“A Confederate Negro General”

You can place this one into that ever growing file of wartime accounts that point to the fact that real Confederates never heard of black Confederate soldiers before March 1865. The following appeared in the Richmond Daily Dispatch on June 1, 1864. Enjoy.

–A correspondent of the Houston Telegraph says:

I saw in a Boston paper, not long ago, a statement that we had not only negro troops, but negro officers in our armies. This prodigious tale probably originated as follows:

In the army of Tennessee a Brigadier General had a negro servant who was raised with him from childhood, and who wore all his cast-off clothes Coffee was very proud of an old uniform coat of his master’s, and wore it on gain days. In time or battle, mounted on a spare [h]orse of the General’s, and with excitement, he would charge up and down the field beyond the reach of the shells and On one of these occasions the enemy were in full retreat, and our forces advancing, when a Sergeant with fifteen or twenty prisoners came up with the sable General as he was careering at headlong speed over the plain.

“General,” said the Sergeant, “what shall I do with these prisoners? ”

“Double quick the d — d rascals to the rear,” was the emphatic

Accordingly, the humorous Sergeant trotted his Yankees down the broken road for a mile and a half, and they never could be convinced afterwards that Cuffee was not in the military employ of Cousin Sally Ann.

Interesting that the storyteller acknowledges that the servant was present on the battlefield, but makes it a point to note that he remained out of the “reach of the shells.” I’ve come across a number of these kinds of accounts, which I interpret as white Southerners holding on to a racialized understanding of the battlefield. White men behaved bravely on the battlefield and black men served as an extension of their character, but did not supersede it.

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“Levin’s study is the first of its kind to blueprint and then debunk the mythology of enslaved African Americans who allegedly served voluntarily in behalf of the Confederacy.”–Journal of Southern History

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18 comments… add one
  • Rosieo Oct 17, 2015 @ 2:51

    Your replies lead to more thinking and I thank you for that.

    Scholars say Thomas Jeffferson thought slavery was wrong… Gary Gallagher says Robert Lee thought it was wrong and would cease in God’s own timeline. Therefore, in their heart of hearts maybe Confederate soldiers, some of them, thought slavery wasn’t right. Maybe…

    I think about these things because I have personal experience with discrimination and I find Civil War study helps me look objectively at incidents in my life – which is why I could in some way potentially emphathize with the black man dressed in the general’s coat and think Confederates maybe were hookwinking themselves about slavery.

    I used the term “willful ignorance.”
    The idea of “willful ignorance” comes from an interview Stephen Colbert gave to a Catholic online program.
    Colbert was talking about his character on the Colbert Report, saying the character was willfully ignorant but not malicious. Being willfully ignorant allowed the character to puff himself up. (puff is my word, not Colbert’s…. just sayin’…)
    This is mostly quote but part paraphrase. Colbert said:
    Willful ignorance allows you to win arguments you otherwise wouldn’t because you could be selective about your own facts and still be honest with yourself.
    If you choose not to learn what things are like in reality you can say (a falsehood because it “feels” like the falsehood is true).
    ….. Willful ignorance allows you to win arguments honestly cause you just dont know otherwise.

    Program from which I got quote is here in case you are a Colbert fan: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=lF5tudIqN7w

    • Sherree Oct 24, 2015 @ 1:51

      Interesting conversation here. There is a point at which willful ignorance becomes arrogant ignorance, and it is definitely not innocent, but quite deliberate and destructive. Case in point: modern Confederate “heritage” advocates and HK Edgerton, former head of a chapter of the NAACP.

  • Rosieo Oct 15, 2015 @ 11:38

    Willful ignorance.
    If one does not let info in through eyes or ears or heart or soul, one can yuck it up and feel pretty great. So soldiers never saw the man – or maybe some did but clamped down on that spark of info pretty quick.

    • Kevin Levin Oct 15, 2015 @ 11:42

      I am not a cultural determinist, but it’s safe to say that what white Southerners were able to acknowledge was shaped in various ways as a result of living in a slaveholding society.

      It’s difficult to come to any firm understanding of what they did or didn’t see. I think the war left many slaveowners, who brought camp servants into the army, confused about what they had experienced.

  • Rosieo Oct 15, 2015 @ 9:13

    Isn’t there a chance the enslaved man playing general was making a point: I can ride with skill and swagger, I speak and sound like a general, I have my eye on this camp???? At some level, not as a child but as a man, might he not have been proclaiming and maybe even enjoying himself?
    Perhaps asking this question shows I am naive. If so, tell me. I want to learn.
    To avoid misunderstanding from the get-go: I’m Union/Abolitionist.

    • Kevin Levin Oct 15, 2015 @ 9:18

      I think you make a good point. I agree with you that this individual likely saw this as an opportunity to display his bravery on the battlefield for everyone to see. There is a certain element of play acting here, but it is also clear that the way the story is told is, in part, intended to emasculate this camp servant.

  • Thomas F. Curran Oct 14, 2015 @ 20:01

    Such a condescending story. “Awwwww, Look at the slave playing general. Isn’t that cute.”

    • Andy Hall Oct 15, 2015 @ 4:40

      That sort of tone continues right to the end of some of these mens’ lives, if they were willing to go on playing that role. Here is the Montgomery Advertiser of November 14, 1902, describing a parade conducted by a Confederate reunion there:

      Then a company of wartime body servants of various soldiers came. The old negroes [sic.] were of the purest type of the Southern darkey. Joy shone in the face of every one as they tottered after their former masters just as they followed them in the olden days.

      With one exception the negroes were all stooped and feeble. This exception was Mike Beauregard, an old Greenville negro, who served throughout the entire war. Beauregard was in full regimentals, epauletted and brass buttoned. He clanked a heavy artillery sabre and marched his little band of darkies as proud as a Napoleon.

      The white veterans’ relationship with these men was a complex one, but they were not above making a public spectacle of them as comic caricatures.

  • David Oct 14, 2015 @ 6:29

    You had me going for a minute there……..thought the “Cause” groups had lost their minds!

  • Bryan Cheeseboro Oct 14, 2015 @ 6:27

    Cousin Sally Ann = CSA? I guess that’s what it is. Has the reference been seen anywhere else?

    Nothing about the story really surprises me- White Southerners (and in this case, maybe even one of their slaves)- ridiculing the North’s idea of an integrated army. I wonder if someone in the heritage crowd will be greedy enough to hold this up on a website somewhere as a legitimate command?

  • Rob Baker Oct 14, 2015 @ 5:49

    Cool article.This is one of the few times of seen a southern paper directly refer to norther newspaper accounts of “negro troops.”

  • Andy Hall Oct 14, 2015 @ 5:32

    “Cousin Sally Ann” must be a CW-era variant of “Uncle Sugar.”

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