Did Blacks Fight for the Confederacy?

Did any African Americans fight for the Confederacy? Yes, an estimated 65,000 African Americans—some free, but most slaves—assisted the Confederate cause. Many served as cooks, teamsters or in other support roles, but almost a third faced the enemy in combat. (One scholar estimates as many as 180,000 African Americans may have assisted the Confederate army.)

About 5,000 to 10,000 African Americans, possibly more, served in North Carolina units, according to Weymouth T. Jordan, editor of North Carolina Troops: 1861-1865 for the North Carolina Division of Archives and History. At least 200 African Americans were awarded Confederate pensions from the state government, suggesting that many times than that number actually served. This is because all pensioners faced a substantial burden of proof, with many soldiers not being able to demonstrate their eligibility; even the youngest applicant had to survive to age 79, to be living when the pensions were established; and needed to remain in North Carolina, though many migrated.

Much of the documentation about African American soldiers comes from Federal accounts, including this one from former slave 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.”

Over the last decade, several volumes have documented the role of African Americans in the war, including work by Dr. Edward Smith, dean of American Studies at American University in Washington, whose academic research has been dedicated to explaining the role of African Americans in the conflict.