The Museum of the Confederacy’s Black Confederate Toy Soldier

Update: Check out the follow-up post on this issue over at Past in the Present]

[Hat-Tip to Greg Rowe]

Many of you are familiar with our friendly black Confederate toy soldier.  Brooks Simpson suggested that it would make a nice gift for me over at Civil Warriors a while back.  It’s easy to make too big a deal about a toy soldier, but I have to say that I am disappointed to see that it is being sold on the online gift shop at the Museum of the Confederacy.  I don’t know whether it is being sold at the museum itself, but I must assume so.  Let me point out that I have nothing but the highest respect for the staff at the museum.  It’s a Virginia treasure and their projects reflect the best in public history.  Most importantly, they do this with a limited budget and the suspicion of many who fail to distinguish between a museum for- as opposed to a museum about the Confederacy.

I know for a fact that the history represented by this toy soldier is not endorsed by the museum.  John Coski has authored a number of excellent essays on the subject that have appeared in North and South magazine and elsewhere.  It seems reasonable to ask that museum officials pull these items from their shelves.  Let’s take a stand on this insidious myth.

33 thoughts on “The Museum of the Confederacy’s Black Confederate Toy Soldier

    1. Kevin Levin Post author

      Hi Josephine,

      Was this comment written before or after church? The funny thing is that I know most of the people at the MOC and I highly doubt that they identify with you as part of THEIR BUSINESS.

      Reply
    2. Greg Rowe

      Miss Southern:

      Please, forgive me, but I wasn’t aware that any era of American history from any region of the country could be owned by any particular group — native or non-native to said region. Last time I checked, American history is the history of any and all who have lived in this country. All of us must accept both the good and the bad and, in so doing, at least be intellectually honest enough to accept both positive and negative criticisms of our interpretation of history. Mr. Levin does not base his comments on his particular region of origin, but on a careful study of the historical record. The fact that you or others do not accept this reflects poorly on your ability to argue effectively. In debate, “passion” is very different from “emotion.” One can thoughtfully engage in debate while remaining passionate about her point, but you seriously undercut your own credibility when you appeal to emotion to make it.

      Reply
    1. Kevin Levin Post author

      Unfortunately, I had to let my membership run out last year for financial reasons. I’ve taken groups of students to the museum in the past and I’ve done quite a bit of research there as well. Yes, Josephine is indeed the same woman. I normally wouldn’t allow her comment through, but this one is just precious.

      BTW, you can’t beat this weekend’s weather. Yesterday, my wife and I took a drive out by your way and had dinner in Staunton. The city looks great.

      Reply
        1. Kevin Levin Post author

          I posted this on the MOC’s Facebook page as well as to their Twitter profile. It will be interesting to see what, if anything, happens.

          Reply
  1. MississippiLawyer

    The toy COULD be representing those that tramped around Richmond in spring of 65…..

    eh, who am I kidding? lol

    not only bad history but bad craftsmanship as well. looks like our little friend is wearing an officers belt buckle.

    Reply
  2. Woodrowfan

    I heard this toy was recalled. it seems that every night they keep defecting to the section of the shelves with the Union toy soldiers….

    Reply
  3. Richard Williams

    Kevin:

    You write: “It seems reasonable to ask that museum officials pull these items from their shelves. Let’s take a stand on this insidious myth.”

    Why?

    I do not believe the evidence supports the notion presented by some that there were hundreds (or even tens) of thousands of armed blacks who fought for the Confederacy. But if there was only one, then there is nothing wrong with this toy soldier. Wouldn’t the better approach be for the MOC to offer books which represent whatever evidence there is on this subject and let the public and readers come to their own conclusion vs. being “told” what to believe or what they should or should not be allowed to purchase?

    Demanding the MOC (which I’ve been a member of for more years than I can recall), or any other enterprise, to begin removing items from their shelves is a slippery slope. Should they also stop selling anything that has the Confederate Battle Flag imprinted on it or the paperweight of Lee praying? What offends you, does not necessarily offend others and vice versa. Your comment seems more like a protest or activism than serious scholarship on the issue. Suppose they won’t remove it, what next, picketing?

    Reply
    1. Kevin Levin Post author

      Richard,

      Thanks for the question. Why? Because at this point the subject constitutes little more than unconnected strands that lack any kind of serious analysis. The evidence doesn’t even support that there were 50 enlisted black Confederate soldiers. I agree that the better approach is for the MOC to offer the best scholarship on this and related topics. Unfortunately, most of the printed material currently available lacks scholarly rigor. Don’t misunderstand me, I am not suggesting that people should not be allowed to purchase this toy soldier, just that it compromises the integrity of the museum given their commitment to presenting the public with programs and exhibits that reflect the best in scholarly research.

      Finally, you’ve brought up the issue of membership twice now, but I fail to see what it has to do with this issue. The two of us have contributed financially to the MOC, but I have no problem if people speak out who have never contributed to the museum.

      Reply
    2. Dick Stanley

      Isn’t it clear by now that Kevin is a Liberal and don’t Liberals spend their lives telling other people what to do? And, especially, trying to legislate their views of right and wrong? “The best in scholarly research” means research that Kevin agrees with. He is the original quasi-academic with an agenda.

      Reply
      1. Kevin Levin Post author

        Dick,

        I’m sorry this post made you feel so insecure. Comments such as this are usually the clearest indication that you have absolutely nothing of interest to say, but that you still feel the need to be the center of attention.

        That’s right, it’s because I am a liberal and feel a need to tell people what to do. That’s exactly it. Fascinating diagnosis.

        Reply
  4. Richard Williams

    “50 enlisted black Confederate soldiers”

    Armed? We don’t know for sure. But there were some. Two separate issues.

    “it compromises the integrity of the museum given their commitment to presenting the public with programs and exhibits that reflect the best in scholarly research.”

    It’s a toy soldier Kevin. Scholarly research is best represented in published books, not figurines.

    I have no problem with others speaking out either, but the voices of those who financially support an organization should be given special consideration. Nothing unusual about that.

    Again, if there was one armed Black Confederate, there is nothing wrong with this piece. It makes it all the more intriguing and interesting. There are ample offerings on this issue which present diverse opinions. You’ve mentioned a few in your resources offering. That’s the way to handle this, not a demand to remove items from shelves. That is activism, in my opinion, but not debate nor scholarship.

    BTW, are you aware of any biographies of Blacks who served in the Confederacy? I recently stumbled across one. I’ll discuss at some future point. I’m interested in seeing what, if anything, the individual has to say about his experience.

    Reply
    1. Kevin Levin Post author

      Richard,

      We obviously have two different views on what the toy soldier represents. I can’t say anything more than what I’ve already written about this subject on this site. To me it’s more than a toy soldier. It’s a reflection of the growing popularity of this myth within certain circles and I simply do not believe that it serves the museum’s interests to sell it. If this is “activism” than so be it. That is the point of the post. I am not making demands on the MOC. That would be silly.

      I look forward to your post on the black individual who spent time in the Confederate army. I must assume for now that he was not an enlisted soldier. Please include references to the original sources so I can follow up if necessary. This will be incredibly helpful to me as I begin to collect source material for my book project on the subject. Thanks again for the comment.

      Reply
      1. Richard Williams

        Yes, we do have different views. I’ll post as much info as I can on the individual. It’s not an autobiography, so I don’t know how much, if anything, will be mentioned about his time in the Confederate Army. It is, however, the only biography of which I’m aware that was written specifically about a black man who had this experience. I would have to believe there are others. I may have even come across them before, I just can’t recall at the moment. I thought maybe you were aware or perhaps some of your readers might know of some.

        I have been in contact w/another individual whose grandfather was a slave and served in the Confederate army. He has notes written by his mother which she claims to have dictated from conversations with her father on his experience. I’ve been promised a look, but thus far have been unsuccessful in obtaining copies.

        Thanks for allowing me to comment.

        Reply
        1. Kevin Levin Post author

          Feel free to chime in whenever you have the urge. I appreciate your perspective on things. Please do keep us updated re: this biography. Like I said, I am interested in any sources that help to flesh out the experiences of blacks, who found themselves laboring in or for the Confederate army. From what I can tell, first-hand accounts are pretty rare.

          This weather is incredible.

          Reply
  5. Jeff

    Kevin,
    This seems to have been touched on in previous responses but I’m still little confused. I’m not very familiar with this part of history beyond what I have read on this blog, but I know that near the end of the war and against the wishes of the slave owning population, black soldiers were recruited as soldiers for the confederate army. Unless I’m completely mistaken, even you have said so in earlier posts. If that is the case, what is the problem with this toy, short of the inaccuracies in his uniform and rank pointed out earlier?

    Reply
    1. Kevin Levin Post author

      Hi Jeff,

      Now that is an excellent question. You are correct in pointing out that at the very end of the war (the final few weeks, in fact) a few slaves were recruited for service in the Confederate army. So yes, there were a very, very, small handful of men who briefly trained in Richmond and even marched with Lee’s army toward Appomattox. The debate between the federal government and slaveholders is a crucial part of this story as well since they resisted every step of the wary in defense of their property rights and what they perceived as an oppressive government. I recommend that you read Bruce Levine’s _Confederate Emancipation_ and I know for a fact that you have access to it where you work. :D

      This stands in sharp contrast with what you will find on the Internet and in a small number of printed sources written by individuals who are not qualified to write on the subject. There work has distorted the subject and even the kinds of questions that need to be addressed to even begin to better understand the way the war transformed the master-slave relationship and race relations generally. What it comes down to is that the toy soldier reflects this misinformation rather than the more accurate outline that you referenced in your comment. In my view, the toy soldier feeds into this distorted picture and presents the visitor with an inaccurate view of what the war was about. In other words, I fear that people will see this and misinterpret it or even use it to justify some of the more outlandish interpretations currently available online and elsewhere.

      I hope this answers your question.

      Reply
  6. Rob

    We lead a great life when we can spend time debating over a toy…lol Is this really noteworthy? If ONE African American fought for the CSA in a uniform, then its relevant…but the toy is not even historically accurate with its accouterments and such…so why are we nit picking? Lets move on to something more relevant or meaningful

    Reply
    1. Kevin Levin Post author

      Hi Rob,

      It’s noteworthy enough for me to post this, but I agree that in the grand scheme of things it doesn’t matter much. The point is that we wouldn’t be talking about a black Confederate toy soldier if the general consensus was that there was only one. The popular belief is that there were thousands, which contradicts all of the available evidence and basic understanding of what white Confederates were fighting to protect. That is why I would like to see the museum take these items off their online and store shelves. This is not such a big deal. The museum can ignore this if they so choose and life goes on.

      Reply
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  8. History Major

    Hi Everyone,
    I know this conversation seems to have been closed months ago but I have now been the MOC twice in the last two months for class and the figurine is still there. I am not sure if many of you have children but recently there has been a huge issue with the new Williamsburg public school fourth grade history textbook. The textbook asserted that hundreds of thousands of African Americans fought on the side of the Confederacy during the Civil War. This statement is completely disproportionate to any number acknowledged by Civil War Scholars.
    Luckily a Civil War Historian from the College of William and Mary spotted the gross mis-statement in her daughters textbook and brought it to the attention of the school board. It turns out the writer of the textbook mistakenly quoted information from the website for the Sons of Confederate Veterans.
    I saw the figurine just days after I learned about the textbook and it was very upsetting. It is not that that the fact that the infantry figurine was African American that is offensive; it is the fact that there was no White infantry figurine beside it. There was not a substantial percentage of the confederate infantry that was African American meaning there is not enough evidence to represent the ENTIRE confederate infantry as African American.
    When you hand this to a child they do not understand this. Just as they will not understand when their teachers now have to tell them their textbook is wrong and to just not read that sentence.
    So yes, one figurine is not the end of the world. However when slips like this keep happening we need to become concerned that one day soon our children will grow up with a warped sense of history.
    I have the utmost respect for the MOC and feel they present an honest and fact driven portrayal of the history of the Confederacy and its continuing affects.

    Reply
    1. Kevin Levin Post author

      If you take the time to browse the site you will notice that I’ve commented extensively on the textbook controversy.

      Reply
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