Daily Archives: 12 February 2005

Gen. Sheridan’s Black Spy, 1864

The victory of the Union’s Army of the Shenandoah on 19 September 1864 at the third battle of Winchester (Opequon Creek) shattered the Confederate army in the upper Shenandoah Valley. Partial credit for the success of General Phil Sheridan was due to Thomas Laws, a Berryville, Clarke County, slave owned by prominent Winchester attorney Richard E. Byrd. Sheridan, in need of confirmation about the disposition of Confederate general Jubal Early’s 2d Corps, sent two scouts to gather military intelligence. Laws and his wife were sitting outside their cabin one Sunday evening when the pair approached and soon ascertained that the black couple lacked admiration for the Confederacy.

Discovering that Laws possessed a pass from the local Confederate commander permitting him to sell vegetables three times a week in Winchester, the scouts arranged for him to meet Sheridan personally. After the two men discussed the impending mission, Sheridan, completely convinced of Laws’s loyalty, composed a message on tissue paper to Rebecca Wright, a Unionist Quaker schoolteacher. The note was compressed into a small pellet and wrapped in tinfoil so that Laws could conceal it in his mouth to be swallowed if he was searched or captured. At worse, Wright risked imprisonment or banishment to Union lines, but for Laws death, the ancient penalty for espionage, loomed as a distinct possibility. Described as “loyal and shrewd” in Sheridan’s memoirs (the general did not mention him by name, only as “an old colored man”), Laws delivered the message without detection. Wright’s reply confirmed that Early’s forces had been substantially reduced by large transfers to Petersburg to reinforce Lee; three days later the Union achieved a major victory, but few knew that the patriotism of one Afro-Virginian had made it all possible. Afterwards Rebecca Wright was rewarded with a position in the Treasury Department in Washington; Thomas Laws died a free and respected citizen in 1898.

SOURCE: Black Confederates and Afro-Yankees in Civil War Virginia, by Ervin L. Jordan Jr. (U. Press of Virginia, 1995), p. 285

Leave a comment

Filed under slavery, U.S., Virginia, war

Black Confederates as the Great White Hope

The Confederacy, in dire straits by 1864, began seriously to consider the arming of black men for its armies. Desperate times gave impetus to desperate measures and the need to exploit every possible resource. Southern whites began suggesting the forging of a new biracial military coalition, the war’s second, for the North had begun to enroll black soldiers in 1863.

Afro-Virginians had reason to assume that their situation was going to improve, however slightly. It remained to be seen if the Southern revolution’s alliance with loyal blacks would lead to legislated policies benefiting blacks and eliminating most slavery. However, Afro-Virginians were likely to comprise the majority of any Confederate States Colored Troops (CSCT). Black political and social equality in the fullest sense was an impossibility, but gaining a few minor rights was not inconceivable. Not all Southern blacks acquiesced in the belief of white supremacy, but most ascertained that their peculiar status might be ameliorated into racial coexistence….

The arming of slaves gained in popularity despite objections from Virginia’s neighbor, North Carolina, which passed resolutions denying the confederacy’s right to undertake this precarious war measure. A bill authorizing the use of black soldiers was introduced in the Confederate Congress by Ethelbert Barksdale of Mississippi and approved on 13 March 1865; ten days earlier Virginia’s General Assembly had repealed the restrictions on the bearing of arms by black soldiers after General Lee expressed his crucial need of them….

The new law established a quota of 300,000 blacks between the ages of eighteen and forty-five to be called up from Virginia and the other Confederate states. The slaves and free blacks were to be organized into companies, regiments, battalions, and brigades.

Afro-Confederate soldiers were to receive the same allowances, clothing, pay, and rations as their white counterparts. The Confederate Congress, satisfied with its work, adjourned but not before giving itself a collective pat on the back in the form of a resolution by Virginia representative Frederick W.M. Holliday commending its accomplishments. “We shall have a negro army” wrote a not-too-surprised government clerk. “It is the desperate remedy for the very desperate.”…

Accurate and balanced appraisals must take into account the potential contributions of Confederate States Colored Troops: the availability of black manpower, the potential paralysis of segments of the Union war effort due to Northern blacks being viewed as “fifth columns,” and carefully fostered divisions among black populations South and North to maintain white superiority. Blacks who wore Confederate gray have been denied or forgotten by history. Under appropriate situations the South could have mobilized them into a potent fighting force for independence, but the successful enlistment of black Confederate soldiers could have transpired only with the active participation of Afro-Virginian males, even though one suspects they were inclined to fight for Virginia rather than the Confederacy. But Virginia disregarded the gallant record of black soldiers and seamen during the Revolutionary War and the War of 1812. Many Afro-Virginians awaited a similar call to arms during the Civil War. It came too late.

SOURCE: Black Confederates and Afro-Yankees in Civil War Virginia, by Ervin L. Jordan Jr. (U. Press of Virginia, 1995), pp. 232, 237, 242, 251

P.S. General Lee surrendered at Appomattox on 9 April 1865, less than a month after the bill was enacted.

Leave a comment

Filed under slavery, U.S., war