The American Civil War: Confederate Use of Blacks

Figure 1.--This CDV was probably taken in 1862 or 63. Civil War Soldier sitting very relaxed with his jacket unbuttoned smoking his pipe, There are no studio markings on the front or back so we do not know where it was taken. We believe it shows a Condederate officer and his personal servant--a boy slave. The portrait is notable for a variety of reasons. The fact that the officer wanted the boy in the portrait shows a degree of affection between the two. Note in particular how the boys leans into his master. That would not have occured unless there was a bond of empathy here. The fact that the boy sits on the floor, however, speaks eloquently as to his status. It is virtually unknown in period portraits (Daguerreotypes, Ambrotypes, or CDVs) to have a subject sitting on the floor. Almost always they were photogrphed in chairs or standing. Click on the image to see a black boy in the Federal Army.

The Confederacy from an early point in the War used black slaves. They were primarily used for labor in building fortifications and entrenchments, maintining the railroads, and other purposes related to the War. I think they were primarily used behinf the lines because to use them near the Federal lines increased the opportunities for them to run away. An issue developed in that some slave owners owners did not want to turn over their slaves to Confederate labor gangs and wanted to keep them on the plantations. Some Confederate officers brought slaves with them as personal sevants during the War. I am not sure how common that was, but I know it occurred. Arming blacks to fight was a very different matter. While the Confederates were outraged by the Federal use of Blacks, by the end of the War they were considering the formation of their own Black units. It was a hotly debated issue. The ideas of Blacks outfitted in military uniforms and equipped with weapons, however, proved a step the Confederacy could never take, even in the final desperate months. The fear was so intense that for decades after the formation of the Boy Scouts, southerners prevented Blacks from even forming Boy Scout units.

Reader Discusion

This evocative image elicited a great deal of discussion and questions. Some pf the comments are informed. Others convey a remarkble degree of cynicism and misunderstanding. We can answer some of the qiestions. Others we are not sure about. Hopefully HBC readers will have some further insights to offer.

Boy's expression

A reader writes, "Next to the soldier is his boy slave wearing a keppie, sitting on the floor with the most sad eyes imaginable. Look closely into his eyes and you will see his sadness and indifference to the CIVIL WAR; no matter who wins the war his life won't change and he knows and shows it!" Well assessing expresions in early photographs is frought with difficulty because of the long exposures. A boy this age of course can not be expected to understand te sweep of events unfolding around him. But whatever are you talking about. The Federal victory in the War made a huge difference. It ended slavery. Have you not heard of the Emancipation Proclamation and the 13th Anendment? And while the South managed to reinstitute white supremecy, they could not reimpose slavery, Another reader writes, "An interesting photo, but ... Where you see sadness in the litte Negro boy's eyes, I see numbness. He has no doubt seen combat and clearly wants no more of it. As a veteran of multiple tours in Vietnam, I have seen those eyes a thousand times."

Soldier affiliation

A reader writes, "This is a Union Soldier." Unfortunately he does not explain how he reeched that conclusion. While we are not positive, we think that he is a Confederate soldier. There are several reasons for this. The jacket color seems too light for blue, although this is hard to tell. More persuasive is that there are no emblems are badges of rank. This was common in the Condederate Army, but not the Federal Army. Also note the trousers. They do not match the jacket. This was not common in the Federal Army. Another reader writes, "This is definitely a very nice image. I read the interesting comments and tend to agree with the camp servant idea, but who knows. But, if you look at the soldier, there is no indication on his uniform that he is an officer. He appears to be wearing an enlistedman's frock coat. The only indication I see of him possibly being an officer is that his hat seems to be of a better quality than an enlistedman would wear." I think what you are seeing is the fact that Confederate uniforms did not have emblems and rank badges.


There is no printing or inscription on the front or back. Looking at it closely, the photograph is in excellent shape, the mount is thinner than normal, not your ordinary tough cardboard mount. I notice too that the photograph was mounted slightly askew. Given that and there being no photographer's mark on the reverse, this may have been taken "in the field". Just speculation on my part, I can't tell for sure. The thinner mounts suggests a Condederate portrait. The Federal blockade prevented paper imports.

Field portrait

A reader writes, "Also, the soldiers relaxed state, smoking a pipe and open uniform, may also be a sign of this being taken "in the field". I'm sureone more informed could tell.

The Keppie

A reader writes, "Maybe someone can also tell us what the significance is of the KEPPIE on the boy. Could he have been a young recruit? Clearly the keppie is his." The keppie is important because it is a uniform item. And the idea of blacks wearing military uniforms was anatema in the South. The fact that he s allowed to wear a uniform cap speaks volumes about his relation to the soldier. He is definitely not a recruit. The Confederacy did not form black units and the Federals gave proper uniforms to their black recruits.

Drummer Boys

Another reader writes, "Just how do you know that the young lad is a slave? He might be a drummer boy in a northern colored regiment." He is definitely not a drummer boy. The Confederacy did not have black drummer boys and the Federal Army outfitted their drumers boys, black and white, in proper uniforms. See Jackson,

Officer's servant

A reader writes, I believe the young boy to be an officer's servant. A seemingly "novel" practice among some Federal officers was to take a young contraband or refugee slave (or freedman) under his wing as a personal servant. These individuals were generally very young and naive, sometimes kept around to only be the butt of jokes. However, many did serve faithfully and were generally looked after by the officers and in some instances included on government payrolls. Those who accompanied an officer in the field, almost to a man, wore Federal issue uniform parts that were used and then cast off by soldiers. In a lot of cases officer's servants, cooks, aides, clerks, teamsters, wagoners, etc. wore "complete" Federal uniforms that had been intended for the trash heap. I believe that if the boy is a servant then the fact that he was photographed with his officer makes this a very valuable and rare image." I agree he is an officer's servant. Some Confederate officers did take slaves as servants to war with them. (Officers having personal servants was not uncommon at the time. In the Brtish army, They were called batmen. Of course they were not slaves like the blacks caring for Confederate officers.) Just how common it was in the Confederate Army, I am not sure. I suspect it was fairly common for wealthy officers. Nor do I know how common it was in the Federal Army. Here I think there may have been a difference in the two armies. Many wealthy northerns bought replacements so they did not have to servde in the War. I think this was less common in the South, but this needs to be confirmed. I am not at all sure that Federal officers kept boys to make jokes about. We would like to know the reader's source of information here. It is true that blacks were generally despariaged by white soldiers at the beginning of the War. This was also true when thecfirst black regiments were raised in 6. This attitude began to change, however, when black units went into combat and fought with destinction. By the end of the War the attitides of many white soldiers in the Fedral Army had changed markedly. In addition, many officers and soldiers in the Federal Army saw the war as a great moral crusade against slavery. an officer who kept a small boy just to make jokes aboutt would have been looked down on by many other officers.


Another reader writes, "Take a look at his left arm, it appears he is missing his arm??" It does look like it. Perhaps the portrait was taken after he returned from the front. He does look to be fully recovered.


Another reader wrote that the pipe is a cherrywood pipe and not a corn cob pipe as I had thought.


Another reder wrtes,"Read with interest the comments. I'm surprised no one offered the alternative and entirely plasible explanation that this is a union officer with his slave. Abe Lincoln did not free the slaves in the Union or occupied confederate states. There were plenty of slave owning union soldiers from the border states. If so that would make this an exceedingly rare and unique record of Northern Slaves participating in the war to free the slaves - this belongs in a museum!" It is true that there were slave holders in the Federal Army. They would have been from the border states (Missouri, Kentickly, Martland, and Deleware). I'm not sure what the reader here means by "plenty". It is also probably true that the number of slaves held by Federal officers was a very small percentage of American slaves. Few Federal officers, for example, owned plantations. And while slaves as personal servants may have been possible at first. After Lincoln expanded the war goals to emancipation, it would have been much less likely that Federal oddicers would have kept slave servants. Our reader is also incorrect that President Lincoln did not free the slaves in the border states or the Condederate states occupied by the Federals. The 13th Amendment is part of the President's endowment to the nation. Of course our reader is talking about the Emancipation Proclamation, crafted so as not to alienate the border states. Lincoln never intended to be the permant act of empancipation, Lincoln realised that the Emancipation Proclamation would be struck down by the Taney Court after the War. That is why he and the Congressional Republicans worked to pass the 13th Anendment.

Confederate Law

When the Federal Government took up arms, the issue as carefully posed by President Lincoln was secession and preservation of the Union and not slavery. For the Confederate states there was never any doubt about the central issue--it was slavery. Other sectional issues could be resolved through the political process. Slavery could not. There was little interest in Richmond on recruiting blacks. Most people in both the North and South thought that the War would be over quickly. As it became clear that the War would be a long and bloody war, some in Richmond begin to think about recruiting blacks, but for most southeners, arming black men was an athemna. The concept of Confederate law is rather a misnomer. The seceeding different states were unwilling to give much authority to the Confederate national governmwnt. This weakend the war effort. What was important was state law. And here there were variations. Mississpi state law at the time prohibited manumission. Other Confederate states required freed blacks to leave the state, although this was not always rigirously enforced. As a result there were legal barriers to arming the slaves. Not many slaves would be too interested in serving in the military without an offer of freedom. Only the declining military fortunes of southern armies caused the Condederate Congress to consider it seriously. The Confederate Congress did not authorize blacks (free or slave) to enlist as soldiers (except as musicians), until the last year of the War. In the final year of the War, the Condederate Congress passed a law allowing blacks to enlist. Some thought that it should entitle the individuals involved to be granted their freedom. This was, however, not addressed in the law. It was left etirely up to their owners. We do not know of any units formed. Nor do we know if any historian has collected information on slaves formally enlisted in the Confederate Army.

Confederate Field Units

Many Confederate officers ignored the debate over blacks in Richmond. Ironically, blacks appeared in Confederate units before they appeared in Federal units. This is primarily because many Confederate officers brought their servants with them. Most remained servants, but a few actually took up arms. This may have been because of their relationship with their masters. It may have been because when the bullets started flying it may have seemed the reasonable thing to do--get a rifle and fire back. It is unclear to what extent unit commanders enlisted blacks who did not acompsny their masters. One source suggests that field commanders enlisted blacks with the simple criteria, "Will you fight?" This is easy enough to say. But proof requires names. And it difficult to confirm, especially as slaves y do not seem to have been formally enlisted on unit roles. One historian writes that "biracial units" were frequently organized "by local Confederate and State militia Commanders in response to immediate threats in the form of Union raids". [Jordan] We notice the 1st Louisiana Native Guard. But Louisiana was different in many ways than other southern states. And this unit while allowed to organize was not committed to battle, The state of Louisana eventually ordered them to disband.

Personal Relationships

Very little has been written about black Confederate soldiers. After the War the subject was of very little interest to to white southeners. And northeners looked on them as uncle toms. As best we can tell, the vast majority of Condederate blsacks were brought by officers to act as personal servants. We do not know to what extent they were asked if they wanted to go or if they were, if there was a realistic way of saying no. And there were various ranges of relationships before the War. Presumably Condedeate officers selected trusted individuals. There were thus in many cases bonds of affection. Some of the blacks were only boys. Others were youths and adult men. Like most white soldiers, most probavly did not have amny budea whatwar involved. The relationships almost certainly changed once the men joined their units, especially if the blacks becme actually armed soldiers. Not all the black Condederates had this master, slave relationship, but it appears to have been the dominant one.


One estimate suggests that over 65,000 Southern blacks were in the Confederate ranks. [Williams] This is difficult to assess with any percission largely because most were not formally enlisted by the Condederate Army. They were mostly slaves that accompanied their masters. We do not know how many were actually enlisted. Nor do we know how many were free blacks who joined of their own volition. Social pressures compeled mosr whites to enlist. This was not the case for blacks Another estimate suggests about 13,000 blacks actually engaged in combat with the Confederate Army or state militias. It is not clear oif they were formally enlosted. This is an interesting question. We have not yet found any scholarly work addressing the topic in all of its complexities.


The Southern states eventually began paying pensions to the men who served in the War. Most states began to do this by the 1880s. To qualify for these pensions, the soldier had to submit evidence that he was formally enlisted in a state unit. All Confederate units were state units. There was no Regular Confederate Army as in the North. There was one exception. Some states approved slave pensions. This could be obtained, usually by proving your former owner enlisted in a unit and that he took you with him. It is not quite clear why state legislatures created this category of service. One observer suggests it was part of the Lost Cause campsign which involved proving that the slaves had bee well treated and some loyally fillowed their masters unto battle.

Political Correctness

The Civil War almost from the time that Lee surrendered has been a war in in which history has been clouded by authors with political motives. For years the Lost Cause historians dominated our view of the War. Today liberal political correctness is affecting views of the War. Here their is a desire to show that blacks almost universally fought with the Federal Army. Of course mosrt did, but there werre blacks that fought with the Confederacy. A Virginia 4th grade text book claimed that thousands of blacks fought for the South during the War. (We would have said 'with') Politically correct historisns immediately pounced on this statement. And politically correct media like the Washington Post chimes in with the comment, "a claim rejected by most historians but often made by groups seeking to downplay slavery's role as a cause of the conflict." The simple fact is that the claim is true and the opposition to this fact is centered among groups who want to simplify the nature of the conflict. What a responsible publication would have addressed is the role and status of the black Confederates, not to deny their existence. Many were slaves of officers who brought them along when they went to war. Often they were not formally inscribed in unit roles, but some were. A subject of interest is their experience in fighting units rather than denying their existence. It is almost certainly true that the black Confederates were motivated primarily by personal relations with their masters than devotion to the Confederacy, but it is also true that denying their existence is an act of academic cowardice. There were both black labor brigades and blacks in militia groups. We even know of one black miltia unit--the 1st Louisiuan Native Guard. There is much to be learned about the War and the nature of slavery by looking at this little studied aspect of the War, but unfortunately even major media sources are more prone to join on the politically correct bandwaggon.


Barrow, Charles KellyJ, H. Segars, and R. B. Rosenburg (eds). Black Confederates (Pellican Publishing, 2001), 208p.

Jordan, Ervin.

Sieff, Kevin. "In Va., an old front reemerges in battles over Civil War history," Washington Post (October 20, 2010), p. A1, 9.

Williams, Scott, "Black Confederates in the Civil War". Williams is a St. Louis historian who has written about refugee slaves and blacks in the Federal Army.

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Created: 5:33 PM 3/17/2007
Last updated: 11:24 AM 10/12/2011