Black Confederates: Slave or Soldier



Blacks in the Confederacy:

Slave or Soldier?


Original Sketch By Ronney Stevens Created For Our Heritage Magazine


The question of whether blacks fought in the Confederate Army during the Civil War arouses emotion and commentary from a number of camps, even now, 150 years later. At the heart of the debate remains a generations-long sensitivity about the causes of what is referred to as "the War Between the States" or "the War of Northern Aggression." These monikers alone demonstrate that the loyalty of Americans to a particular geographic area still separates these United States.
There is documented proof that blacks served in the Confederate Army in various capacities. Academics and historians alike have uncovered journals, letters, handwritten testimonials of white soldiers, and even photographs depicting the service of blacks in the Confederate Army. It is said that most, if not all, of them were either forced by their owners to engage in a war that would keep them enslaved, or they were coerced to serve as substitutes for white men who were either too cowardly or too old to serve, or by those who did not wish their own sons to be subjected to the dangers of war. But did blacks actually fight as soldiers on the side of a Confederacy that risked everything to protect an economy and a lifestyle fueled by the institution of slavery?
Slave or Soldier?
"Calling slaves soldiers is propaganda, not history," says Hari Jones, assistant director/curator of the African American Civil War Museum in Washington, DC. Jones contends that blacks certainly served with the Confederate Army, but they could not be considered soldiers. He explains that at the start of the American Civil War in 1861, only North Carolina allowed free blacks in military service in what was known as the Confederate State Militias (similar to the current National Guard), and then only as musicians, cooks and launderers. In late April 1861Louisiana, organized an infantry regiment, this group was called the Louisiana Native Guard and they later became the Union’s first regiment of African descent.
"The labor force of the Confederacy was a majority of African American enslaved persons," says Jones. "In order for [the Confederates] to fight the war, they had to use enslaved labor. The Confederate Army could not have moved one-tenth of its equipment without enslaved labor," he adds.
But can slaves who served in the Confederacy possibly be viewed as soldiers? The answer is yes for those who have uncovered documents among official federal records that prove blacks were armed and did, in fact, fight in the Confederate Army. Those documents make mention of negro (sic) troops attached to regiments from Texas, Georgia, Louisiana, Mississippi and other southern states.
While the question over the nomenclature of "Confederate slave" versus "Confederate soldier" can be viewed as a matter of semantics, Jones says it’s more than that. "A solider gets paid; a slave doesn’t," he says. "That’s part of the law of the day." He does acknowledge that there were blacks among the ranks of Confederate soldiers. However, he contends that these blacks were by and large slaves, who served in capacities as servants.
In those states that did allow free blacks to serve in the Confederacy, the question remains whether they knowingly served and fought to protect an institution that kept them bound in slavery. "Some people call black Confederates ‘non-willing combatants.’ Some say they were body servants," explains Earl Ijames, curator of the North Carolina Museum of History. But one thing is certain, he asserts; blacks did serve in the Confederate Army.
One case in point is the story of Weary Clyburn, an enslaved man, who served as a bodyguard in the Company E, 12th South Carolina Volunteers. Ijames explains that Clyburn was owned by the father of Capt. Frank Clyburn, a commissioned officer in that regiment. Capt. Frank and Weary were best friends and together joined the Confederate Army. On two different occasions, Weary saved the life of his childhood friend, removing him from the battlefield to receive care for his wounds. Ijames came upon the story of Weary Clyburn through research which uncovered his Confederate pension application.
State Auditor Records, Courtesy North Carolina Office of Archives and History
Several years later, a serendipitous meeting helped confirm Ijames’ findings. When assisting an elderly woman, Mattie Clyburn Rice, and her daughters in accessing personal documents at the State Archives, Ijames asked a simple question: "Have you ever heard of a man named Weary Clyburn?" Ijames says, "She stared through me and exclaimed, ‘Lord have mercy! How do you know my Daddy?’" Stunned, Ijames retrieved the pension application of Weary Clyburn and showed it to Rice. She then turned to her daughters and said, "I told you Daddy was a Confederate and not a [U.S.] Colored Trooper."
As it turns out, Weary Clyburn had given his daughter Mattie a photograph of himself wearing a Confederate lapel pin. For many years she had tried unsuccessfully to convince her family and others that her father had served in the Confederacy, based mostly on stories he had told her as a child. The documents that Ijames presented, coupled with the photograph, were proof enough to convince not only Rice’s family, but many others of the involvement of blacks in the Confederate Army. As it turns out, Clyburn did receive his pension, and Rice finally received the satisfaction of proving her father’s Confederate military service.
The number of blacks who served in the Confederacy is unknown. Yet, as Ijames notes, the number of black Confederates in North Carolina was probably an accurate representation of the demographics of the counties at the time, many of which were majority black. "My estimation is that nine of 10 people of color were enslaved in North Carolina at the time. These will not have records because they were slaves," Ijames says. Many blacks received pensions following the war. How many is uncertain. "You won’t find many records until the 20th century during the Jim Crow era when they’re writing to claim a pension." During that time, several states passed laws allowing Confederate veterans to receive a pension. "Mississippi was among the first southern states in 1888 to give [former] slaves their full pension compensation," he says.
So, what would have been the mindset of an African American serving in the Confederate Army? Jones proposes at least three scenarios. He suggests that for some, it was a chance to use what they had learned against the Confederates. "Many of our forefathers were that sophisticated," he says. Others, he supposes, might not have believed that things would work out in the long run. Perhaps they were unsure of how long they would live and who would win the war, so their primary thoughts were for their own survival. Those in this group were likely easy pawns of the Confederates. Others, he says, did not know what to do and could be led by either side. So the dynamics in the minds of blacks at the time were complex.
Causes of the Civil War
With available evidence to prove that blacks did, in fact, serve in the Confederate Army--whether as slaves or as soldiers--why has the truth not been told as part of the overall narrative of the Civil War? Perhaps that question can best be answered by reviewing the arguments over the causes of the Civil War.
Harper's Weekly, Vol. 8- No. 315; New York, Saturday January 10, 1863- Courtesy State Library of North Carolina
*The subject matter and the opinions expressed are not necessarily those of the North Carolina Department of Cultural Resources
Jones says over the years, many people have tried, and succeeded, to suppress the truth. "There has been a whole campaign to suppress African Americans," he says. "We gained our civil rights ... again, then we’ve had a problem in the education system, where people have been poorly instructed. Northerners were ashamed because they had to call in the negroes [during the war]. They were hiding the history as much as the southerners were," Jones submits. "Afrocentrics," he explains, "were not teaching the truth because they wanted to be more anti-white; teaching black nationalism rather than patriotism."
Suppression of the truth about black Confederate soldiers can also be linked to the ongoing debate over the causes of the war. According to Ijames, "The war was about money." Slavery, he suggests, could have ended after the Revolutionary War, but the United States was making so much money that slavery had to continue as the primary source of labor. "The slaves who fought [in the Revolutionary War] could be free, but after the economy began booming, there was no way [the United States] was going to free slaves because they were the labor to continue producing the wealth. The American empire had collectively gotten wealthy based on the institution of slavery in the north and the south, so there was no real interest in abolishing slavery."
What he refers to is the economic impetus of the Civil War. "Most people believe that the war was initiated to free slaves," says Ijames. "In fact," he says, "The Civil War was more like an American Revolution and the American Revolution was more like a Civil War."
Many argue that the Civil War was spurred by the South’s desire to maintain its economic standing and its ability to profit from the sale of its abundant crops. This agricultural society had become the source of immense wealth for a handful of white landowners, a comfortable lifestyle for a few others, and a prison of back-breaking, unpaid work, coupled with poverty stricken and often violent living conditions for over 4,000,000 slaves.*1
After all, the planting, maintenance and harvest of the South’s abundant crops were highly dependent on slave labor. Without slaves to work the land, the high cost of paid labor would have greatly diminished the return on investment that landowners and farmers realized through trade with entities abroad. And although most whites in the south were not slave-owners, they desired to maintain the way of life and economic independence they had come to know. These conditions had become threatened by the political aggressions and imposed taxation of the newly industrialized north.
On the other hand, some maintain that the Civil War was an all-out effort of the U.S. Congress to end the institution of slavery. Between the efforts of altruistic abolitionists and the motivations of the Congress to unify the north and south, several factions seemed determined to end the practice of slavery. Despite the fact that the issue of slavery didn’t come into play until after John Brown’s raid on Harper’s Ferry and the 1862 Battle of Antietam, some believe that abolishing slavery was first and foremost the driving force behind the Civil War.
150 Years Later
Whatever side one chooses--and there are certainly other scenarios to consider--the reality that the Civil War occurred and claimed many lives, is indisputable. Blood was shed by both northerners and southerners fighting for what they believed to be their rights. Included among the servants, the soldiers, the dead, the wounded, and the millions forever impacted by the war were African Americans.
*NEWSPAPER CAPTION UNDER IMAGE: "Rebel Negro Pickets As Seen Through A Field Glass"
EXCERPTS: Harper's Weekly, Vol. 8- No. 315; New York, Saturday January 10, 1863- Courtesy State Library of North Carolina
*The subject matter and the opinions expressed are not necessarily those of the North Carolina Department of Cultural Resources
The fact that blacks fought for the Confederacy is what Ijames calls an inconvenient truth. "Most people begin this discussion from a misunderstanding," he says. "Many have made their minds up or been miseducated on the evolution of the war and are now profiting from it. For 150 years the south has been vilified as fighting to protect slavery. Northerners have been propped up singing "Kumbayah" and coming to free the slaves," he says. "Actually, whites up north were rioting [when they learned of the Emancipation Proclamation]."
Despite where one might stand on the questions of whether blacks served in the Confederate Army and what the actual cause of the Civil War was, what remains are several irrefutable outcomes; among them: the eventual abolition of slavery, the covert love/hate existence between north and south within a United States that has remained a force in the global economy, and the unfaltering evolution of an African American culture that has struggled for every victory gained ... and still fights on.
Written By:
Anita R. Paul
*1. Correction to incorrect number referenced in printed edition. Printed Edition listed 400,000. The correct number is 4,000,000 as listed in this edition of the article.

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