Ervin Jordan’s Black Confederates

Ervin L. Jordan, Jr.

Spend enough time in the confusion that is the black Confederate debate and you will come across a short list of talking points.  One of the most popular references is to Ervin L. Jordan’s Black Confederates and Afro-Yankees in Civil War Virginia, which was published by the University Press of Virginia back in 1995.  It’s one of the very few books on the subject published by an academic press and proponents of this narrative love to cite it.  Unfortunately, as far as I can tell the overwhelming majority of people who cite it provide no evidence that they’ve actually read it.  They simply cite his name and position in Special Collections at UVA, along with one of his claims that historians have engaged in censorship of some kind, as if this constitutes an argument.

I suspect that if certain people actually took the time to read it they would not so quickly reference it to buttress some of the wilder claims about the supposed military service of thousands of free and enslaved blacks in the Confederate army.  Out of 300 pages of text Jordan devotes close to 185 on antebellum slavery in Virginia.  His deep research is supported by a command of the relevant secondary sources, but this section of the book does not introduce much of anything that is new to historians.  In Part 2 Jordan moves to the war, but even in this section very little is devoted to actual soldiering by blacks; rather, he focuses on the various ways that these men found themselves with the army.  There is a chapter on body servants, the precarious position of property-owning free blacks, as well as a chapter on black Union soldiers from Virginia.  Go through this section and you will find very few actual claims about the service of black enlisted soldiers.  What I find most interesting about this book is Jordan’s attempt to carefully delineate the ways they identified with Virginia and the Confederate war effort.  There is much more ambiguity in his analysis than most proponents of this narrative grant and, again, I suspect it is because they have not read the book.  We certainly need to leave room for the notion of black fidelity and loyalty to the Confederate cause, but we must move beyond the self-serving definitions that most Lost Cause adherents apply.

At times, however, I do think that Jordan’s handling of evidence and his analysis of that evidence is questionable.  Rather than look at his book to make my point I want to spend a few minutes with a short essay that Jordan wrote for Richard Rollins’s edited collection, Black Southerners in Gray: Essays on Afro-Americans in Confederate Armies, which was published by Rank and File in 1994.  It is very clear that none of the essays went through any kind of peer review and this seriously diminishes the value of the book.  Jordan offers a short version of some of the claims found in the larger study that is titled, “Different Drummers: Black Virginians As Confederate Loyalists” (pp. 57-74).

In the essay Jordan attempts to scope out the limits of “Afro-Virginian patriotism”:

Black Confederate patriotism took many forms: slaves devoted to their owners, free blacks who donated money and labor, blacks who joined the Confederate army and slaves who loyally supervised plantations of absentee-owners.

What is interesting is that Jordan fails to include one example of an actual soldier.  He certainly has collected a great deal of evidence pointing to the myriad ways in which blacks contributed to the Confederate war effort, but more often than not I am left scratching my head when it comes to the analysis of specific sources.  Here are a few examples:

  • James T. Ayer, a black farmer in Suffolk, sold so much food to Southern quartermasters that Union officers accused him of being an employee of the Confederate commissary department. (p. 59)
  • There are numerous but forgotten examples of Afro-Virginian civilians who were Confederate patriots.  “Uncle Billy,” owned by Bedford County customs collector Micajah Davis, buried Davis’s official records during the Union raid in 1864 and proudly returned them to a surprised Davis after the war.  Lewis, a Mecklenburg County slave who served with the Boydton Cavalry as its bugler during antebellum times, was denied permission by the Confederate War Department to enlist when it became the 3rd Virginia Cavalry.  He donated his forty-dollar bugle plus an additional twenty dollars to the regiment. (p. 59)
  • A Winchester newspaper gleefully reported the outcome when Union raiders carried off nine slaves belonging to a local slaveowner.  In Maryland, the slaves were offered a choice of freedom or return to their owners; they unanimously stated a preference for the Old Dominion, their wives and children and claimed devotion to their masters. (p. 59)

None of these examples necessarily implies anything close to a patriotic outlook.  In the last example one wonders what freedom could possibly mean for these men without the presence of the rest of their families.

Included in his discussion of the cost of this patriotism to the Confederacy, Jordan presents the following two examples:

But some black Confederates paid a high price for their fealty.  A free black pastor in Hampton named Bailey, permitted to purchase his family’s freedom and two houses, took the Confederate side to protect both.  His fellow blacks considered it a sign of divine justice when his houses were destroyed by fire after Confederates burned the town in the summer of 1861.  Another black Baptist minister, grateful to whites for allowing him to purchase his beautiful daughter and save her from the sexual advances of licentious slaveowners, was so appreciative that he publicly offered the service of himself and his sons to the Old Dominion.  Enraged fellow Afro-Virginians rebuked him for this act and at first he tried to defend his actions with the excuse that he had done what he thought best for his race.  As his congregation dwindled to almost nothing, he became alarmed and desperately attempted to restore himself in their good graces by way of apologies but was ostracized by the black community. (p. 61)

Notice that in neither example are these individuals able to speak for themselves, but in the case of ascribing motive that is absolutely crucial.  I find the latter example to be incredibly interesting and I want to know more, not because it has anything to do with “fealty” but because it seems to tell us quite a bit about divisions within the free black community.  Based on Jordan’s analysis I have no idea as to why this minister made such a gesture.

There is an incredibly rich body of literature that explores patriotism and nationalism among white Confederates.  Here I am thinking of recent studies by Stephanie McCurry, Anne S. Rubin, Aaron Sheehan-Dean, Gary Gallagher, George Rable, and Emory Thomas.  The relevant conceptual analysis that this overwhelming amount of evidence demands is crucial if we are to better understand how white Southerners responded to the demands of war as well as how they viewed themselves in relation to their government.  I am with Jordan all the way in respect to the goal of being more receptive to both free and enslaved black Southerners as historical agents, who occupied a myriad of different spaces that included their own unique set of challenges.  I just don’t believe that Jordan gets us all the way there.

Stay tuned for Part 2.

About the author: Thank you for taking the time to read this post. What next? Scroll down and join the discussion in the comments section. Looking for more Civil War content? You can follow me on Twitter. Check out my latest book, Searching For Black Confederates: The Civil War’s Most Persistent Myth, which is the first book-length analysis of the black Confederate myth ever published. Order your copy today.

13 comments… add one
  • Lee Freeman Dec 14, 2019 @ 10:14

    Hello Mr., or is it, Professor Levin?

    I read your review and comments regarding Prof. Jordan’s book yesterday and would agree with many of them.
    That being said, as someone who has read the book, twice (as well as everything published on the subject I can find, which isn’t much, from James H. Brewer’s The Confederate Negro to HC Blackerby’s Blacks in Blue and Gray to CK Barrow and JH Segars’ Black Southerners in Confederate Armies—I just ordered your book), I think Jordan’s main point still stands, that there were some black Virginians who supported the Confederate war effort in various ways. As you say in your review, this idea isn’t all that controversial.

    I would also agree that many people who shout the loudest about the existence of black Confederates have read little or nothing and certainly have not done any research in primary sources. However in my opinion this goes for both sides of the argument, the defenders and the skeptics. Because the subject is so politically and racially charged in the present debates, non-biased objective academic research is scarce, and most of what has been written is over twenty years old now. Yet as I think you’d agree, simply because a historical subject makes us uncomfortable doesn’t mean we can sweep it under the rug and pretend it never happened. More research on pro-Southern black Virginians (and pro-Southern blacks in general) needs to be done.

    As author James H. Brewer wrote 50 years ago in his The Confederate Negro (. p. xv):

    “The legacy of the Negro, free and slave, in the War for Southern Independence has too often been ignored by the historian. Scholars have avoided the unsavory task of linking the Negro to the Confederate war effort, a cause generally interpreted as one designed to sustain his enslavement and degradation.”

    On p. 167 Brewer writes:

    “Negro commitment in the beleaguered Southland varied—for some it was with mingled feelings, for others it was sincere, and for many, it was necessity—but throughout, the war response of the Negro and his creditable performance are historically unique.

    “Caught in the web of an invidious stereotype—that he was irresponsible, childlike, and racially inferior—his lacerated historical image continues to remain repugnant. Yet, in assessing the Civil War scene, one finds no similarity between the stereotype and the facts disclosed by Civil War documents bearing on his vital responsibilities, craftsmanship, and economic demeanor.

    “Today, in a lonely unmarked grave, forgotten and unknown, lies the Confederate Negro—a casualty of history.”

    Also, it seems to me that a large part of the confusion hangs on upon how one defines “soldier.” If by that we mean only those men duly enlisted, armed, and wearing uniforms, then, no, there were not large numbers of “black Confederates” however if one broadens that definition to include musicians, body-servants, hospital orderlies, cooks, labor battalions, etc., then one may discover more pro-Southern blacks than one imagined. If these men don’t count as “soldiers” then do their white counterparts in both armies who filled the same kinds of support positions qualify as soldiers? For that matter, does the cook at an army barracks in Afghanistan who doesn’t do any actual fighting count as a soldier? Of course period accounts exist of individual blacks in Confederate armies wearing gray uniforms (and occasionally Union blue).

    Yet if one looks, one can still find the occasional free black enlisted man, such as Everett Hayes, a free black cook of Co H, 1st NC Artillery, CS (his service jacket records his race as “col’d”); Stewart Wiley, a free black who enlisted in Co H, Murray’s 4th TN Cav, CS; or Alexander, a black soldier (“Negro” is specifically written on his service record jacket) in Co. B, Wilkes’ Regiment, 2nd Texas Lancers, CS. That more men such as these haven’t been found may be due to the fact that no one was/is really looking for them, because the conventional wisdom says such men couldn’t and didn’t exist.

    “Period newspaper accounts during and after the war exist which report on pro-Southern black service, and the post-war Confederate Veteran magazine is full of them (a few articles and letters written by the men themselves). I’m still finding accounts in the CV; that these accounts were often used as Southern propaganda by the editors in my view doesn’t necessarily invalidate them, certainly not all of them. Then there is the photographic evidence of pro-Southern blacks at United Confederate Veterans (UCV) reunions. He Confederate Veteran magazine published many photos of these men at these reunions. In my own county we have four photos of three of Lauderdale County’s pro-Southern blacks (George W. Seawright, Reuben Patterson and Peter Stewart), at various UCV reunions, one of which shows all three at the August, 1921 annual UCV reunion held at Mars Hill in Lauderdale County. The men are seen standing and sitting next to their white comrades.

    Period newspaper accounts by Union soldiers reference all-black Southern companies and regiments from early in the war however I haven’t found any corroborating evidence for any of these yet.

    I’ve been researching this topic for over 20 years, and in my own Muscle Shoals Area (the counties of Colbert, Franklin [Colbert and Franklin were one county until 1867], and Lauderdale in NW Alabama) I have discovered 17 men who I would class as “pro-Southern blacks.” Eleven of these men, cooks and body-servants to whites, were from my own county of Lauderdale; of these eleven, five are documented as attending post-war United Confederate Veteran reunions. One of these men, Reuben Patterson (1836-1928), was body-servant to Morgan County, AL attorney and future TN state legislator Col. Josiah Patterson (1836-1906) of the 5th AL Cav, CS. From published material by both Reuben and the Colonel’s son, TN Governor Malcolm Patterson, Josiah and Reuben were more like brothers than mater and slave. Reuben served as the 5th AL’s company bugler, forager, and its unofficial “horse-swapper” (Union horse thief). Reuben was interviewed by Trotwood’s Monthly in May of 1906 and recounted many of his war-time exploits, during which interview he also noted that he was allowed to carry arms.

    Reuben Patterson’s wife Abbie’s 1925 obituary noted that Reuben was “perhaps the most unreconstructed ‘rebel’ in this section of the South.” Reuben attended over 25 UCV reunions after the war between 1898 and his death in 1928. Neither he nor any of the other pro-Southern blacks from Lauderdale as far as I know ever suffered any recriminations by other local blacks for their identification as black Confederate veterans, which is how white locals routinely referred to them.

    So from my twenty years of research, the existence of hundreds, possibly thousands of pro-Southern blacks is beyond real doubt. What can be questioned are the actual numbers (so far nobody really knows and I’ve seen wildly varying estimates of 15,000, 30,000, and even 300,000!) and their possible motivations for doing so. No doubt many served under compulsion; yet others served out of a loyalty to their masters and patriotism to their home state; still others, such as Mulatto free barber James Goin (1834-aft. 1890) of Lauderdale, were more pragmatic. Goin filed a disallowed petition with the Southern Claims Commission asking to be reimbursed for around $600 of goods and livestock confiscated by the Union Army during the war, claiming to be a loyal Unionist (who on one occasion in 1864 claimed to assist a female Union spy); however in his deposition Goin also admitted that in 1861 he voluntarily took a job as cook for the mess of Robert McFarland’s 4th AL Inf, CS. Goin was hired by Washington Foster as cook for $40 a month. When asked by the examiner whether his Confederate service was voluntary or not, Goin stated “Why, I went for the money. They paid me $40 a month. . . . I didn’t care which [side] whipped [the other] myself.”

    I apologize for the great length of my post. I look forward to reading your book.

    Lee.

    • Kevin Levin Dec 14, 2019 @ 13:28

      Hi Lee. You said:

      Also, it seems to me that a large part of the confusion hangs on upon how one defines “soldier.” If by that we mean only those men duly enlisted, armed, and wearing uniforms, then, no, there were not large numbers of “black Confederates” however if one broadens that definition to include musicians, body-servants, hospital orderlies, cooks, labor battalions, etc., then one may discover more pro-Southern blacks than one imagined.

      I think we should follow how real Confederates defined “soldier” between 1861 and 1865 because they were very clear. Musicians, cooks were not understood as soldiers. Remember, the Confederacy engaged in a very public debate about enlisting slaves as soldiers in 1864-65. Rather than respond to each point made in your comment I recommend reading my book. I address many of these issues.

      All the best.

      • Lee Freeman Dec 16, 2019 @ 8:28

        Mr. Levin, I agree, we need to define terms according to how the actual military did in the 1860s, nevertheless, it might also help to bear in mind that in war lines/roles often get blurred, especially in the heat of battle. I understand how the Confederate government and the military “officially” viewed the issue (for example, the CS Congress clinging to its ridiculous notion that blacks wouldn’t make good soldiers) however that doesn’t necessarily mean every white officer or enlisted man shared the government’s/military’s views and its official definitions.

        Thus it seems to me that in a very practical sense the official definitions are irrelevant and purely academic. Maybe what counts is, not how Richmond officially viewed these men, but how they and their white masters/comrades in the field viewed themselves before (and after) the war? My brother is a computer repairman yet he’s never officially been to school or taken any classes to get a degree in computer repair. He taught himself how to do it. Does the fact that he’s never been to school mean he’s not a real computer repairman? Similarly it seems to me that these black men didn’t have to be officially enlisted to duck bullets, serve as scouts, forage, etc.; after all, many white Southerners who served in CS armies were never officially enlisted. Yet no one seriously argues that these guys weren’t real soldiers. The venerable Frederick Douglass himself acknowledged in 1861 that there were already blacks in Confederate armies serving as bona fide soldiers.

        Whether or not these men were “officially” enlisted in the Confederate Army (many white men who served and are/were regarded as soldiers weren’t) isn’t as important as the fact that many of them were pro-Southern. I think the discussion may have been sidetracked by people’s obsession (on both sides of the debate) on whether large numbers of blacks were officially enlisted or not, when what intrigues me more than this, is pro-Southern black sentiment in general. I think Prof. Brewer’s quotation from the introduction to his book still holds 50 years later. Thus I’m glad to have discovered your book. I just received it this morning (I love Amazon Prime!) and am eager to start it. The sources definitely look impressive.

        Lee.

        • Kevin Levin Dec 16, 2019 @ 9:24

          …nevertheless, it might also help to bear in mind that in war lines/roles often get blurred, especially in the heat of battle.

          I include an entire chapter on slaves who, for one reason or another, ended up on the battlefield. I argue that Confederates were ambivalent about their presence. On the one hand it constituted evidence of “loyalty” but on the other hand their apparent bravery during battle threatened to collapse the crucial distinction between the races. The battlefield was understood as the field where white men demonstrated their bravery and honor.

          Again, it might be best if you read my book. Thanks.

  • Allison Thomas Oct 15, 2018 @ 6:13

    I am so grateful for your analysis Kevin because I have been struggling with this book. I came across it on google books because of a description of slave retribution against Mathews County citizens — and the footnote cited my great-great-great-grandmother’s diary. But he conflated 5 entries, completely misrepresented one of them, and then didn’t verify the claim. The diary author had labeled actions by USCT as “negro raids” and Jordan did not look to Union reports by those white officers to see that her misrepresentation.

    • Kevin Levin Oct 15, 2018 @ 7:40

      This is a perfect example of some of the problems that I and others have with this book. Thanks for sharing.

  • H. S. Anderson Dec 8, 2015 @ 10:38

    I’m currently reading through this book, having run across it at the library, and would highly recommend it for anyone interested in the black perspective and experience of Civil War history. For anyone who doubts that black Confederate soldiers existed, the chapters “Zealots of the Wrong” and “Confederate Colored Soldiers: the great white hope” give numerous examples of black men who supported, fought for, and put on the uniform for the CSA, for many different reasons. Some were forced to fight, some did so out of the hope of gaining a better status if the South won, and some were genuinely loyal. Some loved their homes and fought for that rather than for the cause. Some just hated Yankees. There were as many different motivations as there were people.

    One thing these chapters do make clear is that while the war was a catalyst for change in the North when it came to the role of black men in American society, it was also a catalyst for change in the South. The government and slave owners were much more resistant to it, for obvious reasons, but there were voices calling to arm the black population going all the way back to the beginning of the war, mainly from newspaper editorials and local political officials. Patrick Cleburne’s call to arm the slaves and promise them freedom was not the first suggestion of its kind, by any means.

    Does the book prove that hundreds or tens of thousands of black men put on a uniform and fought for the Confederacy? No, definitely not. But it does demonstrate that there were genuine black Confederate soldiers, without a doubt. And not just a handful.

  • David Olivier Nov 7, 2011 @ 18:16

    Ervin,

    In the “American Experience: Robert E. Lee” you state that Virginia had the most slaves (circa 1860) than any other place in the western hemisphere. Have you not heard of
    a country called Brazil? Please illuminate us.

    Best,
    DO

  • Cordertx Mar 4, 2011 @ 20:18

    On “who do you think you are” tonight, Lionel Ritchie finds out his great-grandfather was a black confederate. Professor Jordan is the expert who goes over the records with him. They both act uncomfortable with the news. But an interesting show!

    • Kevin Levin Mar 5, 2011 @ 1:59

      Thanks for the reference. I was unaware of this episode.

  • Larry Cebula Mar 3, 2011 @ 7:46

    Have you emailed Jordan to alert him to this post? It would be useful to draw him into the discussion.

    • Margaret D. Blough Mar 3, 2011 @ 21:59

      That would be interesting. It is noteworthy that the examples he gives includes individuals who faced considerable social ostracism from other free blacks for their position and the bugler, after all, was denied permission to enlist.

      One thing that is pretty clear from much of the research on free and freed blacks in the antebellum South is that their legal position was so precarious that it was a major safeguard if one could secure a white patron of some social status. The complexities of those relationships had to have been mindboggling. However, if there was one thing that both Lincoln and Lee agreed (at least as the latter expressed it during the late 1864-early 1865 Confederate debate on arming slaves) on was that, if one wanted slaves to fight for one’s side, nothing short of freedom for themselves and, at the very least, their families could provide an adequate incentive to get them to do so.

      • Kevin Levin Mar 4, 2011 @ 4:22

        The idea of granting freedom to those slaves who served at the tail end of the war only came about after previous attempts to mobilize the black population had failed, both because of slaveowner resistance and the tendency of slaves to run away once away from their owners.

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