It seems that any time that documentation is presented regarding Free People of Color volunteering and fighting as Confederate soldiers, there are cries of "they must have been lighted skinned." To me, it seems like when they are presented with facts, some folks want to change the playing field, to redefine what being black or a "free person of color" was for 19th century men and women.
What was the definition of a free person of color? According to the 1855 North Carolina Revised Code, a free person of color is a "free negro, free mulatto, or free person of mixed blood, descended from negro ancestors to the fourth generation inclusive, (though one ancestor of each generation may have been a white person)..." (State Constitution, Section IV Cl. 3 (page 23)) Notice how the law did not describe the way a person looked. That was immaterial. It was based upon his ancestors, who his parents and grandparents, etc. were.
My first encounter with free men of color enlisting, and serving, in the Confederate army, came more than twenty-five years ago. I was researching for my book on the 37th North Carolina Troops and stumbled upon the case of Franklin and William Cousins/Cozzens. Franklin was born ca.1832. William Henry was born ca. 1841. The latter is in both the 1850 and 1860 Watauga County, North Carolina, Federal Census. Franklin only appears in the 1860 census, with his wife and a young daughter. Both are listed as being mulatto. John Preston Arthur, in his A History of Watauga County (1915), tells us that the father of William and Franklin, along with their uncle, "came from near East Bend, Forsythe County, soon after Boone was formed, bringing white women with them. (149) William Lewis Bryan, later the first mayor of Boone, moved to town in 1857, and left a description of his new community. Among those living in Boone were "Ellington Cousins, colored." (Watauga Democrat June 23, 1949)
I've told the story before, but here are the high points: in the early days of North Carolina's involvement of the war, Capt. George W. Folk, former representative in the General Assembly, was in town raising a company. When the company moved to Asheville, Folk kidnapped Franklin and William Henry, forcing them to serve as camp servants. Another former local representative, Mark Holesclaw, got involved, writing Gov. John W. Ellis, asking for the release of the two. Folk already had "ten or fifteen free negros to tend on them..." The two Cousins brothers were both of "good Caracter" and would pass for "white men." (The Papers of John Willis Ellis, volume 2, 844-845) Apparently, the Cousinses were released. On September 14, 1861, they voluntarily joined the "Watauga Marksmen," later designated Company B, 37th North Carolina Troops. Franklin was killed fighting in the battle of Second Manassas on August 29, 1862. William served as a wagon master part of the time. He was captured on April 2, 1865, confined at Point Lookout, and took the Oath on June 10, 1865.
The next four Confederate soldiers we know less about. Probably related to Franklin and William Henry were Bloom and Lemuel Cuzzens. Bloom was born ca.1835 and is listed as a mulatto shoemaker in the 1860 Yancey County, North Carolina, census. Lemuel does not appear on the census, but I believe it was in one of the Yadkin County Heritage books that I read he and Bloom were brothers. Both Bloom and Lemuel enlisted in the Yadkin Boys in June 1861, which became Company F, 28th North Carolina Troops. Bloom deserted on or about June 30, 1862, and Lemuel died of typhoid fever in Richmond on July 18, 1862.
William and "M.L." Townsend/Townsell, were also living in Watauga County in the 1860 census, although the area would be considered Avery County today. William was born ca.1840, and M. L. - Marion L., was born ca. 1841. Both are listed as mulatto on the census records. Both enlisted on July 15, 1861, in the "Hilbriten Guard," later Company F, 26th North Carolina Troops. Marion was killed on July 1, 1863, fighting at Gettysburg, while William was listed as a deserter on November 1, 1863.
The final example is one I recently learned about: William T. Jones. From what limited information available, the six previous individuals were all born freemen. William T. Jones was born a slave and then, sometime prior to 1856, was freed. Jones is not listed as black or mulatto in the 1860 census, but he is listed as mulatto in the 1870 Moore County, North Carolina, census. Jones was a mechanic when he enlisted in the Moore County Scotch Rifleman in 1861. In fact, he was elected a 3rd lieutenant and rose through the ranks to become 1st lieutenant, prior to being captured near Petersburg on June 17, 1864. Jones was transferred from Fort Delaware, to Hilton head, to Fort Pulaski. Yes, he was a part of the Immortal 600. Jones survived the war and was paroled on June 16, 1865. Jones, in his Oath of Allegiance signed at Fort Delaware, is described as having a "Ruddy" complexion, with brown hair and hazel eyes. (You can read more of William T. Jones' story here.)
|William T. Jones (findagrave)|
Many will say that since three of the seven cases presented here were cases of "light skinned" free men of color, they somehow slipped by the notice of Confederate authorities. But at the same time, the men in the ranks had no problem serving with, and in the case of Jones, under the authority of, these men. The census taker knew they were free men of color. Mark Holesclaw knew Franklin and William Henry Cousins were not white when he wrote Governor Ellis. Jonathan Horton, who became the first captain of Company B, 37th NC Troops, lived just a couple of doors down from Franklin Cousins. He knew they were not white.
These seven are just a few of probably hundreds (I know of four others off hand, not mentioned here). The four I mentioned from Watauga County (there was a fifth free man of color that served in the 11th Battalion North Carolina Home Guard), all came from a free people of color population of just 32. How many more served from Moore County, with a free people of color population of 184? I think if more people were willing to dig deeply into the makeup of counties and regiments, then we could get a better understanding of how racially integrated the Confederate army was. Instead, most of us take one of two easy routes at either end of the spectrum: there were 10,000s of black Confederate soldiers, or there were no black Confederate soldiers. I disagree with both extremes, as history, like people, is usually shaded with a variety of nuances.