Thursday, November 11, 2010

Black Confederates: A Different Viewpoint

The debate over African Americans having served in the Confederate Army is raging across the internet.  Much of the discussion focuses on nuance (e.g., did African Americans serve as "soldiers" as opposed to camp attendants, did they serve as slaves or of their volition, etc.) and many of the participants are speaking past each other. I found the following excerpt from Congressional testimony taken in early 1866 fascinating in offering the viewpoint of some Tallahassee blacks that suggests much of this debate is moot or misplaced. It must be considered, however, that this passage is retold by a white, Yankee interlocutor.  Rev. L. M. Hobbs toured much of Florida in 1864 and 1865 and became associated with the Freedmen's Bureau's education efforts. Sometime in late 1865, he spoke to some African American young men at a school in the Tallahassee area. The discussion eventually turned to service in the Confederate army, or maybe Florida's militia. Hobbs told his Congressional interviewers the following: 

 “I asked the boys what they understood freedom to mean. They said that to be free was to be their own; that is, that they were not under the control of another person to be bought and sold. I asked them if they could do as they pleased now that they were free. They said they could not break the law – could not do wrong without being punished. I asked them how they knew they had been made free. They said that when the Union soldiers came and hoisted the United States flag over the capitol, that meant freedom; they knew they were free then. Just before the surrender the rebels were organizing colored troops for their service, and on two or three occasions a large number had been taken to Tallahassee to be drilled. I have frequently asked the negroes what was their opinion of that. They said they were all going into the rebel army. I asked them if they would have fought against the United States government. They said, “Not a man of us; we had our plans all laid; we knew all about it; we would never have fired a gun at the Union soldiers, but on the very first opportunity we would have turned our fire upon the rebels, or we would have gone over to the Union side.” I asked them if they had always believed that that Union cause would prove successful. They said that at times they would feel discouraged, from hearing the rebels always say that they were whipping the Yankees, but that they had always hoped and believed that the Union cause would be successful.”   [emphasis added]. Rep. of Joint Committee on Reconstruction, 39th Cong. 1st Session, Part IV, p. 10.

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