The Aiken Chronicles

QUESTION: How Many Blacks Fought in the Civil War?

ANSWER: It depends upon whom you ask, and what you mean by the word, “fought.”


The simple answer is that — even as the estimated total is between 245,000 and 265,000, we’ll probably never have a full accounting of the blacks who served in the Civil War. A better question is this: What is the total number of slaves and freedmen who voluntarily served + the total number of slaves who involuntarily served in the Civil War?

While the numbers of volunteer enlisted blacks in the Union are fairly well-documented at roughly 200,000, the numbers of blacks who served in various capacities for the Confederacy can only be estimated, and there is little in the way of a paper trail to make such an estimate. For one thing, many of the Confederate records didn’t survive the war. For another, there are distinct differences between the paper trails left by the North and South.

In the Union, official records were kept of the enlisted military service. In the Confederacy, however, the service by blacks was primarily “unofficial” and/or involutary service, about which comparatively few records were kept. In the South, where slaves were still deemed as legal property — more akin to beasts of burden than human beings — blacks were taken straight from the plantations to the battle fronts, where they resumed their work as slaves, their duties ranging from backbreaking labor to personal servitude. The color of their skin made them no more immune than whites to high death rates from injury and disease.

Fightin’ Words: How to Define the Term, “Fought in the War”?

Even as the Confederate war effort would have died much earlier, if not for the labor of these blacks, there was no systematic record kept of the involuntary and/or non-combat service of these men, whose dutes ranged from digging ditches, to cooking and cleaning, to serving as personal servants to officers, to playing music and dancing on command for the troops. At times, they were also  pressed into service in battle. Black Confederate soldiers were the rare exception,  however, compared to the likely hundreds of thousands who contributed unofficially and/or involuntarily whether through combat or non-combat duties to the war effort. Depending on your definition of the word, “fought,” it could very well be that the South could match the North’s tally of 200,000 blacks.  

In the North, while Blacks indeed served in artillery and infantry, most served in non-combat functions — their job descriptions, in reality, not appreciably different from blacks in the South (e.g. menial labor, servitude and entertainment for the troops). The menial nature of the work delegated to blacks in the Civil War was due to the reluctance or fear by both sides to arm blacks, much of this due to the shared belief that blacks were inferior. Prejudice was not unique to the South.

The hierarchy of the troops in the North reflected this prejudice. At the top of the pecking order were whites. In the middle were free blacks, specifically those born in free states. At the bottom were the former slaves — a demographic composed of both freed and fugitive slaves  (called contraband). There was a stigma attached to any person who’d ever served as a slave, regardless of their eagerness to serve, their degree of intelligence or capabilities — or, in the case of the Union Navy, regardless of the number of years or decades they’d already served. 

Here, it should be mentioned that the Union Navy was racially mixed long before the Civil War, with some blacks having already served upwards of 30 years in the U.S. Navy. The U.S. Army, however, was racially segregated, due to a 1792 federal law that barred blacks from serving. This law was not lifted until the summer of 1862. Even then, the decision was not compelled from a sense of enlightenment over the equality of men but, rather, was only driven by urgent necessity from troop shortages — and in spite of the risk of alienating the border states. 

However noble the outcome of the Emancipation Proclamation, the original impetus was to allow former slaves to serve in the U.S. Armed Forces — many of whom were drawn from the existing “contraband” camps of captured slaves from the South. The language of the Emancipation Proclamation, “freeing all slaves in areas still in rebellion,” did just that. It freed slaves from the Confederate states, leaving intact the institution of slavery in the North.

Nonetheless, it goes without saying that most of the blacks who volunteered their service fought for the Union. Both men and women — military and civilians alike — variously worked as carpenters, chaplains, cooks, guards, laborers, nurses, scouts, spies, steamboat pilots, surgeons, and teamsters. On both sides, however, the non-military blacks who “fought in the war” in these non-combat roles went grossly unreported. Below is a brief discussion on the numbers from both sides.

THE UNION

Of the estimated 2,000,000 (2 million) soldiers who fought for the Union, approximately 10%, or 200,000 were black. The source for these numbers is the National Archives and Records Administration (NARA), whose figures are drawn from various historical documents and records, most especially pension records and the Compiled Service Records, a compilation of service records of Union soldiers that began in 1890 under the direction of the Department of War.

Because research is ongoing, the cited numbers vary slightly, as more soldiers’ names are verified. Recent confirmed numbers of blacks who served in the U.S. Army range from 179,000 to 185,000 and up. The confirmed numbers of blacks who served in the U.S. Navy vary from 18,000 to 19,000. The total number, then, ranges from 197,000 to 204,000 blacks who officially served the U.S. (Union) Army and Navy during the Civil War.

Again, however, these total do not include the uncounted numbers of blacks — both men and women — who were either forbidden to enlist or who chose not to but, yet, contributed to the war effort. Here, it must be mentioned that the U.S. Army and Navy set maximum enlistment quotas on blacks. In the Navy, for instance, no more than 5% of the enlisted force could be composed of blacks. The real-life percentages were much higher in some units, as wartime necessity made for creative license with this rule. Even so, large numbers of blacks were turned away from military service, with many of these opting to contribute whatever the could, in a non-military capacity. Taking these numbers into account would undoubtedly drive the total of blacks who “fought in the war” for the Union to much higher than 200,000.

THE CONFEDERACY

Of the estimated total of 750,000 soldiers who fought for the Confederacy, nearly all were white. The number of blacks who served the Confederacy is particularly difficult to pin down, as it is difficult to discern the difference between a plantation slave and a camp slave — between a man forced to chop cotton on the plantation, and a man forced to dig ditches for the army. While some blacks did see combat in the South, the vast majority served non-combat roles. 

The South’s ambivalence over arming slaves is well-documented, both during and after the war. To admit blacks would have discredited the entire justification for enslaving blacks — namely, because they were inferior people, unequal to whites. As General Howell Cobb famously said in his bitter protest against General Robert E. Lee’s eleventh hour proposal of enlisting slaves into the army:

“You cannot make soldiers of slaves, or slaves of soldiers. The day you make a soldier of them is the beginning of the end of the Revolution. And if slaves seem good soldiers, then our whole theory of slavery is wrong.”

By this time, the cold reality of math had already sunk in. The South was clearly outnumbered, given the population disparity: 31 million people in the North vs. the South’s 5 million whites + 4 million slaves. By the time Jefferson Davis finally agreed, out of sheer desperation, to admit 300,000 slaves and/or freedmen as soldiers, it was too late, and his plan was never carried out.

Nonetheless, surviving documents verify that blacks indeed served in an official capacity with the Confederacy, some in combat. Modern-day Civil War buffs often point to the contribution of blacks in the Confederacy as evidence that the slaves, too, fought to preserve the Southern way of life and its peculiar institution. Given the complexities of the cultural landscape of that time, it is difficult to know, today: (1) which blacks were afraid to defy their masters, and (2) which were basically victims of a Stockholm-like syndrome, and (3) which would have gladly opted to join the mass exodus of slaves escaping to the North, if not for the specter of leaving behind their families and loved ones. In other words, there’s more gray than meets the eye, regarding the nature of the ‘voluntary’ service of blacks in the South.  

As if the tallying of these numbers weren’t already complicated enough, the record has been continually tinkered with over the years. Beginning near the turn of the century, for example, a concerted effort was undertaken by the South to revise the historical record. Part of this was an effort to save face — not only to downplay the humiliating desperation that forced the South to admit blacks into the military, but also to diminish their contributions, without which the South would have fallen much sooner. 

More recently, the historical tinkering has taken an opposite approach, as the service of African Americans is being embraced and even embellished by Confederate groups, such as the United Daughters of the Confederacy (UDC) and the Sons of Confederate Veterans (SCV). The trend now is to aknowledge and honor the service of black soldiers in the Confederacy. Posts in this vein are available by the dozens via a simple google. Here’s but one. 

On these various sites, the numbers of black Confederate soldiers continue to climb, with the totals ranging from 45,000 to 65,000 — with some sites even claiming 93,000. The original sources for these numbers are never given, although it appears likely that the number “93,000” originates from a careless reading of the facts. Specifically, it appears that certain Confederate buffs either mis-read this information, or quoted someone who did: 

“By the end of the war more than 186,000 black soldiers had joined the Union army; 93,000 from the Confederate states, 40,000 from the border slave states, and 53,000 from the free states.”

If the Sons of Confederate Veterans’ own Edward Smith (the source of the oft-quoted 93,000 tally) can explain his original source for the assertion that 93,000 blacks fought FOR the Confederacy, I’d be interested to see it. And if his collaborator, Nelson Winship, can explain the difference between slaves who fought for the Confederacy and, say, Patty Hearst, I’d like to hear that, too. 

It’s easy to see why the SCV and UDC would tout the voices of these two men, along with the small handful of other pro-Confederate blacks, whose ancestors voluntarily served the Confederacy and passed their pride to posterity. It’s less easy to see how the SCV is able to construe the experience of an infinitesimal fraction of the 4 million slaves in the South as somehow being definitive “truth” about the relationship between slaves and the Confederacy. But construe, they do — using Edward Smith and Nelson Winship as the poster children for blacks who cherished the Southern way, and as grist for their tattered argument on how the war was never about slavery, see.   

The definitive truth is that — of all the numbers that have been touted about the Civil War — the most compelling number is zero. That is the number of blacks who escaped from the North, so that they could become slaves in the South. 

 

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