Why Did Some African Americans Fight for the Confederacy?

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The presence of African American soldiers in the Confederate army is a little known fact of the Civil War. Because the Civil War was largely about the issue of slavery and whether or not it would continue to be allowed in this country, the existence of African American Confederate soldiers seems bizarre. What were their reasons for fighting against the people who would free them? Why did they side with the Confederacy? Or was it more complicated than that? Here are the answers you need to know.

The existence of African American Confederate soldiers was noted with disdain and a bit of pity by popular abolitionist speaker and former slave Frederick Douglass during the Civil War. Union soldiers reported encountering them. Why were they there?

First of all, while there were indeed African American Confederate soldiers, they were not legally permitted to fight for the Confederate army until the last month of the Civil War. This was when the Confederacy was in extreme need of all the extra soldiers it could get, as it became increasingly likely the Union would win the war.

No one knows exactly how many African Americans fought for the Confederacy, but scholars estimate the number to be between 3,000 and 6,000 people. Another 100,000 or so worked for the Confederacy in supportive roles such as laborers and servants to white soldiers. They did the hard work of fortifying the Confederacy’s infrastructure of roads and weapons factories, which white people did not want to do, or could not be spared to do.

The reasons the actual soldiers who were African Americans fought for the Confederacy. Some were forced to do so by their owners, either because extra manpower was needed or because the owner could no longer fight and needed the slave to fight on his behalf. Others fought because they genuinely believed the Confederacy would win the war and they were promised their freedom once the war was over if they took up arms for the Confederate cause. Others became soldiers because they were slave owners themselves, and had the same interest in preserving the institution of slavery for economic reasons as their white counterparts. Black slave owners were not common in the Confederacy, but they did exist, mainly in Louisiana and other areas on the western fringe of the Confederacy.

For a long time, scholars argued that no African American soldiers fought for the Confederacy. However, the historical evidence, mainly in the highly trustworthy sources of first hand accounts of them by people who saw them, and Confederate war records that identify them prove they did exist. Some even fought in an unofficial capacity before African Americans were officially allowed to become soldiers in the Confederate States of America.

While their presence as Confederate soldiers makes up only about one percent of the 750,000 white soldiers, the fact that there were any African American Confederate soldiers at all is historically important. Their various reasons for fighting for what would seem the wrong side for them gives us a lot of insight into what was really going on in the south during the pre-Civil War era, as well as during the war itself. Knowing they were there helps us understand the history of the south better.



Ancestral Findings Genealogy Podcast: #28


AF-028: Civil War Medical Cards: Using Them to Research Your Union Ancestors


Are you searching for more information on your Union soldier ancestor? There is plenty available online, from service records to pension requests, widow’s pensions and veterans census records. However, unless you are lucky enough to find a pension request with personal letters from your ancestor detailing his service (which do exist, but are the exception rather than the rule… most pension requests just include a questionnaire filled out by the applicant), you probably won’t get any additional detail on what his war experience was like. Understanding a soldier’s war experience makes it much more personal to you as a genealogist, brings your ancestor and his times back to life in a virtual way, and puts his service in the historical context of the entire Civil War…