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?