During the Civil War a few hundred women disguised themselves as men and fought as soldiers. We know some of their names—Sarah Edmonds, Jennie Hodgers, Frances Clalin. In some cases, we have photos, we have pension documents and other records, and we have enough biographical information to reconstruct their life stories. So if you said that “women fought in the American Civil War,” you’d be right, at least in a very limited, literal sense.
But in a larger and more meaningful sense, of course, you’d be wrong. Women fought, but in miniscule numbers, and against official policy. If we’re trying to make general statements that really help us understand the war, then ”women fought in the American Civil War” doesn’t get us very far. These women are interesting figures, and they might reveal something by being exceptions to the rule, and that’s about it.
At the risk of beating a dead horse, here’s why I bring this up. It bears on the heated discussion of black Confederates troops that’s been roaring through the blogosphere, especially on Kevin Levin’s Civil War Memory blog (see here, here, and here), but also on other history blogs (here and here).
When we’re talking about black Confederate soldiers, it’s all about the numbers. If you read statements in favor of the idea of widespread black participation in the Confederate armies, you’ll notice an unhealthy reliance on anecdotal evidence. It’s always this first-person account from somebody’s ancestor, or that veteran honored at a ceremony decades later. This simply won’t do. The question isn’t whether or not there were occasions when African-Americans attached to Confederate forces fired shots in combat. Such incidents could be nothing more than bizarre aberrations. What’s important is whether or not there’s a pattern behind these incidents. And a pattern can only be established with some hard numbers. Unfortunately, many sources seem to pull the numbers out of thin air. We get wildly varying estimates, with no explanation of how they were tallied.
One website estimates that “over 65,000 Southern blacks were in the Confederate ranks. Over 13,000 of these, ‘saw the elephant’ also known as meeting the enemy in combat.” Does “in the ranks” mean actually enlisted? Soldiers aren’t the same as body servants, labor levies, free black sutlers or cooks, and others who accompanied the armies but didn’t serve.
Another website guesses that the figure could be ”anywhere from 30,000 to 100,000,” an estimate so broad that it’s virtually meaningless.
By way of contrast, take a look at this post from Civil War Gazette. This piece claims that “as little as under a hundred to as many as several hundred blacks may have actually engaged in combat for the South during the Civil War by actually carrying and discharging a weapon.” The implications of figures like these are radically different from those quoted above.
What many supporters of the “black Confederate soldiers” notion are trying to achieve is a paradigm shift. They want to challenge our notion that the war was fought over slavery and that the Confederacy’s aim was to preserve it. If thousands upon thousands of black soldiers fought for the South, then we may indeed the makings of a paradigm shift—a Confederacy that relied heavily on black manpower to fight for its independence would be an interesting thing indeed. If only a few hundred fought, we have nothing more than a curiosity. We’d be talking about such a tiny percentage of the armies that it would have no real impact on our larger understanding of them. The percentages would be comparable to those of women who fought in disguise, so it would make as much sense to argue that the Civil War was a co-ed affair.
Proponents of the notion of hordes of black Confederate combat troops need to show us where they’re getting these tens of thousands. Give us some serious, transparent analysis, and then we’ll do business.