hasten toward the important work of throwing up redoubts wherever needed along our coast.” – Charleston Mercury, Jan. 3
“A number of free and slave negroes are engaged on the redoubts of the coast.” – Wheeling, VA Daily Intelligencer, Jan. 4
“Even the free negroes are coming forward in large bodies, and tendering their services to the Governor to work without pay on the fortifications that are being thrown up about Charleston.” – Nashville Union and American, Jan. 11
“A very interesting scene was witnessed in our streets yesterday morning. previous to the departure of our dark regiment for Norfolk. … Charles Tinsley, one of their number, stepped forward to receive the flag, and in reply said – “We are willing to aid Virginia’s cause to the utmost extent of our ability. We do not feel that it is right for us to remain here idle, when white gentlemen are engaged in the performance of work at Norfolk, that is more suitable to our hands and of which it is our duty to relieve them. – There is not an unwilling heart among us, not a hand but will tell in the work before us; and we promise unhesitating obedience to all orders that may be given to us.” In referring to the flag, he said – “I could feel no greater pride, no more gratification, than to be able to plant it first upon the ramparts of Fortress Monroe.” This was truly a patriotic speech, coming from the source it did, and was received with a general outburst of cheering and applause.” – Gallipolis Journal, March 5
“We learn from Mayor Lane that 15 or 20 more free negroes came forward yesterday morning and volunteered their services to go to the Fort and work or assist in the defence of the Fort, if required. Laborers enough having gone to the Fort, they were not sent down, but requested by Mayor Lane to hold themselves in readiness.” – Richmond Daily Dispatch, April 22
“Quite a number of companies have passed through under orders for the Fort, amongst these the Hornet’s Nest Rifles from Charlotte, having with them a number of volunteer free negroes as laborers.” – Fayetteville Observer, April 22
Some men simply offered to do whatever was required of them. There are the “catch-all” articles, which list various actions taken by the black population in response to the crisis.
“The Board makes an honorable mention of the fact that, among our free colored population, a large number of the old veterans of 1812, and their descendants, have volunteered their services to the State.” – Times Picayune, New Orleans, Feb. 21
“Yesterday, when our military companies were beating up for recruits, about sixty free negroes volunteered and went down to Fort Macon to do battle for their country, while another gave twenty-five dollars cash to help support the war; and still another, who is a poor man, having just arrived at our wharf with a load of wood for sale, delivered it up to the town auctioneer, with a request to sell it and appropriate it in the same way.” – Richmond Daily Dispatch, April 19
“THE FREE COLORED MEN. – A number of this class of our population, fully identified with us in all our interests, are inquiring to know what they can do to give evidence of their loyalty and devotion to the State under whose laws they live and enjoy protection in their lives and property. In answer, we can say on our own account, that they will be called upon at the proper moment, to give new evidence of that bravery and devotion for which they were distinguished when a foreign power invaded our dominion in ’14 and ’15”. – Baton Rouge Tri-Weekly Gazette & Comet, April 20
“We learn that a large number of the free colored men of Columbia have offered their services, through the Mayor, to the Governor of the State. They say that to South Carolina do they owe allegiance, and to her do they look for protection, and they are willing to serve her in any capacity they may be assigned.” – Columbia Carolinian (reprinted in the Fayetteville North Carolinian, Jan. 19)
“About fifty free negroes in Amelia county have offered themselves to the Government for any service. In our neighboring city of Petersburg, two hundred free negroes offered for any work that might be assigned to them, either to fight under white officers, dig ditches, or anything that could show their desire to serve Old Virginia. In the same city, a negro hackman came to his master, and insisted, with tears in his eyes, that he should accept all his savings, $100, to help equip the volunteers. – The free negroes of Chesterfield have made a similar proposition. Such is the spirit, among bond and free, through the whole of the State. ” – The Daily Dispatch, April 25
“The undersigned free men of color, residing in the city of Savannah, and county of Chatham, fully Impressed with the feeling of duty we owe to the State of Georgia, as inhabitants thereof, which has for so long a period extended to ourselves and families its protection, and has been to us the source of many benefits, Beg leave respectfully, in this the hour of danger, to tender to yourself our services, to be employed in the defence of the State, at any place or point, at any time, or for any length of time, and in any service for which you may consider us best fitted, and in which we can contribute to the public good. Signed by fifty-five free men of color.” – Savannah Republican, June 11
Willing to Fight
Free black men also stepped up and offered to take up arms in defense of the South. This offer was accepted at various places in Louisiana, but I have found little evidence so far that it was accepted elsewhere. Keep in mind that many of these offers were to the home state of the individuals in question, not to the Confederate government, and the states did not always follow the lead of the federal government, nor did they ask for permission to employ black men in defense of the state in whatever capacity they saw fit. It is true that the Confederate government did not officially accept black recruits until March 1865, but that does not mean that states did the same. We must not make the mistake of looking at the Confederate States through a modern, centralized government perspective.
“A large number of the native free negroes of Louisiana have, through the Delta, proposed to fight for her in 1861 as they did in 1814-15.” – Cincinnati Daily Press, Jan. 5
“Joe Clark, a colored barber of this city, has written a letter to Gov. Brown, offering to raise a company of free colored men, to be enlisted in the service of the State of Georgia in the present crisis. Whatever may be thought of the policy of enlisting soldiers of this cast, the offer is a patriotic one, and ought to show the “philanthropists” of the North that the free colored population of the South do not appreciate their efforts in behalf of the negro race. Joe served in the Indian war of 1836, and still limps occasionally from a wound received in that campaign.” – Columbus GA Enquirer (reprinted in the Richmond Daily Dispatch, Jan. 29)
“COLORED PATRIOTISM. – Everybody knows BILL RAWLINSON, the good-natured barber on Market Street. His wife, MARY, is now engaged in making up uniforms for the troops. Her brother (JIM DUNGE) is raising a company of free negroes to fight LINCOLN’S men…” – Nashville Union and American, April 25
Fifteen hundred free colored men in New Orleans have offered their services to fight for the South. – The Western Democrat, May 14
Colored Soldiers. – Col. F. L. Claiborne, of Pointe Coupee, has organized a company of eighty of the free colored men of his parish, and says his company will compete for the honor of taking Old Abe captive. – New Orleans Daily Crescent, May 21
Giving Money to the Cause
Free and slave also contributed financially to the Southern, and later Confederate cause.
Mr. M. B. Kyser communicates to the Cahaba (Ala.) Gazette, the fact that while he was taking up a subscription to aid in informing the Richmond Greys, of Dallas county, John, a slave belonging to Mr. A. W. Coleman promptly gave ten dollars, remarking that he “being a slave could not go himself, but that his money, his hogs, his cows, and his corn, were all at their disposal, when needed, without money and without price!” – Augusta GA Daily Constitutionalist, Jan. 31
“When the Confederate loan was offered in Mobile the other day, two negroes there, slaves of gentlemen residing in Mobile, took four hundred dollars of it. A slave in this city took two hundred and fifty dollars of the same loan. ” – New Orleans Daily Crescent, April 22
“Albert went out, found his master, obtained his consent, and the books of the loan subscription show three hundred dollars of coupon bonds subscribed for and paid “by Sam’l G. Hardaway, trustee for his slave Albert,” and with the money of Albert. … Alfred, the slave of Col. W. Crawford Bigg, being told of Albert’s subscription, drew out one hundred dollars which he had on deposit, and subscribed for coupon bonds to that amount.” – New Orleans Daily Crescent, April 23
“Six hundred dollars of the Confederate States Loan has been taken here by negroes.” – Southern Banner, April 24 (reprinted from an unattributed Mobile newspaper)
Two free men of color residing in Vicksburg, named Henry Lee and William Newman, have each given $250 in specie to the Confederate State Loan, and Lee has also contributed $25 towards equipping the Sharp-shooters. – The Anderson Intelligencer, May 9
Pleasant Battles, a free negro, has voluntarily given $5 to the Albemarle Rifles and $5 to the Monticello Guard, to aid in equipping these companies to fight against the enemies of Virginia. He says he would, if he possessed it, give half a million, because Virginia is right. – The Baltimore Daily Exchange, May 15
What can we learn from these excerpts? First, the common complaint often applied to stories about black Southern combatants at war does not apply here. These are not sketchy accounts from some unnamed witness across a smoke-filled battlefield quoted secondhand in a northern newspaper. Many of these stories come from Southern newspapers. The events took place in public settings where men could be seen and identified. Individuals are named, and speeches and letters are quoted.
There was clearly black support for secession and war in the early months of 1861, as these articles demonstrate. Why that support was given is not always clear. Southern papers attributed much of this to faithfulness and patriotism, while Northern papers were more cynical and attributed it to individuals being forced or being afraid not to show support. There is probably some truth to be found in both assessments.
The 150 free black men of Charleston, SC volunteered to work on fortifications for free. They were taking time away from their day job to do that, and it likely cost them money, so whatever the motivation to volunteer it outweighed the need to earn a living, if only temporarily. But 150 men was a small subset of the population of 3,000 free black individuals who lived in Charleston at that time, and the majority did not volunteer, so whatever the motivation, it was not even universal among the free black men, let alone the women and children. We are not given the reason they volunteered. In contrast, the newspapers do give us a motivation for the free black men of Columbia, SC: they owe allegiance and service to their home state in return for protection. It’s a transactional view of residency within the state, and of the individual’s public duty. Governor Pickens would recall these offers of service in a speech given in November of 1861.
“… I would particularly say that the free people of color have done their duty also. At an important time last Spring, when the whole of our population were intensely excited, from Columbia, and Charleston, and elsewhere, they formally offered their services to me, to act in any capacity in which they might serve their state. They were in many instances employed. I trust the day is far distant when this State will refuse to extend her guardian protection to this unfortunate and helpless class of our people.” – The Washington DC National Republican, November 18
In Virginia, Charles Tinsley of Petersburg gave a public speech on behalf of himself and others, stating that they felt it was not right to sit by and do nothing while the white men did all the work. These words were said for public consumption and it’s possible that Tinsley was telling the crowd something they would approve of, but it’s also entirely possible that Tinsley was being entirely truthful about why he and the others were volunteering. The free black men of Savannah who offered their services would give much the same reasons as the men in South Carolina and Virginia: “… fully Impressed with the feeling of duty we owe to the State of Georgia, as inhabitants thereof, which has for so long a period extended to ourselves and families its protection, and has been to us the source of many benefits…”. In their own words, these men felt they were doing their duty by supporting and defending their state.
In the case of the offers of military service to their respective states, it’s clear from the examples given that black Southern veterans of previous wars, such as Joe Clark, were ready to step up to the plate again in defense of their state, because they had done so in the past. The free black population of New Orleans had the example of those who fought with Andrew Jackson during the war of 1812 to inspire them. Some, such as Jordan Noble, as a teenage drummer, had served with Jackson’s army.
An important piece of evidence when considering the broader picture of this press coverage is that stories like these largely end after 1861. We know that there was an initial rush of enthusiasm and patriotism for the war in 1861, and it seems clear that in some cases the black population was affected just as much as the white population was. These men got caught up in the spirit of the times, and again, there are newspaper stories that indicate that. “Secession flags dot the country along the route from Wilmington, and even the negroes waved the Confederate banner at the cars as they passed.” – The Central Georgian, April 24.
It would be a mistake to take these few small samples and try to use them to make the case that there was massive black support for the Confederate war effort, and it’s important to remember that the free black population was a tiny minority in the South compared to the slaves, so many of these stories concern a minority population within a minority. In the aftermath of the John Brown raid, a few years earlier, black freedom was often precarious. While researching this topic I’ve run across many articles where someone in a state legislature wanted to pass a law to expel the free black population from the state or sell individuals into slavery. Sometimes the fact that they had earlier volunteered for the war effort was recalled and the effort shut down. Punishments for minor crimes could be harsh. Freedom for the black man did not offer social equality with his white neighbor. Nevertheless, we must not deny these men their agency and free will by attributing their every action to fear of the white population around them. The social environment they lived in was a factor in whatever decisions they made, but that does not mean that they were not capable of patriotism, love of home and State, and a desire to defend their own possessions, property and family just like the white population. In several cases they said as much, and those words should not be dismissed.
There is much more that could be said and learned about how black participation in the Southern war effort was covered by the press, and what we can learn from that coverage. These few examples barely scratch the surface. I encourage anyone interested in this subject to dig into the evidence for themselves and to form their own conclusions. I myself have collected over 1,400 newspaper articles on this subject published between 1861 and 1865. That’s a lot of ink spilled over something that some today call a “myth.” You will find that these activist historians are not telling you the entire story.