Henry Grady Recalls His Father’s Camp Slave

This has to be one of the more interesting postwar references to Confederate camp slaves that I have uncovered. Henry Grady was an Atlanta newspaper editor, but he was best known as a leading voice in the “New South” movement, which embraced industrial development through northern investment. The challenge for men like Grady was in reassuring white southerners in the period following Reconstruction that such changes would not threaten traditional values or upset what was a fragile racial hierarchy.

What follows is an excerpt from a speech that Grady delivered to the Boston Merchants Association in December 1889, just weeks before his death:

I catch another vision: The crisis of battle-a soldier struck staggering fallen. I see a slave, scuffling through the smoke, winding his black arms about the fallen form, reckless of the hurtling death-bending his trusty face to catch the words that tremble on the stricken lips; so wrestling meantime with agony that he would lay down his life in his master’s stead. I see him by the weary bedside ministering with uncomplaining patience, praying with all his humble heart that God would lift his master up, until death comes in mercy and in honor to still the soldier’s agony and seal the soldier’s life. I see him by the open grave, mute, motionless, uncovered, suffering for the death of him who in life fought against his freedom. I see him, when the mound is heaped and the great drama of his life is closed, turn away and with downcast eyes and uncertain step start out into new and strange fields faltering, struggling, but moving on, till his shambling figure is lost in the light of this better and brighter day. And from the grave comes a voice saying: “Follow him! Put your arms about him in his need even as he put his arms about me. Be his friend as he was mine. And out into this new world-strange to me as to him, dazzling, bewildering both-I follow! And may God forget my people when they forget these.

Grady left out the fact that his father lost his life on July 30, 1864, at Petersburg, Virginia, in what came to be known as the battle of the Crater. The battle is best remembered for the early morning detonation of explosives under a Confederate salient followed by a Union assault that included an entire division of United States Colored Troops. Many of the black soldiers were executed after surrendering by Confederates who viewed their participation as nothing less than a slave rebellion. It is entirely possible that a black soldier killed Grady’s father.

I have already offered my reading of this passage in my manuscript, but I would love to know how you interpret this particular reference.

7 comments… add one
  • Troll Jan 6, 2017

    Must be a sad existence to have to prove to the world everyday how “racist” southern whites are.

    • Kevin Levin Jan 6, 2017

      Thanks for the comment and for the window into your little insecure world.

  • Andy Hall Jan 6, 2017

    There is a theme in popular culture known as the “Magical Negro,” an African American man — it’s usually a man — of low station and limited education, who is nonetheless imbued with a supernatural gift of insight and grace, who manages to save the white protagonist, sometimes at the cost of his own life. He sacrifices himself, or some great part of himself, for the benefit of the benefit of the white protagonist, and demands nothing in return. That’s what Henry Grady is describing.

    • Kevin Levin Jan 6, 2017

      Interesting. He may ‘demand nothing in return’ but the point of the story is that his actions do saddle the white community with obligations.I am also not sure if I see this as a “supernatural gift.” Grady and others would argue that this camp slave’s devotion was a natural extension of a benevolent master – slave relationship.

  • Paul O'Neil Jan 6, 2017

    I see it as a call for the continuation of the “paternalistic” view of the African American. They still need looking after by the white race, even though they are now free. The legal status may have changed but socially they are still inferior.

    • Kristoffer Jan 6, 2017

      I don’t think so. Paternalism doesn’t call for treating black persons with the same humanity that this black person gave to his master.

  • James F. Epperson Jan 10, 2017

    Just as an FYI, Grady’s postwar home, the Taylor-Grady house, still stands in Athens, GA. It is often used as a wedding venue, which is what my wife and I did back in 1983.

    We now return to our regularly scheduled programming …

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