The spectacle would have been unimaginable at the beginning of the Civil War. Black Confederate soldiers were on parade in Capitol Square.

Beside the building where the Confederate Congress had labored for nearly four years to preserve slavery, two companies of black Confederate troops represented a last hope for manpower to fight for Confederate independence on March 22, 1865.

The black Confederates wouldn’t have a chance to make a difference in the outcome of the Civil War. The appeal for their services promised too little, came too late and was too much a departure from the founding sentiments of the Confederacy. Less than two weeks after that parade, on April 2, Richmond was evacuated. On April 9, Gen. Robert E. Lee surrendered.

The decision to enlist slaves in the Confederate army was hotly debated at the time, and it continues to inspire debate about what that decision meant. Would it have been an end to slavery in the South? What did it say about the role of blacks throughout the war?

The troops seemed a curiosity to people in Richmond, judging from an account in the Richmond Enquirer.

“The appearance of the battalion of colored troops on the Square, yesterday afternoon, attracted thousands of our citizens to the spot, all eager to catch a glimpse of the sable soldiers,” the Enquirer wrote on March 23, 1865. “The bearing of the negroes elicited universal commendation. While on the Square, they went through the manual of arms in a manner which would have done credit to veteran soldiers, while the evolutions of the line were executed with promptness and precision. As an appropriate recognition of their promptness in forming the first battalion of colored troops in the Confederacy, we suggest to the ladies of Richmond the propriety of presenting the battalion with an appropriate banner.”

After months of debate and a personal appeal by Lee, the Confederate Congress had voted to authorize its president “to ask for and accept from the owners of slaves, the services of such number of able-bodied negro men as he may deem expedient, for and during the war, to perform military service in whatever capacity he may direct.” Confederate President Jefferson Davis signed the bill on March 13, 1865.

Among the first black recruits were hospital workers at Camps Winder and Jackson who were quickly called out to help man the fortifications surrounding Richmond.

On March 16, Maj. H.C. Scott reported that he had taken a division from the Jackson hospital to the front. “I have great pleasure in stating that my men acted with the utmost promptness and good will,” Scott wrote in a report.

That same division would have been among the troops on parade in Capitol Square on March 22, though not everyone was as impressed by their performance as the Enquirer.

The Daily Dispatch found them lacking, compared to the black recruits that had been meeting daily at 21st and Cary streets under the command of Maj. J.W. Pegram and Maj. Thomas P. Turner. The hospital recruits did not have uniforms, the Dispatch reported March 23, “in marked contrast to the appearance of ... Major Turner’s colored troops, neatly uniformed, and showing a good soldierly carriage. These regulars had gone up to look at their colored breathren. Volunteering would be much encouraged by the parade of Major Turner’s men, which will, we hope, soon take place.”

In the Union army, black soldiers had become an important factor. About 40 percent of the federal troops around Richmond in the last months of war were U.S. Colored Troops. Those Army of the James troops manned the earthworks from Bermuda Hundred in Chesterfield County to Deep Bottom in Henrico County, according to Emmanuel Dabney, a park ranger at Petersburg National Battlefield. Gen. Ulysses S. Grant’s Army of the Potomac held the lines and continued the attacks around Petersburg.

***

Neither of the warring sides came easily to the decision to enlist black soldiers.

In the North, the failure to capture Richmond in 1862 led President Abraham Lincoln to announce his plans for emancipation at Antietam and then put his Emancipation Proclamation into effect on Jan. 1, 1863.

Beyond his personal distaste for slavery, Lincoln was pushed to that decision by two actions involving blacks in the South.

From the beginning of the war, Confederates had used their slaves to support military goals. By digging earthworks, transporting materials, cooking and cleaning, the slaves had enabled white soldiers to be more effectively used in battle. If Lincoln could diminish that resource and bring the blacks into the Union side, he would improve the North’s chance of winning.

Another pressure on Lincoln came from the slaves themselves. From the beginning of the war, slaves had entered Union lines seeking freedom, starting at Fort Monroe on May 23, 1861, the day Virginians voted to ratify the state’s secession from the United States. Tens of thousands of blacks were available and willing to fight. By the end of the war, nearly 200,000 blacks had enlisted, including many who had been enslaved.

In the South, President Davis and his Congress fought against enlisting blacks until there was no other source of manpower. Though the legislation authorized a force of 300,000, the total number of black recruits within those few weeks was probably less than 100.

When the idea of enlisting slaves had been proposed in January 1864 by Maj. Gen. Patrick Cleburne, Davis had instructed his generals to quash it. “Such opinions under the present circumstances of the Confederacy ... can be productive only of discouragement, distraction, and dissension,” Davis wrote.

By November of that year, after the loss of Atlanta and Lincoln’s re-election, Davis was ready to reconsider.

“He talks about the distant possibility that should things turn bad, as if they hadn’t already, we should certainly consider enlisting our slaves in the army, because this wasn’t the war about slavery but the war for independence,” said Bruce Levine, history professor at the University of Illinois and author of “Confederate Emancipation.”

“The roof falls in on him. There’s enormous outrage. People said we went to war to protect slavery. What’s the point of winning and losing it,” Levine continued.

The Charleston, S.C., Mercury raged on Jan. 13, 1865, “It was on account of encroachments upon the institution of slavery ... that South Carolina seceded from that Union. It is not at this late day, after the loss of thirty thousand of her best and bravest men in battle, that she will suffer it to be bartered away.”

The Richmond Whig, which had once taken the same line as the Mercury, answered on Feb. 17, that slavery surely would end if the South lost the war.

“We hope to preserve it. We believe we can preserve it,” the Whig wrote. “So do we hope to preserve a portion at least of our houses and our lands. ... Must we be told that it is our duty to give every thing for independence — lands, houses, life itself — but not our slaves? ... Is it better to be conquered, even to submit to the yoke we so much dread, and against which we have so desperately struggled, than to make use of this last, and it may be, this most effective resource?”

The legislation passed by the Confederate Congress did not promise freedom to slaves who served. “Nothing in this act shall be construed to authorize a change in the relation which the said slaves shall bear toward their owners,” the final paragraph said.

In the regulations that put the new policy into effect, however, Davis and the War Department insisted that slaves who enlisted must be given their freedom. That’s a long way from ending slavery.

The goal was to “put some slaves in the army, win the war and maintain a slaveholding society,” said Gary W. Gallagher, the John L. Nau III Professor of History at the University of Virginia.

“It would have liberated a tiny, tiny percentage, even if they had put in place what they were talking about. This is a way to maintain control over the millions of black people who were still slaves. It’s a desperate measure. It doesn’t mean they’ve had a change of heart on slavery. It doesn’t mean they see a future for the Confederacy without slavery.”

***

Treatment of the black Confederate soldiers was not confidence-inspiring. They were pelted with mud by white boys, said Edward Pollard in his “Life of Jefferson Davis.” Gen. Richard S. Ewell, who had considered the possibility of black Confederate troops as early as 1861, complained in a letter in 1865 that the black troops “were whipped, they were hooted at and treated generally in a way to nullify the law,” Levine said.

Other laws could also cause trouble. Two of the black soldiers, “Ned, slave of J.H. Harwood, and Bob, slave of Thos. Edmonds,” were “arrested by the officers for having no pass, and for being supposed runaways,” the Whig reported on March 31, 1865. “The Mayor returned them to the charge of Capt. Bossieux.”

Morale was not high. “The mass of their colored brethren looked on the parade with unenvious eyes,” Pollard wrote. “They appeared to regard themselves as isolated or out of place, as if engaged in a work not exactly in accord with their notions of self interest,” wrote Thomas Hughes in 1904, recalling “A Boy’s Experience in the Civil War.”

On March 30, the Whig reported that one of the black soldiers had deserted:

“The free negro John Scott, who was received as a member of Major Turner’s battalion a few days ago, became suddenly tired of going through the manual, and took his departure on Sunday last for parts unknown, carrying with him about twenty-five pairs of soldiers’ drawers, shirts, &c., belonging to some of the boys.”

***

Why would slaves or free blacks be loyal to the Confederacy, Ervin L. Jordan Jr., has asked himself. The author of “Black Confederates and Afro-Yankees in Civil War Virginia” estimates that possibly 10 percent of the 490,000 slaves and 25 percent of the 59,000 free blacks in Virginia remained loyal either as a means of self-preservation in case the South won or because of personal loyalty to people or places.

“I want to be very clear,” said Jordan, a research archivist in special collections at the University of Virginia Library. “As an African-American, which I am, I consider slavery to have been wrong. And as an African-American, I am very glad the Confederacy lost. I have been misquoted by neo-Confederates. My work has been taken out of context.”

Jordan has found accounts of blacks who shot at and killed Union soldiers early in the war: one example is a black sniper in 1862 near Richmond as told in the “Black Phalanx;” another is an 1863 illustration in Harper’s Weekly showing fully armed black Confederate pickets on duty at Fredericksburg.

“Is this true or not?” Jordan asks. “What would he gain by making it up?” An answer may lie in the politics of the day. “The idea for blacks in the Union army had not really caught on yet. The rebels are arming soldiers, maybe we should too.”

A photograph of Andrew and Silas Chandler in Confederate uniforms sometimes becomes part of a current debate on black Confederate soldiers. Silas was enslaved to the Chandler family in Mississippi and would have been a body servant to Andrew, said Kevin M. Levin, author of the blog, Civil War Memory.

“What makes it interesting, you have an armed black man sitting next to a white Confederate,” said Levin, who taught history in a Charlottesville high school and now teaches in Massachusetts. That leads some to draw the conclusion that he was a black Confederate soldier when the photo was taken, probably in 1861 as they went off to war.

“He certainly was not considered a soldier by Andrew, by the unit in which he was present and by the Confederate nation,” Levin said. “He’s not present on any muster roles. There are no enlistment papers for him. It wasn’t uncommon for officers to bring slaves with them, for support purposes, for status. The Confederacy from the beginning needs to employ slaves for all kinds of purposes.”

If blacks had been soldiers all along, there would have been no need for the law that barely passed on March 13, 1865, Levin noted. After the Virginia General Assembly instructed its Confederate senators to vote in favor, the law passed by one vote.

“Throughout this debate about whether to recruit slaves into the army, no one that I ever came across — no letter, diary, newspaper article, political debate — no one pointed out that black men had already been serving in the army,” Levin said. “No one said there is a whole regiment already. No one said I remember seeing a black soldier. There’s not one shred of evidence that anyone in the Confederacy acknowledged that black men were already serving in the Confederate army before March 1865. I think that tells us something.”

To H.V. Traywick Jr., who has compiled Confederate views of the war in his book “Empire of the Owls,” the deal offered to slaves who would fight for the Confederacy was similar to the deal offered by the French Foreign Legion — serve your time and you get citizenship.

“We were in dire straits,” Traywick said. “We would prefer to have them emancipated and fighting in our army than to be subjugated to the U.S. Army.”

Ending slavery should have been a gradual process, Traywick said, quoting Gen. Richard Taylor, son of U.S. President Zachary Taylor, who published his memoirs in 1879 under the title “Destruction and Reconstruction.”

“Existing since the earliest colonization of the Southern States, the institution was interwoven with the thoughts, habits, and daily lives of both races, and both suffered by the sudden disruption of the accustomed tie,” Taylor wrote.

Levine, the Illinois history professor, looks at the deal-making around the issue of black Confederate soldiers and sees a precursor to the Jim Crow era of segregation.

“If the South had managed to win, which at this point was virtually unimaginable, it’s very likely that slavery would have been reimposed where it could be and free blacks would have this Jim Crow freedom,” Levine said.

“This whole plan is a rehearsal for Reconstruction. It already tells us what they will try to do in later years. We can’t have slavery. That’s too bad. But at least we can pass all these laws to radically restrict the freedoms of people who are emancipated.”

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