Confederate Secretary of War: Negroes Can’t be Soldiers… Unless They Can Pass for White


During the Civil War, it was generally understood in the Confederacy that negroes – “blacks” – would not or could not be used as soldiers. However, a question arose in 1863: what about using mixed-race people for soldiers?

Mobile, Alabama, along with New Orleans and Charleston, were Confederate cities with a sizable mixed-race population. Mixed-race people in the southern portions of Louisiana and Alabama were often called creoles or black creoles. Many of them were so light that they could pass for white, and often had much more in common with their white cousins than with their black cousins. Importantly, many of these creoles wanted to serve in the armed forces of the Confederate States of America (CSA).

This led Dabney H. Maury, a CSA Major-General, to formally request that creoles be used as soldiers in the CSA armed forces. This is his request, followed by the answer he got from the Confederate government:

HEADQUARTERS DEPARTMENT OF THE GULF,
Mobile, Ala., November 7, 1863.
General SAMUEL COOPER,
Adjt. and Insp. Gen., C.S. Army, Richmond, Va.:

GENERAL: I again call your attention to my request to accept into the Confederate service the company of creoles of Mobile, because I think that perhaps the War Department is not exactly informed about the people I have reference to. When Spain ceded this territory to the United States in 1803, the creoles were guaranteed all the immunities and privileges of the citizens of the United States, and have continued to enjoy them up to this time. They have, many of them, negro blood in the degree which disqualifies other persons of negro race from the rights of citizens, but they do not stand here on the footing of negroes. They are very anxious to enter the Confederate service, and I propose to make heavy artillerists of them, for which they will be admirably qualified. Please let me hear at your earliest convenience if I may have them enrolled in a company, or in companies if I can find enough of them to make more than one company.

I am, general, very respectfully, your obedient servant,
DABNEY H. MAURY,
Major-General.

[First indorsement.]
ADJUTANT AND INSPECTOR GENERAL’S OFFICE,
November 20, 1863.
Respectfully submitted to the Secretary of War. An application to have a company of creoles at Mobile accepted into Confederate service.
By order, &c.:
JOHN W. RIELY,
Captain and Assistant Adjutant-General.

[Second indorsement.]
[NOVEMBER] 24, 1863.
Our position with the North and before the world will not allow the employment as armed soldiers of negroes.If these creoles can be naturally and properly discriminated from negroes, the authority may be considered as conferred; otherwise not, unless you can enlist them as “navvies” (to use the English term) or for subordinate working purposes.
J. A. S.,
Secretary.

Source: Official Records of the Rebellion, series 4, volume 2, page 941

The J. A. S in the above is CSA Secretary of War James Seddon. Seddon is asked: can we use freemen as soldiers? Seddon’s reply: no… unless they can pass for white (which many creoles could do).

I guess this is the Confederate version of don’t ask, don’t tell.

But just as gays were denied participation in the military under the don’t ask, don’t tell rules, so too were mixed race people denied under Confederate policy. One has to wonder how the creoles, who were willing to risk their lives in service to their nation, felt after being reminded of their “place” in Confederate society.

****
navvy -Brit., dated: a laborer employed in the excavation and construction of a road, railroad, or canal.
ORIGIN early 19th cent.: abbreviation of navigator.

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3 thoughts on “Confederate Secretary of War: Negroes Can’t be Soldiers… Unless They Can Pass for White

  1. Ah then you DO admit there were indeed Black Confederates now…or at least concede to this point on the subject?

  2. I do not understand the basis of your question, based on the content of my post.

    The Confederacy did recruit a set of colored soldiers after the Negro Soldier Law was passed in early 1865. I would count them as “Black Confederates.”

    Perhaps the early version of the Louisiana Native Guard can be considered “Black Confederates,” at least before Louisiana changed its militia laws limiting service to whites. Perhaps.

    But it seems that in the memo from Seddon, negroes cannot be employed as soldiers.

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