A Black Confederate General That We Can All Embrace?

I trust that after this post no one will accuse me of dismissing any and all evidence for the existence of black Confederate soldiers.  Better yet, I give you at least one black Confederate general.  The interesting question is whether the Sons of Confederate Veterans and others will accept him as one of their own.  From The Boston Globe:

Randall Lee Gibson, an urbane, Yale-educated Confederate general, mocked black people as “the most degraded of all races of men.’’ Later, as a US senator from Louisiana, he helped broker the end of Reconstruction, freeing the South to harass and lynch blacks virtually at will…. In the 20th century, his orphaned son, Preston, was raised by an aunt and her husband, who had been a justice on the US Supreme Court that legitimated racial segregation in the infamous case of Plessy v. Ferguson…. What Senator Gibson did not know was that his great-grandfather Gideon Gibson was a free man of color, and a substantial landowner and slaveholder, who led the “Regulators’’ to a successful back-country revolt in Colonial South Carolina. To his peers, the author contends, Gideon Gibson was neither black nor white but merely rich and respected. His marriage to a white woman further blanched his progeny, and their relocation to Mississippi and Louisiana allowed the family’s African-American past to fade away altogether.

The following passage comes from a review of a new book that explores the complex web of racial identity through the experiences of three families that straddled the the racial divide.  Gibson’s life is also the focus of a recent biography by Mary Gorton McBride, titled, Randall Lee Gibson of Louisiana: Confederate General and New South Reformer (Louisiana State University Press, 2007).  In 1876 Gibson was attacked by former Republican governor James Madison Wells, who accused him of being “colored” in the pages of the New York Times.  Gibson followed up by consulting with two historians in Mississippi concerning his family history.  Apparently neither Gibson nor his siblings had any knowledge of their black ancestors, but what is more interesting is that the accusations apparently had no impact on how he viewed himself or on society’s acceptance of Gibson as a “white” leader.

So, was/is General Randall Lee Gibson a black Confederate?

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30 comments… add one

  • Allen Gathman Mar 17, 2011

    Fascinating story. I need to read more about him.

  • Gregg Jones Mar 17, 2011

    Kevin,

    This is a very good article. While the man was not humane in thought or deed, he is a good example of one of many that are genetically part of the pool of humanity but are inhumane. How many men have had a hatred, a fear of other races but in reality were related to the object of their hatred? National Geographic a year ago was collecting the DNA from as many citizens to show just how we are all related to humanity. I did it was was very well surprised. The truth will set us all free.

    • Kevin Levin Mar 18, 2011

      Apparently, Gibson was not aware of his racial identity.

      • AD Powell Jun 1, 2013

        Gibson’s “racial identity” was white – no ifs, ands or buts.

  • Gregg Jones Mar 17, 2011

    Kevin,

    I am remiss! Yes! We should claim him as a Black Confederate.

  • James F. Epperson Mar 17, 2011

    He is certainly a black Confederate in the sense that he was black (as defined by the South) and a CS general. But since he was “passing,” perhaps w/o knowing his true racial background, he doesn’t count within the context of the modern controversy.

  • Corey Meyer Mar 17, 2011

    “So, was General Randall Lee Gibson a black Confederate?”

    Great question. I would venture to say No, because neither he nor society saw him as a black man.

    • EarthTone Mar 18, 2011

      Agreed.

      As a side note: In November 1863, CSA Secretary of War James Seddon was asked if a group of creoles (mixed race persons) from Mobile, AL, could be enlisted, even though “many of them [have] negro blood in the degree which disqualifies other persons of negro race from the rights of citizens.”

      Seddon responded that “our position with the North and before the world will not allow the employment as armed soldiers of negroes. If these creoles can be naturally and properly discriminated from negroes, the authority may be considered as conferred; otherwise not, unless you can enlist them as “navvies” (to use the English term) or for subordinate working purposes.”

      In other words: they could serve as soldiers – IF they could pass for white!

      • Don May 17, 2011

        I have heard that part of this was social. The ability to treat other people as slaves meant that you had to believe that they were lower than you. In a sense, that they could only be used as manual labor (your comment about navvies and subordinate work purposes). If a black man could be trained to fight in an army to defend a cause, he could be considered to be at or close to the level of a white man. It would then be wrong to keep such a man as a slave.

  • Lyle Smith Mar 17, 2011

    Cool, didn’t know this about Mr. Gibson.

  • Andy Hall Mar 18, 2011

    I wonder if James Madison Wells actually knew about Gibson’s lineage, or if he just tossed out that accusation as a damning slur (in that time and place), that coincidentally happened to be true unbeknownst to either man.

    • Kevin Levin Mar 18, 2011

      I thought the same thing, but I can’t be sure. I need to go through his biography at some point.

  • Colin Woodward Mar 18, 2011

    Interesting story. I don’t see how you could view him as a black Confederate. Though if we were going by the “one drop” rule, I suppose you could.

  • James F. Epperson Mar 18, 2011

    Something interesting about this is that, IIRC, Gibson was one of the pro-Bragg officers in that army.

    • Lyle Smith Mar 18, 2011

      I thought Gibson didn’t like Bragg because Bragg had thought him a coward at Shiloh (Bragg apparently was wrong in his judgement). Daniel W. Adams, Gibson’s brigade commanding partner of sorts was the pro-Bragg man, I thought. That’s what I read somewhere recently, maybe in the Noe Perryville book.

      • James F. Epperson Mar 18, 2011

        OK, I’m going on memory of what a friend told me long ago while tramping Shiloh, so I could easily be wrong or have confused things.

        • Lyle Smith Mar 18, 2011

          I don’t know if what I said is correct either — about Gibson possibly not being pro-Bragg. Gibson could have still supported Bragg as a commander despite Bragg’s handling of him at Shiloh. And being from Louisiana Gibson would have been a ‘natural’ ally of Bragg’s perhaps, just like brigade commanders Adams and Liddell were.

  • Marianne Davis Mar 19, 2011

    Kevin,
    Race is a social construct, not a biological verity. No one is black or white except in so far as someone recognizes them as such. My grandfather was Cherokee, I’m a green-eyed blonde with skin the color of Wonder Bread. So what am I? I may not be white, but there’s no one whiter.
    Gen. Gibson was not a black Confederate, he was an urbane, Yale-educated racist. Claiming him as a black Confederate is tantamount to saying that America voted for a gay man in 1856. (They’re both fun diversions, though, thanks.)

  • London John Mar 21, 2011

    I think Mariane Davis is right – altho’ Gibson may have had Black ancestry, if neither he nor anyone else knew about it, it had no significance.
    I should think no country ever gave more thought to classifying people’s race than apartheid South Africa. What they came up with amounted to saying you are whatever race you appear to be and other people take you for. The birth of the first child of an Afrikaner (Boer) couple was always interesting in case both parents’ unknown African ancestry might combine to produce a legally Black child – which did actually happen.

    • erasmuse Oct 8, 2014

      I wonder if Randall Gibson was also the first black Yale man?

  • M.M.Atkinson Mar 21, 2011

    Good grief! No, this man WAS NOT a black confederate general. Society recognized him as a white man; therefore, he was a white man.

    I think our time would be spent more wisely debating more important things, such as dispelling the myth of black confederates period!

    • Andy Hall Mar 21, 2011

      Pretty sure Kevin’s question was in jest.

      • Kevin Levin Mar 21, 2011

        Not completely in jest. I am was using this case to get a sense of the conceptual boundaries of the black Confederate.

  • Joanne Pezzullo Oct 2, 2011

    I find it interesting that among the thousands of articles about Randall Gibson and his black family no one produces his genealogy. That they have *attached* this Gibson family to the Gideon Gibson family with no proof whatsoever simply astounds me. I am a genealogist and have done much research on the Gibson family neither of these are my Gibson lines ftr.

    • Kevin Levin Oct 2, 2011

      Thanks for the comment, but I am not clear as to who it is directed at. Perhaps you can elaborate.

      • Joanne Pezzullo Oct 2, 2011

        Not directed at anyone in particular, just the numerous authors that keep writing what they find in books and not doing proper research. That research would show that there is no proof that Randall Lee Gibson’s ancestors were related to Gideon Gibson who appeared before Governor Johnson. Most novice genealogists are aware of the ‘same name syndrome’ you simply cannot assume because they have the same name they are related.

  • AD Powell Jun 1, 2013

    A touch of “Negro blood” didn’t make Randall Lee Gibson any less white. His fellow white elites knew that when they rallied to silence the fool who accused him of “invisible blackness.”

    http://www.yalelawjournal.org/the-yale-law-journal/essay/the-secret-history-of-race-in-the-united-states/

    http://www.amazon.com/The-Invisible-Line-History-America/dp/B0085S8GFU/

    http://www.amazon.com/Legal-History-Color-Line-One-Drop/dp/0939479230/

  • Claudia Gibson Feb 9, 2014

    This is my husband’s ancestor; I first learned about him while researching genaeology for my MLS. What is most interesting about RLG is that his father, Tobias Gibson, was considered rather progressive for his time and position; Tobias did view slavery as morally wrong (which of course did not mean he was ready to give up his own slaves) and also advocated the right to vote for women, and taught this to his own children, including his daughter, who was widowed early and who became an ardent supporter of women’s sufferage in her later years. The family papers and letters, kept in various archives, make fascinating reading. RLG also was the valedictorian at Yale in 1853, and apparently engaged in many debates with his northern classmates about the issue of slavery. At any rate, Randall’s sons managed to lose the family fortune through their bad habits; they lacked the focus of their father, who died when they were in their teens and twenties. Randall’s namesake, Randall Lee Gibson III, was a Boston Unitarian minister and ardent supporter of civil rights for blacks and gays in the 1960s and 1970s.

  • Steele Gibson May 23, 2014

    Claudia Gibson, did your genealogy research show a connection to a Joseph Edward Gibson? He was born in the early 1900’s in the United States. His parents however, immigrated over from Scotland.

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