Near 21st and Main Street in Richmond, Virginia, the first legally authorized African American Confederate soldiers were assembled and trained in the final weeks of the Civil War. Legislation passed by the Confederate congress on March 13, 1865, allowed for enslaved African Americans to be mustered and equipped on an experimental basis as combat soldiers. Before that date (less than a month before the end of hostilities in Virginia), Confederate law specified that only white men were permitted to serve as soldiers.1 From the beginning of the war, thousands of enslaved and free African Americans, who were all subject to involuntary impressment, had been compelled to work for the army in support roles including being cooks, laborers, wagon drivers, nurses, etc., but they were expressly forbidden by law from being armed and serving in combat roles.
The mustering of Major Turner and Major Pegram’s companies at Smith’s Factory at 21st and Main Street in Richmond was noted with curiosity by Richmond newspapers. After two weeks of assembling, the Richmond Examiner reported that a company of 35 had been raised, with recruits "coming in by ones and twos every day." Firsthand accounts of the number of these soldiers vary, ranging from "a goodly number," "quite a number," two companies, "fifty or sixty," "about two hundred, "a few companies" and "not more than fifty boys." The recruits were reported to have largely been culled from African Americans who had already been conscripted into Confederate service as attendants at local hospitals Camp Jackson and Camp Winder. Northern newspapers quickly found out about the recruiting experiment too and reported to readers, “they have succeeded in raising just two companies [of African Americans]," noted the Ohio Morning Leader, "while they are losing about six companies to desertion every day. …A Richmond paper lets the cat out of the bag by stating that every one of these recruits had already been in the rebel service as cooks and attendants in the hospitals. Their motive in volunteering is obviously to get a chance to desert to Union lines.”7 (emphasis in original)
Three weeks after beginning the assignment of arming the enslaved, Majors Turner and Pegram accompanied the Confederate army’s retreat from Richmond on April 2, 1865. On April 5, Major Pegram was captured at Painesville, Virginia. Hundreds of African American teamsters were documented as captured that day, but no United States soldiers reported witnessing what they pereived as armed African American Confederate soldiers. In 1915, former Confederate R.M. Doswell did reminisce to a Richmond newspaper that he had seen the unusual sight of Black Confederate soldiers in engaged in combat at Painesville, albeit some fifty years after the skirmish.8
Major Thomas Turner accompanied the Confederate army was far as the surrender at Appomattox Court House on April 9, where he slipped away without formally surrendering and instead fled the area, avoiding capture and arrest as he made his way to Texas, then Cuba. The disposition of his Confederate company is not recorded. Thus officially ended the less than 30-day existence of the Confederacy’s first legally authorized Black soldiers. An Ohio newspaper that had been following the story noted in May, 1865, that “it appears that the forty or fifty negro soldiers enlisted by the rebels, and who evacuated Richmond with Lee’s army, dropped off at the rate of about one for every mile traveled, and when the rendezvous was reached the white captain [Major Turner] and their colored corporal alone remained.”9
It is possible that in the thousands of battles and engagements of the Civil War, involving millions of participants, that free or enslaved African Americans attached to the Confederate army wielded weapons on isolated occasions. The important detail to note for the purpose of observing the historical date of this 1865 legislation is that any such instance, if reliably witnessed before March 13, 1865, was an instance of witnessing something that was against the law.
This distinction is supported by the documented reaction of Confederate authorities on the rare and unusual occasions when African Americans did attempt to offer their services in combat roles earlier in the war. The 1st Louisiana Native Guard, a local militia group composed of socially established New Orleans Creoles, had offered to muster into Confederate service in 1862 and were flatly refused in accordance with Confederate regulations. Similarly, a group of culturally acclimated African Americans in Mobile, Alabama, presented themselves for Confederate service in 1863. The Confederate Secretary of War, James Seddon, recognized the legal and cultural impossibility of accepting these Black men into potential combat roles and specified that they could, according to the law, only be utilized as laborers and not as soldiers. “Our position with the North and before the world will not allow the employment as armed soldiers of negroes,” he noted, specifying instead that the authority only existed to “enlist them as ‘navvies’ (to use the English term) or for subordinate working purposes.”10
Occasional, isolated examples document a “free person of color” on a state militia muster roll according to state-level authorizations that apparently existed in the early stages of the war. As seen in the examples above, early isolated instances of this sort violated Confederate law and African American volunteers were relegated to labor and support duties when subjected to oversight by Confederate authorities.
The official records of the U.S. and Confederate Armies during the war, comprising more than 50,000 pages of correspondence in over 50 volumes, mentions a single-digit number of U.S. observers claiming to witness African Americans in combat among Confederate forces.11 A similarly miniscule number of Northern newspapers made similar claims, and notably there are no instances of a Confederate source reporting that an African American acted as a combat soldier before the March 13, 1865 legislation making it legal. The rarity of these anecdotal instances serves to highlight that in the event that any of the stories were genuine, that they were describing something highly unusual and illegal under Confederate law.
The enslaved soldiers of March 1865 are well documented. Legislative debates and public conversations record their genesis. Newspaper reports and personal reminisces note the presence and the novelty of the two experimental companies. Though they existed for less than thirty days during the chaotic closing weeks of the war, it was impossible for their existence to escape notice and for it not to be recorded by memory and by bureaucratic documentation. The complete absence of any similar documentation for any other such military service by African Americans indicates clearly that the enslaved soldiers of March 1865 were unique, and recognized as such by Confederate contemporaries. Their appearance caused “quite a sensation,” according to reports, and “great multitudes” were attracted to “witness the novel spectacle” of Black soldiers in March, 1865.12 R.M. Doswell mused that the Black Confederate soldiers he saw were "a novel sight to me"13 and The New York Herald, quoting the Richmond Dispatch on March 16, noted that Majors Turner and Pegram were praised for “skill in the discharge of this peculiar duty [of commanding Black troops]” and that “it is a great pity this had not been done before.”
Notwithstanding a small but vocal twentieth and twenty-first century effort by some to advocate the misconception that the thousands of enslaved people who were compelled to support the Confederacy through their forced labor should be considered “soldiers” according to a broad, modern definition of the term, arming the enslaved – making them “soldiers” as the term was comprehended by Confederates themselves - was undertaken in desperation only as a last-ditch effort in the closing weeks of the war.
1 Regulations for the Armies of the Confederate States (Richmond: 1862), 385-386.
2 “Rebel Negro Soldiers in the Field,” Evening Star (Washington, D.C.), March 30, 1865.
3 H.R. 367, An act to increase the military force of the Confederate States (http://www.freedmen.umd.edu/csenlist.htm)
4 General Order 14 specified that "no slave will be accepted as a recruit unless with his consent and with the approbation of his master by a written instrument conferring, as far as he may, the rights of a freedman." (Official Records, series IV, vol. III, "General Order No. 14, 23 March 1865, An Act to increase the military force of the Confederate States”), 1161-1162.
5 Daily Dispatch (Richmond, Virginia), March 16, 1865.
6 Whig, (Richmond, Virginia), April 3, 1865.
7 Morning Leader (Cleveland, Ohio), March 29, 1865.
8 Times-Dispatch (Richmond, Va), April 25, 1915.
9 The Leader (Cleveland, Ohio), May 2, 1865.
10 Joseph A. Seddon to Dabney H. Maury, Major General, November 24, 1863
11 “Black Confederates: Truth and Legend," the American Battlefield Trust (https://www.battlefields.org/learn/articles/black-confederates-truth-and-legend)
12 Whig, (Richmond, Virginia), March 23, 1865.
13 Times-Dispatch (Richmond, Va), April 25, 1915.
Last updated: March 5, 2023