Were There Black Soldiers in July 1861?

In blogs and internet discussion groups, Civil War buffs and scholars debate ad nauseam whether African Americans fought for the Confederacy during the Civil War. The topic generates enormous interest, but with little resolution despite the fact that reliable historical evidence strongly indicates that the Confederate government did not formally accept black men into armed service until the very eve of its defeat and that no official black Confederate unit ever saw combat. Indeed, the “debate” (if it can be called that since people tend to talk more past each other than to each other) over the existence of so-called black Confederates says more about Civil War memory in the early 21st century and the political agendas behind it than what actually occurred in the 1860s.

Part of the problem is that during the Civil War itself confusion existed early on about what roles African Americans had in both the Union and Confederate forces. Accounts and rumors of black Confederate soldiers popped up in the North in the first months of the war. For example, as Brooks Simpson has pointed out in his blog, Crossroads, neo-Confederates make much of a passage from Frederick Douglass in the September 1861 issue of his publication, Douglass’ Monthly. In the key part, Douglass wrote:

It is now pretty well established, that there are at the present moment many colored men in the Confederate army doing duty not only as cooks, servants and laborers, but as real soldiers, having muskets on their shoulders, and bullets in their pockets, ready to shoot down loyal troops, and do all that soldiers may to destroy the Federal Government and build up that of the traitors and rebels. There were such soldiers at Manassas, and they are probably there still.

Brooks Simpson asks some excellent questions about the passage dealing with what Douglass could have known personally about how African Americans were serving in the Confederate army (not much since he never personally observed the Confederate army during this period) and what was his agenda at the time (Douglass wanted black men to be able to enlist formally in the Union army, so armed service of African Americans in the Confederate army would have been a potent fact in favor of his argument). The logical implication is that Frederick Douglass evidently was either mistaken about armed black service for the Confederacy or was being disingenuous to advance his argument in favor of black enlistment in the Union army.

Or maybe he read the Congressional Globe, the Congressional Record of its day, recording and reporting on the proceedings of the U.S. Congress. In the Congressional Globe in late July 1861 members of Congress from both parties claimed to have seen armed black men in both northern and southern armies. Some having personally observed them with the Union army in Washington, D.C., after their arrival  for the special congressional session that started on July 4, 1861. Others having personally observed armed African Americans with both the Union and Confederate forces at the Battle of Bull Run/Manassas on July 21, 1861, fought close enough to the capital that many Washingtonians went to see the action, including members of Congress (one was even captured by Confederate forces).

Indeed, shortly after the battle, a trenchant exchange on the subject of African Americans with the armies occurred in the U.S. House of Representatives, recorded in the Congressional Globe. It began with a resolution offered on July 22, the day after the battle, by Charles A. Wyckliffe, representing Kentucky’s 5th District. The proposed resolution stated: “Resolved, That the Secretary of War be requested to inform this House whether the southern confederacy, or any State thereof, has within its military service any Indians; and, if so, what numbers and what tribes.

After quibbling over how to describe the Confederacy in a way that did not lend it legitimacy, William M. Dunn of Indiana, asked Wickliffe, “I hope the gentleman will also so amend the resolution as to insert the words ‘and negroes’ after the word “Indians.” Wickliffe replied, “I have not been informed that they have so employed negroes.” To which Dunn stated, “I have; and that they were firing upon our troops yesterday. I move so to amend the resolution.” The House agreed to Dunn’s amendment, and so the amended resolution passed the House.

However, that was not the end of the matter. The following day, July 23, 1861, another Kentucky representative, Henry Burnett proposed a related resolution. His contribution read “Resolved, That the Secretary of War inform this House whether there are any negroes in the Army of the United States which have been armed; whether there are negroes, the property of citizens of any of the revolted States, which have been used by the Army in any character of military duty, throwing up breastworks, making intrenchments, &c.; if so, at what places, and the number of slaves thus employed.

To judge from the fact that by the end of 1861 that Burnett accepted a commission in the Confederate army and was expelled from the U.S. Congress, it is not surprising that House Republicans objected repeatedly to the Kentuckian being allowed to address the House on his resolution. Burnett apparently saw among his roles at the special session defending the property of rebel slaveholders, especially as Congress was then considering a bill to legalize and formalize confiscating property being used in support of the rebellion. Yet Burnett’s interactions with his fellow members of the U.S. House on his proposed resolution also produces intriguing statements about the status of African Americans in both the Union and Confederate forces, and the developing debate about whether to recruit black men formally for armed military service in the Union army.

The following are the relevant excerpts from these discussions. For example, John McClernand of Illinois, stated after the second time Henry Burnett tried to introduce his resolution. “Will the gentleman [Burnett] allow me to amend the resolution so as to inquire whether the so-called “confederate States” have armed negroes on their side?

Charles A. Wycliffe, upset that his resolution on Indians had been hijacked to investigate blacks in the army, as a Unionist also did not like Burnett was piggy backing on it uninvited to defend the property rights of rebels. He stated:

I wish to state, sir, that I did not offer a resolution to inquire whether slaves had been employed in the southern army. I did not believe, or hear, or understand that such a military arm had been employed by these secessionists. I was unwilling to believe that such was the fact; but it was suggested by some gentlemen over the way that it was the fact, and he wanted me to accept an amendment making that inquiry. I did not accept that. He moved it as an amendment, and the House adopted it. I had no objection to the inquiry. I denounce the employment of slaves and Indians by either of the belligerent party parties. I, who have lived long enough to know something of Indian warfare, cannot tolerate the idea that in a civilized and Christian age any portion of the United States–the confederates or the United States themselves–should employ, without the condemnation of the Christian world, savages and negroes as instruments of war between white men.

Burnett was quick to try to placate his fellow Kentuckian, stating:

I am like my colleague [Wycliffe], opposed to the employment of either negroes or Indians in this war. If we are to have a war, I want it to conducted on the principles of civilization. Let it, at least, be civilized warfare. I have seen negroes in the Federal Army with the uniform on, and armed with all the implements that soldiers are armed with. I am opposed to it. I believe it to be wrong; and hence I offered my resolution.

This statement led to an exchange between Burnett, and three House Republicans: John McClernand, Samuel Curtis of Iowa, and Owen Lovejoy of Illinois. Lovejoy, of course, was the author of the July 9 resolution absolving Union forces of responsibility for hunting fugitive slaves and one of the most prominent abolitionists in Congress. The Congressional Globe recorded the conversation as follows:

Mr. CURTIS. I ask the gentleman from Kentucky whether he saw any negroes enrolled in squad form, or company form, or in any other capacity than as servants?

Mr. BURNETT. The best fighting man I ever saw was a man who went into the valley of Mexico and fought on his own hook; and he was armed by the Federal Government exactly as these negroes are.

Mr. MCCLERNAND. Has the gentleman seen any negroes in squads or companies?

Mr. BURNETT. I have not.

Mr. CURTIS. I ask the gentleman if he believes they are enrolled in any other capacity than that of servants?

Mr. BURNETT. I know not how they are enrolled. The question is, whether they are not armed like soldiers? They have no business with arms.

Mr. CURTIS. I ask the gentleman another question: whether negroes did not go with our officers to the Mexican War, and carry arms there as they do now?

Mr. BURNETT. I do not know whether they did or not.

Mr. CURTIS. I know they did.

Mr. LOVEJOY. I wish to ask the gentleman if he is not aware, as a historical fact, that negroes aided General Jackson in achieving victory of New Orleans?

Mr. BURNETT. I am aware of that; and I understand that the gentleman does not object to the use of negroes in war.

Mr. LOVEJOY. Not at all; I would fight with any muscle that can fight.

Mr. BURNETT. Therefore the gentleman might have saved himself the trouble of asking me any question, because I do not agree with him in his peculiar idea. That is enough.

So while this U.S. House debate in late July 1861 does not substantiate that there were black soldiers in either the Union or Confederate forces at that early moment of the Civil War, it is apparent from the debate above that some servants and other African Americans attached to both armies were armed. This did not make them soldiers officially, but it does make murkier the line dividing soldiers and civilians attached to the armies in the Civil War.

Source: Congressional Globe, 22 July 1861, 224; 23 July 1861, 231.

About Donald R. Shaffer

Donald R. Shaffer is the author of _After the Glory: The Struggles of Black Civil War Veterans_ (Kansas, 2004), which won the Peter Seaborg Award for Civil War Scholarship in 2005. More recently he published (with Elizabeth Regosin), _Voices of Emancipation: Understanding Slavery, the Civil War, and Reconstruction through the U.S. Pension Bureau Files_ (2008). Dr. Shaffer teaches online exclusively (i.e., a virtual professor). He lives in Arizona and can be contacted at donald_shaffer@yahoo.com
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8 Responses to Were There Black Soldiers in July 1861?

  1. Actually, the post in question (including the comments discussion) leaves open the notion that Douglass was quoting sources he’d come across:

    “Only if we want to concede that Douglass was simply passing on second-hand reports would his whereabouts become irrelevant (although his sources of information would then become important). That would mean that citing Frederick Douglass as a witness would be bad history.”

    That Douglass was simply passing along what he had heard is different than saying that Douglass witnessed something himself. We then have to turn to the reports to find out what was going on, and ask the same question of the congressmen who participated in the debate you describe: are they reporting what they saw, or what they heard?

    • Hi Brooks–an excellent question. I think it was a bit of both. Burnett definitely indicates he saw personally armed African Americans in federal uniform. My guess is that they were servants who had acquired part or the whole of a federal uniform to replace whatever they were wearing when they escaped their plantations. Many slaves came into Union army camps in rags. Since army uniforms were the only clothing readily available that is what they were given to wear. As to the arms, they might have acquired them in camp or possibly come with them when they escaped. Some slaves had assess to firearms or could have possibly stolen them from their owners or other whites before or during their escape. Burnett also could be exaggerating since he had an agenda he was pushing–who knows?

      As to the other congressional evidence, it is not as clear whether it was a personal observation or not. Enough congressman were at Bull Run/Manassas that some may seen personally what they mentioned or they had talked to people who had been there. In any case, their evidence is much more direct than Frederick Douglass. I just hope neo-Confederates will not misuse this congressional evidence the way they have misused Douglass. We shall see.

  2. marcferguson says:

    “So while this U.S. House debate in late July 1861 does not substantiate that there were black soldiers in either the Union or Confederate forces at that early moment of the Civil War, it is apparent from the debate above that some servants and other African Americans attached to both armies were armed. This did not make them soldiers officially, but it does make murkier the line dividing soldiers and civilians attached to the armies in the Civil War.”

    Actually, I think it speaks to the murkiness of the emerging debate over the federal response to slaves coming within Union lines, the role blacks, Northern and Southern, would play in the war, and how to understand, and respond to, the relationship between Southern slavery and a clear war aim focusing on preserving the Union and rejecting secession. All of this would take a couple of years to work out.

    • Hi Marc. Thanks for your contribution. But I’d still like to find if some African Americans with the armies in July 1861 really had firearms and why? I seriously doubt if any of them were the mythical “black Confederates” but it is interesting the members of Congress wanted to investigate the matter. I’ll have to look into finding Simon Cameron’s correspondence from this period. I’m really curious how he responded to this resolution.

  3. marcferguson says:

    Cameron’s correspondence would certainly be fascinating. I look forward to seeing what you find.

    • Hi Marc. I just sent a research request to the Manuscripts Division at the Library of Congress, which holds Simon Cameron’s papers. I’ll let you know what sort of response I get.

  4. Pingback: Frederick Douglass Reads the Paper « Dead Confederates, A Civil War Era Blog

  5. Pingback: Research Notes « Crossroads

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