“The colored population is the great available, yet unavailed of, force for restoring the Union. The bare sight of fifty thousand armed, and drilled black soldiers on the banks of the Mississippi, would end the rebellion at once.”
President Abraham Lincoln in a letter to Tennessee Governor Andrew Johnson in March, 1863
The sight of black Union soldiers did indeed draw an intense reaction from Confederates. But it was nowhere near the kind of response that Lincoln predicted. Far from fear, the sight of black men in Union dress fostered a rage in the Confederate soldier that led to merciless – and often unapologetic – acts of violence against African Americans on the battlefield. White Confederates and black Union men became engaged in a war within a war that was constrained only by the smaller numbers of black soldiers and their combat role during the Civil War. (In the first half of the war, colored troops were less likely to do combat duty than white soldiers. This changed as the war lasted into 1865.)
As some readers may be aware, there is some debate among scholars and non-scholars about what the Confederate soldier “fought for.” The historical record provides very clear evidence that the politicians who drove the secession decision in the Deep South – the seven states that left the Union before the firing of guns at Fort Sumter – did so to protect the institution of slavery. Historian Gordon Rhea, in his essay Why Non-Slaveholding Southerners Fought, describes not so much why non-slaveholders fought, but rather, the reasons that were given by politicians, preachers, the prominent, and the press for a separate Confederate nation and the need to fight for it. All of those reasons, Rhea shows, were related to the defense of slavery, and appealed to white fears of a society overrun with free black should the Confederacy lose. We can say that the propaganda machine in the Deep South played the race/slavery card: “secession was necessary to preserve white supremacy, to avoid a race war, and to prevent racial amalgamation,” Rhea says of the arguments for the creation and defense of the Confederacy.
Did the “average” Confederate soldier accept these reasons, or have them as his own? Or was he motivated by Southern nationalism, or the basic and pressing need to protect his home from the invading Northern horde? The individual soldiers’ reasons were no doubt diverse and complex. But regardless of his own reasons, the soldier understood from his leaders that defeat would mean black freedom and equality.
But it’s one thing to talk about black freedom in the abstract; it’s another thing to see it on the battlefield. Before the war, or even in its early phases, the idea of emancipation as a consequence of defeat was just that – an idea, a concept, something that people talked about. But then the Emancipation Proclamation was issued. And now, the theoretical was the actual. In her book What This Cruel War Was Over: Soldiers, Slavery, and the Civil War, Chandra Manning writes “Confederates began to meet black Union soldiers in combat more frequently in 1864, which further aggravated white southern men’s sense of racial aversion. By bearing arms and mostly holding the same rank (private) as most of the Confederate Army, black troops literally presumed equal status with white southern enlisted men. ‘Damn you, you are fighting against your masters,’ howled one confederate as he faced black troops in Tennessee.”
When Confederate soldiers saw colored troops, they didn’t see black; they saw red. Historian Jason Phillips, in his book Diehard Rebels: The Confederate Culture of Invincibility, writes
The emancipation and Federal enlistment of thousands of slaves further enraged Confederates and confirmed their perception of Yankees… Emancipation and black Union soldiers verified Confederate fears that Yankees were racial fanatics…
…Rebels ridiculed Federals’ involvement with blacks. One Confederate denigrated the enemy with remarks such as, “The Yankees marched a line of battle, composed of white negroes and black negroes.” In his eyes, white northerners had descended to blacks’ racial status because of their association in a biracial army. A South Carolina soldier laughed at a dream he had in which Henry Ward Beecher and other abolitionists were “married to the blackest, dirtiest, stinkiest… negro wench[es] that can be found.” A Virginia officer wished that “all the Yanks and all the negroes were in Africa.”
Rebels’ pity and ridicule ended, however, when African Americans entered the fray. Facing black opponents implied a parity between former slaves and Confederate soldiers that many Rebels could not stomach. When Confederate soldier Nugent learned that “Lincoln demands that we treat negro soldiers upon an equality with whites,” he predicted that “the war will not be conducted in a civilized way hereafter.”
Black federal troops meant race war. Armed blacks roaming the countryside, murdering and raping whites-the nightmare that had terrified white southerners for centuries-seemed to be coming true. A soldier manning Lee’s trenches confessed that the men in his unit abruptly ended cease-fire when they realized that black Union troops had replaced white ones.
Other Rebels showed no remorse over the murdering of black prisoners at Fort Pillow. A South Carolina soldier was “glad that Forrest had it in his power to execute such swift & summary vengeance upon the negroes, & I trust it will have a good influence in deterring others from similar acts.” By killing black prisoners, Rebels revealed not only racist rage but also a chilling psychological distance from their victims. A Confederate song that celebrated Fort Pillow expressed the dehumanizing effects of war:
The dabbled clots of brain and gore
Across the swirling sabers ran;
To me each brutal visage bore,
The front of one accursed man
The reference to the Fort Pillow massacre is telling. There has been some debate as to whether there was a massacre at Fort Pillow (most believe it was), and if so, who was responsible for it (it seems to have resulted from the actions of the soldiers, and not direct orders from Confederate Major General Bedford Forrest). But at the time, many Confederates believed it was a massacre – and they celebrated it.
Manning further describes the reasons for rage against the colored troops, indicating that the emotion acquired an eerie functional purpose:
As the number of black Union troops grew, Union authorities stipulated that black Union prisoners captured in the line of duty be exchanged exactly like white soldiers. The demand infuriated Confederate troops, because it equated a white Confederate with a black man. Grant Taylor, a father who never owned a slave, regarded the prospect of equal exchange as unthinkable. When some of his companions were captured at Marietta, Georgia, he expected Confederate authorities to let the prisoners languish in northern prison camps for the duration rather than allow “the Confederates [to] exchange negroes for white men.”
Alabama soldier Edmund Patterson saw only one acceptable response: the Confederate Army must avoid the possibility of exchange by killing all black soldiers, leaving no African American prisoners of war to be bartered for free white Southerners. “If we lose everything else, let us preserve our honor,” he insisted, apparently concluding that implied equality with a black man was more dishonorable than murdering one. After defeating black troops at a fort near Charleston Harbor, a Georgia soldier reported with satisfaction that black prisoners were “literally shot down while on their knees begging for mercy.”
Violence against black prisoners of war allowed weary, frustrated Confederate troops to lash out against the literal embodiments of their worst fears, served warning to any local slaves who might consider running away to join Union regiments, and helped reinvigorate soldiers’ commitment to the war.
The violence against colored troops led them to respond in kind. Whether the massacres were real or perceived, cries of “Remember Fort Pillow” and “Remember Poison Springs” reverberated among their ranks. Believing they would be shown no mercy, many vowed to show none in return. The colored troops’ cries of “no quarter” were probably a factor in the bloodbath for black troops at the Battle of the Crater.
For some Confederate soldiers, even the presence of colored troops may not have turned the Civil War into a fight to maintain slavery. For them, it would always be a war to save his home and his family, whether the enemy had a white face or a black one. But woe to the man with the black face, for he had no honor on the battlefield which a white soldier was bound to respect. No matter what cause he was fighting for, the Confederate soldier’s rage at the black soldier was a constant.