Black Confederates Were Real People. Fort Donelson

Fewer ads. Lots of American Civil War content!

Rhea Cole

Nov 2, 2019
Murfreesboro, Tennessee


Charles Coffin aboard the steamboat New Uncle Sam

"I saw the white flag flying on the breastworks. The soldiers & sailors saw it & cheered. General Grant had moved his headquarters to the steamboat Uncle Sam & as I happened to be onboard that boat, I saw a great deal that took place. "

Insert Illustration

"The gunboats & all the steamboats... began to move up river. Dense clouds of smoke rolled up from tall chimneys. The great wheels plashed the sparkling stream. Flags were flying... The army began to march into the fort. The bands played... The columns were winding along the hills-the artillery , the infantry, the cavalry, with al their banners waving, & the bright sunshine gleaming & glistening on their bayonets! They entered the for & planted their standards on the embankments. The gunboats & the field artillery fired a grand salute. From the steamboats, from the hillsides, from the forrest there were answering shouts.."

A few years ago, the Stones River & Kennesaw Mountain National Park volunteer gun crews came to Fort Donelson to do a cannon firing demonstration. Each shot we fired from the interior of the fort overlooking the river echoed down river up to 14 times. The 'grand salute' fired by the big guns on the City Class gunboats multiplied by 14 echos must have been a sonic spectacle indeed.
insert illustration

"A motley, care-worn, haggard, anxious crowd stood at the landing. I sprang ashore, & walked through the ranks. Some were standing, some were lying down, taking no notice of what was going on around them. They were prisoners of war... Their clothes were of all colors. Some wore gray, some blue, some butternut-colored, a dirty brown. They were very ragged. Some had old quilts for blankets, others faded pieces of carpeting, others strips of new carpeting, which had been taken from stores. Some had caps, others old slouched felt hats & nothing but straw hats upon their heads."

"There were some who were very sullen & sour & there were others who did not care what became of them."

"A great many negroes came into the lines & were welcomed by the soldiers. Among them was a boy... His master he said was a gentleman, owned twenty-four slaves. He had on a greasy shirt of snuff-colored jean... His slouched hat was tipped back upon his head, showing a countenance indicative of intelligence."
"Well, my boy, what is your name?" I asked.
"Dick, massa."

The fall of Fort Donelson was the first time Grant's army had encountered large numbers of Confederate prisoners. Also, for the first time they encountered slaves like Dick coming into their lines. The Union soldiers were from free soil in the old Northwest. The slaves they encountered at Fort Donelson were, most likely, not only the first they had encountered, but also the first time they had ever conversed with a black person. As Charles Coffin reports, Dick's 'countenance. indicative of intelligence' showed that they were meeting human beings just like themselves. Up to that point the war had been for restoring the Union. From the moment the troops met self-liberating people, the war became a crusade to destroy slavery. Not all the slaves that Coffin would have encountered were now considered free.

Not only weren't those black men not free, they were slaves still owned by officers who had surrendered. Just what their status was nobody seemed to know. Fort the time being, they were treated as Confederate Army prisoners of war.

In February 1862, 800 prisoners of war (officers & enlisted men) arrived at Camp Chase [Ohio]. Included among the 800 Confederate soldiers were approximately 75 African; about half of whom were ordinary slaves, the other half being servants to the Confederate officers. Much to the horror & dismay of the citizens of Columbus, these men continued to serve their masters in the prison camp. An Ohio Legislative committee was formed & protests over the continued enslavement of these men were sent to Washington D.C. The Africans were finally released in April & May of 1862; some of them enlisted in the United States Colored Infantry.

The issue of the captured Confederate slaves was not as easily dealt with as the quote above would seem to indicate.

"Impress slaves of the secessionists in vicinity of [Fort Henry] to work on fortifications."
Henry Halleck to U.S. Grant, February 8, 1862

"Slaves as were within the lines on the time of the capture of Fort Donelson, & such used by the enemy, in building the fortification, or in any way hostile to the Government, will not be released or permitted to return to their masters, but will be employed in the Quatermasters' Department, for the benefit of the Government."
General order No. 14 U.S. Grant, February 26, 1862

"All the Negres have (been) pressed to work on fortifications." Sarah Kennedy, slaveholder living near Clarksville TN January 4, 1863

Slave requisition.jpeg

It was one thing to issue requisitions for slaves, as Major General Nelson did from Mr. Silas Tucker, it was quite another to figure out what to do with the body servants who had accomplished their masters as kinda sorta P.O.W.'s.

General Halleck had ordered the Confederate officers from Forts Henry U & Donelson to be sent to Columbus OH. The paroled officers enjoyed quite an admiral existence. They had been allowed to keep their swords & side arms. They freely strolled the streets, ate at the fanciest hotels in town.

"... a stranger happening in at a hotel in view of the swarms of rebel uniforms & fierce utterance of rebel oaths & threats might fancy himself set down a the capital of Jeff Davis instead of the capital of Ohio."

What got under the skin of the good folks in Columbus was not just Confederate officers parading around like peacocks in repsplendent uniforms sewn by a local tailors, it was the black body servants who kept their boots shining & uniforms brushed to perfection. What were they doing there, anyways?

It was complicated. General Halleck's order was a factor. The Fugative Slave Law was nothing to sceeze at. An officer who was charged with facilitating the escape of a slave could face severe sanctions. After meetings & commissions, it was decided that the best thing to do would be to let the slave/body servants decided for themselves.

Each man was offered two choices. If he wanted to return South, he would be escorted though Confederate Lines & released. Should the man choose so, he could remain in the North as a free man. Every single one of the body servants decided to stay. Trained servants could make good wages working in hotels in the big cities of the North. Several of them joined the United States Colored Infantry.

For those Black Confederates, the choice between returning home & freedom was an easy one. I have found several references to the slaves taken to Ohio as servants & laborers as proof that there were slave combatants at Fort Donelson. Only a very special study of the documentation could support that assertion.
Last edited:
Fewer ads. Lots of American Civil War content!
Fewer ads. Lots of American Civil War content!
Fewer ads. Lots of American Civil War content!