Where did the belief in the “black Confederate soldier” originate? Did it begin in 1977, after the success of the television mini-series Roots caused people to reevaluate race and slavery during the Civil War? Were stories of these men absent before then, as one of many historians who tackles this topic claims? Is it accurate or indeed fair to describe these men as a “myth” either as individuals or collectively? Is attempting to highlight the service of these men some nefarious plot to downplay slavery as a cause of the Civil War? Certainly the history of black supporters of the Confederate States can be and has been abused or mischaracterized by some on both sides of this issue, but it is wrong to label this history as a “myth”, implying by the use of the word that black supporters of the Confederacy never existed, and that belief in their existence is embracing a known falsehood.
In my previous article, “Black Southern Support for Secession and War“, I focused primarily on financial and volunteer labor by the Southern black population in early 1860 as reported by the newspapers, in an attempt to get away from modern historians and their spin and go back to contemporary wartime opinion and reaction. That approach is even more valuable here because we’re examining “belief”, and wartime newspapers are full of editors telling the reader what they believe. It may be obvious, but I will state it anyway: stories about black men in uniform fighting for the Confederate States did not originate in 1977. In fact, they pre-date the opening shots of the war, and began because of the actions of southern black men themselves.
We don’t have to establish firmly what the official legal status of these men was or why they acted as they did to recognize that their very public actions in support of their state and the Southern war effort unsurprisingly attracted the attention of the press. Not everything published about them was factual, but if we’re looking simply for a belief in black Southern soldiers, examples are not hard to find.
On January 5, 1861, the Cincinnati Daily Press offered this short account that may be the earliest publicized example of free black men announcing that they planned to fight for their state.
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, January 05, 1861
These men had put a notice in the Delta newspaper that they were ready to fight for Louisiana, which had not even seceded at that point and would not for another three weeks. The press did not seek them out, these men used the press to publicize their statement. They wanted their intentions publicly known. They drew a comparison between the crisis of 1861 and the one during the War of 1812. Black military service decades earlier under then-General Andrew Jackson had not been forgotten by the public, and that is significant. We don’t often think of the Antebellum South as having black military veterans, but they did.
The [Military Board to the State Legislature] 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, La) February 21, 1861
The earliest mention I have found that uses the word “soldier” in relation to black Southerners is in an article about these men, and it’s not the only time we’ll see that term applied to black Southerners.
THE FREE COLORED SOLDIERS. – We some days ago mentioned that the Creole free colored population downtown had taken the war question into consideration, and determined to offer their services to Gov. Moore, for home defence. At the meeting held for this purpose, some 1500 men were present. With one voice and with the greatest enthusiasm they agreed to offer themselves, and did so. The Governor accepted them, and they are now forming companies, as their fathers and grandfathers did in 1814 and ’15. Should their services be needed, they will be among our hardest and best fighters. Jordan Noble, better known as “Old Jordan,” the Drummer of Chalmette, is raising a free colored company; and we learn a similar company is being organized in Jefferson City. When the down-town free colored men form their regiment (and it will be a rousing one.) they will make a show as pleasing to all, as it will be surprising to many of our population. We will give further particulars as the organization progresses. – New Orleans Daily Crescent. April 27, 1861
These men would of course go on to form the First Louisiana Native Guard, a group of free black and creole volunteers. This group got quite a bit of press over the course of their existence and even after they disbanded, as they were brought up by Union General Benjamin Butler who used the exact words of Louisiana Governor Thomas O. Moore’s order praising the group’s patriotism and authorizing their existence as a military unit to try and silence Southern critics of Butler’s own enlistment of locals blacks as soldiers for the Union.
Modern critics of my even mentioning these men would say that they were not in fact Confederate soldiers, and to the extent that they were Louisiana state volunteer troops rather than enlisted in the Confederate army, that is true, though in response I would have to ask just what uniform they wore, and which side they were aligned with. The answer seems obvious. Many contemporary newspapers did not make the same fine distinctions as some modern historians either. To them, an armed and uniformed man in any Southern state’s military was considered Confederate.
Fifteen hundred negroes have enrolled themselves as soldiers in the confederate army in New Orleans. – Bradford Reporter. (Towanda, Pa.) , May 09, 1861
In New Orleans, there was an assemblage of over two thousand, when speeches were made – some in French, by the French negroes, that is, negroes from that part of the city where French is the only language among white and black – resolutions were passed tendering their services to the Confederate States. – Orleans Independent Standard. (Irasburgh, Vt.) 1856-1871, May 24, 1861
And there were others who were described in the same way.
OUR FREE COLORED MEN. – Our free colored men of the Barthelemy Settlement – who are certainly as much attached to the land of their birth as any of their white brethren born in Louisiana – we are happy to say, have formed themselves into an infantry company, and have elected Victor Reaud, Esq., their commander. If ever called into the field, the free colored men of the Barthelemy Settlement – who, by-the-by, own quite a large number of slaves – will fight the Black Republican hordes with as much determination and gallantry as any body of white men in the service of the Confederate States. – New Orleans Daily Crescent, May 29, 1861
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, 1861
But we don’t need to confine this examination of newspapers just to Louisiana, nor were they the only black military veterans in the South. There are numerous other examples where the idea that black men were able and willing to fight for the South was praised in the Southern press, with the articles reprinted and commented on by the Northern press. And it was not just free black men who were discussed. Opinions were offered on the idea of slaves theoretically being armed, even at this early date:
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…. Joe served in the Indian war of 1836, and still limps occasionally from a wound received in that campaign. – The Richmond Daily Dispatch, January 29, 1861
To become soldiers and fight side by side, and under the same banner with their masters, would fill the hearts of Southern negroes with swelling emotions of pride and exultation. – Holmes County Farmer. (Millersburg, Ohio) February 21, 1861
There are some other matters that we understand, and possibly you do not. Not only are our non-slaveholders loyal, but even our negroes are. We have no apprehension whatever of insurrection – not the slightest. We can arm our negroes, and leave them at home, when we are temporarily absent. That is a fact. – written by Louis T Wigfall, published in the Nashville Union and American (Nashville, Tenn.) March 19, 1861
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. – Alexandria Gazette. (Alexandria, D.C.) April 29, 1861
We have frequently heard the slaves who accompanied their masters to the scene of action, assert that when fighting was to be done, they wanted to shoulder their muskets and do their share of it, and we have not a shadow of doubt but what they would be found perfectly reliable. – Montgomery Advertiser as printed in the Weekly standard. (Raleigh, N.C) May 01, 1861
Montgomery, April 29 – Sixteen well drilled companies of volunteers and one negro company, from Nashville, Tenn., have offered their services to the Confederate States. – The Daily Dispatch. (Richmond, VA) May 02, 1861
Mr. Wilkerson offered a resolution requiring the judiciary committee to inquire into the propriety of receiving into public service the free negroes of the State, and to report by bill or otherwise, and the resolution was adopted. – Semi-Weekly Standard. (Raleigh, N.C.) May 04, 1861
The Lynchburg (Va.) Republican says: “We learn that about seventy of the most respectable free negroes in this city have enrolled themselves, and design tendering their services to the Governor, to act in whatever capacity may be assigned them in defence of the State. Three cheers for the patriotic free negroes of Lynchburg.” – – The National Republican. (Washington, D.C.) May 07, 1861
The Petersburg (Va.) Express of April 26th gives an account of the mustering of one hundred negroes into service, and their departure for Norfolk: At an early hour the negro soldiers came together to receive provisions, blankets, shoes, &., A dense crowd of negroes, friends of the company gathered around. At 11 o’clock the company was addressed by Messrs. Dodson and Fenn, the latter presenting a flag of the Confederate States, a gift from the ladies, “as a token of appreciation of the generous efforts they were about to make to achieve a successful defence of Virginia soil and principles. – Holmes County Republican. (Millersburg, Holmes County, Ohio), May 09, 1861
You see what folly it is to talk about subduing the South. – The last woman, child and negro must be killed first. The negroes are all fully armed and are as determined as their masters. They say they will never submit to Abolition rule. – The Evansville Daily Journal. (Evansville, Ind.), June 17, 1861
The Pensacola Observer says the free colored population of that city have come forward and voluntarily taken the oath of allegiance to the Confederate Rebel States, and have organized a military company numbering thirty-six men, who offer their services to the authorities for the protection of the city. – The New York Herald. July 21, 1861
While our Northern troops are thus chivalrously taking care of an institution which they all abhor, the South is forcing the negroes to work in the building of forts and in doing all the drudgery of war, and in New Orleans and Memphis they are arming the free negroes. Cases have been paraded in Southern papers where slaves and free negroes had invested all their hard-earned savings in bonds of the loan to aid the rebel government. Does anybody believe this is done voluntarily? When the blacks hear constantly all about them so much said against us as the enemies of slavery, is it likely that they would do such acts? No. The South is forcing the negroes into the war, and it must take whatever consequences may arise therefrom. – The Mountaineer., June 22, 1861
The arming of free negroes in the South, to fight against the Government is counted all right and proper down in secession; but if free negroes in the North were to be armed and mustered into the service, what a howl would be raised, not only in the South, but among the half-weaned doughfaces in the north. What is sauce for the goose should be sauce for the gander. – Chicago Daily Tribune, June 25, 1861
Let’s stop here, just shy of the battle of First Manassas, when actual combat sighting reports began to appear in the press. It seems clear from these examples, and others that could have been included, that this type of reporting helped lay the foundation for the belief in black Confederate soldiers. When readers saw reports from First Manassas that included slaves working Confederate artillery or a slave named Dick Langhorn capturing two Yankees or even that there was a regiment of negro troops in the rebel forces, they already had months of stories about black volunteers and black soldiers printed in Southern newspapers to prepare them for the idea. Even taking the reality of wartime propaganda into account, we don’t have to dig down and determine how credible these reports actually were to demonstrate that plenty of newspaper editors had enough confidence in the reports to print them, and no doubt plenty of readers who believed what they read. Some scoffed at the notion of black Confederate troops, but others accepted the notion, or else just reprinted the stories with no comment.
About the only thing not seen so far that is commonly objected to as part of the “myth” is the claim of tens of thousands of armed black men marching with the Confederate Army, and to be fair the actual numbers were probably small. But one exaggeration does not make everything around it a myth, and even here, examples of improbable numbers can be found in contemporary newspapers, so even they are not a modern occurrence.
Mobile papers, of a recent date, have reliable information that Kirby Smith has twenty-five thousand negro troops armed, equipped and organized under their masters, and operating in the Trans-Mississippi Department. – The Richmond Daily Dispatch, March 21, 1865
We can pick apart some of these stories and opinions, but they demonstrate the point, that belief in the “black Confederate soldier” clearly began in 1861. It is impossible that every story was invented by some editor as propaganda to push an agenda. Many are credible accounts of what were no doubt actual events, so it bears repeating that the belief in black Confederate soldiers was not invented by white men desperate to downplay slavery and push “lost cause” history. It was based, at least in part, on two things: newspaper editors who were willing to publish the accounts, and the very public actions of the black population themselves.
But surely after the war, when the dust had settled, everyone conceded that these men had never actually been Confederate soldiers, correct? Only a few men at the very end of the war had ever been officially recognized by the Confederate government and recruited as soldiers, and all others were correctly known as the conscripts or loyal camp slaves they had actually been, correct? It’s only modern “neo-Confederate” defenders who call them loyal soldiers, right? Absolutely not. The belief that some black men had willingly sided with the Confederate States persisted, and not just among the white population.
There was one interesting feature in this election – a commendable liberality toward rebels. In this respect they were much more liberal than the majority of our negro-worshiping legislators. We know of several out and out rebel negroes, who went in at the first and remained to the last, who voted in this election. And they didn’t have to swear a lie to get a vote either. – The Pulaski citizen. (Pulaski, Tenn), March 16, 1866
Peter Gibson, our worthy barber, was at the depot attending to some business, when he was pointed out to these negroes [discharged negro soldiers] as a rebel negro, &c., when one of them drew a revolver and took aim at him. Peter firmly believes he would have been killed but for the timely interference of friends. – The Richmond Daily Dispatch, September 02, 1867
One ex-Confederate negro has turned up. Among the new employees of the House is a negro who when being sworn in asked to have the modified oath administered, as his conscience would not permit him to take the iron clad. – Alexandria Gazette. (Alexandria, D.C.), December 20, 1883
A Negro Soldier…. Major Roper of Bartow county, was in Atlanta yesterday taking steps to secure a pension for Eli Pickett, a negro, who was wounded while serving in the confederate army… Eli was, however, born free… he volunteered and his services were accepted. After joining an artillery company, he served in the Army of Tennessee. His record shows that he fought bravely and was a true and faithful soldier…. After the war…. the other negroes refused to have anything to do with him because they said he had fought to keep them in slavery. – The Times-Picayune, 10 Aug 1889
John Buckner, of Stateburg the well known colored man, died on Saturday, August 17th, aged 60 years. John Buckner was always a freeman and at the breaking out of the war enlisted as a regular soldier in Capt. P. P. Gaillard’s company. He served subsequently in Capt. Boykin’s company and later as a scout. He was a faithful soldier, and when the war was over he remained true to his friends and was a true and tried democrat. – The Watchman And Southron (Sumter South Carolina) Wednesday, August 28, 1895
Sometimes black men who were known to be slaves during the war or free black men who enlisted as cooks, teamsters or musicians, and who were not infantrymen were nevertheless referred to as “soldiers” or “veterans”. Look at the dates on these articles.
Colored Confederate Soldiers. – There was a colored man (John Downs, I believe his name was), who was cook to one of the companies of the Seventeenth Virginia regiment…. – Jamestown Weekly Alert, January 14, 1886
In Mansfield, La., on Monday, was held the funeral of a well known and remarkable character. Levy Carnine, seventy-six years old, died after a long illness, and his funeral was conducted by veteran soldiers of the Confederate army…. [during] the breaking out of the late war… he again went to the army as the servant of young Dr. Hogan…. after the war this black Confederate became a Democrat…. – Little Falls Transcript (Little Falls, Morrison County, Minn.), January 15, 1886
“Col.” Tarleton Alexander, over eighty years old, a colored confederate who served from alpha to omega of the rebellion and surrendered at Appomattox, was on the streets in the morning wearing numerous badges and souvenirs presented by the veteran confederates as decorations of honor. – Evening Star (Washington, D.C.), May 31, 1890
A Brother in Black – Interesting history of a brave Confederate Negro – Celestin Beaulieu, the Colored Cook the Tenth Louisiana Regiment, Answers the Last Roll-Call. “Celestin Beaulieu (colored), an ex-Confederate soldier, one of the best-loved negroes in the South, is dead.”… His birthplace was in a tiny cabin on a plantation belonging to a Dr. Pierre Prussan, to whose eldest son, Henry, he was given at the age of ten…. when the news came from Sumter he spent a little hoard which he had collected to purchase a flintlock musket, and prepared to serve his country to the best of his ability. He urged his master repeatedly to join the army, and when the Tenth regiment of Louisiana volunteers was organized both of them joined. – Richmond Dispatch, 29 Nov. 1891
To wrap this up, the point of all this is not to claim massive black support for the Confederates, or to claim thousands of armed black Confederate soldiers, or even to claim that all the answers can be found in wartime newspapers (though I do believe they’re a valuable piece of the puzzle) but to show again that a belief in black Confederates has existed for as long as the history of the war has been written. It is emphatically not just a modern belief. Many of these men were still alive when the stories began to be circulated, and it seems clear that people in their communities knew who they were and what they had done during the war. To call these men a “myth” is, ironically, to show the same disrespect towards them and the hard choices they had to make that many modern historians accuse the Southerner of 1861 of showing towards them.