How Black Southerners May Have Helped Create the Image of “Black Confederates”
Every so often I receive an email from a reader who has finished going through one of my more popular posts on Black Confederates. Responses take a specific form and usually involve an individual account or two to demonstrate the presence of blacks in Confederate ranks. Often the messages include images of old black men in Confederate uniform. The stories are typically from the postwar period and almost always fail to include any references. I suspect that just about every email received has been written by a white person, which is interesting to me on on a certain level.
Regardless of the story’s content there is never any attempt to try to explain or question why it was written other than as a clear attempt on the part of the author to demonstrate loyalty. I never respond to these emails in large part because there are only so many hours in the day; it would be more accurate to say that the authors of these emails are probably not really interested in what I have to say anyway. I’ve said before and it is worth repeating that in the context of the debate over so-called black Confederates the biggest problem is the lack of any serious historical scholarship on the subject. Most of the people who argue or debate these issues have little ability in interpreting historical sources. This is especially the case when handling postwar sources. Stories or images that seem to point to the presence of blacks in Confederate ranks are taken as sufficient proof in individual cases. As many of you know these same people debate the numbers; some say a few hundred and some even go beyond 50,000.
It would be one thing if simple service in the ranks was the goal of those who push this silly line of argument, but that would be incomplete without the interpretive push of demonstrating that service somehow meant loyalty or allegiance to the Confederate cause. The real goal is to distance the Confederate experience from slavery and race, which was in fact part of the agenda of the Lost Cause movement by the turn of the century.
The problem is that black Southerners understood this all too well, and in the same way that they manipulated slaveowners during the antebellum period to advance their interests (ala Genovese) they did so late in the century as a way to maintain or preserve the last vestiges of civil rights and other freedoms gained during Reconstruction. The image of the loyal slave and/or black Confederate may have been used by black Southerners as a survival tool as states like Virginia revised their constitutions and began passing Jim Crow laws, which would eventually disfranchise the largest percentages of black Southerners. One of the best examples of this can be seen in the career of Giles B. Jackson, a black attorney who lived in Richmond, Virginia.
Giles B. Jackson was born a slave in Goochland County in 1853 and moved to Richmond after the war. Following the war Jackson worked as a servant for John Stewart of Brook Hill who was the father-in-law of Joseph Bryan, the editor of the Richmond Dispatch. Stewart’s wife taught Jackson to read, which eventually led to a position in a white law firm, probably as a clerk or servant. William H. Beveridge, who was a supporter of William Mahone and the Readjusters, recognized his abilities and took Jackson on as a student; this led to his admittance to the Richmond bar in 1887. Jackson proved to be a talented and successful lawyer whose connections were extensive in the Richmond area. He served as an attorney for the True Reformers and organized the Negro Exhibit at the 1807 Jamestown Exhibit.
Jackson’s private papers and public speeches reflect a keen awareness of how to gain favor with powerful white Richmonders at a time when blacks were losing the political ground gained during the Readjuster years. Stories that highlighted black loyalty to the Confederacy and peaceful race relations were Jackson’s way of resisting this change for as long as possible. Jackson’s account of the origin of Jackson Ward in Richmond is a perfect example: According to Jackson, Ulysses S. Grant was so pleased to find a “white folks’ nigger” (as he described himself) that the famous Union general named the ward for him. He also told of being Fitzhugh Lee’s body servant during the Civil War and of tending Robert E. Lee’s horse. Given his age during the war this is very unlikely. Other prominent black Richmonders such as John Mitchell Jr. thought they understood why Jackson told these stories. Mitchell and others, however, refused to play this game and instead took a stronger stance against the political changes taking place within the Commonwealth by the early twentieth century.
We need to understand how these stories functioned at the turn of the century. Were they straightforward attempts on the part of black Southerners to link themselves to the memory of the Confederacy – a cause that they themselves served with pride? Perhaps they were or perhaps we need to take one step back and try to understand these accounts within the changing political and racial boundaries that shaped the postwar South.
One final comment. The challenge for those who claim such strong support for the Confederacy from black Southerners is to demonstrate why black Americans have become so alienated from our Civil War culture today. Individuals like H.K. Edgerton parading through the South with a Confederate flag doesn’t tell us much of anything. Again, most of these stories about so-called black Confederates are told by whites and this needs to be explained. I have suggested that these stories probably tell us more about the steps that black Americans took throughout the postwar period to preserve the freedoms gained as a result of the Civil War in a society that increasingly came to be defined once again around a white racial hierarchy.