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The Notion of 'Black Loyalty' Under Fire

Report by Eric Heslop

 

In December 1999, Frank had talked to us about the use of Black troops and this later talk included the fruits of further research which had caused him to modify some of the views he had previously expressed. Recently awarded a PhD by the University of London for research into this subject, his views incorporated the findings of some revisionist authors.

 

 


In approaching this subject one must distinguish between the different standpoints of the Confederate authorities and those of the individual Confederate states. Jefferson Davis was dismissive of any suggestion that Blacks whether free or coerced, were making any contribution to the war effort. To have done so would have been a tacit admission that slavery was a major contributory cause of the War Between the States. As later emerged during the question session that followed, there was considerable inhibition in the South about arming the Blacks. Fears of a Black insurrection died hard, particularly bearing in mind Nat Turner's rebellion in Virginia in 1831 and more recently John Brown's foray at Harper's Ferry in 1859. Consequently, although individual states may have adopted a more permissive attitude to the enlistment of Blacks, their role must only be that of support staff.

 

Tracing the development of Black enlistment, in some cases coercion might be a more accurate term, is difficult owing to the paucity of records. The problem of coercion is not mentioned in Southern sources although the practice was followed in many cases. In any event, it is extremely difficult to establish the number of Blacks in Southern military service, but estimates in the region of 80,000 to 100,000 have been made. Of vital significance is the fact that although undoubtedly very many blacks were coerced into support roles, very few deserted, but inevitably those who did found their way through the lines. The concept of loyalty to a master, and through him to the Southern cause, was not unknown.

 

When considering military classifications of the Civil War period, some one hundred and forty years ago, there is a temptation to import current military considerations into any analysis of the then military organisation. Modem terminology does not restrict the definition of a soldier to combat staff. Cooks, labourers, even musicians are all embraced by the term "soldier", although such separate classifications did not exist in the era of 1861-1865. The modem definition of "critical combat support staff" would designate the enlisted Blacks as soldiers if applied retrospectively to the period under review, and most muster sheets of that period did indeed mention the type of military service undertaken by the recruit.

 

Despite the fact that some Confederate states permitted, indeed defence requirements necessitated, the enlistment of free Blacks, some plantation owners resisted this. After all, particularly where slaves were later involved, who would harvest the cotton? In many plantation owners' eyes, the needs of the plantation came first. The attitude of the military was different from that of the Confederate government. The military saw that the replacement of cooks, musicians etc by free Blacks would release White support staff for combat duties.

 

An ancillary issue was whether the Blacks be engaged in state duties or national duties with a competent state authority seeking to nullify Confederate impressment into Confederate service, and subsequently the Confederate authorities attempting to overrule the state authorities. Although pensions for service for White troops were eventually granted by the former Confederate states, problems arose about granting similar facilities to Black soldiers. Originally the pension laws excluded military labourers - the cost was too high, and again there was the problem of identification, and the collateral issue of fraud.

 

Some individual Confederate states had since early in the war countenanced the enrolment of Blacks. By 1864 it was apparent that the war was going badly for the South. At last in November 1864 Jefferson Davis sanctioned the use of Blacks, free and slave, on a national basis, for military service. Individual states, which had not hitherto allowed them to enlist, quickly followed suit. Practice throughout the South had not been uniform as far as the individual states were concerned. In the political sense, the possibility of eventual emancipation was ignored, but the military, particularly Lee, were prepared to hint at this future possibility in general orders.

 

The editor of the 'Confederate Veteran', Cunningham, raised with Marcus Wright, who was compiling the official records, the subject of verification for pension entitlement for Blacks through the muster sheets. He pursued this with tenacity from 1908, until 1921 when finally the veracity of entitlement through the muster sheets was conceded. This marked a watershed in the attitude of historians to Black Confederate service, as previously the initial official Confederate view had prevailed, in that that the Blacks had made little contribution. Southern sources had originally been regarded as unreliable, until the muster sheets proved otherwise.

 

Although establishing recognition for civil war service, this recognition was, in a sense, pyrrhic. Fifty-six years had elapsed since the end of the war. A fifteen year-old Black who had enrolled in 1865 would be aged seventy-one in 1921. In short, only a very small percentage of those Blacks who served would live to draw a war pension, particularly in view of the considerably less favourable mortality expectations which then prevailed, even more unfavourable when one considers the living conditions applicable to the Blacks. A surviving widow of such a war veteran would also be entitled to a pension from the former Confederate State.

 

Although essentially covering the service of Blacks in the Confederate Army, the most painstaking research has so far failed to establish the entitlement of a pension for war service in the Confederate Navy.

 

ACWRT (UK) 2001