Camp Slaves Defend Their Honor at Fort Henry

This will likely be the last time that I ask for assistance in interpreting a primary source related to my black Confederates book before I complete revisions in the next week or two. This source was shared with me by historian Timothy Smith and centers on a very unusual scene that took place just before the fall of forts Henry and Donelson in early 1862.

The account was written by S.C. Mitchell, who served in the 3rd Tennessee, roughly twenty-five years after the war. Among the things that Mitchell recalled included the following:

Speaking of Ned reminds me: One of the most amusing things of the whole war occured between Ned and Major Pointer, servant of Gen Brown. Ned and Major were eternally quarreling and Gen. Brown and Capt. Hamp Cheeny arranged a duel between them. They loaded two navy pistols with blank cartridges one to each of them. Gen. Brown seconded Ned and Capt. C., Major. They measured off then paces and placed them in position and they were commanded to fire at word three. Neither Ned nor Major knew that the pistols had no balls in them and thought that the thing was in terrible earnest. Capt. Cheeny called out “one, -two”–and both the dusky heroes started to run. They were driven back and the terrible “one, two,” rang out again, with both running a second time. were brought to the scratch a third time and as “one” was called, Ned broke down saying: “Gen. Brown, you knows I love Major better ‘an anybody, ‘cepin to you.” This broke up the duel but Ned and Major were everafterwards good friends and quit quarrelling.

What I find so interesting is their attempt to assume the roles and even the practices that had come to define the defense of white southern honor during the antebellum period. But as much as these two camp slaves attempted to embrace the duel as a way to settle their dispute they can’t quite get it right and this is emphasized by the author.

Although Ned and Major took this showdown seriously, the participation of the two officers suggests that this was viewed as pure entertainment by their fellow officers and any enlisted men that happened to witness this duel. It is highly unlikely that the two officers playing the roles of second viewed this as a legitimate defense of honor. After all, the duel was a method that white gentleman utilized to defend their honor throughout the antebellum period.

Ned’s flight as the countdown proceeded not only highlighted the comedic element of the moment and confirmed his cowardice, but also reaffirmed for the white audience a crucial distinction between slave and soldier.

So, what else do you see in this account that is worth exploring?

20 comments… add one
  • As you say, it was a burlesque to the white officers, a parody of honor culture set up to reinforce who really had honor and who didn’t. The tone of the account established that. But what strikes me most is that the slaves really assumed they were being forced to kill each other for sport. Some benign institution, that made that a easily conceivable possibility.

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  • I don’t want spiral down the rabbit hole into Django Unchained territory, but how routine was it to see slaves pitted against one another for the sake of entertainment?

    It might be worth thinking about antebellum pop-culture. Thinking about the perspective of the white officers – the situation reeks of a minstrel show. I’m curious if a similar set of circumstances (two duelists without live rounds) was ever in a show during the antebellum. These men might recreating the scene for their pleasure or at the very least, creating something similar.

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  • What Ken said.

    The “humor” in this anecdote comes from having two camp servants, who are about as far as you can get in status from white southern gentlemen of the dueling class, being egged on to fight a duel, and (this is important) being depicted as simple and pretentious enough to go along with it, almost right to the end — at which point, of course, their courage fails them and they shirk their duty upon the gentleman’s field of honor. It’s ugly, mocking stuff, but there are lots of stories with a similar theme, that mock the pretensions of African American camp servants, and reinforce their low status by temporarily elevating them in some ridiculous fashion for the purposes of mockery. Consider this, from an Alabama reunion in 1902:

    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.

    That’s open mockery, and it’s part and parcel of the way real Confederates interacted with African Americans. While I don’t doubt there’s real affinity there, it’s based in part on the African Americans playing a specific role.

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  • It simply seems to me that any “honor” at all belongs to the two camp servants who refused to do what white men had been doing for years–kill one another over a stupid argument.

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    • But it’s important to understand that in the story (as told), they didn’t refuse to do it on principle. They refused to do it when their courage failed at the last minute, which is part of mocking them.

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      • Right, which as a result reinforced the officers’ own sense of honor as a white man.

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  • Argh!

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  • I think this is valuable in illustrating Mitchell’s racial attitudes, or what he thought the taste of his readers would be. I’m not sure if it’s true, though.

    It’s interesting that a similar story appears in the first chapter of C. S. Forester’s Mr. Midshipman Hornblower (1950), “Hornblower and the Even Chance.” Hornblower duels another midshipman, and both survive because their superiors load both pistols with blank rounds.

    It’s possible that the resemblance is coincidental. It’s also possible that Mitchell’s story was passed down over the years, and Forester appropriated it. But I tend to think that it was an old story that Mitchell and Forester adapted for their own purposes.

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    • Forester used a similar plot device previously in The Captain from Connecticut (1941). I doubt that Forester was aware of Mitchell’s account, but it probably is a common way of novelists dealing with a confrontation between characters that IRL would often leave one or both maimed or dead. Unfortunately for readers, it’s a plot device that really only works the first time; after that it becomes a gimmick.

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      • The scene seems familiar to me, as if it’s from an old comedy. By old, I mean Shakespeare or even one of the comedies by one of the Greek playwrights of classical antiquity.

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  • I thought it was interesting one of the slaves was named “Major”. I suppose Major is occasionally a given name, but I wonder it was actually the man’s name or if it was a nickname given in mockery?

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    • I couldn’t make heads or tails of that one.

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      • I’m wondering if there was something similar to a trend – this is not the first time I’ve read about a slave named Major. Robert E. Lee manumitted a man named Major Custis in 1862. I’ve also seen references to a slave named General.

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        • The full name of a “Colored Under-cook” regularly enlisted into a white Illinois regiment was “General Lee.”

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  • “1873: The last duel in what is now Canada occurred in August 1873, in a field near St. John’s, Newfoundland (which was not Canadian territory at the time). The duellists, Mr. Dooley and Mr. Healey, once friends, had fallen in love with the same young lady, and had quarrelled bitterly over her. One challenged the other to a duel, and they quickly arranged a time and place. No one else was present that morning except the two men’s seconds. Dooley and Healey were determined to proceed in the ‘honourable’ way, but as they stood back-to-back with their pistols raised, they must have questioned what they were doing. Nerves gave way to terror as they slowly began pacing away from each other. When they had counted off the standard ten yards, they turned and fired. Dooley hit the ground immediately. Healey, believing he had killed Dooley, was seized with horror. But Dooley had merely fainted; the seconds confessed they had so feared the outcome that they loaded the pistols with blanks. Although this was a serious breach of duelling etiquette, both opponents gratefully agreed that honour had indeed been satisfied.” https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/List_of_duels

    Mr. Mitchell’s story is bogus.

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  • What Ken Noe and Andy Hall said. The casual cruelty of using the ritual of “honor” to reinforce white men’s status by terrorizing two slaves is really disgusting.

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    • Msb, I am very sure this even never took place. The account was written about 25 years after the war, so 1890. I have provided an almost identical story from 1873. Which would lead the careful history to concluded that not only is the anecdote disgusting, it is a completely fabricated lie.

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