By Vernon R. Padgett,
Black Southern men served in the Confederate Army,
and they served as soldiers. But did they fight in
Yes they did. The evidence is varied, and comes from
First, eyewitness testimony from Federal physician
Louis Steiner, second, a report from Frederick
Douglass; third, monuments reflecting black Confederate
contributions, especially the unique work of Moses
Ezekiel in Washington, D.C. Third, we see a sampling of
combat reports of individual black Confederates, from a
variety of sources, including the Official Records, and
General Forrest’s U.S. Congressional testimony
regarding his 45 black slaves. Finally we review the
Confederate Governmental recruitment and enlistment of
black Southerners in the Confederate Army in March
1865-- and a few examples of their limited combat
1. Eyewitness Testimony of Union Physician
Dr. Lewis Steiner, Chief Inspector of the United
States Sanitary Commission, observed General Stonewall
Jackson's occupation of Frederick, Maryland, in 1862.
Over 3,000 Negroes must be included in this number
[of Confederate troops]. These were clad in all kinds
of uniforms, not only in cast-off or captured United
States uniforms, but in coats with Southern buttons,
State buttons, etc. Most of the Negroes had arms,
rifles, muskets, sabers, bowie knives, dirks, etc. ...
and were manifestly an integral portion of the Southern
Confederate Army (in Barrow, et al., 2001).
This description of men wearing shell jackets or
coats and carrying weapons suggests soldiers. It does
not appear indicative of cooks or musicians or body
servants. Of course, we cannot know by the description,
but it suggests 3,000 armed black Confederate soldiers.
2. Report of Frederick Douglass
"There are at the present moment many Colored
men in the Confederate Army doing duty not only as
cooks, servants and laborers, but real soldiers, having
musket on their shoulders, and bullets in their
pockets, ready to shoot down any loyal troops and do
all that soldiers may do to destroy the Federal
government and build up that of the rebels" (In
Williams “On Black Confederates”).
Douglass’s report is clear: Black Southerners were
fighting “as real soldiers.”
3. Monuments to Black Confederates
The first military monument in the U.S. Capitol
honoring an African-American soldier is the Confederate
monument at Arlington National cemetery. The monument
was designed in 1914 by Moses Ezekiel, a Jewish
Confederate. He wanted to correctly portray the
“racial makeup” in the Confederate Army. (see
original link - below - for photos)
The Confederate Monument at Arlington National
Cemetery, Washington, D.C. (see original link -
below - for photos)
Moses Jacob Ezekiel was the first Jewish cadet at
the Virginia Military Institute. He was wounded in May
1864 at the Battle of New Market. As the first Jewish
cadet at VMI, sculptor Ezekiel knew firsthand the
nature of ethnic prejudice, and was for that reason a
unique observer, and recorder, of the ethnic
composition of the Confederate Army, observations which
he recorded in the first military monument to honor a
black American soldier in Washington, D.C. He is now
buried at the base of the famous monument he created. (see
original link - below - for photos)
Enlargement of frieze of Confederate Monument,
Arlington National Cemetery. Note black soldier in
center and black woman at right. (see original link
- below - for photos)
In 1900, a Confederate Section was authorized in
Arlington National Cemetery. Confederate casualties
from around the cemetery were gathered and re-interred
in that Section. A circular frieze of 32 life-sized
figures shows Southern soldiers going off to war. (see
original link - below - for photos)
Black Confederate soldier depicted marching in rank
with white Confederate soldiers. This is taken from the
Confederate monument at Arlington National Cemetery.
Designed by Moses Ezekiel, a Jewish Confederate, and
erected in 1914. Ezekiel depicted the Confederate Army
as he himself witnessed. As such, it is perhaps the
first monument honoring a black American soldier.
(Photo by Bob Crowell) (see original link - below -
Confederate Monument at Arlington National Cemetery
depicting a Confederate soldier entrusting his children
to a slave. While Confederate soldiers were away from
their homes, Union soldiers frequently would victimize
southern blacks in much the same ways as southern
whites. Sometimes blacks experienced even worse
treatment than whites, as Union officers often
protected white women, but turned a blind eye when
slave women were "ravaged" or abused. Photo
by Bob Crowell. (see original link - below - for
In his statue, a black Confederate soldier is shown
marching in step with white Confederate soldiers.
Engraved in the stone, you can also see a white soldier
giving his child to a black woman for protection. (see
original link - below - for photos)
4. Individual Accounts of Black Confederate
Soldiers in Combat
When we think of black Southerners who served in the
armies of the Confederacy, we often think of them in
the roles of teamsters, cooks, surgeon’s assistants,
nurses, shoemakers, blacksmiths, laborers,
fortifications builders, and valets (most of these
positions are now part of the modern military). But
many blacks served in combat. Black Confederate Nim
Wilkes said: "I was in every battle General
Forrest fought after leaving Columbia ... I was
mustered out at Gainesville (May 1865)" (Rollins,
One federal cavalry officer related how he was held
under guard by a shotgun-wielding black who kept the
weapon trained on the Yankee's head with unwavering
concentration. "Here I had come South and was
fighting to free this man," the disgusted major
wrote in his diary. "If I had made one false move
on my horse, he would have shot my head off"
(Barrow et al., 2001, p. 43).
Private Louis Napoleon Nelson served the Confederate
States of America at Shiloh, Lookout Mountain, Brice's
Crossroads and Vicksburg as soldier and chaplain in the
7th Tennessee Cavalry, under Lt. General Nathan Bedford
Forrest. Nelson was sent by his master to take care of
his (master's) son. When the young Confederate was
wounded, Nelson picked up his rifle and continued
fighting against Northern aggression throughout the
war. After the war, Nelson and his former master were
best friends; their farms bordered each other (Winbush,
Col. Parkhurst’s (Northern) Account of Forrest’s
Black Confederates: "The forces attacking my camp
were the First Regiment Texas Rangers, a battalion of
the First Georgia Rangers … and quite a number of
Negroes attached to the Texas and Georgia troops, who
were armed and equipped, and took part in the several
engagements with my forces during the day"
(Lieutenant Colonel Parkhurst's Report (Ninth Michigan
Infantry) on General Forrest's attack at Murfreesboro,
Tennessee, July 13, 1862, in Official Records, Series
I, Vol XVI, Part I, page 805).
The efforts of Jack, servant of an officer of the
Thirteenth Arkansas Regiment, stands out as an act of
heroism. Jack fought beside his master during the heat
of battle. He fell seriously wounded but refused to be
evacuated and continued to fire at the enemy. He later
died in a hospital of his wounds sustained in the ranks
of the Confederate army" (Memphis Avalanche,
quoted in Charlotte Western Democrat, December 31,
At Brandy Station, Tom and Overton, two servants in
the 12th Virginia Cavalry, picked up rifles discarded
by Northerners and joined the 12th in a charge. They
captured the black servant of a Union officer and
marched him back to camp at gunpoint, where they held
him prisoner. For two months, the Yankee servant waited
upon the Southerners (Austerman, 1987, 47).
Levin Graham, a free colored man, was employed as a
fifer, and attendant to Captain J. Welby Armstrong (2nd
Tennessee). He refused to stay in camp when the
regiment moved, and obtaining a musket and cartridges,
went across the river with us. He fought manfully, and
it is known that he killed four of the Yankees, from
one of whom he took a Colt's revolver. He fought
through the whole battle, and not a single man in our
whole army fought better" (New Orleans Daily
Crescent, 6 December 1861, cited in Rollins, 1994).
Black Confederate Levi Miller, born in Rockbridge
County Virginia, was one of thousands of slaves who
accompanied their owners to the war as a body servant.
After nursing his master back to death from a
near-fatal wounding in the Wilderness campaign, Miller
was voted by the regiment to be a full-fledged soldier
Miller served the remainder of the war, exhibiting
bravery in battles in Virginia, Tennessee, Georgia,
Maryland, and Pennsylvania. His former commander spoke
highly of Miller's combat record, giving a riveting
account of his performance at Spotsylvania Courthouse.
"About 4 p.m., the enemy made a rushing
charge," wrote Captain J. E. Anderson. "Levi
Miller stood by my side-- and man never fought harder
and better than he did-- and when the enemy tried to
cross our little breastworks and we clubbed and
bayoneted them off, no one used his bayonet with more
skill, and effect, than Levi Miller. Captain Anderson
wrote: “During the fight, the shout of my men was
'Give 'em hell, Lee!'" (Jordan, 1995).
In his letter of recommendation, Anderson dispelled
any doubts as to whether Miller had fought for the
South of his own free will. "He was in the
Pennsylvania campaign, and at New Castle and
Chambersburg he met several Negroes whom he knew, and
who had run away from Virginia," wrote Anderson.
"They tried to get Levi to desert-- but he would
not" (Jordan, 1995).
After the war, Miller received a full pension from
Virginia as a Confederate veteran. According to the
Winchester Evening Star, "The pension was granted
without trouble, and he had the distinction of drawing
one of the largest amounts of any person in the
state." Upon his death in 1921, the Evening Star
published a front-page obituary under the headline
"Levi Miller, Colored War Veteran." It was
the sort of stirring tribute fit for a local hero
Researcher Ervin Jordan (1995) cites another case of
a valiant black Confederate, citing a diary that tells
of an Afro-Confederate [who] became a local hero after
being thrown into jail with nothing but bread and water
for three days because of his support of the South and
his refusal to work for the Union side ... The old man
was made to chop wood with iron ball and chains
attached to his arms and legs, but the curses of his
jailers were unavailing: He stubbornly vowed to support
the South until death.
The most telling account is from the most remarkable
general officer of the War, Nathan B. Forrest.
General Forrest’s Account of his 45 Black
Confederates: “Better Confederates Did Not Live”
Both slaves and Free Men of Color served with
Forrest's Escort, his Headquarters, and many other
units under his command (Rollins, 1994). General
Forrest took 45 slaves to war in 1861. He told a
Congressional committee after the war:
I said to 45 colored fellows on my plantation that I
was going into the army; and if they would go with me,
if we got whipped they would be free anyhow, and that
if we succeeded and slavery was perpetrated, if they
would act faithfully with me to the end of the war, I
would set them free. Eighteen months before the war
closed I was satisfied that we were going to be
defeated, and I gave those 45, or 44 of them, their
free papers for fear I might be called.
In late August 1868, General Nathan Bedford Forrest
gave an interview to a reporter. Forrest said of the
black men who served with him: "... these boys
stayed with me ... and better Confederates did not
live" (Rollins, 1994).
5. The Confederate Government Enlists Black
Soldiers, March 1865
In March 1865, the Confederate government began
actively recruiting and enlisting black soldiers. One
witness recorded that the streets of Richmond were
filled with 10,000 Negroes who had been gathered at
Camp Lee on the outskirts of Richmond … (Rollins,
1994, p. 26). Richmond’s vast hospitals were a prime
source of recruits. One writer observed “the
battalion from Camps Winder and Jackson, under the
command of Dr. Chambliss, will parade on the square on
Wednesday evening at 4 ½ o’clock. This is the first
company of Negro Troops raised in Virginia,” he
noted. Thus a few black Southerners finally saw combat
in authorized Confederate units in 1865. Not only did
Chambliss’ regiment fight against Sheridan, but other
units were noted at various points in the retreat to
On April 4, 1865 (Amelia County, VA), a Confederate
supply train was exclusively manned and guarded by
black Infantry. When attacked by Federal Cavalry, they
stood their ground and fought off the charge, but on
the second charge they were overwhelmed and captured
(Confederate Veteran, 1915, 404; 411).
A courier reported that on April 4th he saw black
Confederates … “all wore good gray uniforms and I
was informed that they belonged to the only company of
colored troops in the Confederate service, having been
enlisted by Major Turner in Richmond. Their muskets
were stacked … “ (Rollins, 1994, p. 27).
In an action on 7th April the 108th New York
Infantry captured an armed black Confederate by the
name of Tom Brophy; he was made a servant by the New
Yorkers, and later lived in New York until his death in
1888 (Rollins, 1994, p. 28).
A book-length treatment of the topic of official
black service in the Confederate Army is the excellent
Gray and the Black: Confederate Debate on Emancipation
by Robert F. Durden, (1972).
Austermann, Wayne R. (1987). Virginia’s Black
Confederates. Civil War Quarterly, 8, 47.
Barrow, C. K., & Segars, J. H., & R.B.
Rosenburg, R.B. (Eds.) (2001). Black Confederates.
Gretna: Pelican Publishing Company.
Brewer, J. H. (1969). The Confederate Negro:
Virginia’s craftsmen and military laborers,
1861-1865. Durham, N.C.: Duke University Press.
Confederate Veteran, 1915, 404; 411).
Durden, R. F. (1972). The Gray and the Black: The
Confederate Debate on Emancipation. Baton Rouge:
Louisiana State University Press.
Helsley, Alexia J. (1999). South Carolina’s
African American Confederate Pensioners 1923-1925.
South Carolina Department of Archives and History, 140
Jordan, Jr., Ervin. (1995). Black Confederates and
Afro-Yankees in Civil War Virginia. University Press of
Virginia, 447 pages.
Oblatala, J.K. (1979). The Unlikely Story of Negroes
Who Were Loyal to Dixie. Smithsonian, 9, page 94.
Official Records of the War of the Rebellion, Series
I, Vol. 17, Part II, p. 424.
Quarles, Benjamin (1955). The Negro in the Civil
War. Boston: Little, Brown.
Rollins, Richard, Ed. (1994). Black Southerners in
Gray: Essays on Afro-Americans in Confederate Armies.
Rank and File Publications, Redondo Beach, California,
Segars, J. H. & Barrow, C. K., Eds. (2001).
Black Southerners in Confederate Armies. Southern Lion
Books, Atlanta, Georgia.
Tennessee Colored Man’s Pensions. Nashville
Tennessee State Library and Archives.
Thomas, Emory (1971). “Black Confederates: Slavery
and Wartime” in The Confederacy as a Revolutionary
Experience. Englewood Cliffs, NJ: Prentice-Hall, pp.
Wesley, C. H. (1919). The Employment of Negroes as
Soldiers in the Confederate Army. Journal of Negro
History, 4, 242.
Wesley, C. H. (1927). Negro Labor in the United
States 1850 to 1925: A Study in American Economic
History. New York: Russell & Russell. Chapter 4:
The Negro and the Civil War
Wesley, C. H. (1937). The Collapse of the
Confederacy. New York: Russell & Russell.
Williams, Scott “On Black Confederates”
Winbush, Nelson (1996). Black Southern Heritage
(video). Presentation delivered at Hollywood Performing
Arts Center, 10 February 1996. Available for $22 from
Nelson Winbush, 1428 Grandview Blvd., Kissimmee,
Originally published at: http://www.abouttimemag.com/nov98story2.html
For a series of essays by Dr. Padaett
copyright © Vernon R. Padgett, Ph.D.