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Why doesn’t the federal government provide headstones for black Confederate soldiers?

Ben Steelman

That’s not true, according to a spokesman for the National Cemetery Administration, a branch of the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs.

Black Civil War re-enactor

Sgt. Fred Johnson Sr. of Battery B 2nd Regiment U.S. Colored Light Artillery, Inc. 18th Corps Civil War Reenactors, campaigned to get recognition for the black Union soldiers buried at Wilmington National Cemetery on Market Street. (StarNews file photo)

The administration provides memorial headstones or flat markers for both Union and Confederate veterans of the Civil War, regardless of race. just as it does for any eligible veteran – upon request and at no charge to the applicant.

However, to provide headstones or markers for veterans who served before World War I, applicants must provide detailed documentation of military service, such as muster rolls, extracts from state files, pension documents or land warrants. (See more details here.)

That’s the rub. Although some sources claim that as many as 30,000 or more African-Americans bore arms for the Confederacy, actual documentation is slim.

Not until March 13, 1865 – less than a month before the fall of Richmond and the surrender at Appomattox –  did the Confederate Congress pass a law providing for the enlistment of slaves into the Confederate army. A subsequent executive order by President Jefferson Davis, however, added the proviso that slaves could be enlisted only with the consent of their owners. Later reports by Gen. Robert E. Lee and others suggest that enlistments under these guidelines were negligible.

Thousands of blacks served in non-combatant roles as servants, laborers, teamsters, musicians or cooks. In many cases, especially in less formal militia or guerrilla units, they may have eventually been issued guns and accepted as comrades in arms. (The situation was illustrated in Ang Lee”s film “Ride With the Devil” about the Civil War in Missouri.)

Period records of these actual black Confederate combatants, though, are hard to find.

Academic historians tend to downplay the numbers of black Confederates. James McPherson, the Pulitzer Prize winner, said he had found evidence of perhaps six to 12 black Confederate soldiers out of the thousands of soldiers’ letters he has read.

Historians also cite documents such as the “Cleburne Memorial” of Jan. 2, 1864, in which Maj. Gen. Patrick Cleburne urged the enlistment of slaves. (Davis later ordered that Cleburne’s proposal be suppressed.) Such comments suggest that the number of black Confederate combatants, free or slave, must have been small.

Here’s a post setting forth the mainstream case: Did blacks fight in combat for the Confederacy?.

Other sources take a different view. The questioner mentioned the book “Black Southerners in Gray,” edited by Richard Rollins. Here’s a site that puts forth some evidence of black Confederates: Black Confederates in the Civil War.

Uncontested is the fact that from 180,000 to 200,000 African-Americans served as “U.S. Colored Troops,” roughly 9 percent of total Union forces in the conflict.

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