Blacks and whites in non-soldier roles with the Confederate army

Posted on May 21, 2009 by


I think there is something that is missed in all of these discussions about blacks in “service” roles with the Confederate army. Let me be more clear. We know there were some in the muster rolls of units, and to spare me the rants of those who completely fail to understand where I am coming from and the rants of those who want to come at me and say “by golly, I’ll show you a black in a Confederate muster roll!” I’ll say it again, don’t waste my time or yours. Why? Because I’ll be the first one to say that I found information that shows that a slave (formerly serving as a cook for a mess) was allowed to enlist in Co. K, 10th Va. Infantry (though there is not one record after that enlistment record). And yes, I’m even well-aware of people such as Henry “Dad” Brown (free black), who served in two South Carolina units. Yet, this is not my point in this post. Again, my attention is on those blacks (mostly slaves… although many free blacks were also coerced to support the “Cause” in various forms… yes, coerced) and served in “service” rolls with the army, not in it. The argument has been made, here and there, that perhaps the Confederate government did not recognize these men as soldiers, and perhaps the pension legislation, in an era of discrimination, did these men wrong, and that the effort to see them all, now, as soldiers, rights that wrong. Once again, let me be clear here. Do these men need to be recognized for the individual sacrifices? Yes! Do they need to be honored as Confederates? Errrrr, that’s a lot more complicated. Should they all be considered soldiers? No, but allow me to give my reasons.

There is much discussion about the servant pension records, and as I have pointed out before, legislation (at least in Virginia, and I believe from what has been offered elsewhere, also in other Southern states) made a clear distinction between those who were soldiers (veterans pensions) and those who were not (servants pensions). The focus on these servant pensions is on the blacks who applied for them. But, what about the whites who applied for them? Yes, you read that right (and I’ve said it before)… whites applied for servants pensions because the legislation included those who served in government-related jobs. So, black or white, these people were not considered soldiers… and subsequently were not seen as veterans.

By the way, a third great grandfather of mine, Rodham T. Mayes, served as a teamster with the Laurel Brigade (7th, 11th, 12th Va Cav., & 35th Bttn. Va. Cav.) for a while. Actually, when his son wanted to go home, he took his place as a teamster until his son came back. Yet, does this make Mayes a soldier? Not at all. He served as a civilian teamster, not a soldier. Another ancestor, a second great grandfather, Charles R. Hilliard served as a military, not civilian, teamster. He originally enlisted in the Fall of 1864 in Co. D, 7th Va. Cav., but was NOT on the muster rolls that survived the war (again, CS service records are particularly bad after the summer of ’64). Yet, he secured affidavits from fellow veterans that he was a comrade/soldier, and therefore, was able to secure a veteran’s pension. His enlistment as a soldier was supported, and he subsequently rewarded as a veteran in a pension. How many whites or blacks who served as civilian servants or government workers, were “upgraded” as soldiers and veterans by affidavits from “comrades” claiming that these men were also soldiers and therefore deserved veterans’ pensions??? Please list them as I’d really like to know…

“Honoring” these civilians (and frankly the individual soldiers as well) requires a lot more than just slapping a label on a group of people, ordering headstones, holding graveside services, and annually sticking a flag in the ground over the grave (something, by the way, that I have major issues with when it comes to the Civil War). “Honoring” these people, white or black, is a matter of making the effort to understand the complexities of individual service. On the other hand, a complete and utter failure to “honor” is exhibited by careless categorizing and labeling (to wit… “black Confederates”) just to satisfy some personal agenda of the living.

I’ve said it before, and I’ll say it again. First, we need to drop the “black Confederates” (or even “colored Confederates”) label, as it is misleading. It suggests an across-the-board support of “Cause,” and when it comes to slaves and even free blacks supporting the Confederate Cause en masse… well, there are a lot of problems with that. That’s not to say that there aren’t individual situations that suggest otherwise, but let’s drop the utter silliness of blanketing each and every one of these men with the label of “black Confederate.” Instead, we should honor the men first and then work to understanding motivations, which, frankly, will probably never be accomplished across-the-board. Again, and even as in the case of those who served in the military, honoring comes best by making the full-bodied effort to understand the individual men and all that can be found and considered in regard to service and their lives in relation to those they served.