Sunday, May 30, 2010

Memorial Day and What I Learned About Black Confederate Soldiers

It is a pip of a topic. It came to me on the serendipity flyer. I was cruising through Ms. Lady Deborah’s Renaissance Gallery blog. My eyes locked on the name of the video, Black Confederate Soldiers.

My brain had an instant system scramble. It made no rational sense to me. Then I started to think; maybe it is a parody video or some kind of joke. It wasn’t. Every history book I picked up contained white men in a grey suit holding a gun. I do not ever recall seeing a photo of black man in a confederate uniform.

This is another video that has footage of the Confederate soldiers and a discussion of Nathan Bedford Forest who had 41 of his slaves go with him into battle:

I’m not sure if this is propaganda or a historical distortion. It could also be the truth or a part of a greater truth. So for two and half hours I've been looking for verifiable sources of information.

What is My Agenda?

For me, I want to know if this is true or not that there was voluntary service of free black men in the Confederacy. More importantly, I want to know why. My 21st century personhood really wants to know why.

When you start to research a controversial topic you need to be clear as to what you are searching for and what is my expectation of a result. Then you have to be prepared to jettison the expectation.

The Facts and The Truth

There were people in the U.S. Army and in the Confederate Army who wanted to conscript slaves and former slaves.

Once word got out that there was going to be military action the free blacks and former slaves rushed to enlist. They were turned away because of a pre-existing Federal law that barred Negroes from bearing arms for the U.S. Army.

The U.S. Army resisted as long as it could until there was a drop in white enlistment. Things changed. The rest is history.

Over on the Confederate Army side of the fence is a little more complicated and to me, psychologically mind boggling. Confederate offices and slave owners did bring their slaves along with them into military service.

Slaves were conscripted to assist and support confederate troops. Not a big deal, kinda thought that would have happened. This was not voluntary action by the slaves. There was no choice in the matter. Slaves had to serve their owners.

The bigger question is did people of color try to or indeed voluntary serve in the Confederate Army? Yes. And No. Really, I am not playing words games here.

This is complicated. There is a very good article at the University of Maryland Baltimore County America History site that started to clear things up for me.

Things were not going well in the Confederacy. After black recruitment shot up in the Union Army the Confederacy started looking around for allies and assistance.

One of those places was Louisiana. There was a large number of free people of color. Some who called themselves Creole. In their perception of reality they were not Negro, black or of African decent.

A Creole person of that time would have had a stroke being called Negro or African. It did not matter what they looked like on the surface. They were Creole. Not white and certainly not African. They had their own society and business concerns.

Looking at the odds between the Underdog and the long term Big Dog a certain percentage of the free and Creole population that went into the Confederacy figured that the Big Dog (the Confederacy) was gonna win.

It was in part an economic decision. Some of the Creoles were slave owners themselves. They had property and a lifestyle negotiated long ago. They had more to lose with the Union than with the southern states.

The narrative goes on to talk about the decision of Virginia free and slave populations to consider joining the Confederate Army. It wasn't necessarily love of Dixie, more like being between a rock and a hard place.

Having said that, there were black confederate soldiers that were proud of their service. Their descendants also want it known that these men served in honor. That is not something that can be dismissed.

Knowing When to Back Off

I found the first level answers. But the questions those answers generate are far more complex and deep than I can handle in 1500 words. I'd need 300,000 and a couple of Ph.Ds after my name. There is a important context to the answers that cannot fit a sound bite or a quick post.

I'd want to find diaries and recordings of these gentlemen, if they exist, to really understand.

I want to know living conditions and how do you deal with inter-troop and external racism? I'd want to know if they felt that a life in slavery was better to them than a life as a free person?

Those questions take time and respect for the truth to find the answers.

Final words. I will not be a party to revisionist history for the sake of advancing a political agenda. There are bloggers who are doing this now - searching through every historically prominent person of color writings to find "the hidden Republican or conservative streak."

Also, if you think you found a sympathetic African American that understands the right to praise the Confederacy think again. I neither praise nor condemn. The Civil War is a historical fact with many dimensions. Each soldier and the family he or she was attached to has a viable story.

My only commitment is to find the truth and validate as best I can.

I don't play it the other way either. I have words for some liberals; you can't continue to ignore Booker T. Washington either. If the system is going to collapse then damn well we better be prepared to build anew.

Somebody needs to hip the hydroponic boys to diversify the crop. Pop some veggies in between the ganja if you catch my drift.

As for me? I have to find something else to write about.

Resources Used and Discovered For Those That Are Curious:


  1. "I'd want to know if they felt that a life in slavery was better to them than a life as a free person?"

    Hi my name is David Tatum jr.
    My great Grand father was a member of the first company Richmond Howitzers.
    The Richmond howitzers were reportedly and integrated unit that had black artillerymen, I have found no credible evidence of this claim. I have found ample evidence of blacks serving in the unit.
    To anwser one of your questions, and this is just from the writings of one member of the howitzers. In pamphlet three of “reminiscence of the Richmond howitzers” I found the following statement/
    July 9th /” a few our negro cooks who were with our wagon train when it was captured by the enemy, and returned today. Certainly they were the happiest fellows I ever saw and were greeted with loud cheers by our men. A chance for freedom they had, but preferred life and slavery in dixie to liberty at the north.”

    Respectfully Yours
    David Tatum Jr.

  2. Thank you for your comment. I could make all kinds of reasons and suppositions as to why they may have been happy to return to what they knew.

    Without proof to back it up it would just be speculation.

    My understanding that racism and maltreatment was issued by both armies. Such is the nature of war.

    Based on some of my readings the treatment of Confederate soldiers were harsh. I would assume being a Union POW in Confederate hands was no picnic either.

    As I said, this topic requires additional verifiable documentation. I would hope that there are transcripts or recordings of these gentlemen hidden in an archive or a family scrapbook.

    It is a process of discovery.