Poll: Was the slave John Parker a “Black Confederate?”

Confederates use slaves to mount a cannon during the Civil War: an example of “Black Confederates?”
Source: National Park Service

Question: was the slave John Parker a “Black Confederate?” This is a poll question, and you can give your answer below. Any comments regarding this question are welcome.

So, who was John Parker? John Parker was a southern African American who lived during the American Civil War. This New York Times article describes Parker’s role in the Battle of Bull Run, one of the War’s earliest major battles, and a decisive win for the Confederate army over the Union army:

On the morning of Sunday, July 21, 1861, John Parker and three other men opened fire on Union forces. In the chaos of the Civil War’s first major battle, the group, which was operating a cannon, “couldn’t see the Yankees at all and only fired at random.”​

Like so many men on both sides who experienced war for the first time that day, Parker was terrified. “The balls from the Yankee guns fell thick all around,” he later told a reporter. “In one battery a shell burst and killed 20, the rest ran. Thank the Lord! none were killed in our battery. I felt bad all the time, and thought every minute my time would come; I felt so excited that I hardly knew what I was about, and felt worse than dead.”​

Parker and his comrades’ lives depended on their competence with the gun — but not in the usual way. All four men were slaves, ordered by their owners to fight for the Confederate cause. “We wish[ed] to our hearts that the Yankees would whip,” Parker recalled, “and we would have run over to their side but our officers would have shot us if we had made the attempt.”​

Was John Parker a “Black Confederate?” Historian John Stauffer says yes in his article for The Root, “Yes, There Were Black Confederates. Here’s why.” In his discussion of Black Confederates – men or women who “supported the Confederacy” – Stauffer writes:

A few thousand blacks did indeed fight for the Confederacy. Significantly, African-American scholars from Ervin Jordan and Joseph Reidy to Juliet Walker and Henry Louis Gates Jr., editor-in-chief of The Root, have stood outside this impasse, acknowledging that a few blacks, slave and free, supported the Confederacy.

How many supported it? No one knows precisely. But by drawing on these scholars and focusing on sources written or published during the war, I estimate that between 3,000 and 6,000 served as Confederate soldiers. Another 100,000 or so blacks, mostly slaves, supported the Confederacy as laborers, servants and teamsters. They built roads, batteries and fortifications; manned munitions factories—essentially did the Confederacy’s dirty work.

Meet John Parker, Black Confederate

Douglass corroborated Johnson’s story. He published in the March 1862 issue of Douglass’ Monthly a brief autobiography of John Parker, one of the black Confederates at Manassas. A Virginia slave, Parker was sent to Richmond to build batteries and breastworks. After completing this job, he and his fellow slaves were ordered to Manassas “to fight,” as he said. He was put in an artillery unit with three other black men. On Sunday, July 21, “we opened fire about 10:00 in the morning; couldn’t see the Yankees at all and only fired at random.”

During the battle, Parker said, he worried about dying, hoped for a Union victory and thought of fleeing to the Union side. “We wished to our hearts that the Yankees would whip us. … We would have run over to the other side but our officers would have shot us if we had made the attempt.” He and his fellow slaves had been promised their freedom “and money besides” if they fought. “None of us believed them; we only fought because we had to.”​

Parker is a “Black Confederate” according to Stauffer. But does that properly describe Parker? Let’s think about it.

Before the 13th Amendment abolished slavery, we know that millions of enslaved persons picked cotton, cut sugarcane, thrashed rice, or otherwise served their masters. In the process of being enslaved, these persons were subjected to physical, emotional, and sometimes sexual abuse. We know that perhaps hundreds of thousands of slaves saw family members sold away during the course of colonial and antebellum slavery. We know that slavemasters got rich off the exploited labor of the bondsmen.

Question: would anybody say that the fact that slaves picked cotton or cut cane or thrashed rice means that they “supported” the institution of slavery? Today, probably not too many. Today most us reckon that slaves did not “support” the institution of slavery, but rather, were forced to be subjected to its degradation.

So, why would anyone say that the use of coerced labor by members of the Confederate military means that slaves “supported” the Confederacy?

Of course the key thing is the definition of “support.” If “support” means that slaves were used as a resource by Confederates, then in that case, yes, slaves “supported” the Confederacy. And by the exact same logic, we can say that slaves supported the institution of slavery. Although it’s odd to hear it that way.

But if support means giving approval or encouragement, then we need to look at things differently. In the case of John Parker we have an example of an enslaved man who did not approve of, or willfully encourage, the Confederate regime. In fact, as Stauffer notes, Parker escaped bondage, provided military intelligence to the Union, and went North to become an anti-Confederate propagandist. Parker wanted Confederates to lose. But because he was a slave, he could not act on his volition.

The fact is, Parker was no more a Black Confederate than a cotton picking slave on the Mississippi River or a rice thrashing slave on the South Carolina coast. The only thing that was different was the site of his coerced labor. Stauffer never really explains how it is that locating enslavement near the site of a battlefield elevates or otherwise transforms a slave to the condition of a “Confederate.”

Instead of straining credulity by calling these slaves “Black Confederates,” why not call them what we all know they actually are – slaves? Why is that so hard?

Ultimately, this issue comes down to, what is the definition of a Confederate? Stauffer seems to think that the performance of slave labor on a battlefield makes a slave into a Confederate. I do not agree. As I see it – and more importantly, as actual (white) Confederates saw it – Confederate-ness was a political and social construct, not a military one. To white southerners, a Confederate was a citizen or prospective citizen of the Confederacy, or one of the several Confederate states. Citizenship entailed duty and loyalty to the Confederate state. Thus, Confederate citizens could be compelled to serve in the Confederate army, and defend against threats posed by, for example, the Union army.

Do you see? White men were not transformed into Confederates as a result of their military service. Rather, they were already Confederates as a result of being citizens of a Confederate state. Their military service made them Confederate soldiers, but they were Confederates before they signed their enlistment papers.

Meanwhile, slaves were not, and could not, be Confederate citizens. Slaves were property, like livestock. Slaves used as resources in the way that horses and oxen were used as resources. This is not to deny the existence of genuine affection and even love between some slave owners and their slaves; or to say that whites in general did not recognize the humanity of the bondsmen. But legally and politically, slaves were a class of property. Slaves were non-citizens and non-Confederates. They resided in the Confederate states, but residency did not make them Confederates. The fact that a slave served a master in an army camp did not transform the slave politically, socially, or legally into a Confederate.

The problem with the term “Black Confederate” as I see it is two-fold. First, it can give the mistaken impression that these African Americans, like actual (i.e., white) Confederates, served out of duty and obligation as citizens of the Confederate state.

Second, it can give the impression that these African Americans “supported” (i.e., served out of approval for) the goals and objectives of the Confederate regime.

Actual (white) Confederates did not operate under such false impressions. The use of the term “Black Confederates” was rare during the Civil War itself. Meanwhile, the terms “loyal slave”  or “faithful servant” were used quite often. Actual Confederates understood that slaves operated out of obedience to their owners. The fact that these slaves performed so loyally in the presence of a battlefield proved and reinforced the notion of slaves as being devoted to the service of their masters.

This is a Confederate and his horse.
The man in the photo is a citizen of his state, and by extension, a Confederate citizen. He has duties and obligations to his state and nation, which he fulfills in part by his military service.
The animal under him is NOT a Confederate. That is, the horse is not a Confederate citizen. It is not an “equine Confederate.” The Confederacy did have its own horses, which could be considered “Confederate horses.” The horses were owned by the Confederacy, they were not “Confederates” themselves.

This is a Confederate and his slave.
The white man in the photo is a citizen of his state, and by extension, a Confederate citizen. He has duties and obligations to his state and nation, which he fulfills in part by his military service.
The slave is NOT a “Confederate.” That is, the slave is not a Confederate citizen. He is not an “slave Confederate” or a “Black Confederate.” The slave is owned by a Confederate, but is not himself a “Confederate.” The black man is appropriately called a “Confederate slave,” which indicates that he is the possession of a Confederate. Calling the slave a “Black Confederate” implies that he had the same status, rights, and obligations as a actual (white) Confederate, which is not true.

What do I call John Parker? Simply put, he was an enslaved person, or if you prefer, a Confederate slave. There is no ambiguity in that, no chance for false impressions. And that describes exactly what he was. Why is it so hard to call him exactly what he was?

See also: Bravery, Not Slavery: Why Some Black Folks Want to Believe in Black Confederate Soldiers

Addendum: My response to expected responses.

Any time the subject of Black Confederates comes up, a number of typical responses result. Let me respond to those responses in advance.

Typical response number 1: There were slaves who picked up weapons and fought Union men.

My response: I agree that there were at least some slaves who fought out of self-defense or to save master or his master’s brothers in arms. Nobody knows how many, but the number of them appears to be small, and limited to anecdotes. In any event, I disagree that they should be called Black Confederates. Actual (white) Confederates did not consider them Black Confederates. I do not believe we should use language which might lead people to think that (a) these slaves provided “service” as part of their duties and obligations as citizens of the Confederate state or that (b) these slaves supported the aims and goals of the Confederate regime.

Actual (white) Confederates of the era called these men “loyal servants” or “faithful slaves.” I think that language is appropriately used today.

Typical response number 2: There were black men who enlisted in the Confederate military.

My response: That is changing the subject. Until March of 1865, it was illegal for slaves like John Parker to enlist in the military. (In April of 1865, Confederate General Robert E. Lee surrendered to Union General Ulysses S. Grant; this began the end of the Civil War.) A small number of free blacks did enlist, but that is not what this post is about. This is about the slave John Parker.

I would add that in the Confederate States of America, enslaved blacks were 38.7% of the population, free blacks just 1.5 %. 96% of African Americans living in the Confederacy were enslaved. To be sure, there is a story to be told about the role of free blacks in the Confederacy. But it is a much smaller story than that of enslaved blacks, one that does not represent the experience of the overwhelming majority of African Americans, and one that is outside the topic of this post.

Typical response number 3: What about slaves who fought Union? They weren’t Union citizens.

My response: Slaves who enlisted in the Union were not fighting out of obligation and duty to the Union regime. They were fighting for their freedom. As Abraham Lincoln said in August 1863: “I thought that whatever negroes can be got to do as soldiers, leaves just so much less for white soldiers to do, in saving the Union… But negroes, like other people, act upon motives. Why should they do any thing for us, if we will do nothing for them? If they stake their lives for us, they must be prompted by the strongest motive–even the promise of freedom. And the promise being made, must be kept.”

Lincoln acknowledged explicitly that negroes were being enlisted to fight for their freedom, and aid the Union in the process. At that time, the idea among Unionmnen of giving citizenship to negroes was a subject of debate. But as stated by Lincoln, the offer of freedom (and note the duty of citizenship) was the carrot to garner the slaves’ support.

No such offer was made by the Confederates to their slaves – until March 1865. Until that time, slave enlistment in the Confederate military was prohibited: a slave could not enlist, even if he wanted to. But by March 1865, the Confederacy was so separate, they did what was unthinkable, and passed a law which allowed slaves to enlist. Confederate president Jefferson Davis’ administration issued orders that slave enlistees had to be given “the rights of a freedman.” But the slave enlistment policy was too little, too late: just one month after the law was passed, Robert E. Lee’s surrender at Appomattox signaled to defeat of the Confederacy.


3 thoughts on “Poll: Was the slave John Parker a “Black Confederate?”

  1. Pingback: ¿ESCLAVITUD? | abigarramientos

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