A Loyal Slave Standing at Attention in 1909

I’ve said before that the handful of Facebook pages devoted to pushing the myth of the black Confederate soldier has been an incredible source for primary sources from newspaper articles to images, including the one featured in this post. Of course, the problem is with how administrators and members of these pages interpret these sources.

This image was posted as having been taken in 1910 at a UCV reunion in Memphis, Tennessee.

If this is an image from the Memphis reunion than it was taken in 1909 and not 1910. On the right you will see Louis Napoleon Nelson, who followed his master as a servant to war and eventually became a cook for Company M, 7th Tennessee Cavalry.

You will notice that Nelson is situated just off to the right of the rest of the group. This is very common in images of veterans and former slaves. Nelson’s location served as a reminder of his presence and role in Confederate units, but it also serves as a reminder of the racial hierarchy of the 1860s as well as the early twentieth century.

This is as powerful an image of the loyal slave as you will find.

9 thoughts on “A Loyal Slave Standing at Attention in 1909

  1. Forester

    Hey, another update on my family’s “lBlack Confederate” narrative. His master resigned before the 55th NC fought in major battles, so I always assumed “Uncle Jeff” was lying about firing a weapon.
    But it might have happened.

    Today, I discovered a book from 1901 on Archive.org which detailed 2 small engagements that my ancestor was probably involved in. Firing on a Union gunboat to prevent them from landing (August 7, 1862) and a failed attempt to recapture Washington, N.C. (September 5). If he really fired a gun, it was probably when scaring off that Union gunboat. These little waterside skirmishes were common in the early war and didn’t really amount to anything.

    I was wondering, are Black Confederate narratives typically set in major campaigns, or small skirmishes like the ones I just described? I can imagine a slave being allowed to shoot at a distant gunboat, but I can’t imagine them trusting him in a major battle.

    Reply
    1. Kevin Levin Post author

      I was wondering, are Black Confederate narratives typically set in major campaigns, or small skirmishes like the ones I just described?

      Good question. I’ve seen examples of both, but they tend to place camp slaves in major battles, which is not surprising given that these accounts were meant for an audience. I have also see plenty of examples where no specific battle is mentioned. It’s enough to place the camp slave on the battlefield.

      Reply
      1. Forester

        On an unrelated side note: my ancestor resigned command because he was disgusted with Col. Connally’s aggression and the company’s lack of supplies.

        His replacement was George Allen Gilreath, whose death at Gettysburg established the legendary “High Water Mark of the Confederacy.” This was, of course, part of Pickett’s (suicidal) Charge. Had Captain Forester stayed in command of the 55th NC Company B, he probably would have been the one killed …. and I would never have existed.

        In light of that, I can’t say I’m sorry he went home and sat the war out.

        Reply
        1. Kevin Levin Post author

          That charge was no more “suicidal” than any of Lee’s many other charges. Keep in mind that it doesn’t approach the scale of some of his other assaults.

          Reply
          1. Forester

            Point taken. I’m just bitter about Pickett’s charge because it would have gotten ME killed (by killing my ancestor, I wouldn’t have existed).

            But historically … yeah, you’re right. I was expressing emotion more than fact.

            Reply
  2. bob carey

    Kevin,
    Besides being segregated from the group in general, it appears Mr. Nelson is the only person in the group not bearing a weapon. It appears he is holding a satchel of some kind.

    Reply
    1. Kevin Levin Post author

      Nice catch. At first, I thought it might be some kind of ceremonial sword, but your suggestion makes more sense.

      Reply
      1. Julian

        Actually if you look at the jpeg when you enlarge it, he IS holding something like a staff, it is stiff, thin dark and extends above his shoulder in the image, he has also perhaps a coat or a bag/satchell/haversack draped over his right arm, emotions and proving a point can always get in the way of reading an image, but he is clearly off to the side – separated from the ranks of men, as said. Then there is another group of men to the left, most not in uniform, one who is blurred and appears to be darker pigmented or perhaps that is just the shadow of the blurring/movement? and a male who looks more youthful but dressed in a uniform, a proto-reenactor of sorts, the arrangement of the photo, the poses, the accouterments and symbols is all very deliberate, and seen repeatedly in other examples

        Reply
  3. James Simcoe

    It’s a weird continuation of the Black Man as an object, not a human being with depth to create the Black Confederate narrative. One of Kevin’s readers put it succinctly – ‘Human beings are not binary,’ although humans can make great efforts to function as a binary being. Taken to extremes we then have the pathological personality! Practically speaking, these men would have been given military gear while living in Confederate camps as a matter of course. ‘Finished’ civilian clothing would have been in small supply while in the field. The uniform would have functioned also as a kind of ‘pass.’ ‘I’m with Colonel Jenkins,’ and a paper verifying this would have granted safe movement, i.e., not a scout/spy. After 2-3 years of living near explosions, carrying messages while under fire, grisly hospitals, sleet, tropical humidity etc. would make me feel entitled to wear a uniform years later! Fishel’s book on Union intelligence records one George Wright who lived with Lee’s army until he appeared at Butterfield’s tent with a detailed description of all unit assignments and positions after Chancellorsville on the way to Gettysburg.

    Reply

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