Yesterday I gave a talk on the myth of the black Confederate solider at the National Civil War Museum in Harrisburg, Pennsylvania. It was my first visit and I highly recommend that you do as well. Thanks to Wayne Motts for the invitation to speak and for taking the time to take me and my wife on a personal tour of the collection. I got to handle some incredible objects, including William Quantrill’s revolver. We had a great crowd for the talk and they asked some excellent questions.

While walking through the exhibit I came across an image of African American men in attendance at a U.C.V. reunion in Tampa in 1927. There is nothing unusual about this image, though unfortunately, the museum labeled it, “Reunion of African-American veterans of the Confederate Army, 1927.” I took a quick pic of it and put it out of my mind until Wayne showed me the original image. At first we didn’t see it it but then someone noticed that at least one of the ribbons clearly states “Ex-Slave.”

While many people still believe that images of black men at reunions (often in uniform) offers proof of their wartime status as soldiers, a little digging usually points to their former roles as camp servants. Descriptions of these men as “uncle” and “boy” or their position in photographs relative to the veterans offers some indication of their role and status at these events.

This is the first time, however, that I have seen such a label. It raises a number of questions as to why they were used and who authorized it. I am also going to have to look more closely at other images to gauge the frequency of their use. I apologize for the quality of this image. Wayne is going to send along a much better copy and I will try to gather more information about it. Always nice to find something that is likely to make it into the book.

Thanks once again to Wayne Motts for being such a gracious host and to everyone who came out for my talk.

About Kevin Levin

Thanks so much for taking the time to read this post. What next? Scroll down and leave a comment if you are so inclined. Looking for more Civil War content? Join the Civil War Memory Facebook group and follow me on Twitter. Check out my book, Remembering the Battle of the Crater: War as Murder, which is an ideal introduction to the subject of Civil War memory and the 1864 battle.

11 comments add yours

  1. Kevin:

    The man sixth from left(seated with the feathered hat) is “Uncle” Steve Eberhart, a well–known ex-slave from Rome, Georgia who was quite proud to wear his extravagant costume at local events. You may wish to see if others like Steve traveled (or were sponsored to travel) to these events. He is mentioned on pages 252, 302, and 370 of George Magruder Battey, A History of Rome and Floyd County (GA), 1922. On page 371, he is pictured in the book in a section titled: Old-Time Darkies with their “habits on.”

    Eberhart may have been named Steve Perry” before he moved from Athens to Rome about 1902. The book lists him as the “mascot” of the Confederate Veterans of Rome, “and in his attempts to attend every reunion of the Boys in Gray collects a lot of money under false pretenses, and gets away with it…At reunion time he puts on his artillery uniform of red and gray, and lays a harangue of profanity that withers every new-fangled darkey.” The book claims he was the former valet to Benjamin Hill and college valet to Henry W. Grady (oraotor and newspaper editor). The book goes on to say that he served with his “marster’, Colonel Abraham Eberhart, “in the war on the west coast of Florida.” This would account for his presence at the Tampa reunion.

    Eberhart is again pictured on page 302 of Battey’s history (incredibly, this is still seen as the definitive local history by many) and there is a brief interview of him. It is very revealing as the book calls Steve “a lily-white Democrat, and Steve (in 1920) expresses his gratitude to “the good white people of Rome for sending me to Texas for the Old Soldiers’ Reunion. I am thankful. I shall ever remain obedient to all the white people.” The book also mentions that the “white folks” gave him enough money to attend the state meeting (of Confederate veterans) at Albany.

    Steve attended Confederate Veterans Floyd County Camp 368.

    You have the article I published on Rome free black William Higginbotham, who agreed to serve as valet to a Confederate officer in return for that officer allowing Higginbotham to purchases the black man’s children. Battey’s book mentions other blacks like Caleb Walker who “claims to have been a solider in 1864 and 1865, though in just what capacity he dos not make clear.” It also mentions Jack Battey, “body-guard” of Dr. Robert battey, who was with his master at Gettysburg. Battey’s papers are at Emory. I have seen them, but not with your purpose in mind.

    Battey’s history amy be considered as a secondary source in studying the Civil War, but it is a primary source in Civil War memory. I think you could mine a lot of great content from these local histories.

    • Hi David,

      Thanks for the comment. I recognized Eberhart as well. Andy Hall has written about him at his Dead Confederates blog. I will follow up with the references you provide. The individual on the far right with the bugle is also well known, though I need to look up his name. Thanks again.

    • A small, but essential, point on Steve Perry: it appears that he used the Perry surname for all “official” purposes from the years immediately after the CW to the end of his life. He appears as Steve (or Stephen) Perry in the U.S. Censuses in 1870, 1900, 1910 and 1920, and in his death record from 1936. His children, Annie and Paul, carried the Perry surname. “Steve Eberhart” seems to be an identity, a role, that he adopted for the purpose of Confederate veteran reunions and, day-to-day, interacting with the white community in Rome. There’s a great deal that’s been written about “Uncle Steve Eberhart” that’s absolute hogwash, such as this from 1921:

      Two of the most interesting figures at the reunion of Confederate veterans at Chattanooga, Tenn., recently were Patrick Eberhart, one of the ‘boys of ’61,’ and ‘Uncle Steve’ Eberhart, who has remained with his master ever since the war ended.

      In short, “Steve Eberhart” is a largely fictional character played more-or-less continually for 25 years, by Steve Perry, for reasons that we not fully understand. But there’s no question in my mind that Steve understood that “Uncle Steve Eberhart” was a role distinct from himself.

  2. Kevin:

    While working with materials from the Federal Writers’ Project (FWP) ex-slave interview program, I ran across a 1937 request from FWP Associate Director George Cronyn to Mabel Montgomery, South Carolina FWP Director. He mentioned news coverage of Ransom Simmons, an “ex-slave who attended the recent Confederate Veterans’ Reunion at Jackson, Mississippi.” Cronyn wanted Montgomery to try to track down Simmons, who lived in Columbia, SC, in order to interview him, concluding that Simmons “might contribute an interesting addition to the ex-slave stories.” (A 1937 Life magazine story included two pictures of Simmons in an article on the Jackson reunion and noted that he had been Wade Hampton’s body servant.) A later FWP letter suggests that Ransom died before he could be interviewed. Still, the fact that the FWP viewed him as a viable candidate for its ex-slave interview program further suggests that viewing men like Ransom as black Confederate soldiers, rather than camp servants, is a recent phenomenon.

    I am happy to share these documents with you if you like.

    Best,

    Ethan

  3. I will never get this issue. Okay, a soldier enlists. They have a document they sign, for centuries, across all western societies. This is considered a way of obligating them to service. If you do not enlist and are not on enlistment rolls you are NOT a soldier. The end. Now societies, slave and free, have had camp followers, men and women, civilians who provide serves of various kinds back to ancient times. NOT soldiers, never. Veterans, also easy, you are a member of the group or not. An honorary member should be recognized as a person who is esteemed by the group, unless they are called a mascot and people make fun of them. I write about Lucy Nichols a black women honorary member of a GAR post in Indiana, they speak of her service with pride an honor. I have a letter written by the GAR post commander on her death, it is very moving. This is only a conversation because slaves working for the confederacy are treated as something exotic, this has happened in all large armies everywhere. No military historian considers them soldiers, EVER.

    • “BUT” I think that part of what helps sustain the BCM is that this “enlistment” model falls apart in the CW South. Examining Confederate military service on a micro level, shows many men who may have picked up rifles in service of the Confederacy but were not quite soldiers. There were men who had joined pre-war militias but did not stay with those units when/if they rolled over into CSA. Many men joined home guards or – after the 1864 conscription extension to 17 and 50 year olds – “cradle to grave” units. Some of these man fought in combat; many never heard hostile gun fire. Consequently, there were many “enlisters” who never left their villages and may not have been considered soldiers. Then there is the issue of partisans. My point is not to defend the BCM, but only to point out that who enlisted and who was a soldier in the CS is not always clear. It’s almost easier to say who is not a soldier than who is.

      • I just found an instance of this in my genealogical research. Some great-great uncles and cousins, all really too old (30s to 40s) for active service were enrolled in a Virginia militia regiment in 1861, but it seems the unit fought no battles or was never mentioned in the Official Records and there is only the initial enlistment record, no subsequent cards.

        I would think many of these units served as local provosts and had part-time policing duties (rounding up deserters or runaways).

    • @ Barb

      “If you do not enlist and are not on enlistment rolls you are NOT a soldier.” That’s true for the most part, but not always. During the Japanese-Soviet War of 1939, Japanese prisoners (many of whom were Koreans who themselves were pressed into service by the Imperial Japanese Army) were held in POW/labor camps until Germany invaded the USSR. They were then pressed into the Red Army. Many who later were captured by the Wehrmacht were then pressed into German service, and some of them were captured on Omaha Beach by the Americans. The ancient Greek states likewise employed slaves in their armies.

      Just to be sure, this does not mean I believe that slaves or free blacks joined the Confederate army (at least not until March 1865, and we all know how well that experiment went).

Now that you've read the post, share your thoughts.