12 February 2005

Black Confederates as the Great White Hope

The Confederacy, in dire straits by 1864, began seriously to consider the arming of black men for its armies. Desperate times gave impetus to desperate measures and the need to exploit every possible resource. Southern whites began suggesting the forging of a new biracial military coalition, the war's second, for the North had begun to enroll black soldiers in 1863.

Afro-Virginians had reason to assume that their situation was going to improve, however slightly. It remained to be seen if the Southern revolution's alliance with loyal blacks would lead to legislated policies benefiting blacks and eliminating most slavery. However, Afro-Virginians were likely to comprise the majority of any Confederate States Colored Troops (CSCT). Black political and social equality in the fullest sense was an impossibility, but gaining a few minor rights was not inconceivable. Not all Southern blacks acquiesced in the belief of white supremacy, but most ascertained that their peculiar status might be ameliorated into racial coexistence....

The arming of slaves gained in popularity despite objections from Virginia's neighbor, North Carolina, which passed resolutions denying the confederacy's right to undertake this precarious war measure. A bill authorizing the use of black soldiers was introduced in the Confederate Congress by Ethelbert Barksdale of Mississippi and approved on 13 March 1865; ten days earlier Virginia's General Assembly had repealed the restrictions on the bearing of arms by black soldiers after General Lee expressed his crucial need of them....

The new law established a quota of 300,000 blacks between the ages of eighteen and forty-five to be called up from Virginia and the other Confederate states. The slaves and free blacks were to be organized into companies, regiments, battalions, and brigades.

Afro-Confederate soldiers were to receive the same allowances, clothing, pay, and rations as their white counterparts. The Confederate Congress, satisfied with its work, adjourned but not before giving itself a collective pat on the back in the form of a resolution by Virginia representative Frederick W.M. Holliday commending its accomplishments. "We shall have a negro army" wrote a not-too-surprised government clerk. "It is the desperate remedy for the very desperate."...

Accurate and balanced appraisals must take into account the potential contributions of Confederate States Colored Troops: the availability of black manpower, the potential paralysis of segments of the Union war effort due to Northern blacks being viewed as "fifth columns," and carefully fostered divisions among black populations South and North to maintain white superiority. Blacks who wore Confederate gray have been denied or forgotten by history. Under appropriate situations the South could have mobilized them into a potent fighting force for independence, but the successful enlistment of black Confederate soldiers could have transpired only with the active participation of Afro-Virginian males, even though one suspects they were inclined to fight for Virginia rather than the Confederacy. But Virginia disregarded the gallant record of black soldiers and seamen during the Revolutionary War and the War of 1812. Many Afro-Virginians awaited a similar call to arms during the Civil War. It came too late.
SOURCE: Black Confederates and Afro-Yankees in Civil War Virginia, by Ervin L. Jordan Jr. (U. Press of Virginia, 1995), pp. 232, 237, 242, 251

P.S. General Lee surrendered at Appomattox on 9 April 1865, less than a month after the bill was enacted.

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