The Black Confederate

The Reno Gazette-Journal ran a story about a local Civil War reenactor’s group educating grade school students. In the article, one of the reenactor’s made the comment that there were no African-American’s fighting for the Confederacy during that war.

Knowing this to be inaccurate, I penned a letter-to-the-editor pointing out this mistaken belief. I truly believe that if a person forgets their personal history, their collective history will soon be lost and then, humanities history is doomed to the same loss.

Contrary to popular historical education, there is much evidence that African-American’s served their country not only in the Union army but also in the Confederate army and navy. This evidence is found in the diaries, journals, newspaper articles and documents written by soldiers, officers and politicians.

Many institutions have set about to dismantle these findings by declaring them as ‘revisionist,’ however the proof that these written accounts exist at all shows that slaves were present in the service of their state and country.

It was the commanders in the field who saw the greatest potential in the use of the African-American slave long before the politicians would admit their value.  On January 2nd, 1864 Major General Patrick Cleburne of the Army of Tennessee, circulated a petition among several officers calling for the enrolling and arming of slaves into the Southern Army.

The petition read in part, “As between the loss of independence and the loss of slavery, we assume that every patriot will freely give up the latter — give up the Negro slaves rather than become a slave himself.”  It was signed by three other generals, four colonels, three majors, one captain, and two lieutenants.

Politicians were horrified by the idea.  Confederate Major General and political advisor to Jefferson Davis, Howell Cobb pointed out, “If slaves will make good soldiers our whole theory of slavery is wrong.”  Davis had Cleburne’s petition suppressed, yet the idea would not go away.

In February 1865, General Robert E. Lee wrote to Confederate President Jefferson Davis requesting authorization to fill his ranks with slaves, saying that they were already physically fit, and mentally conditioned to be well-disciplined.  In March, the Confederated Congress passed a bill that when to Davis’ desk.

While it was awaiting his signature General Lee wrote the President again, “I do not know whether the law authorizing the use of Negro troops has received your sanction, but I respectfully recommend the measures be taken to carry it into effect as soon as practicable.”

It was signed on March 13th and by the first of April, Colonel Otey, 11th Virginia Infantry, was assigned to duty in Lynchburg, VA, to recruit, muster and organize black units for the Confederate army.

Although this unit saw no action according to official accounts other records indicate they were drilling and standing by to defend the city.  There are also historical documents indicating that thousands of slaves served in the Southern army as non-combatants in roles like cooks, teamsters and musicians.

And when called upon they would fight alongside ‘freemen’ who served in such outstanding state-militias like the 1st Louisiana Native Guard; Company  A and F, 14th Mississippi Confederate Calvary; Company D, 35th Texas Calvary;  or the 1,150 black sailors who served in the Confederate navy.

Finally, the first military monument in the US Capitol which honors African-American soldiers is the Confederate monument, erected in 1914.  It depicts “a black Confederate soldier marching in step with white Confederate soldiers.”  Also shown is a white soldier giving his child to a black woman for safety.

We may never understand everything about those five remarkable years, but we cannot ever stop trying.  And it is time to realize that the historical record has been obscured to the truth on the part of the African-American’s role in the Southern Army as a soldier and to bring these facts to light as both a matter of pride and education.

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