The Continued Appeal of the Lost Cause

I frequent a number of Facebook pages that attract people who, for one reason or another, cling tightly to the Lost Cause narrative. You will not be surprised to learn that one of my favorites is called, “Black Confederates in the Civil War.” One of the reasons I visit is because members regularly post excerpts from Confederate Veteran and other publications and even primary sources from websites such as Fold3. It’s like having an army of researchers at your disposal. I’ve collected hundreds of such sources for my book project.

These postings are rarely accompanied by any attempt at interpretation. It’s understood by the members of the group that the postings offer undeniable proof of the existence of black Confederate soldiers. One of the more frequent posters in recent months has been Teresa Roane, who at one time worked as an archivist at the Museum of the Confederacy and is now apparently working for the United Daughters of the Confederacy. A few years ago Ms. Roane sent me a package of requested materials related to camp servants and impressed slaves from the MOC.

You may find it interesting that she is African American.

Ms. Roane posts regularly in a group that is overwhelmingly white. The stories of supposedly loyal black soldiers and slaves are happily consumed and the comment threads that follow offer readers the opportunity to strike an imaginary blow at those who they believe are trying to hide this history from the general public our deny it outright.

Once in a while, however, a post and comment thread are worth highlighting. Consider this excerpt from Confederate Veteran (June 1896) , which was posted by Ms. Roane:

CHATTANOOGA NEGROES COMPLIMENT A CONFEDERATE.—W.P. McClatchy, Commander N. B. Forrest Camp, Chattanooga, Tenn., has been honored by the Negro men of that city. They presented him with a gold-headed cane. Addresses were made by J. W. White and J. G. Burge, Negro lawyers there. Comrade McClatchy held the office of City Recorder (Judge of the City) Court) last year, and at the expiration of his term he was greatly surprised when these men presented it as a token of their friendship and esteem, and for the just and impartial manner in which he had dealt with their race.. He asked them why they “U.C.V. 1861-65,” engraved on it, and they replied that they wished to emphasize that while he was a Southern man, and a Confederate soldier, he had administered the law justly and impartially. The N. B. Forrest Camp hearing of this compliment to its commander, by a rising vote thanked the donors for their expression of confidence in and esteem for a Confederate soldier, and a Southern Democrat who had “administered the law, in wisdom, justice and moderation.”

The inscription reads: “U.C.V., 1861-1865, J. W. and J. G. to W. P. McC., 1895.” Which stands for United Confederate Veteran 1861 to 1865, White and J. G. Burge to W. P. McClatchy, 1895.

In a note comrade says: I never had a present in my life that I appreciated any more than this. Every true Southerner understands and appreciates a good Negro, while the Negro understands and that the Southern man is the best friend he has. But for the meddling of people who really care nothing for the Negro, but who are prejudiced against the South, there would be no friction between the races.

You can find these postwar accounts throughout Confederate Veteran as well as other publications, especially local newspapers. Again, no attempt is made to interpret this account by providing any sort of historical context. It is simply taken at face value. It reminds me of a question/comment I was confronted with last July during my talk marking the 150th anniversary of the Crater. The audience member attempted to paint a picture of peaceful race relations in Petersburg, Virginia after the war owing to the presentation of a ring to William Mahone by the black community.

Now, perhaps the above source speaks for itself, but to grant this we must ignore the broader historical context of the 1890s and the rise of Jim Crow. Once we ask why the black community presented a former Confederate with a gold-headed cane in 1896 we are asking a very different question. What did this group hope to accomplish as a result of such an honor. Now we are closer to doing history.

Historical rigor or any kind of analysis of primary sources, however, is not the goal here and that is what makes this post and the site as a whole so fascinating to me.

Black Confederate FacebookWhen you read the comments it becomes clear why the above account and the black Confederate accounts that populate this site are so seductive. These stories offer an alternative to the news of racial unrest across the country. It reduces racial violence to a historical anomaly.

I’ve always had difficulty understanding why African Americans such as Ms. Roane, Karen Cooper and H.K. Edgerton actively promote such a discredited interpretation of the past within communities that are overwhelmingly white for a reason.

Perhaps its as simple as acknowledging that the use of the past to transcend what currently divides us knows no racial boundaries.

14 comments… add one
  • Al Mackey Jun 2, 2015

    I’ve read a few of Ms. Roane’s postings, Kevin, and in those that I saw she was careful in her wording that she was posting about African-Americans in support roles to the confederate army, something with which I have no problem. Has she been less careful in other postings?

    • Kevin Levin Jun 2, 2015

      Hi Al,

      At times she is careful, but at other times she offers no context and often supports obvious misreadings by other readers. Consider this example in which she presents an account of a camp servant. In the comments section a reader refers to him as a soldier and Ms. Roane offers her approval with a “like.”

  • Will Hickox Jun 2, 2015

    “He asked them why they “U.C.V. 1861-65,” engraved on it, and they replied that they wished to emphasize that while he was a Southern man, and a Confederate soldier, he had administered the law justly and impartially.”

    It seems obvious that the African Americans who made the presentation were struck by the *novelty* of a white southerner and ex-Confederate treating them fairly. Therefore wouldn’t this account undermine the neo-Confederate case for a racially harmonious postwar South?

    • Kevin Levin Jun 2, 2015

      You would think so, but notice that none of this comes out in the comment thread below. A close reading of the text rarely happens on this particular site.

  • anneban85 Jun 3, 2015

    I have a hard time understanding the confusion regarding the definition of a soldier. In North Carolina, pension board officials defined a Confederate soldier as someone who was regularly enlisted in Confederate service and who bore arms during the conflict. There are seemingly endless letters in the pension collections in the state archives that repeat this theme: “The Confederacy had no negro troops. A number of negroes followed their masters to the war as their bodily [body] servants, but they were not classed as confederate troops.” —- Baxter Durham, State Auditor, 1924

    I don’t know how much clearer it can get than that.

    • Kevin Levin Jun 3, 2015

      I have a hard time understanding the confusion regarding the definition of a soldier.

      Confederates were very clear in their defining of was and was not a soldier. The confusion is a function of an attempt to re-write the past so as to reflect a view of the Confederacy that would have been utterly foreign to the men and women who struggled to bring about its independence.

      Baxter Durham, State Auditor, 1924

      Can you provide me with a reference for this quote from Durham? Thanks.

    • Andy Hall Jun 3, 2015

      As Kevin says, actual Confederates were very clear about the status these men. Almost every former Confederate state that awarded them pensions created a separate program for them, distinct from those established — usually years earlier — for former soldiers or their widows. Those who promote the idea of large numbers of African Americans serving as Confederate soldiers will often say, “look at the pensions,” but when you actually bother to read them they tell a different story.

      • Al Jun 9, 2015

        Andy your comments are spot on. My great great grandfather was a slave from Essex County VA. Virginia had very strict rules in place that denied any black civil war veterans (free or otherwise), the ability to apply for a confederate pension. During the war, he served as body servant for a young Captain in one of the Essex County Cavalry companies. He survived the war and after emancipation, he eventually got married, moved to Hanover County VA and raised a family. Recently I was able to get my hands on a copy of his original confederate pension application, dated 1924. I find the document totally fascinating as it identifies; his role as a body servant, his tenure of service as the duration of the war, his general duties as a body servant, and it also contains the endorsements of two other white confederate veterans. Apparently it was his third time trying to obtain a pension but he didn’t successfully receive it until 59 years after the war ended. By this time, he was 82 years of age and almost completely blind. He died 3 years later at the age of 85 years old. Interestingly his name was “General Roane” (General was his given first name) and he was a slave for the Roane family of Tappahannock, VA. I wonder if this Teresa Roane is of any distant relation.

  • Leo Jun 3, 2015

    I have happened upon people sighting the word “servant” rather than “the word “slave” in these records as proof free blacks volunteered for the Confederacy. … It boggles the mind.

  • Andy Hall Jun 4, 2015

    Ms. Roane sometimes makes assertions that are not borne out be the actual evidence she offers. For example, this posted Thursday:

    You may recall that I posted the Georgia Resolution that paid the slaves to work at Fort Pulaski.

    When I used this document in my Powerpoint presentation, some historians still would not believe me. Here is the evidence that the slaves were paid.

    Journal of the Public and Secret Proceedings
    of the Convention of the People of Georgia,
    Held in Milledgeville and Savannah in 1861, Together with the Ordinances Adopted:
    Electronic Edition.
    Georgia. Convention of the People

    Page 118
    Be it resolved by the people of Georgia in Convention assembled, That the Governor be requested to convey to each of the gentlemen who contributed this force, the thanks of this Convention for their patriotic action.
    And be it further resolved, That the Governor be also requested and authorized to make a suitable gratuity in money to the slaves thus employed.

    © This work is the property of the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. It may be used freely by individuals for research, teaching and personal use as long as this statement of availability is included in the text.

    Here she quotes a resolution, which does not have the force of a law, asking the governor of Georgia to give a “gratuity” to slaves who had been impressed to work on fortifications at Fort Pulaski. But a resolution simply indicates what the legislature wants the governor to do, not what he was willing to do, or what he actually did. The resolution doesn’t obligate the governor to do anything. Ms. Roane also doesn’t address what was likely a significant disparity between what Governor Brown might consider a “suitable gratuity” and what these mens’ labor on the fortifications would command were it offered voluntarily. Instead of addressing these issues, she simply elides all of them by asserting that this resolution is “evidence that the slaves were paid.” She not only fails to address unanswered questions, she doesn’t even acknowledge they exist.

    I’m sure the folks over at the SHPG are fine with that, but I think it’s a poor showing for someone with her professional background as an archivist. Documents like this Georgia resolution aren’t the answer to questions, they’re the starting point for further research and discussion.

    Facebook isn’t really a good venue for presenting and discussing serious scholarship, though, and it’s hard to evaluate the depth of a person’s research there. I do hope Ms. Roane eventually publishes her research in a more formal setting, where she can more fully document and discuss her understanding of the role African Americans played in the Confederacy’s war effort.

  • Dave Dixon Jun 5, 2015

    Kevin: Many thanks for your insightful posts. The myth of the black Confederate soldier had its beginnings with the supposed heroism of slave and free black body servants attending rebel officers in the field. This from Rome, Georgia, in 1861.

    Wm. Higginbotham, a well-known free man of color, also returned on Saturday morning. He reached Manassas on the morning of the battle, but was denied the privilege of taking a gun and falling into the ranks. He then assisted in removing
    the dead and wounded, amid a shower of balls that fell around. Such deeds are highly meritorious and deserve much credit.

    – Editor, Rome Weekly Courier, August 9, 1861

    My Winter 2011 article in Georgia Backroads magazine reveals the sotry behind this sham:

    In the aftermath of the first significant Confederate victory of the Civil War, the Rome, Georgia, press attempted to create the impression that the entire community, including black men like William Barton Higginbotham, was behind the new government, and eager to fight the “Lincolnites.” The truth was quite different. Higginbotham, a prosperous saloon operator at Rome’s Choice House hotel since the early 1850s, did not go to Virginia imbued with a sense of patriotism for the new Confederate nation. He went to free his children.
    Higginbotham’s wife and children were the slaves of Dr. Homer V. M. Miller, a surgeon in the 8th Georgia Regiment. Dr. Miller maintained that he would only sell Higginbotham’s children to their father if this proud black man would serve as Miller’s personal servant on the battlefield. Higginbotham agreed, and purchased his children in 1862. He was not allowed to purchase his wife.

    Happy to send you the complete artcile pdf if you like.

    This is my favorite Civil War website. Bravo!

    • Kevin Levin Jun 5, 2015

      Hi Dave,

      Thanks for the kind words. Yes, I would love to have a copy of your article. Thanks.

  • Ben Hawley May 5, 2018

    Ms. Roane, I am writing in reference to the Point of Rocks Program in Chesterfield, VA in June of this year. I noted that your subject you will be discussing will be USCT Soldiers. Would you give me a short synopsis of your talk?
    Ben Hawley
    Secretary,
    B Company, 54th Mass Regiment
    Washington, DC
    29thconn@gmail.com

    • Kevin Levin May 5, 2018

      She is likely not going to see this comment. May want to try to contact her directly.

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