You Interpret

[Hat-Tip to Vicki Betts]

Vicki was kind enough to send along these two brief newspaper notices.  I’ve seen plenty of these references in the course of my research – just about every one is from early on in the war.  Here is your chance to be a historian.  What do you make of these brief references to the black community and their willingness to serve the Confederate cause?  What questions do we need to answer about these specific sources and what are the possible interpretations that can be introduced?

MEMPHIS DAILY APPEAL [MEMPHIS, TN], August 18, 1861, p. 2, c. 2
The Fort Smith Times of the 10th, states that two companies of southern blackmen have been formed in the neighborhood.  They are thorough southern men, not armed but are drilling to take the field, and say that they are determined to fight for their masters and their homes.

[LITTLE ROCK] ARKANSAS TRUE DEMOCRAT, September 19, 1861, p. 1, c. 7
Darkies Shooting Abolitionists.—The war has dispelled one delusion of the abolitionists.  The negroes regard them as enemies instead of friends.  No insurrection has occurred in the South—no important stampede of slaves has evinced their desire for freedom.  On the contrary, they have jeered at and insulted our troops, have readily enlisted in the rebel army, and on Sunday, at Manassas, shot down our men with as much alacrity as if abolition had never existed.  These are creatures for whose sake Lovejoy, Chandler and Pomeroy are agitating the nation, and to whom they would unconstitutionally extend the privilege of freemen and equality.—Northern Exchange.

MEMPHIS DAILY APPEAL [ATLANTA, GA], December 11, 1863, p. 1, c. 8
Old Dick.–We learn, from the Danville Appeal, that the old negro man Dick Slate, well known as the drummer of the 18th Virginia regiment, was sold on last Friday for $750.  He was purchased by the corporation of Danville.  Dick entered the army at the beginning of the war, and served about two years, in which time he gained considerably notoriety, both as a drummer and a fighter.  He was favorably mentioned by Russell, the correspondent of the London Times, for his fighting qualities.

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10 comments… add one

  • Jonathan Dresner Feb 25, 2011

    My first reaction is that “abolitionists” isn’t actually a good description for Union forces at this point. My second is that these are both second-hand accounts: do the first-hand accounts they reference still exist?

  • Arleigh Birchler Feb 25, 2011

    Early in the war there were a lot of short news items like that in both the northern and the southern press. Having seen what newspapers have written about me, I seldom give them much credence. These short snippets prove nothing, one way or the other, about how Southern African Americans thought about the conflict between the North and the South. In fact, any blanket about how they may or may not have felt is obviously false. They were individual. There were differences of opinion.

  • Andy Hall Feb 25, 2011

    I’ve seen a similar item in a local paper. That one, like these appear to be, reprints an item from another paper, which puts it at least 2-3 steps removed from whatever the original source is. That one, like these, is exceedingly sparse on details (unit designation, commanding officers’ names, etc.) that make them difficult or impossible to corroborate. They’re very much like the vague and anonymous items that appear in Union reports in the Official Records — intriguing, but mostly lacking detail that can be corroborated and verified.

    Note also that the second item above, from the Arkansas True Democrat, is a reprint of an item from a Northern newspaper (“they have jeered at and insulted our troops, have readily enlisted in the rebel army, and. . . shot down our men with as much alacrity as if abolition had never existed”), so the same caveats apply to that one as with the OR material.

    • Marc Ferguson Feb 25, 2011

      Yes, there were a number of reports in Northern newspapers like this reflecting anxieties about the use of slaves against Union troops, and no doubt some Northern papers enjoyed the opportunity to mock abolitionist antislavery attitudes. There are Southern newspaper accounts of these rumors in the Northern press that mock such reports and deny any use of slaves as soldiers. I think Bruce Levine has documented these reports. As for the Memphis Daily Appeal story, it is notable that this is clearly referring to slaves, unarmed, expressing an eagerness to fight for their masters.

    • Arleigh Birchler Feb 25, 2011

      Yes Andy, I noticed that odd language in a Little Rock newspaper. Arkansas was pretty well split between Secessionists and Unionists, but Little Rock would be in the Southern Camp.

      It appears to me that it was common practice in those days for newspapers to reprint articles with little or no change from other newspapers. I was trying to track down the story of a Wisconsin woman who served with the Union Army through the entire war. A friend found an article in a Wisconsin newspaper, but like the one above, it was obviously written in New York. In time I tracked down the original article from a New York Newspaper.

      It appears that the original article was the basis for every report about her since. There is a member of a Wisconsin Regiment that fits all the facts for her boyfriend with very little differences. But I was never able to find any official records about her. Several books about women who served in War Between the States armies use her as an example. DeAnne Blanton wisely made no mention of her.

  • Marc Ferguson Feb 25, 2011

    There are many things to be said about, and asked of, these articles, but my first observation is that they fit all of the proslavery paternalist cliches and certainly must have provided some reassurance to an undoubtedly nervous white population of the loyalty of the slaves to their masters.

  • Andy Hall Feb 25, 2011

    There are several pages of compiled records for Dick Slate with the 18th Virginia Infantry at Footnote, designating him simply as “drummer,” no rank given. He’s listed on “Field and Staff” rolls, with no specifics on formal enlistment or discharge.

    Men like like Dick Slate really seem to be betwixt-and-between in terms of their military status. Bill Yopp, for example, is now remembered (as designated on his headstone) as a drummer, although Bell Irvin Wiley, who actually met him, is very explicit that he was a body servant. Presumably he actually served both roles.

    • Margaret D. Blough Feb 25, 2011

      On the other hand, I find it interesting that, regardless of military status, Dick Slate could be and was sold during the war.

      • Andy Hall Feb 25, 2011

        There was special measure during the war where the CS Congress authorized pay for slaves employed as musicians. This was, I suspect, a belated recognition that men were bringing their slaves along with them and employing them as musicians (e.g., Captain Thomas Yopp and Bill Yopp). Not clear to me that this pay went directly to the slave; as in other cases it may have gone to the master, who may or may not have passed it along.

        Without clear documentation of formal enlistment or discharge, I wonder what official status Dick Slate actually had within his regiment, or if he was only carried on the rolls as a drummer at his master’s pleasure — which would be an entirely different sort of status than a soldier who was enlisted for a specific term — one year, three years, for the duration, which could not be broken without a formal process and review.

        Quite a few of the men now identified as BCS were musicians — Bill Yopp, Henry Brown, Dick Slate — so the actual, official status of these men within the army is relevant to the discussion. Generally speaking, the laws passed by the CS Congress differentiate between non-commissioned officers, privates and musicians — implicitly identifying the latter as distinct and separate from the first two — but (for me at least) it remains a very confusing story that bears further digging.

      • Jacob Dinkelaker Feb 25, 2011

        This might be the most interpretive comment in this thread. The very fact that a slave fighting for “his country” was sold during that country’s fight for independence is a major contradiction. It recalls the horrors of slavery and the causes of the Civil War in a powerful and personal vignette. Chilling.

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