Yesterday’s Disunion in the New York Times has a timely piece written by Kate Masur, which provides additional perspective on whether African Americans served as soldiers in the early months of the Civil War. In it, she recounts the story of John Parker, who with three other slaves unwillingly fought for the Confederacy as artillerymen at the First Battle of Bull Run/Manassas. Masur writes:
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.”
According to Masur, Parker began his Confederate service in a more conventional way: as a military laborer. She writes, “Parker was sent to build batteries and breastworks, first in Winchester and Fredericksburg and later, after the Confederate capital moved to Richmond, along the James River.” Some how he ended up manning a cannon with three other slaves during the first major battle of the war. Masur then continues:
Parker and others from his plantation remained near Manassas Junction for two weeks following the battle, stripping the Union soldiers of arms and other valuables and burying the soldiers of both armies. Then they returned home to their master’s plantation. Rejoining his wife, who lived on a neighboring farm, Parker discovered “all the cattle and mules gone, and corn all grownup with weeds.” “We didn’t care for that,” he said. “All we wanted was a chance to escape.”
Neo-Confederate writers have quoted selectively from John Parker’s story to argue that African Americans willingly fought for the Confederacy. But Parker and his comrades never doubted which side they were on. “Our masters tried all they could to make us fight,” he recounted. “They promised to give us our freedom and money besides, but none of us believed them; we only fought because we had to.”
Parker related his story to a Pennsylvania journalist after his escape to the North. It provides a useful microhistory perspective that further illuminates how both the Union and Confederate sides used African Americans in the early months of the conflict and what members of Congress were discussing in their floor debates on July 22 and July 23, 1861 (see Part 1 of this blog entry). Apparently, there were some slaveholders early on willing to arm their slaves and send them into battle. The May 10 edition of Civil War Emancipation discussed a proposal from a Georgia man to the Confederate Secretary of War to use small numbers of slaves as soldiers embedded with larger numbers of white troops who would keep them in line. Evidently, some Virginia slaveholders did something along these lines at First Bull Run/Manassas. It would help explain the July 15 edition of this blog, which featured slaves escaping to a Union navy ship near the mouth of the Rappahannock River because “the people on shore are about arming the Negroes with the intention of placing them in the front of Battle.” So it would seem that some African Americans were used by the Confederates at the First Battle of Bull Run/Manassas as soldiers in an ad hoc, piecemeal sort of way. This usage is certainly consistent with disorganized, improvisational nature of this engagement fought by inexperienced troops and commanders. It would be interesting to see if this limited and informal usage of African Americans in combat roles for the Confederacy occurred over the rest of the Civil War. In any case, a fine piece yesterday by Kate Masur in Disunion, both in terms of its insight and manner of presentation.