Black Confederates Everywhere

Paul Taylor has posted a link to a letter written by a slave who was present with the Army of Northern Virginia at Petersburg, which will be auctioned off by Christies.  Here is part of the letter:

…I am well and doing well. I am driving a wagon in a Georgia battalion of Artillery and have been principally engaged during the winter in hauling wood. I am very well satisfied–have a good and Comfortable house to stay in. I get rations just as the soldiers and draw the same they do. Give all at home my best love and tell them I am very anxious to hear from there. Tell them I dream about them frequently. I dream of Sarah oftener than any other. Offer my kindest wishes & feelings to Mistress and accept the same for yourself. Please write to me and give me all the news at home. Let me know if Massa John has been home since I left. I desire my Mother to receive the money from my corn crop. Again let me offer my best love to all. Am hoping to hear from you soon. I remain your Obt. Servant…" He sends his respects to "all his fellow servants" and closes by leaving his address: care of "Maj. John Lane, Sumter Arty. Battn. 3rd Corps. — February 18, 1865

Here is how Christies explains the importance of this find:

Here was the greatest irony of the war. The men who fought to keep the Federal government from interfering with their "peculiar institution" started offering emancipation to slaves who joined the depleted ranks of the dying Confederate army. The measures provoked screaming matches on the floors of Southern state legislatures as well as the Richmond Congress. Lee even thought black recruits should go into fighting units. His political masters could not go that far. Most black Confederates, like this one, served in rear echelon support roles, performing manual labor. Published in Barrow and Rosenburg, eds., Forgotten Confederates…Journal of Confederate History Series, 14: 35.

Did they even bother to read the letter or is the idea of loyal black Confederate soldiers so ingrained that even intelligent people ignore the importance of interpretation?  This individual states at one point that, "I get rations just as the soldiers and draw the same they do."  Perhaps I am mistaken but he is drawing a fairly sharp distinction between his own status and that of the soldiers; in other words, he does not identify himself as a soldier.  Unless the rest of the letter indicates otherwise there is no irony here.  There were thousands of black men present with the army at various times during the war and a few even made that final trek towards Appomattox Court House in April 1865.  The auctioneers description, however, fails to draw a distinction between the debate that took place within government and southern newspapers and the reality of black participation in the war.  It is of no help at all in understanding this document.   

This is a wonderful find that potentially has much to tell us about the activities of black men in the Confederate army.  At the same time there are plenty of questions that need to be answered before we conclude anything about the motivation (assuming his presence with the army was not forced, which it probably was) or status of this man. 

3 thoughts on “Black Confederates Everywhere

  1. Matt

    Great link, Ken. I find it interesting that the gentleman from the SCV initially believed these were high school students, but says that “run-of-the-mill vandals” wouldn’t know of Nat Turner’s Rebellion. From that, I can only assume that the “pro-South” curriculum he encountered in high school didn’t cover Nat Turner’s Rebellion. What a shame.

    Reply
  2. AnotherHistoryBlog

    Hey Kevin,

    I recently posted on Steve Eberhart, an ex-slave from Rome, Georgia, who in the 1910s and early 1920s was the “mascot” for the city’s Confederate veterans organization.

    http://anotherhistoryblog.blogspot.com/2007/11/steve-eberhart-see-darkey-old-time.html

    (If the link doesn’t work, I posted it on Nov. 9.)

    There’s no claim that Eberhart was (or claimed to be) a veteran himself, but it seems to me that this involves some of the same issues as Black Confederates. You’re more familiar with the literature than I am; has anyone written on African-American mascots?

    Reply

Join the Conversation