Entangled in Nonsense, Fantasy, and Really Bad History
Here is another selection from Ann DeWitt’s and Kevin Week’sEntangled in Freedom, which tells the story of a black Confederate soldier by the name of Isaac. In this scene Isaac and his master, Abraham Green, have just arrived at the camp of the 42nd Regiment Georgia Volunteers. The soldiers in camp are surprised to see a black man, but decide to make him their chaplain after they learn that Isaac has memorized the Bible. But wait, it gets better. This scene takes place as an officer in the 42nd explains to the men why Isaac and Abraham have both been given permission to stay in the officer’s quarters.
“You are putting me in a very strange predicament,” said Sergeant Major Hart. Facing the crowd Sergeant Major Hart said, “Soldiers, let me introduce to you Sergeant Major Abraham Green and Chaplain Isaac who hail from Oxford, Georgia. Because we are tight on space here at this training camp, I have invited both to stay in the officer’s quarters.”
“Permission to speak Sergeant Major,” said a First Sergeant at the front of the crowd.” I am First Sergeant Russell. This is the war of the Confederate States of America. Only one-tenth of the people in the state own slaves…and for the most part that’s the planters. As for the men in my tent, we don’t own any slaves. Have you read the latest Harper’s Weekly newspaper?” he asked pulling out a torn sheet.
“What does an article have to do with where Sergeant Major Green and Isaac sleep?”
“Let me read to you an article from Harper’s Weekly newspaper.” Lifting the newspaper clipping and shouting to the top of his authoritative voice for the seventy-six men of the 42nd Regiment Georgia Volunteers Company E to hear, he said, “The correspondent of the New York Herald, in one of its latest numbers, reports that the rebels had a regiment of mounted black men armed with sabers at Manassas, and that some five hundred Union prisoners taken at Bull Run were escorted to their filthy prison by a regiment of black men.”
The 42nd Regiment Georgia Volunteers Company E cheered. Master Green winked at me and smiled. Sergeant Major Hart asked, “What’s your point?
First Sergeant Russell said, “If these black rebels can fight for the honor of the Confederacy, I don’t see why our chaplain can’t be living amongst the soldiers. After the prayer, we in Company E took a vote, we want Chaplain Isaac to be assigned to our company and be assigned to my tent.”
Listening to this news was baffling to me. Learning from the First Sergeant, I asked, “Permission to speak, sir.” Yes, Chaplain Isaac.” Did I just hear that there are black rebels riding horses for the Confederacy?”
“Well, Harper’s Weekly states that the New York Herald newspaper gave that report.”
“Did I also hear that a regiment of black rebels took 500 Union soldiers to a Confederate prison?
“I am with you, Chaplain Isaac. I heard the same thing.”
Master Green said, “This can’t be true. Jeff Davis has not given the order for black soldiers to fight in the Confederacy.”
Sergeant Major Hart said, “Sounds like your courthouse and other courthouses in the south are enlisting black rebels just the same. Look at this. The enlistment on this report just says Isaac Green. No one would ever know from this paper that Isaac is a black rebel.”
Master Green said, “I’ll be. I agreed for Isaac to be a chaplain because I didn’t think he could fight. Isaac is the best rider in Newton County. If you boys want to win this war, I suggest that Isaac be assigned to the mounted cavalry because we need skilled riders to travel the rugged terrains at Cumberland Gap.”
First Sergeant Russell added, “Yeah, but we can’t force Chaplain Isaac to fight because look at this.” The soldier pulled out another clipping from Harper’s Weekly. “This shows a picture of a Confederate captain pointing a gun and making two slaves load a cannon.”
Master Green said, “That’s propaganda. No one wants to believe that there are some areas in the south w[h]ere whites and blacks get along fine. I’m not saying it’s perfect for Isaac. I am saying that loyalty delivers a great prize.”
First Sergeant Russell said, “Regardless, in the 42nd Regiment, we have to work together, and every man has to want to fight in this battle. What do you say Chaplain Isaac?” (pp. 46-47)
Yes, a truly remarkable and disturbing excerpt. Notice that DeWitt and Weeks offer their own explanation as to how black men ended up as enlisted soldiers in the Confederate army. First, local courthouses were clearly formally enlisting them all over the South without any knowledge on the part of the Confederate government. More importantly, they can always point out that lack of any racial identification on the enlistment papers if asked to provide evidence for the presence of black soldiers.
It’s pretty clear to me after reading the first 50 pages of this book that DeWitt and Weeks are interested in using this story and their limited understanding of the broader history of this subject to foster reconciliation between the races. If it can be shown that the most divisive period in America’s racial past included a great deal of interracial cooperation than perhaps we can do so today. Reconciliation and understanding between the races is certainly a worthy goal, but you can’t get there by distorting the past and that is all they are doing in this book.