Blacks in Gray

Many African-Americans volunteered to fight for the Confederacy during the Civil War.

Is that news to you? No wonder. Most 21st century Americans, black and white, take it for granted that the primary reason 11 southern states seceded from the Union was to perpetuate slavery. It is counter-intuitive to suggest that blacks in any numbers would willingly aid a government that sought to continue their bondage.

But they did.

Early in the war, that fact was acknowledged by Frederick Douglass, who was born a slave but became free and well-educated. He was a prominent abolitionist who lectured and wrote extensively on the evils of slavery. In September 1861 he wrote in his “Douglass Monthly”:

Black Confederates Drawing

Civil War Drawing of Black Confederate Soldiers

“It is now pretty well established, that there are at the present moment many colored men in the Confederate army doing duty not only as cooks, servants and laborers, but as real soldiers, having muskets on their shoulders, and bullets in their pockets, ready to shoot down loyal troops, and do all that soldiers may to destroy the Federal Government and build up that of the traitors and rebels. There were such soldiers at Manassas, and they are probably there still.”

Historian William C. Davis of Virginia Tech University, in a History Channel documentary, offered an explanation that is at once complex and simple: They were southerners who wanted to defend their homeland against what they considered to be northern invaders.

The fact that blacks fought for the North became well-known due to the 1989 blockbuster film “Glory” starring Morgan Freeman, Denzel Washington and Matthew Broderick.

But like most Americans, the owners of this website were unaware of blacks fighting for the South until we began in-depth research for our screenplay, “Thunderbolt Raiders.”

Discovering the fact was incidental. Our screenplay is not focused on black Confederates. It follows the exploits of Confederate Gen. John Hunt Morgan’s Thunderbolt Raiders, told 50 years later by our protagonist, Basil W. Duke, who was Morgan’s second-in-command and brother-in-law.

But our curiosity increased after we learned a bit about blacks in gray. So, we dug deeper, finding new information that added a dimension to our script that we had not previously imagined.

For example: At least four black soldiers were among the hundreds of Thunderbolt Raiders captured during the famous “Great Raid” into Indiana and Ohio in the summer of 1863. Records at Camp Douglas, the Union prison in Chicago, list their names, where they were captured and the addendum of either “Colored” or “Negro.”

We also learned about Wesley Hunt, born in slavery in 1840 and owned by a member of the Hunt family in Louisville. Wesley was given to John Morgan about 1855 to work in Morgan’s hemp factory in Lexington, KY. Wesley held special status with Morgan and rode to war as Morgan’s body servant (valet.)

He was captured at Cynthiana, KY and was given the choice: Go to jail or join the Union Army. So he changed from Confederate gray to Union blue, served well and was promoted to corporal in the U.S. Colored Troops (USCT.) 

After the war, he moved to New York City and became a solid citizen in Flushing, a neighborhood in the Borough of Queens. He married and fathered four daughters, naming two of them Henrietta and Catherine.

His descendants point out General Morgan’s mother and a sister were both named Henrietta and another sister was named Catherine. When Wesley Hunt died in 1925 at age 85, his passing was front-page news in the Flushing newspaper. The paper described him as a “unique figure that, despite never rising above neighborhood handyman, had become one of the best known and most well regarded members of the community.”

His descendants, who have been researching his life for a number of years, believe he was actually a blood relative of the Hunt-Morgan family, pointing to a photograph in which Wesley bears a strong resemblance to John Hunt Morgan. They also say that the Hunts from Kentucky visited Wesley and his family in New York during the early part of the 20th century.

Black Confederate Soldier

And we learned there were others like Wesley. The book “African Americans in the Civil War” by Victor Brooks of Villanova University, is primarily about the USCT soldiers in the Union army, but it includes a chapter titled “Black Men in Gray.” Brooks wrote:

“…in June of 1861, the state of Tennessee had encouraged enlistments of ‘all eligible free Negroes at the same pay rates as white volunteers’ ” and “The state of Virginia, with the largest number of free blacks in the South was using African-American soldiers as early as the battle of Bull Run (Manassas), and in that first major battle of the war an integrated artillery unit known as the Richmond Howitzers had served with distinction, suffering a number of casualties in the Confederate victory.”

Another book, “From Auction Block to Glory” by Phillip Thomas Tucker, also focuses on the service of the USCT, but includes a chapter titled, “Black Confederates”, which says:

“Blacks served in the Rebel armies in a variety of roles, including as musicians, servants, teamsters, laborers, cooks and nurses. But historians seem to have forgotten another important role of African Americans in the Confederate army: combat soldiers.”

Bear in mind this caveat: We know that the Confederate government itself did not authorize the use of blacks in armies until 1865, near the end of the war.

But unconventional commanders, such as John Hunt Morgan, often operated much as they pleased. When they came across an able-bodied black man, freed or slave, who wanted to fight for the South, they handed him a rifle and threw him into battle.

Our screenplay aside, the anomaly of African-Americans fighting for the Confederacy deserves broader recognition and analysis. We wonder why it remains a little-known aspect of American history.Arlington4

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