Thursday, June 16, 2011

The Rumor of "Black Confederates" at Vienna

The topic of so-called "black Confederates" always generates a lot of controversy in the blogosphere.  Although the use of black troops was reluctantly authorized in the dying days of the Confederacy, some groups and individuals erroneously claim that considerable numbers of African-Americans fought for the South during the Civil War. (See, for example, here and here.)   Occasionally, the Battle of Vienna figures on the list of engagements where black Confederates saw action.  (See here and here.)  While researching the skirmish for this week's posts, I decided to dig a little deeper on the issue.  Based on the sources that I reviewed, the veracity of this story seems dubious at best. 

Brigadier General Robert Schenck, the Union commander at Vienna, filed a supplement to his official report of June 18, 1861. (Schenck Report, OR, Series 1, Vol. 2, Part 1, p. 127.)  According to Schenck, "[a] perfectly reliable Union man, residing in Vienna, [and who] was there during the attack" had come to him with more information about the Confederate force that had engaged the 1st Ohio.  This is the same man, incidentally, who brought six of the Union dead to Schenck's camp in his wagon.  Schenck wrote that the Unionist told  him that the Confederates under Col. Maxcy Gregg had "a body of 150 armed picked negroes, who were posted nearest us in a grain field on our left flank." (emphasis added)  However, Schenck also noted that these men were "not observed by us, as they lay flat in the grain and did not fire a gun."  Overall, based on the Unionist's information, Schenck overestimated the Confederate numbers at Vienna and concluded that "the whole force attacking us was at least 2,000."  (In fact, the Rebels numbered around 750.)

The New York Times also picked up the story about the rumored black soldiers.  In an article on June 18, 1861, the newspaper reported on the estimated strength of the Confederate force at Vienna:
Some of the Ohio men pretend to say that there were 800 South Carolinians present, subsequently reinforced by 600 Virginians from Falls Church.  It is added, moreover, that the Palmettoans had two flank companies of picked negroes, armed with muskets and sabre-bayonets-these sable soldiers acting as servants and pack-horses in time of peace, and as soldiers whenever fighting is the business immediately on hand.
Even the Times disputed this account.  The correspondent concluded that "[t]hese stories, I may add, are not confirmed by any evidence; and there are many of the more incredulous order, who maintain that there never was any larger rebel force near the train than fifty Virginians, using a single field piece under cover of the woods. I confess that the weight of evidence at present would seem to be in favor of this theory."

These accounts have little value as clear-cut evidence that black Confederates actually fought at Vienna.  Schenck, who was also present at the battle, indicated that no one on the Union side observed the blacks.  Given that the original source of the rumor provided Schenck faulty evidence of Southern troop strength, it is not much of a stretch to think that the local Unionist was also mistaken as to the presence of armed blacks.  Col. Gregg, commander of the 1st South Carolina, never mentioned the alleged force of 150 armed African-Americans in his official report on the battle.  (Gregg Report, OR, Series 1, Vol. 2, Part 1, pp. 128-30.)  And the New York Times, whose source appears to be men from the 1st Ohio, pointed to the lack of evidence backing up the rumors about the Confederate troops at Vienna, including the use of blacks in the battle.
Confederate soldiers in camp with an African-American servant.  This image is of the Clinch Rifles, 5th Georgia Infantry, but based on a report in the OR, it appears that such servants may have accompanied the 1st S.C.  (courtesy of the Georgia Sharpshooters)
All of these primary sources raise questions about what the Unionist saw, if not "150 armed picked negroes."  Brigadier General Irvin McDowell, overall Union commander in the area, forwarded to Union Army headquarters a report from an informant not long after the battle.  The spy, who had surveyed the Confederate lines, observed:
The South Carolina regiments were the best armed and equipped and in high spirits, 'freezing for a fight,' being much elated by the Vienna affair. Negroes with them as servants. (OR, Series 1, Vol. 2, Part 1, p. 722.) 
It is possible that several slaves accompanied the 1st South Carolina during Gregg's reconnaissance mission and that they took cover in a grain field when the battle erupted in Vienna.  Or maybe the Unionist somehow mistook white soldiers for African-Americans due to the smoke and confusion along the train tracks.  The answer is likely lost to history.  What we do know is that we can place little confidence in the rumors of  black Confederate combatants at the Battle of Vienna.

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