I have enjoyed following the debate over at Richard Williams’s blog re: my handling of Earl Ijames’s research. Much of the give and take relates to my decision to publicly request Ijames’s presentation as well as my decision to Cc: the director at the North Carolina Office of Archives and History. I’m still not sure why the gang over there is making such a big deal of this given that there is nothing offensive about the letter. It simply requests the materials in question and nothing more. What I do find funny is that no one seems to have anything to say about Ijames’s response, which he decided to Cc. to that same director. Anyway, I will leave this to the vultures to sort out. I want to move on to something that I find much more interesting and that actually relates to history.
In a number of places Mr. Williams suggests that slaves in the Confederate army ought to be acknowledged as soldiers. Here are a few quotes to consider:
And, as I’ve pointed out before, it is disingenuous to suggest that these men should not be honored for their service – as soldiers – simply because they may have been forced to serve – in whatever capacity. An analogy I’ve used before: During the Vietnam war, many who opposed it were drafted. Many no doubt would have fled to Canada or simply refused to go had it not been for the influence and pressure of family, society and the legal ramifications of refusing service. So they went with no emotional or intellectual support of their own for “the cause.” However, many of these same men, once on the field, bonded with their comrades and were exposed to the same dangers as those who volunteered. They served honorably. Should their service be discounted because they were drafted? I think the answer is clear.
I’ve not delved into Mr. Ijames’s specific research either. I do agree with Ijames’s contention, however, that blacks – whether slave or free – should have their service in the Confederate Army honored where appropriate and that there is nothing improper referring to these men as “soldiers.”
In the recent post about Nelson Winbush’s grandfather, I said, “Private Nelson was a slave.” I do not believe the term “soldier” and “slave” are mutually exclusive.
Mr. Williams arrives at this conclusion via analogy with soldiers in the Vietnam War. The basic problem with his claim is to confuse two distinct meanings of “forced to serve.” Americans who are drafted to go to war ought to be understood as a function of their legal standing as a citizen. As citizens we are obligated to register for the draft and under certain circumstances may be forced to honor that obligation. Again, the salient point is that draftees are citizens. It is our status as free men which places us in this relationship to the government. In contrast, slaves were not citizens of the United States or the Confederacy. That this distinction even needs to be acknowledged is troubling. In short, the analogy does not work. Finally, it should be pointed out that USCTs were not citizens at the time of their service in the army, but it also must be remembered that they were not drafted either. Many of them expressed the hope that their service would eventually lead to the rights of full citizenship. That, of course, is another sad chapter in our history.
I am closer with Mr. Williams on the issue of honoring and commemorating those free and enslaved blacks who were present with the Confederate army. If it can be demonstrated that a black man (regardless of status) enlisted or was drafted as a soldier than he should be honored as such. I have never said otherwise. That said, as historians distinctions should matter. As I make my way through the letters of Capt. Winsmith from South Carolina (which I am editing for publication) I can’t help but be impressed with his commentary on his “servant” who accompanied him to camp. Winsmith writes glowingly about this man as well as his various activities in camp and on the march. This man actually procured a uniform by performing functions for other officers. I have no doubt that this slave endured many of the same hardships along with the rest of the army and I have little doubt that he bonded with his master and others as well, even though I don’t have access to one word from this individual. He eventually escaped to the Union navy off the coast of South Carolina in the summer of 1862. That said, there is nothing that indicates that his owner or anyone else for that matter viewed this man as anything other than a slave. Nothing about his relationship with his master or his experience changed his legal status.
These distinctions matter because as historians we are trying to better understand how the war affected the master-slave relationship and race relations generally. As historians we should do our best, with the limited evidence available, to understand how the realities of war brought whites and blacks in the army closer together on occasion and further apart at other times. However, in order to do so we must be sensitive to the distinction between soldier, slave, conscript and other designations.
It goes without saying that if we were to accept Mr. Williams’s analysis we would have a number of fundamental questions to grapple with.
- What exactly was the Confederate government referring to when it explicitly denied slaves and free blacks the right to serve in the army?
- How are we to understand the debate during the war over whether to arm slaves as soldiers?
- What exactly was the Confederate government doing when it finally authorized the enlistment of a limited number of slaves as soldiers in the final weeks of the war in 1865?
In other words, how did the Confederate government as well as the rest of the white South define a soldier during the war? How would they respond to Mr. Williams’s analysis?