A Black Confederate We Can All Live With

black ConfederateEarlier this month Schuyler Kropf shared the story of Polly Sheppard, who was surprised to find the grave of a black Confederate soldier in the cemetery of the Emanuel African Methodist Episcopal Church of Charleston. The individual in question is Louis B. Middleton, whose grave is marked with a soldiers’ headstone. This has all the earmarks of another in a long line of distorted stories about blacks who somehow managed to evade Confederate law and a society committed to keeping weapons out of their hands.

Granted, it’s not perfect, but Kropf manages to skirt some of the larger landmines that often leave intelligent readers scratching their heads. Early on in the story Middleton is correctly identified as a cook and not as a soldier. The reporter made it a point to talk with a reputable historian at the University of South Carolina.

“I think there are a lot of Confederate sympathizers who exaggerate the role of blacks in the Confederate military,” said Don Doyle, the McCausland professor of history at the University of South Carolina. “And a lot of skeptics who dismiss the idea that it was even possible.”

The reality, Doyle said, is that black involvement in the South was largely forced, with little say-so in their daily lives as they were put into essential roles from laborers to teamsters and general servants. “This cook would be a perfect example of what was the typical,” Doyle said.

And there is no mistaking Middleton’s legal status given the availability of records detailing who he served during the war.  The reporter makes it clear that “many slaves in South Carolina were used in the national defense — helping build coastal fortifications or performing other duties — freeing up whites for the fighting. Still others became integral members of camp ranks, following men of means into their assignments, attending to their needs.”

Even better, Kropf explores the fact that Middleton applied for and received a pension in the early twentieth century. This is typically reported as evidence that the individual in question was a soldier or it is left poorly analyzed.

In the 1920s, the S.C. Legislature opted to provide pensions for some of these men. Historian Alexia Jones Helsley, who worked at the S.C. Department of Archives and History for more than 30 years and currently teaches at USC-Aiken, chronicled the development of the pension payouts, publishing her research in a collection titled “South Carolina’s African American Confederate Pensioners 1923-1925.”

The motivation behind the pensions, she said, was not completely noble on the part of lawmakers. First, they were a way of reducing financial burdens on the community. Most of the men were in their 70s and older by then, and unable to do most types of paying work. Second, the pensions came as many Southern blacks were following the great migration to the cities of the North, looking for a better life but draining the state’s workforce. The pensions were seen as an attempt to create respect for those who supported the southern cause, Helsley said. The pension act wording said the payments were “for certain faithful Negroes who were engaged in the service of the State in War between the States.” The first round of pensions were not to exceed $25 annually. Laborers, servants and cooks were the most frequent job description.

A local Sons of Confederate Veterans representative receives only passing attention and predictably fails to offer anything useful. Unfortunately, the catalyst for this story is lost to the story entirely. What will/should be done with the grave marker? It clearly misrepresents Middleton’s story.

In the name of history, heritage, and human dignity I say this man deserves better.

And thanks again to Schuyler Kropf for a job well done.

32 thoughts on “A Black Confederate We Can All Live With

  1. Rob Baker

    I think first there needs to be an investigation into the headstone itself. Who placed it there and why? Was it the church, or a local SCV camp? Ultimately you are right, he does deserve better.

    Reply
    1. Richard R. Phillips Jr.

      Application for Headstone
      Louis B. Middleton
      Rank: Camp
      Attendant C.S.A.
      Date of Death: Oct. 1, 1935
      Emanuel Cemetery, Charleston, SC
      Ordered: Tate, Georgia March 5, 1936
      To be shipped to Ruby M. Forsythe, 4 Chestnut St., Charleston, SC
      Ruby M. Forsythe signs as applicant for headstone

      1930 Census
      Lewis B. Middleton (73), Martha (65) daughter Emily A (22) are living on Chestnut St.
      Notes: Bricklayer, General Work
      Owns his own home valued at $1500
      Family living beside Lewis
      William E. Forsythe (31), Clergyman, Episcopal Church, Ruby M. (24) Teacher, County School, their son is Burns M (1)

      1920 Census
      Louis B Middleton (63), Martha (53), daughters Ruby (15), Emily (12)
      Notes: Bricklayer, Own Business

      1910 Census
      L B Middleton (59) wife Martha (40) children are missing.
      Notes: Bricklayer, Living on Chestnut St.
      Question regarding Union/Confederate service is blank.

      1900 Census
      Louis B. Middleton (44) Born Aug. 1855, wife Martha (39) born Feb. 1861, no children listed
      Notes: Brickmason, living on Chestnut St.

      Charleston City Directory
      Name: Louis B Middleton
      Gender: Male
      Residence Year: 1913
      Street Address: 4 Chestnut
      Residence Place: Charleston, South Carolina
      Occupation: Bricklayer
      Spouse: Martha Middleton

      Reply
  2. Andy Hall

    Middleton’s stone doesn’t look like a modern VA-issued stone, and it may date to the time of his death or soon after. I’ve seen images of others like that, that were provided by the government back in the day. Why it’s inscribed that way, I don’t know, unless the monument contractor was unsure what to put in place of the unit, because his pension record doesn’t identify the usual company and regiment.

    The response to what to do about it is, nothing, even if it’s misleading. However the stone came to be so inscribed, it happened a long time ago and is not part of the current fabulation campaign spearheaded by heritage groups to establish things that never happened.

    Reply
    1. Kevin Levin Post author

      The response to what to do about it is, nothing, even if it’s misleading. However the stone came to be so inscribed, it happened a long time ago…

      Why does the timing of the stone make or break whether a more accurate inscription is more appropriate?

      Reply
      1. Andy Hall

        The inscription is inaccurate, but the question posed was, “what will/should be done with the grave marker?” I disagree with doing anything with it, particularly since it was requested and placed by his family. My beef, such as it is, is with present-day folks who never knew the descendent, and really could care less about him except to point to him as an example of another black Confederate to strengthen their “black-washing” narrative about the Confederacy.

        Reply
  3. Steve

    Check out the January 10th, 1863 “Harpers Weekly” newspaper. Printed in New York. Front page shows two Black Confederate soldiers on picket duty as witnessed by an union officer. . You can try to deny all you want the existance of the black confederate soldier . Here is proof from a Yankee source. Not sure about you, but you give an individual a weapon, he is no longer a slave. There’s is also a statement from a union medical officer during the battle of Fredericksburg, 3000 blacks were integrated with the white soldier armed no better or worse than than the white soldier. Some of the best eye witnesses to the existence of the black Confederate come from Yankee sources.

    Reply
      1. Ken Noe

        You have me thinking, Kevin. As the heritage movement becomes more factionalized and in obvious cases radicalized, if the drift really is toward the sort of southern national cells and defenses of white exclusiveness Brooks Simpson has been chronicling of late, has the ‘black Confederate’ topic necessarily peaked? Is it becoming too “rainbow?” It occurred to me this morning that I’m running into it less often. But perhaps your experience is different.

        Reply
        1. Kevin Levin Post author

          I’ve noticed a decrease in the number of stories as well, but I haven’t thought much about why. It’s an intriguing suggestion and one that I will have to give some thought. Thanks.

          Reply
    1. Brooks D. Simpson

      “Not sure about you, but you give an individual a weapon, he is no longer a slave.”

      Would you please document the process of emancipation within the Confederate army by arming slaves between 1861 and 1864? After all, if there were all these armed Confederate slaves, then, by your reasoning, arming them emancipated them. Where can we find this process outlined? Who determined which slaves would be armed? Were owners consulted? Were they compensated? Would you mind sharing the evidence that forms the basis for your assertion?

      Reply
      1. Kevin Levin Post author

        Steve,

        In the meantime, assuming you have a genuine interest in the subject, I highly recommend reading Bruce Levine’s book, Confederate Emancipation. It details the debate throughout the Confederacy over the question of whether to arm slaves and addresses specifically the deep concerns/fears related to slaves and guns.

        Reply
  4. robemis

    It’s as if Steve looked at the photo and made up his mind based upon preconseptions rather than read the text and interpret the illustration within a larger context.

    go figure.

    Reply
  5. Eric A. Jacobson

    “…SOUTHERN WHITE PEOPLE OF THE CONFEDERATE STATES OF AMERICA.” Perhaps I’m forgetting something, but it is 2013 correct? And the CSA no longer exists?? I’m just trying to be sure I understand things correctly. it has been a long week. :)

    Reply
  6. Eric A. Jacobson

    To quote from the Harper’s Weekly piece:

    “As the picture shows, it represents two full-blooded negroes, fully armed, and serving as pickets in the rebel army. It has long been known to military men that the insurgents affect no scruples about the employment of their slaves in any capacity in which they may be found useful.”

    So Steve clearly forgot to mention this rather important bit of info. So as Kevin has maintained for some time now, most “black Confederates” really were slaves. And because they were slaves, they had little choice about whether they were cooking, cleaning, driving a wagon, or stuck on picket duty.

    Reply
  7. Matt McKeon

    If Mr. Middleton was born in 1855, that makes him ten years old at the most when the war ended? How could he have been with the army in any kind of capacity?

    Reply
      1. Tom Heaney

        Richard, thank you for pulling up all this info; truly and interesting case.

        While census takers often got ages wrong as shown here where the birth dates could vary from 1851 to 1857, the relative consistency of those ages/birth-years would suggest that Mrs. Forsythe might have been off a bit in her estimate of her neighbor’s age.

        Anyone available in the Charleston area to hit the library microfilm machines in search of an newspaper obituary? :)

        Reply
    1. Andy Hall

      We’re all familiar with “white washing,” that describes attempts to cover up or obscure negative things someone doesn’t want mentioned. Then there’s “green washing,” which some industries or corporations engage in when they make a big, public show of adopting policies that make them seem environmentally friendly, but don’t actually have much real effect on the environment or what they do — it’s about changing peoples’ perceptions, not about doing real environmental good.

      So in that context, “black washing” is a good descriptor for what black Confederate advocates do, pawning off shoddy research, selective quotes and a lot of speculation-presented-as-fact to create a happy, patriotic narrative about African Americans in Confederate military service that has little or no basis in the historical record.

      Reply
  8. Matt McKeon

    It’s a drawing of something an enemy officer claimed to have seen through a telescope. I mean its 3rd hand at best.

    Where are the drawings of black soldiers done by other Confederates?

    Reply
    1. Kevin Levin Post author

      My challenge of a few years ago has still been left unanswered. Find me one wartime account of a black Confederate soldier from somebody in the ranks.

      Reply
  9. GDBrasher

    Hopefully this doesn’t come across as self-serving, but id like to just reiterate Kevin’s suggestion that anyone who honestly seeks to understand the wartime assertions by northerners that the south was arming blacks, should check out my book. You will find that these claims were largely the product of the demand for emancipation by radical Republicans and abolitionists. Ironic, but true.
    http://www.amazon.com/The-Peninsula-Campaign-Necessity-Emancipation/dp/0807835447/ref=sr_1_2?ie=UTF8&qid=1378411020&sr=8-2&keywords=peninsula+campaign

    Reply
    1. Dave Sanders

      Just like you all need to check out Ricardo Rodriguez’ book Black Confederates In The U.S. Civil War: A Compiled List of African – Americans Who Served The Confederacy, the book which after I described it was criticized and ridiculed without anyone reading it. The author has “no dog in the fight.” He is neither a descendant of a Confederate soldier nor does he he take a pro-Confederate stand. He is currently working on a book about Hispanics who served both the blue and the grey. But you’ll probably deny Hispanics fought for the South too.

      At first I thought this was a good site where people could be frank about opinions regarding certain facts about the war between the Union and the Confederacy. I have come to realize that this is definitely not about intelligent discussion, but about a group that shares the same opinion and instead of looking at things objectively it seeks to validate only those facts that support its particular “yankee” point of view. Few have been cordial, others downright rude. Anyone who is from the South or a “Lost Causer”, or “Neo-Confederate”, or any other term you call us appears to be not as “enlightened as yourselves.Too bad, this could have been a great place for discussing the controversial topics in an intelligent manner.

      I certainly hope you do instruct your students to think critically, after weighing all of the evidence. I feel quite satisfied that I do.

      I wish you all the best.

      Reply

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