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Black Confederates

By Jim Garamone
American Forces Press Service

WASHINGTON, Feb. 1, 1996 – Confederate Maj. Gen. Patrick Cleburne was a born fighter. A division commander in the Army of Tennessee, Cleburne hated to lose.

In 1864, Union forces, with their virtually unlimited resources of men and materiel, were grinding the Confederacy toward defeat. Cleburne saw an untapped Southern resource he wanted to use before it was too late.

Cleburne made a revolutionary proposal to Army Commander Gen. Braxton Bragg: Arm Southern slaves and have them fight for their freedom with the Confederate army.

What mattered to Cleburne was not the institution of slavery, but the establishment of the Confederate States of America. He believed logical men would see the only way to overcome the tremendous Union advantages in men and materiel was to arm the slaves.

But there was nothing logical about slavery. Bragg, his corps commanders and selected division commanders in the Army of Tennessee listened to Cleburnes proposal in shocked silence. The whole idea was repugnant to them. Still, Bragg forwarded Cleburnes proposal to Confederate President Jefferson Davis.

Davis killed the idea and in fact was so worried about the effect of such a proposal on morale that he suppressed any mention of it. Cleburnes novel idea did not see the light of day until 40 years after the war.

But African Americans did serve with Confederate armies. And eventually they even bore arms for the Confederacy.

Early in the war, "Free Negroes" tried to enlist in the Confederate army. Black militia units, most notably in Louisiana, rushed to join in the war. The Confederate government did not accept the black militia units for army duty. None of the units appear to have been in combat, but many may have performed what is called combat service support today.

Thousands of African Americans marched off to war for the Confederacy. Many accompanied their masters, and there were isolated instances throughout the war of these "body servants" as these slaves were called taking up arms when their masters went into combat.

Many other slaves served as laborers for the Confederate army. During the Atlanta campaign of 1864, for instance, Confederate Gen. Joseph Johnston used thousands of slaves to prepare fortifications as his army sparred with that of Union Maj. Gen. William T. Sherman.

Thousands more slaves served the Confederate army driving horsedrawn supply wagons. The Confederate fighting force was white, but much of its support was black.

But sheer Union numbers facing the Confederacy meant arming the slaves and giving them freedom was almost inevitable. The Northern population was 20 million. Of the Souths 9 million people, onethird were African American.

By late 1864, it was becoming apparent to even the most optimistic Southerner that the North was winning. The fall of Atlanta and Sherman's subsequent March to the Sea, Union victories in Virginias Shenandoah Valley and Lt. Gen. Ulysses S. Grants death grip on Richmond and Petersburg, Va., meant time was running out for the Confederacy. The last hope expired when Northern voters reelected Abraham Lincoln president.

Now desperate, Jefferson Davis embraced an idea he thought revolting a year earlier. The Confederate Congress began looking at bills allowing the enlistment of African Americans into the army in early 1865. Confederate Secretary of State Judah P. Benjamin spoke at rallies around Richmond. He said 680,000 AfricanAmerican males were ready to fight for the Confederacy: "Let us say to every Negro who wants to go into the ranks, 'Go and fight, and you are free ... Fight for your masters, and you shall have your freedom.'"

Representatives from the Deep South were especially keen on getting blacks to enlist theirs was the land Sherman was laying to waste. Some in the Confederate government saw the measure as an admission the Confederacy was wrong about slavery from the beginning.

"If we are right in passing this measure we were wrong in denying to the old government [the United States] the right to interfere with the institution of slavery and to emancipate slaves, Virginia Sen. Robert M.T. Hunter said. Besides, if we offer slaves their freedom ... we confess that we were insincere, were hypocritical, in asserting that slavery was the best state for the Negroes themselves."

In February 1865, the Confederate Congress, after months of stalling, passed an act allowing black enlistments. Immediately, Virginia started enlisting slaves to fight for the Confederacy.

White officers commanded these battalions. They drilled and marched in downtown Richmond. Recruiters hit the areas around Richmond and Petersburg, but they moved too slowly for Rebel Gen. Robert E. Lee. He took officers from the Army of Northern Virginia and started recruiting blacks immediately.

But time ran out. On March 31, Union forces broke the Confederate lines at Petersburg. Lee was compelled to evacuate Richmond and Petersburg. His only hope of carrying on the fight was to escape to North Carolina and link up with Confederate forces there.

Records from the time are incomplete, but several thousand African Americans may have served as soldiers for the Confederacy. Anecdotal evidence implies at least some went into combat against Union forces.

On April 4, a Confederate courier observed black Confederates defending a wagon train near Amelia Court House, Va. When Union cavalry approached, the black soldiers formed up, fired and drove them off. The cavalry reformed, charged and took the wagon train.

Later, near Farmville, Va., white refugees saw black Confederates building and preparing to man fortifications.

Lee surrendered to Grant at Appomattox, Va., on April 9. The enlistment of black Confederate soldiers was the dying gasp of the South.

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