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Were black Confederate soldiers real or postwar propaganda?

Ned Jilton • Apr 22, 2020 at 10:00 PM

Some people say they never existed. Others say they numbered in the tens of thousands. But I think the truth is somewhere in between.

What am I talking about? Black soldiers serving in the Confederate army.

During the time of secession before the firing on Fort Sumter when states like South Carolina and Mississippi were leaving the Union solely over the issue of slavery, the people of Tennessee said no. This in spite of a passionate pro-slavery speech by Gov. Isham Harrison.

Only after the firing on Fort Sumter when President Abraham Lincoln called for soldiers to put down the rebellion did Tennessee again take up the issue of secession. This time, without the issue of slavery in the Tennessee Ordinance of Secession, the people voted 104,471 to 47,183 to secede on June 8, 1861.

Nowhere in the Tennessee Declaration of Independence or the Ordinance of Secession is slavery listed as a reason for the state leaving the Union. In fact, slavery is not mentioned at all in either document.

But Tennessee went one step further when the legislature passed an act allowing “male free persons of color” to enter into military service for the state.

In 1861 the 33rd General Assembly passed the Act for the Relief of Volunteers. One section stated, “Be it enacted by the General Assembly of the State of Tennessee, That from and after the passage of this act, the governor shall be, and he is hereby authorized, at his discretion, to receive into the military service of the state, all male free persons of color between the ages of fifteen and fifty years — or such number as may be necessary, who may be sound in his mind and body, and capable of actual service.”

The third section of the act said, “Be it further enacted, That such free persons of color shall receive, each, eight dollars per month as pay, for such person shall be entitled to draw, each, one ration per day, and shall be entitled to a yearly allowance each for clothing.”

An interesting side note: When the Lincoln administration finally allowed colored troops to serve in the Union army in 1863, they were paid $10 a month, but had $3 deducted from the monthly pay for a clothing allowance. The clothing deduction was finally abolished in September 1864.

Now I will be among the first to say that many of these black men who joined the military in Tennessee in 1861 were used primarily as teamsters, laborers, musicians and cooks. But there were a few who fought as well.

When Nathan Bedford Forrest organized his cavalry in Memphis, he gave slaves the opportunity to join, saying that if the South lost they would be free and if the South won he would grant them their freedom.

The number varies according to which historians you read, but either 43 or 45 slaves joined Forrest. About 25 served as teamsters and tended to the horses, but 20 reportedly took up arms and fought alongside Forrest in battle, including at the infamous Battle at Fort Pillow. With the exception of one deserter, all the blacks who joined Forrest stayed with him throughout the war.

A descendent of one of those colored troopers, Nelson Winbush, has spoken and been interviewed about his grandfather, Louis Napoleon Nelson, a slave turned freedman who rode with Forrest in the 7th Tennessee Cavalry, an integrated unit. According to records, Nelson fought at Shiloh, Lookout Mountain, Brice’s Crossroads and Vicksburg. He later became the 7th Tennessee Cavalry’s chaplain. When Nelson died in 1934, he had a military procession and his coffin was draped with a Confederate flag.

There were blacks locally who served in the Confederate military, one of them being Robert “Bob” Stover.

Stover was a former slave who served the Confederacy as a teamster and after the war filed an application to receive a pension for his service to the Southern army. His pension was approved, but he died before he could collect it. He is buried in the former “colored section” of Drake Cemetery in Carter County. A Confederate tombstone marks his grave.

Of course the looming question is why would any black man fight for a Confederacy infected with slavery. Edward C. Smith, a professor at American University in Washington, D.C., has studied the issue extensively.

Smith said during an online interview, “I think that most people when they hear that there were blacks fighting in the Confederacy they are outraged. They think that these fighters were forced to fight. In some instances they probably were. But it’s very hard for people today to accept that a black could volunteer for Confederate service because he felt some kind of patriotism toward the South. That he felt loyalty towards a master. Or that he wanted to prove to the establishment that he was deserving of eventually receiving his freedom.”

Smith then continued, “What many Americans forget is that there were 5,000 black soldiers that fought with George Washington during the Revolutionary War. And of course in (the War of) 1812 Andrew Jackson, who praised the blacks in his service profusely, also knew that those blacks were taking a risk fighting for the United States government. So if blacks can fight for George Washington, it’s hard for me to reject the idea that their grandsons could not have fought for Robert E. Lee.”

In his interview, Smith made a point that I agree with when he said, “I think the problem we have today is that most Americans have a difficult time accepting the past because we read into the past the prejudices of the present. The moment you do that you’re not dealing with history.”

In case you are wondering, yes, Smith is black.

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