Controversy in the Confederacy: Did Black Confederates actually exist?

Kwoineh Haba, Staff Writer

America is built on many values that contribute to its diversity: freedom, equality, and unity. Of course, the United States has not always been unified throughout its history. One example of such disunity would be the American Civil War. Unable to come to an agreement over the concept of slavery, the country divided itself into two parties known as the Union and the Confederacy. As the Confederacy supported the use of slaves, it would seem unlikely that African Americans fought in their ranks. The myth of the possible existence of ‘black Confederates’ has been debated over time as more evidence began to surface supporting each side. For example, an interview on the Slate website addressed how there are several pieces of evidence that may be provided to support the myth.

“If you’re browsing online, there are literally hundreds if not thousands of websites dedicated to promoting this myth,” said historian Kevin Levin, author of Searching for Black Confederates: The Civil War’s Most Persistent Myth, which addresses and debunks the myth. “And on many of them, you’ll find photographs of enslaved men in uniform, which are easily interpreted as ‘proof’ of the existence of black Confederate soldiers. Certainly there are plenty of newspaper accounts, mainly from Northern newspapers published during the war, that seem to suggest black men were fighting as soldiers… Sometimes you’ll hear or read references to pensions given to black Confederate ‘soldiers,’ which in fact were for former camp slaves or ‘body servants.’ ”

Using his extensive research from over a decade, Levin discusses how several pieces of evidence provided to support the claim are actually fake or ignore the social construct of the time. For example, Levin uses a photo of Andrew and Silas Chandler, which is located on the cover of his book. While it was true that Silas, a slave, had accompanied Andrew, his master, to the camp of the 44th Mississippi Infantry, he was taken as a camp slave. This slaveholding system was not impacted by the military due to the fact that slaves could not rise in rank. 

“He [Silas] would have been tasked with cooking, with cleaning, with packing up camp for long marches, carrying supplies, and serving as a messenger between camp and home,” said Levin, “Even assisting on the battlefield at times. If necessary, even rescuing the master from the battlefield or escorting the body home in the event of his death. There were thousands of these men in the Confederate Army, in addition to tens of thousands of impressed slaves that performed all sorts of other functions.”

Levin’s analysis also seems to be supported by the American Civil War Museum’s historian John Coski. He noted that while there were some African Americans that did fulfill the criteria, they were not officially recognized as soldiers. 

“Their status was that of enslaved or marginally free laborers serving in capacities in a military setting analogous to their roles in civilian life,” said Coski. “Referring to such men as ‘soldiers’ ignores a fundamental distinction between forced labor and military service.”