Don Troiani’s Black Confederate Soldier

Don Troiani, black ConfederateI do enjoy perusing the Confederate Heritage Facebook pages.  The topic of black Confederates is a favorite among these folks. Many of the images and other references are new to me, but more importantly their handling of this “evidence” serves as a reminder of just how incapable some people are in applying even the most rudimentary skills of interpretation.  Instead, as can be seen in the comments section, these postings do little more than offer reassurance to the true believers and reinforce a strict us v. them mentality.

I am surprised that I have not come across this particular image by Civil War artist Don Troiani.  Most of you know that over the years I’ve owned a number of his prints, including a giclee edition of “Mahone’s Charge” which I used as the cover art for my book.  A few months ago I learned that Troiani painted a USCT.  This particular image is included in Don Troiani’s Regiments & Uniforms of the Civil War on p. 208.  It depicts what Troiani calls a “Black Trooper” in the 4th Tennessee Cavalry at Chickamauga in September 1863.

The narrative that accompanies Troiani’s image is somewhat confused as you can see, but it is his reference to the actions of roughly 40 “regimental servants” during the battle that is of interest.  Daniel McLemore, who happened to be the servant of the regiment’s colonel, apparently led these men into battle with the rest of the unit.  Troiani lists two references for this story, one which is a National Archives Records Group along with one Kelly Barrow’s problematic books.  I don’t have access to the National Archives source and the Barrow book only lists a postwar source from a newspaper dated 1885.

Troiani clearly has little interest in the history beyond the fact that these men were known for dressing and outfitting themselves with discarded Yankee clothing and equipment. It’s an interesting subject for Troiani to paint. That the story is remembered as early as 1885 is interesting, but I would love to locate some wartime evidence that supports the story. I’ve heard of other examples of small numbers of servants entering battles, but nothing along the lines outlined here. It will certainly enrich the story that I am currently exploring.  Do any of you know anything more about the 4th Tennessee Cavalry and specifically their involvement at Chickamauga? Please refrain from sending me things like this. :-)

In the meantime, I think I found the perfect image to use for the cover art of my next book.

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51 comments… add one

  • John Heiser May 16, 2013

    Odd how this particular incident with the colonel’s servant leading a conglomerate group of other personal servants into battle could get so much attention when it obviously was an extremely rare occurrence during the war and Union reaction to it does not seem to exist. The unfortunate twist is when an artist like Don Troiani composes and publishes his concept that it takes on a new life of its own and some will now rely on it as “proof” of African Americans being southern combatants rather than the laborers they actually were with the armies.

    • Kevin Levin May 16, 2013

      Thanks for the comment, John. You are absolutely right. What I find so interesting is to watch as people embrace a painting and accompanying description as evidence. And the role of social media offers the perfect case study of how information is now shared. It’s downright scary.

    • George Payne III May 24, 2013

      So the North did not employ them as labors ever? You have a habit of using only what supports your narrow view.

      • Kevin Levin May 24, 2013

        Of course the United States utilized blacks as laborers. It also recruited upwards of 200,000 into the army. I have no idea what your comment has to do with the post or anything else for that matter.

  • Andy Hall May 16, 2013

    This painting was published in Troiani’s Regiments & Uniforms of the Civil War, which was co-authored by Earl J. Coates and Michael J. McAfee. I don’t know which of them is primarily responsible for the text, although Troiani presumably selected the image for inclusion. It does make for an interesting depiction, given the conglomeration of scavenged uniform accoutrements worn or carried by the figure, so I don’t see it as inappropriate in a books that’s about the wide range of uniforms and gear during the conflict. As with so much else when it comes to the subject of Black Confederates,” though, a careful reading of the text generally undermines the larger point the “heritage” crowd is trying to make with it.

    • Kevin Levin May 16, 2013

      As with so much else when it comes to the subject of Black Confederates,” though, a careful reading of the text generally undermines the larger point the “heritage” crowd is trying to make with it.

      The text could have been more precise. It leaves open enough room to make of it what you will. Again, it seems to me the larger and more troubling issue is how clumsily the story is passed around among folks who are predisposed to believe the story without applying any sort of critical analysis.

  • steve moore May 24, 2013

    So no one believes there were real black Confederate Soldiers? I guess some of Forrest’s Escorts were Fairies then. There is so many documented cases in personal memoirs from both Southern and Northern troops along with interviews with former slaves who served along with their Master’s to deny this. No, there were no organized units in the Southern Army as was with the North but plenty of proof to be had if you look for it. The “larger point” is that the “heritage crowd” has done their homework based on facts so that should be the “critical analysis” that some have missed out on. A book can be written to portray the opinions of any Author to satisfy the opinions of any likewise reader.

    • Kevin Levin May 24, 2013

      People believe all kinds of things about the presence of African Americans in the Confederate army. I have written extensively on this subject both on this blog and in print. You are free to read what I have to say and come to your own conclusions. Thanks.

      • R Woolfolk May 25, 2013

        Want hard evidence? Read the Union commander’s report in the Official Records regarding Forrest’s raid on Murfreesboro, TN. He comments on the large number of black troops among the attacking Confederate force. It is you, not the “heritage crowd”, that refuses to admit the truth.

        • Kevin Levin May 25, 2013

          Yes, I have read many of these reports. I highly recommend that you read Glenn Brasher’s new book, The Peninsula Campaign and the Necessity of Emancipation. He deals with these reports. Simply pointing to a piece of evidence without any attempt at interpretation is a complete waste of time. Thanks for the comment.

          • Levi May 27, 2013

            So evidence alone is not enough, huh?

            • Kevin Levin May 27, 2013

              No. Evidence must be interpreted.

            • Andy Hall May 27, 2013

              Levi, here’s “evidence” that Jefferson Davis was captured skulking through the Georgia swamps in his wife’s dress. Do you accept this account as factually true — because, you know, it’s “evidence” — or do you think historians ought to look more critically at it, compare it with other accounts, account for the person reporting it, and generally try to assess whether it’s accurate or not?

              • Levi May 28, 2013

                So you believe a Union general’s official report has the same veracity as a newspaper practicing yellow journalism? Interesting.

              • Andy Hall May 28, 2013

                You were the one who suggested that “evidence” alone is sufficient, but now you’re saying that historians should consider other factors as well in evaluating said “evidence”? That’s a quick abandonment of the field, sir.

                • Levi May 28, 2013

                  You didn’t answer my question. I never said newspaper reporters removed from the field making up lies is the same thing as an official report. You shouldn’t either.

                  • Andy Hall May 28, 2013

                    I didn’t answer your question because I took it as a rhetorical one. Your original comment said nothing about evaluating sources, only making reference to “evidence.” There’s lots of kinds of “evidence,” including newspaper stories.

                    Since you characterize the story about Davis as “yellow journalism” and “lies,” I think it’s safe to say that you, too, make judgements about what’s reliable and what’s not. Good, because that’s what historians do, too. Except that historians don’t generally take statements in the OR as God-given fact, either. When Lieutenant Colonel Parkhurst — he was not a General, as you suggest above — reported seeing African Americans “attached” to Texas and Georgia troops, he was reporting what he saw, or thought he saw on the field. But oddly, there’s no corroboration of such men from Confederate records, so it’s difficult to know exactly what actually happened.

                    Parkhurst explicitly identifies these men as being connected to Georgia or Texas troops, so we’re not talking abut “Forrest’s Escort” in this case.

                    The OR is a valuable resource, but it’s not infallible, and much of it is contradictory or (in retrospect) clearly wrong. As I’m sure you’re aware, the OR contains multiple references to Jeff Davis being captured in women’s clothing, so it’s all subject to challenge, wouldn’t you agree?

                    • Kevin Levin May 28, 2013

                      Andy,

                      Thanks for working with Levi.

                    • Levi May 28, 2013

                      The evidence I was commenting on was eye-witness testimony. Obviously there is a complete difference from a newspaper report not from the front and an officer observing what is happening on the front. Who would consider that newspaper as evidence? They are not the same thing. Testimony from an eye-witness is evidence; it’s certainly good enough for courts (generally without being interpreted).

                    • Andy Hall May 28, 2013

                      I thought we were talking about researching and writing history, not what’s admissible in court. My bad.

                    • Kevin Levin May 28, 2013

                      Eye-witness testimony must also be interpreted. What you report to seeing is one thing, but whether the description is accurate is another thing altogether. This is especially true when it comes to Union observations of blacks in the Confederate army. What other reports of the same unit are available? Can this individual’s be supported by Confederate references to a black presence in the very same unit? You need to do some work. This is how history works.

                    • Andy Hall May 28, 2013

                      Levi, try talking to eye-witnesses to a fender-bender in a parking lot. If you talk to five different people, I promise you you’ll get five different versions of what happened. It’s the historian’s job to sort all that out, and determine what seems most reliable. It’s not an exact science.

                    • Kevin Levin May 28, 2013

                      :-)

                    • josepho Jun 5, 2013

                      So in your interpretation; a Black soldier dressed in a Confederate uniform, carrying Confederate weapons alongside, shooting at Union soldiers or marching to fight them, can be interpreted as what exactly besides fighting for the South? Being in denial is not a trait of an objective historian; much of the time it means envying those who obviously have read more into a topic.

                    • Bob Huddleston May 29, 2013

                      Eyewitness reports are valuable. Obviously, if what Parkhurst saw were Black Confederate soldiers then there must be after action reports from the Confederates commenting on the same thing. And there would be lots of letters home from Rebel soldiers telling about their fellow soldiers who happened to be black. I am sure Levi will provide those.

                    • Kevin Levin May 29, 2013

                      No, I am quite sure he will not. Levi will simply redirect the discussion in an entirely new direction to avoid any and all questions. That is how this little game works.

                    • Levi May 29, 2013

                      You are as smug as you are wrong. How can you call yourself a historian and be so closed-minded?

                    • Kevin Levin May 29, 2013

                      Thank you for confirming my suspicions. You come here with statements and demands without showing any serious understanding of the subject. No one knows who you are or whether you have any relevant background understanding of the relevant history and you expect us to be tolerant. I suggested a reading on the subject of pensions. It’s not a long article and it bears directly on your claim about what they supposedly show. Get back to us after you’ve finished it. This is your final comment until you demonstrate to me that you’ve completed the assignment. Good day.

                    • Andy Hall May 29, 2013

                      There are a dozen (-ish) mentions in the 128 volumes of the OR of African Americans engaged in combat activities on the Confederate side. As far as I can tell, all are (like Parkhursts’) mentioned in Federal’s correspondence, and none at all from Confederate reports or dispatches.

                    • Kevin Levin May 29, 2013

                      This little exchange with Levi ought to serve as a reminder that the difficulty here is not simply with whether you agree that x exists or not, but with what it means to engage in the historical process. This is about historical literacy.

    • Andy Hall May 28, 2013

      “I guess some of Forrest’s Escorts were Fairies then.”

      I wouldn’t have guessed that, but, um, OK.

      • Kevin Levin May 28, 2013

        Well, at least he didn’t suggest that they were cooks. :-)

  • Andy Hall May 28, 2013

    While we’re on the subject of eye-witness accounts, I went back and looked at Parkhurst’s report (OR Vol. XVI, Part 1, p. 805), and it’s worth noting that he makes no explicit claim to have seen the men in question himself, personally. He says:

    The forces attacking my camp were the First Regiment Texas Rangers, Colonel Wharton, and a battalion of the First Georgia Rangers, Colonel Morrison, and a large number of citizens of Rutherford County, many of whom had recently taken the oath of allegiance to the United States Government. There were also quite a number of negroes attached to the Texas and Georgia troops, who were armed and equipped, and took part in the several engagements with my forces during the day.

    He is, as his position requires, making a report of events as he understands them, and we can credit him with reporting in good faith, but it is a mistake to assume everything in his report is something he personally saw with his own eyes. He could just as easily be repeating something that was reported to him, as his own first-hand observation.

    Unfortunately we cannot cross-examine Lt. Col. Parkhurst (to carry on the courtroom analogy), to sort out what he personally saw, versus what he was told, versus what he concluded. I, for one, would like to ask him to quantify his phrase, “quite a number.” Obviously it’s more than he expected, but whether that’s three, or thirty, or three hundred, no one can really say.

    Such is the inevitable limitation of the written word, even of the OR.

    • Kevin Levin May 28, 2013

      Which is why we always need to interpret in light of other available sources. For instance, are there any regimental records that might help us with the identities of these individuals? Could the be camp servants or impressed slaves? One of the things that I’ve found curious is that in all the years I’ve been researching this subject I have yet to come across one wartime Confederate account that points to the existence of blacks fighting as soldiers. Not one.

      • Levi May 29, 2013

        Why don’t you review the records of those who received pensions for their Confederate service? Or is that not evidence?

        • Kevin Levin May 29, 2013

          You really need to do some reading before you start lecturing others on this subject. The former Confederate states that offered pensions to African Americans were in acknowledgment of their presence in the army as slaves and not soldiers. I highly recommend reading the following: http://mshistorynow.mdah.state.ms.us/articles/289/black-confederate-pensioners-after-the-civil-war Hollandsworth has published extensively on this subject.

          I have an entire file of pension records for former slaves who were present in the army. They are explicit about their status in the army. Have you ever even looked at a pension record? I doubt it.

        • Andy Hall May 29, 2013

          Many of us have, Levi. Pension record — if one takes time to review carefully what they say — tell us a great deal about what these men did during the war. The pension record for Louis Napoleon Nelson, for example, makes it clear he was a servant and cook, and corroborate almost none of the claims that Nelson Winbush has been making about him for years now.

          Pension records are very important, Levi, but most of them probably don’t provide the evidence you think they do.

  • R. Alex Raines Jun 5, 2013

    Kevin,

    It took a few minutes for me to find a recent and appropriate article to post this as a comment to, but I believe this one is perfect. I was doing a little bit of googling and I found “The Smithsonian Associate’s” civil war website, located at http://civilwarstudies.org/trivia.shtm.

    Here is question number 8: He had an unusual and renown Civil War career, but for what is Holt Collier most famous?

    Here is answer number 8: Holt Collier was born a slave in Mississippi in 1846 (the year varies in several accounts). His experiences included being a Confederate cavalry scout (when he accompanied his master and joined the Confederate Army at age 12), involvement in wild-west gunfights, and hunting trips to Mexico and Alaska. But Collier was best known as a bear hunter.

    I’ll be honest. I’ve deleted the rest of the answer because its not really relevant to the American Civil War. But I guess my question is – do you know if these folks are legitimately affiliated with the Smithsonian Institute?

    • Kevin Levin Jun 6, 2013

      Yes, “Googling around” is unfortunately the approach that all too many take when looking into this subject. I am well aware of Holt Collier and no he was not a soldier. Even a cursory glance at the relevant primary sources, as opposed to random web pages (most of which are cut and pasted) clearly points to this conclusion.

      • R. Alex Raines Jun 6, 2013

        Kevin,

        I think, for whatever reason, I have given you the wrong impression. I’m not trying to make the argument or claim that Holt Collier was a soldier. I was not under that impression. The reason I did anything other than chuckle at the ignorance and move along was my concern that these misguided folks are affiliated with THE SMITHSONIAN INSTITUTE. If they are, I think the responsible portion of the ACW community has an obligation to try and get them to remove this drivel. If they are not, not sure how that should be handled.

        Regards,

        R. Alex Raines

        • Kevin Levin Jun 6, 2013

          Sorry about that. Sometimes I read and respond to comments on the run. Thanks for the clarification.

          • R. Alex Raines Jun 6, 2013

            Kevin,

            Not really a big deal. The only reason I am a slight bit touchy is that I don’t hide my identity when posting in various ACW blogs/forums and I don’t want to deal with people doubting my cognitive capacity.

            Alex

            • Kevin Levin Jun 6, 2013

              I completely understand.

              • R. Alex Raines Jun 6, 2013

                So, now that the confusion has been sorted out, I’d like to renew my question but try to do so in a less confusing way, so here goes:

                Are the Smithsonian Associates formally affiliated with the Smithsonian Institute?

                A

  • josepho Jun 5, 2013

    Why is there so much denial going on by people swearing no Blacks fought for the Confederacy in the Civil War when there exists numerous eye witness accounts from both sides about Black soldiers FIGHTING for the Confederacy?

    I indulge in researching Blacks in ‘Western’ military history -objectively; who would claim proven records of Blacks fighting in the American Revolution, War of 1812, at Trafalgar, at Waterloo, in the Crimean War etc etc etc, must be reinterpreted to mean they only were servants, cooks ???

    Instead of denying historical facts based on your inability to accept not just a few Blacks fought for the pro-Slavery ‘side’, do your own in depth research first-
    *Read memoirs and witness accounts of frontline soldiers and civilians.*

    Get back to us after you’ve done that. If you are still stubborn; remember the Nazis and Soviets were allies between 1939-41, and several factions of Zionists were ‘allies’ with the Nazis in the mid-1930s; Goebbels even made a medal to celebrate this union; http://antimatrix.org/Convert/Books/ZioNazi_Quotes/img/Angriff_Nazi_Zionist_Medal.jpg

    • Kevin Levin Jun 6, 2013

      Thanks for taking the time to comment.

  • Chris Bonin Jun 30, 2013

    Hi Kevin,
    I’m a graduate student (history) at the University of Nebraska-Kearney, and I’d like to jump in here if I may.
    When it comes to photographic evidence, do the “heritage” crowd take into consideration when the photograph was taken? What I mean is, at the beginning of the War, it wasn’t uncommon for Confederates of all ranks (even privates) to bring a servant along. But as the War progressed, it was considered practical to cut down on the number of camp followers, and the amount of personal baggage, so I would venture to say that a large number of these servants were sent home, sold, or otherwise sent away from the army.
    For those that remained, like their masters, they were likely getting a bit ragged at this point. Where did they get replacement clothing? Most likely drawn from quartermasters’ stocks and castoffs from their masters. Hence, it’s not all that surprising to see black men in items of Confederate uniform.
    Also, some slaves in the prewar years did handle firearms, though arming blacks in large numbers was strictly frowned upon (The colony of South Carolina included slaves in its militia until the Stono Revolt in the early 1740s made that seem like a bad idea.). Let’s go back to the early days of the War. The novice soldier takes one look at his issue rations, and feels a bit queasy. But there just might be something tasty in the woods or along the banks of a stream. A day of marching and drilling has made the young soldier a bit tired, so he tells his slave to bag something for supper. And there you have a plausible scenario of how a slave might come to be dressed like a soldier, with a gun in his hands. Stretch it a bit, and you’ve got another recruit to the Black Confederate Legion.

    • Kevin Levin Jul 1, 2013

      “When it comes to photographic evidence, do the “heritage” crowd take into consideration when the photograph was taken?”

      The heritage crowd embraces and ignores whatever will support their agenda. The diehards have little interest in or even ability to engage in serious historical analysis

  • Noel Walker Feb 6, 2014

    Recently I read where this particular piece was done on commission By Don Troiani for William Gladstone, a noted African-American Military historian. It would be interesting to note what his thoughts were on this subject, but unfortunately he has passed on. Maybe he has some writings on this.

  • Jefferson Moon Mar 16, 2014

    The sightings of black confederate troops by yankee soldiers always remind me of Big Foot and UFO sightings.

  • Richard Neely Nov 24, 2014

    I remember reading an article about Camp Douglas in Chicago that any Black showing up there in Confederate uniform was taken out and shot at once. Also, there are some great photos from Birmingham showing the last re-unions of confederates in the county. In these pictures there is always a large group of Black men present who considered themselves to be Confederate veterans. In fact in one of the photos two Black men were wearing Confederate frock coats. It becomes much easier to stereotype as we get further away from the conflict. It reminds me of when I saw a discussion between James McPherson and an African-American historian at the University of Virginia. The Black historian was saying that Blacks were often caught in a web of conflicting loyalties as much as their White counterparts and McPherson was just as strongly saying no way.

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