There is something very disturbing and sad about the way stories of black Confederates are reported in the news. I suspect that much of it has to do with the fact that those reporting these stories have very little understanding of the history behind their subject. This seems to be the case in this story reported by the St. Petersburg Times about Nelson Winbush’s memories of his “black Confederate” grandfather. We read about how unusual it is for a black American to adhere to a narrative that is usually associated with white Southerners and are asked to suspend disbelief and acknowledge the bravery of a man who subscribes to “a different version than mainstream America.” Why not, after all here we have a decent man who wants nothing more than to acknowledge his family history and a grandfather who apparently had a profound impact on Winbush’s life.
The problem is that by hovering at the surface of this personal attachment we fail to consider the ways in which Winbush’s identification with the past has been shaped by the past itself. In other words, we fail to acknowledge the ways in which the story of black Confederates was used to distance the Confederate experience from race and slavery. Consider Winbush’s own evidence, which includes possession of his grandfather’s pension papers and obituary from 1934 along with personal stories handed down through the family. Never far from the personal is the standard interpretation of the causes of the “War Between the States”:
Winbush believes the South seceded because the federal government taxed it disproportionately. It was a matter of states’ rights, not slavery, which was going extinct as the United States became more industrialized, he says. He denies that President Lincoln freed the slaves, explaining that the Emancipation Proclamation affected only the Confederate states, which were no longer under his authority.
“It was an exercise in rhetoric, that’s all,” Winbush says.
And what about those family stories?
Slowly, in his deep, rough voice, Winbush tells the story of a young slave from a Tennessee plantation named Louis Napoleon Nelson, who went to war with the sons of his master. “They grew up together,” Winbush says. At first his grandfather cooked and looked out for the others, but later he saw action, fighting with a rifle under the command of Confederate General Nathan Bedford Forrest, a slave trader and plantation owner.
At Shiloh, a two-day battle in 1862 in which more than 23,000 American men were killed or wounded, the Confederate Army needed a chaplain. Louis Nelson couldn’t read or write, but he had memorized the King James Bible. He stayed on as chaplain for the next four campaigns, leading services for both Confederate and Union soldiers, before they headed back to the battlefield. He also foraged for food. One time, he killed a mule, cut out a quarter and hauled it back to his comrades. “When you don’t have anything else, mule meat tastes pretty good,” he would tell his grandson.
Some topics even the loquacious grandfather considered off limits. He wouldn’t talk about the Union siege of Vicksburg, a bloody battle that captured an important Mississippi River port and effectively split the South. Nearly 20,000 people died. After the war, he lived as a free man on the James Oldham plantation for 12 more years. Then he became a plasterer, traveling the South to work on houses. Over the years, he went to 39 Confederate reunions, wearing a woolly gray uniform that Winbush still has.In photos, he stands next to two white men who accompanied him to soldiers’ reunions until they were old men. Through the sepia gleams a dignity earned on the battlefield. “When he came back, that was storytelling time,” Winbush says. His grandfather died in 1934. The local paper ran an obituary that called him a “darky.” Winbush is proud that his grandfather’s death was marked at all.
There is a fascinating story in all of this; unfortunately, Winbush doesn’t have a sophisticated enough background to understand it. The story of his grandfather is a story shaped by white Americans, which evolved as a means to satisfy both political and racial agendas. Does Winbush know to ask whether his grandfather was brandishing that rifle with Forrest at Fort Pillow? What does Winbush envision when he mentions that his grandfather “went to war” with the son of his owner?
There is a very interesting article in today’s New York Times about Japanese history textbooks which fail to acknowledge that “Okinawans had been coerced by Imperial troops into committing mass suicide” during the invasion of the island by Americans during WWII. The protests by tens of thousands of people point to the importance of telling the truth about the past even if it brings the most painful of memories to the surface in both the family and nation. With the story of Nelson Winbush and his grandfather we can see first-hand what happens when that advice is ignored.