Slave labor was a key part of the Confederate war effort against the Union military during the American Civil War. Almost immediately, slaves were employed to provide labor to the Confederate military. If slaves could be used to do all the dirty work required to keep up the new Confederate nation and support the armed services – work such as digging ditches or building fortifications – then white men could be dedicated to combat and related duties.
For that to work, though, slave holders needed to allow the Confederate military to use their slaves. And many slaveholders didn’t want to do that. It was quite common for slaves to be hired out by their masters to work outside their homes. But providing labor to the military was another story. Owners feared that slaves would get sick, injured, or even die while doing strenuous work under hazardous conditions. Owners were also afraid that slaves might exploit their situation to find ways to escape.
So it was that in September 1863, Confederate major J. F. Minter, a Chief Quartermaster in the Trans-Mississippi Department, issued the above poster (called a ‘broadside’) which pleaded with slaveholders to hire their slaves out to the army. (The Trans-Mississippi Department managed military operations to the west of the Mississippi River, in Arkansas, Louisiana, and Texas.) The slaves would be employed as “teamsters, cooks, mechanics, and laborers.” Note that, Minter does not ask for slaves who will become or act as soldiers. Until the very end of the war, slaves could not enlist in the Confederate army.
Major Minter offered another reason for slaves to be hired out to the Confederate military. The Union was then engaged in a plan to confiscate and liberate slaves, so they could be laborers or even soldiers for the Union cause. Minter suggested that by hiring slaves out to the Confederacy, their loss to the enemy could be avoided.
What did the slaves make of Minter’s request for their labor? Major Minter’s broadside doesn’t address that question. His comment that the people must “sacrifice freely… (to) remain freemen” did not include bondsmen as part of “the people.” Slaves were simply a resource to be used by one side or the other. And Minter’s job was to make that labor safe and useful for the Confederate cause. But as the war continued, the bondsmen would show that they were not just tools of the Union or the Confederacy, but rather, agents of their own liberation. Minter didn’t say it and perhaps didn’t see it; but in time, this truth would be inescapable.
From the American Social History Project: “In May 1863, Louisiana black regiments fought with great gallantry and almost reckless disregard for their own lives in the assault on Port Hudson, Louisiana. The bravery of these troops, which previously had been doubted by many northern commanders, was soon extolled in the pages of the illustrated press.”
Image Source: Frank Leslie’s Illustrated Newspaper, June 27, 1863, by artist Francis H. Schell; image from Dickinson College’s ‘House Divided’ site.
Howell Cobb, southern politician and brigadier general in the Confederate States of America army: “The day you make soldiers of (slaves) is the beginning of the end of the revolution.”
Source: Image by Matthew Brady; from the Library of Congress, reproduction numbers LC-USZ62-110081, LC-USZ62-28297
By January 1865, “gloom and despondency rule(d) the hour,” according to Howell Cobb, an army general of the Confederate States of America. The Confederacy was losing the American Civil War. Recent Union military successes and a shortage of manpower forced Confederates to seek ways to bolster their forces and stave off the destruction of their nation.
One of the most stinging critiques of black enlistment came from Howell Cobb. Prior to the Civil War, Cobb served in the US Congress and was the Speaker of the House of Representatives from 1849 to 1851. He was also the 40th Governor of Georgia (1851–1853) and Secretary of Treasury under President James Buchanan (1857–1860). After Lincoln’s election, he championed the slave states’ secession from the Union. After the shooting war began in April 1861 at Fort Sumter, Cobb joined the Confederate army. He became a brigadier general in early 1862.
In January 1865, Cobb wrote a letter to Confederate Secretary of War James Seddon and offered his views on the use of slaves as soldiers. Cobb did not merely criticize the idea; he condemned it. Using slaves as soldiers was “the most pernicious idea that has been suggested since the war began,” he claimed. And he lamented that Robert E. Lee – who was Cobb’s military commander – was being used to promote this policy.
As Alexander Stephens, a fellow Georgian and Vice President of the Confederacy put it in March 1861, the cornerstone of their new nation rested “upon the great truth that the negro is not equal to the white man; that slavery subordination to the superior race is his natural and normal condition.” Black enlistment fundamentally challenged that belief, and by extension, challenged the reason for the Confederacy’s very existence. As Cobb saw it, “If slaves will make good soldiers our whole theory of slavery is wrong… The day you make soldiers of them is the beginning of the end of the revolution.”
But slaves would not make good soldiers, he said; “as a class (slaves) are wanting in every qualification of a soldier.” He warned that “you can’t keep white and black troops together, and you can’t trust negroes by themselves.”
Howell was also fearful that slave enlistment would drive off the Confederacy’s white soldiers. And not just because whites would not fight alongside black troops; he was afraid that white troops would use the influx of black soldiers as an excuse to “retire” from the army and relieve themselves of the duties and dangers of wartime service.
Cobb went on to say that, if given a choice, he would rather take the extreme measure of freeing the slaves to get the support of England and France, than resort to black enlistment. (Many believed that anti-slavery sentiment in England and France prevented them from recognizing the Confederacy as an independent nation.) Although one wonders if that statement was merely a rhetorical flourish; it’s hard to imagine Cobb stomaching either black emancipation or black enlistment.
Cobb’s hope was to find other means to recruit white men into the army. Whatever those means were, they either weren’t implemented or weren’t enough: in March of 1865 the Confederate government passed a law enabling slave enlistment. But it was too little too late: General Robert E. Lee surrendered in Virginia in April 1865, and that began the end of the Confederacy. Continue reading →
Confederate general Robert E. Lee: “I think, therefore, we must decide whether slavery shall be extinguished by our enemies and the slaves be used against us, or use them ourselves.”
Source: Image of Robert E. Lee; Julian Vannerson, photographer; from Wikipedia Commons; from an image at the Library of Congress, reproduction numbers LC-DIG-cwpb-04402, LC-B8172-0001
The Confederates were losing the bloody American Civil War against the United States, AKA the Union. By January 1865, the Union controlled the Mississippi River and large swaths of land to the river’s east and west; the December 1864 Battle of Nashville had beaten the largest remaining Confederate forces west of the Appalachian Mountains; Union General William Sherman had completed his almost unimpeded march through Georgia, and was heading for South Carolina; and the Confederacy’s position in Virginia was being made tenuous by pressure from the forces of Union general Ulysses Grant and a lack of manpower.
Given their circumstances, Confederates began to debate a fundamental shift in political and military policy: the use of slaves as soldiers in the Confederate army, along with emancipation for those who served. Andrew Hunter, a Virginia politician, wrote to General Robert E. Lee to get his opinion on the controversy. Lee responded: slaves should be employed as soldiers “without delay.”
It’s not like Lee preferred to make this radical shift in policy. He maintained that the “relation of master and slave” was “the best that can exist between the white and black races.” But he argued that the use of slaves as soldiers would “increase our military strength and enable us to relieve our white population to some extent.” And even more, it might counteract the horrifying prospect that slaves, having been promised freedom by the Emancipation Proclamation, would continue to take arms for the Union, and destroy slavery on the Union’s terms and/or the slaves’ terms in the event of Confederate defeat.
Lee went even further in his policy proposal: he recommended a plan of “gradual and general emancipation” that would eventually free all the slaves, not just soldiers and their families. After all, the Emancipation Proclamation offered to immediately free all the slaves; Confederates needed to come close to that offer, he reasoned, to ensure the “efficiency and fidelity” of the slaves in their new roles as soldiers. Yes, freedom for the slaves might mean hardship for whites, but Union victory would be even worse. Better to give freedom to the slaves and defeat the Union, than to have the Union give the slaves freedom and defeat the Confederacy in the process. Lee believed that if employing slaves as soldiers “ends in subverting slavery it will be accomplished by ourselves, and we can devise the means of alleviating the evil consequences to both races.” Lee did not detail what “means” would be devised to manage the “evil consequences” of freedom for the bondsmen.
Considering the relation of master and slave, controlled by humane laws and influenced by Christianity and an enlightened public sentiment, as the best that can exist between the white and black races while intermingled as at present in this country, I would deprecate any sudden disturbance of that relation unless it be necessary to avert a greater calamity to both. I should therefore prefer to rely upon our white population to preserve the ratio between our forces and those of the enemy, which experience has shown to be safe. But in view of the preparations of our enemies, it is our duty to provide for continued war and not for a battle or a campaign, and I fear that we cannot accomplish this without overtaxing the capacity of our white population.
Should the war continue under the existing circumstances, the enemy may in course of time penetrate our country and get access to a large part of our negro population. It is his avowed policy to convert the able-bodied men among them into soldiers, and to emancipate all… Many have already been obtained in Virginia, and should the fortune of war expose more of her territory, the enemy would gain a large accession to his strength. His progress will thus add to his numbers, and at the same time destroy slavery in a manner most pernicious to the welfare of our people. Their negroes will be used to hold them in subjection, leaving the remaining force of the enemy free to extend his conquest. Whatever may be the effect of our employing negro troops, it cannot be as mischievous as this. If it end in subverting slavery it will be accomplished by ourselves, and we can devise the means of alleviating the evil consequences to both races. Continue reading →
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.”
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?
The American Civil War made for new and unexpected encounters between North and South. One of those is captured in Winslow Homer’s poignant 1875 watercolor painting Contraband, which features a Union soldier in a Zouave uniform and a runaway slave boy.
What did these two see in each other’s faces? This might be the first time that the white soldier sees a slave in the flesh. Understand that in 1860, less than 2% of the North’s population was of African descent; millions of northerners went their entire lives without ever seeing a negro. Slaves had been much talked about, but hardly seen except for press illustrations which typically represented them as big-lipped, dark-skinned caricatures. But as this soldier gazed upon the boy, he may have seen, not a cartoon image, but rather, the face of humanity. And so he was moved to this act of kindness, of sharing his water with the boy.
And what did the child, whose enslaved family had sought refuge behind Union lines, make of this man with the garish uniform and the funny accent? During the war, thousands of slaves heeded the advice of the grapevine telegraph that the United States army offered them freedom, if they could escape to Union lines. Having survived his family’s sojourn from bondage, the thirsty and exhausted boy with the curious and almost trepidatious look may have tasted not just water, but also, liberation and hope. Perhaps the boy thought that he might be a soldier himself one day. (Many black men who escaped bondage did become soldiers, and maybe even some boys.) Continue reading →
An Ordinance Abolishing Slavery in Missouri, 1865
From here: “This ink on vellum document signed by the members of Missouri’s 1865 Constitutional Convention enacted the immediate emancipation of all enslaved people in Missouri. It was signed on January 11, 1865, three weeks before the 13th Amendment to the U.S. Constitution, which ended slavery, was even proposed.”
Image source: Missouri History Museum Archives, via the website “The Civil War in Missouri”
On January 1, 1863, Abraham Lincoln issued the Emancipation Proclamation. It stated that “all persons held as slaves within any State or designated part of a State, the people whereof shall then be in rebellion against the United States, shall be then, thenceforward, and forever free…” Of note was that the proclamation would only be effective for states in “rebellion against the United States,” namely, the Confederate States that had seceded from, and were fighting against, the Union during the American Civil War.
Not covered by the proclamation were several slave states – the so-called ‘Border States’ of Missouri, Maryland, Delaware, and Kentucky – which stayed loyal to the Union and had had not seceded. In those states, bondage remained unabated.
In July, 1862, President Lincoln met with congressman and senators from the Border States and personally asked them to implement a plan of gradual, compensated emancipation. He said at the meeting:
The incidents of the war can not be avoided. If the war continue long, as it must, if the object be not sooner attained, the institution (slavery) in your states will be extinguished by mere friction and abrasion–by the mere incidents of the war. It will be gone, and you will have nothing valuable in lieu of it. Much of its value is gone already.
How much better for you, and for your people, to take the step which, at once, shortens the war, and secures substantial compensation for that which is sure to be wholly lost in any other event. How much better to thus save the money which else we sink forever in the war. How much better to do it while we can, lest the war ere long render us pecuniarily unable to do it. How much better for you, as seller, and the nation as buyer, to sell out, and buy out, that without which the war could never have been, than to sink both the thing to be sold, and the price of it, in cutting one another’s throats.
Lincoln’s message to the Border States was clear: the Civil War was going to put pressure on the institution of slavery, and perhaps even lead to its demise. Why not end slavery in your states now, and get compensated for it, while the government still has the money to afford such a plan? If this plan is not accepted now, and the war does end slavery, you’ll lose everything and get noting in return.
Lincoln was right in his prediction. The “friction of war” did indeed destabilize bondage throughout all of the slave states, Union and Confederate. In Missouri, for example, thousands of slaves escaped their master as fighting raged throughout the state. At least 8,300, black Missourians – mostly former slaves – joined the Union army, gaining freedom for themselves in the process. (Slaves who joined the US army were given the status of freemen.)
The issue of gradual, compensated emancipation became a subject of discussion and debate within Missouri. In 1863, a state convention was held, and an ordinance for gradual emancipation, to begin in 1870, was passed. But for some Missourians, emancipation starting in 1870 wasn’t soon enough. The so-called “Radical Republicans” of the state – members of Lincoln’s political who party were ardent anti-slavery men – agitated for a policy of immediate emancipation.
With freedom in hand, and despite efforts to limit their progress, African Americans pressed forward to take advantage of whatever opportunities they could. They recalled that in 1847 the Missouri General Assembly passed a law forbidding blacks, slave or free, to be taught to read or write. As noted in the book Missouri’s Black Heritage, the law “was a reflection of a slaveholder’s fear that literacy might lead to (a slave) rebellion.” This so-called “Black Code” prohibition taught Missouri blacks a lesson they would not forget: education was a force for their liberation and uplift.
Black soldiers and veterans were at the forefront of efforts to ensure that freedmen and freedwomen would receive the education and learning that were denied to the under slavery. Men from two regiments of black Union soldiers – the 62nd and 65th infantry regiments of United States Colored Troops – took an unprecedented action: in 1866, they pooled their money to fund the first and only school established by soldiers of African descent.
Located in Jefferson City, Missouri, that school stands as a legacy of African Americans’ efforts for improvement, progress, and full citizenship. Its name: Lincoln University of Missouri.
Ludger Balan is with New York-based CHE Nautical & Enviro Edutainment, a non-profit group that researches and interprets African Heritage History in Colonial America and World History. The organization facilitates the work of reenactors and living historians who provide education about historical figures and events from the 17th, 18th, 19th centuries.
The video is a brief interview with Balan at the commemoration/celebration of the 150th Anniversary of Camp William Penn, AKA Camp Penn, in September 2013. Camp Penn, located just outside of northwest Philadelphia, was a federal site that was dedicated to training African Americans who enlisted in the United States Army during the American Civil War. Just under 11,000 men of African descent were trained at the site. Camp Penn took in men from Pennsylvania, and also nearby Delaware, Maryland, and New Jersey. These men were part of the United States Colored Troops (USCT).
Balan, who was a reenactor/living historian at the event (he does living history for other periods as well, such as the War of 1812), spoke for a few minutes about the importance of telling the story of the US Colored Troops, his passion for the subject, and his hopes for getting the story to the mass of African Americans who might not be aware of this vital part of their history.
The video above is also from the commemoration of the 150th anniversary of Camp William Penn, September 2013. Balan and fellow reenactor/living historian Derrick James are showing visitors how soldiers trained and used their weapons. The event was attended by several dozen USCT living historians who discussed several aspects of camp life and military service. See also this previous blog post.