Ervin Jordan’s Black Confederates (Part 2)

Lt. J. Wallace Comer of the 57th Alabama and his body servant (slave) Burrell

One of the things that I appreciate about Ervin Jordan’s research into this subject is his desire to more fully account for the myriad ways in which the war affected the lives of free and enslaved Southern blacks.  I’ve maintained from the beginning that what is desperately needed in this discussion is a move beyond the narrow categories that tend to animate those looking to find a home for blacks in the Confederate army that steers clear of slavery and offers a more palatable picture of race relations.  As I suggested earlier, Jordan is often cited as an academic ally in this endeavor.  Unfortunately, this is made all the more easier because his focus is so broad, which leaves plenty of opportunity to pick and choose what is convenient and ignore the rest.  A related problem that encourages such an approach can be found in the fact that Jordan’s analysis falls short in certain respects.  (see Part 1 of this post)

The last few pages of Jordan’s essay, “Different Drummers”, offers a much clearer picture of what his admirers fail to acknowledge.  Consider the following passages:

  • Afro-Virginian enthusiasts for the Confederacy assumed that by identifying and actively supporting the Confederate cause, white postwar gratitude would lead to expanded privileges and rights.  Their fidelity did not result in racial equality nor granting of social and political rights.  White Southerners considered them temporary indigenous allies but never formally recognized them no matter how loyal they seemed to be.  Clearly, the motivations of black loyalists were either sincerely patriotic or represented alarmed individuals acting on behalf for their own selfpreservation and economic interests. (p. 64)
  • White Virginians found themselves experiencing the same debates and fears of their Revolutionary forefathers relating to the problem of arming black men to kill white males, even if those males happened to be the enemy.  Nevertheless, one Campbell County planter advised his Confederate soldier-son: “[D0] not let Sam go into the fight with you.  Keep him in the rear; for [he] is worth a thousand dollars.”  (p. 65)
  • A member of the House of Delegates proposed the enrollment of free blacks but admitted their families would lack means of support while their sole wage earners were away.  The delegate hastened to explain that his proposal was not the result of any friendship toward free blacks since if it were in his power he would “convert them all to slaves.” (p. 66)
  • Several blacks (mulattoes) posed as whites and served in state regiments, some as officers.  George and Stafford Grimes of Caroline County enlisted with the Fredericksburg Artillery in 1862, though both later deserted.  George was recaptured and plans were made to court-martial him for desertion.  However the court decided against this because as a “Negro” he could not be a soldier nor tried as one. (p. 67)
  • Pro-Confederate blacks were riddles; white Southerners did not trust them, Northerners regarded them as lunatics, and the majority of blacks feared and scorned them as fools or racial traitors.  Afterwards some black Confederates wanted to forget their service.  Civil rights activist and anti-lynching crusader Mary Church Terrell recalled that one of her uncles, James Wilson, a black man with blue eyes, was so light-skinned that he was forced to serve in the Confederate army as a soldier.  Whenever his family mentioned this after the war he became embarrassed and angry. (pp. 68-69)

Whatever can be said about Jordan’s overall interpretation of this subject an honest look at both this article and his larger study fails to yield the overly simplistic view of the Sons of Confederate Veterans and other interested parties.  As I suggested the other day, it is my view that most of Jordan’s admirers have probably never actually read his published work.  What his admirers tend to latch onto is the final sentence of the final paragraph of this particular article:

Confederate Virginia was a biracial society, a society intertwined with black and white influences.  As a minority within a minority, pro-Confederate blacks have received little scholarly research.  Numerous Afro-Virginians, free blacks and slaves, were genuine Southern loyalists, not as a consequence of white pressure but due to their own preferences.  They are the Civil War’s forgotten people, yet their existence was more widespread than American history has recorded.  Their bones rest in unhonored glory in Southern soil, shrouded by falsehoods, indifference and historians’ censorship. (p. 69)

I think it is safe to say that this subject in 1994 the subject had received little attention by historians.  The reasons for this are numerous, but that does not necessarily imply anything close to “censorship.”  Jordan makes no attempt at all to explain this point and he ought to given the frequency with which the passage is cited.  [Thankfully, Jordan did speak up last year following the revelation that a Virginia textbook included a reference to thousands of blacks serving as soldiers under the command of Stonewall Jackson.]

The most important point that I take from Jordan’s research is that while some Southern blacks may have expressed support for the Confederate cause it was rarely reciprocated by their fellow whites.  A more careful analysis on his part could have driven this point home even more clearly given the tendency on the part of some to collapse this distinction.  In the end, I think Jordan has done us a service by opening up numerous opportunities to explore how the exigencies of war challenged the master-slave relationship and race relations generally.

6 thoughts on “Ervin Jordan’s Black Confederates (Part 2)

  1. Gregg Jones

    African Americans that fought for North or South did not get what they expected. They all “assumed that by identifying and actively supporting the Confederate” or even the Union “cause, white postwar gratitude would lead to expanded privileges and rights. Their fidelity did not result in racial equality or granting of social and political rights. ”

    One of the biggest carps since the Centennial has been that our history has been non-inclusive of women, Native Americans, or Blacks. Well, including the minorities was a leap forward. But now that it is being acted on I still see a lot of carping. Whites, North or South, were inhuman in their post war treatment of minorities. Heck, White women never got a fair shake until the 20th century.

    I agree with what you have stated here. I object to your selective course to portray the African American as being exploited by only Southern Whites. In my opinion, you got what was wished for. You wished for inclusiveness and you got it. Be careful for what you wish, you might get it.

    A Black Confederate is a riddle but so is a Black Yankee. Both were duped. Both were exploited. And both were disappointed by witnessing their post war dream of equality, in American Society, smashed to the ground. You have made this one of your premier issues. It was informative but in my opinion, it starting to look as if your beating a dead horse.

    Reply
    1. Kevin Levin Post author

      Thanks for the comment, Gregg. I certainly agree with the spirit of your comment. What you perceive as a “selective course” can be explained by the fact that I am currently working on a book-length manuscript on this particular subject. As I did with my last book project on the Crater and historical memory I am using the blog to share what I am reading and thinking about. The comments I receive in return have been incredibly helpful. I agree that “Black Yankees” did not enjoy racial equality or those social and political rights that their sacrifice demanded, but I don’t see them as a “riddle” in the same way.

      There is a rich literature on black Union soldiers (USCTs) that is easily accessible. Consider recent work by Joseph Glatthaar, John David Smith, Donald Shaffer and Noah A. Truedeau to name just a few.

      Again, I am willing to beat a dead horse if it can influence the Online discussion and get me closer to a solid publication.

      Reply
  2. Marc Ferguson

    As quoted above, Jordan writes: “Numerous Afro-Virginians, free blacks and slaves, were genuine Southern loyalists, not as a consequence of white pressure but due to their own preferences.”

    I haven’t read Jordan, but I’d want to know how he comes to such a conclusion. What is his evidence for concluding that free, and especially enslaved, blacks would have a preference for a Southern victory? What does it really mean to say they were “loyalists”? Does it have to do with actions, sentiments, politics, ideology? Whenever I read the word loyalty, or a variation of it, as an explanation of behavior, I feel that some sleight of hand has occurred.

    Reply
    1. Kevin Levin Post author

      Marc,

      I think that Jordan offers little more than a sketch of these concepts. If you notice in Part 1 of this post Jordan does not go far enough in interpreting his sources.

      Reply
    2. Andy Hall

      Whenever I read the word loyalty, or a variation of it, as an explanation of behavior, I feel that some sleight of hand has occurred.

      That’s a good line.

      Setting aside for a moment the issues of race and chattel bondage specific in these cases, it’s always a dicey thing to take at face value such expressions from the weaker person in a social structure, filtered through those in a stronger position. (A familiar example: people routinely say things to their co-workers that they’d never say to their bosses; and smart bosses know that.) People say what they think they need to to get along. That effect becomes more and more pronounced as the power disparity increases; when overlaid on a slave society like the antebellum South, it calls into question virtually any view or opinion expressed by a black person to a white person — even if the latter records it accurately.

      This same effect applies only slightly less so to free blacks in the South as to slaves, given the legally-precarious position free African Americans lived in, and also applies to blacks in the North.) It’s a power issue that, in the case of African Americans in the South, is reinforced tremendously by the cultural, legal and economic realities of slavery. And it continues — many people have noted that in the WPA slave narratives, when the same person was interviewed separately by white and black interviewers, the stories told to the black interviewers were generally more critical of whites, and more explicit about the trials of slavery.

      Unfortunately, very few of contemporary, first-person accounts of African Americans in the South during the war survive. Most of what we have is either filtered through whites — who, as many have pointed out, often convinced themselves that their slaves were absolutely loyal right up to the point where they ran away — or it’s made up from whole cloth as a narrative to account for images like the one above of Lt. Comer and Burrell.

      It’s OK for historians to say, “we don’t know.” Unfortunately, that’s much less appealing to the public than an answer that reflects certainty, even if it’s actually based on nothing but happy fantasy.

      Reply
  3. Richard Byrd

    Ervin Jordan’s comment during the Virginia textbook flap is as interesting for what it does not say as for what it does. He calls the claim about the units under Stonewall Jackson “totally false”, but he only says “There’s no way of knowing that there were thousands…” about blacks fighting for the confederacy. There is of course also no way of knowing otherwise also. The reports he gives in his book certainly indicate there were some blacks fighting with the the confederate army, but the data is vague enough to make quantitative estimates difficult.

    Reply

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