Black Confederate Soldiers has more of a professional look to it, but the information and commentary provided is as misleading as anything you will find online. You will find all of the standard accounts on the “History Facts” page as if to assume that serious history involves a simple listing of facts without any attempt at analysis or confirmation. The bibliography is nothing more than an assortment of neo-Confederate/Sons of Confederate Veterans propaganda that fails to draw any distinction between secondary and primary studies. The authors of this site invite readers to share their own sources on the subject.
Interestingly, both Kevin Weeks and Ann DeWitt are African American. DeWitt seems to be responsible for much, if not all, of the content of the website. As in the case of Edward C. Smith I get the sense that we are looking at another example of wanting to acknowledge the presence and importance of African Americans in our collective memory. And as I’ve said before, this is certainly understandable. In this case, however, there is something very personal at stake for DeWitt:
Born and raised in the south, I was taught forgiveness. (Matthew 18:21-22). During my research, I visited a 19th century church in Oxford, Georgia called “The Old Church.” Sitting in the front pew during a tour, I finally understood that one cannot completely understand the complexity of the American Civil War and its ties to slavery until there is complete forgiveness. The people I met on this journey gave an open reception and led me down the safest trails in obtaining the facts about Black Confederate Soldiers. For this, I am grateful.
Perhaps, Christian slaves forgave and picked up arms to fight for the little they acquired during their years on American soil. Not until we set aside our differences can we have the necessary dialog about everyone, regardless of color, family lineage, political, or military affiliation, who made tremendous sacrifice from the first shots fired on Fort Sumter in April 1861 until the the final surrender of General Robert E. Lee at the Appomattox Court House in April 1865.
I have no interest in critiquing what motivates Ms. DeWitt to explore American history and the history of race relations specifically. That said, there is something very honest about the above passage and I certainly sympathize with the ways in which understanding history can help to bring about understanding and reconciliation. Unfortunately, this site does little more than promote the same tired myths and moves us even further away from understanding how the war effected the master-slave relationship.
I remember the disappointment on the faces of some of my students when I revealed that many of the images used by Ken Burns in his documentary to accompany his narrative about slavery were actually from the postwar period. As horrified as we are by the harsh reality of slavery we still seek a connection with that past. We want to understand the human dimension of this sad chapter of American history. It’s no surprise that the release of an image purportedly of two young slave children from North Carolina would receive so much attention. The photograph even comes with a bill of sale that is attributed to one of the two children. New York collector Keya Morgan said he paid $30,000 for the photo album including the photo of the young boys and several family pictures and $20,000 for the sale document.
Representatives of the historical community were quick to offer their own assessment of the document’s significance:
Such photos were circulated in the North by abolitionists to garner support for the Union during the Civil War, said Harold Holzer, an author of several books about Lincoln. Holzer works as an administrator at the Metropolitan Museum of Art. Most of the photos depicted adult slaves who had been beaten or whipped, he said. The photo of the two boys is more subtle, Holzer said, which may be why it wasn’t widely circulated and remained unpublished for so long. “To me, it’s such a moving and astonishing picture,” he said.
Ron Soodalter, an author and member of the board of directors at the Abraham Lincoln Institute in Washington, D.C., said the photo depicts the reality of slavery. “I think this picture shows that the institution of slavery didn’t pick or choose,” said Soodalter, who has written several books on historic and modern slavery. “This was a generic horror. It victimized the old, the young.”
I posted this story on my Facebook page and agreed with others that the image was probably from the postwar period. Leonard Lanier offered the following comment after going back to the 1850 Slave Schedule:
I have my doubts over whether the slave bill of sale goes with the photograph. The 1850 Slave Schedule for Brunswick County, NC lists a “George W. Potter” as the owner of seven slaves, including two boys aged 16 and 14. The census also lists two adult male slaves aged 24 and 30. Considering the large sum paid Potter’s estate administrator in .1854, $1150, for “John” I think the bill of sale is for one of these older men. Such a high price reflects their value as able field hands. However, either man is clearly too old by 1860 to be the subject of the photograph.
It’s not conclusive, but it should lead to further questions. Either way it is a fascinating photograph and a wonderful find.
This is great. In 1993 Professor Edward C. Smith addressed a Sons of Confederate Veterans meeting on the subject of black Confederates. Unfortunately, only the first ten minutes of his presentation was posted, but it is extremely helpful. First, Prof. Smith is a Professor of Anthropology at American University. It is unclear to me on what grounds he can claim to be an authority on this particular subject. As far as I can tell he has never published anything on the subject in a scholarly journal. I suspect that he can claim as much authority as Earl Ijames. What is interesting is the timing of the speech just a few short years after the release of Glory, which I suggested yesterday functioned as a catalyst for interest in this issue. Well, Smith confirms my suspicions, but he also helps us to better understand why African Americans may be interested in this subject. From what I can tell Smith views this subject as the next step in more fully understanding the place of African Americans within the broader national narrative. Blacks served as soldiers in the Union army so it must be the case that they also served in Confederate armies. Smith wants a more inclusive history that does justice to the accomplishments of black Americans. That is certainly understandable. I hope the rest of this speech is eventually posted.
One of the challenges that I faced this past year as head of the history department was filling one final vacancy. You would think that with this economy we would have had no problem finding the right individual. Well, think again. Private schools face a number of challenges in the hiring department. We are looking for folks that excel at teaching, work well with students, have an interest in coaching, and in our case, living in the dormitory. This year we were flooded with resumes.
For the department we were looking to bring someone in with an interest in non-western history and International Studies. It’s important for us to be able to offer courses that challenge our students to think globally. We want them to be able to build on their understanding of world history in the 9th and 10th grades with a thorough understanding of global politics and culture in the modern world. As April wore on I was worried that we were not going to find the right person, but thankfully on one of the last visits we hit the jackpot. This means that we are going to be able to offer a slate of new courses next year and I couldn’t be happier with what our new teacher came up with. Below you will find short course descriptions. Please keep in mind that these are rough sketches that will be revised for the course catalog. That said, I think you will get a sense of what each course will involve. Given the excitement surrounding the World Cup I couldn’t be more excited about the first offering. I probably should anticipate some brain drain from my own electives once students get wind of these. I am also excited about a pilot program that we are offering in American Studies as well as an elective on Government and Politics that will prepare students for the AP test in that subject area.
Update: Since writing this post I’ve had to push the time line back a bit to the mid-1970s. Click here.
Seem like a strange question? What I am wondering is when the first accounts of substantial numbers of loyal black Confederate soldiers surfaced. For the moment I am not drawing any distinctions between professional and non-professional historians. I simply want to know when the first claims were made public and by whom. Perhaps there is something to be discovered in the Dunning School, which emphasized a Lost Cause narrative of the war that included loyal slaves. In 1919 Charles H. Wesley published his essay, “The Employment of Negroes as Soldiers in the Confederate Army. Wesley argued that slaves demonstrated their loyalty to their masters and the Confederacy by “offering themselves for actual service in the Confederate army.” According to Wesley, like their white counterparts, slaves also believed “their land [had been] invaded by hostile forces.” I will have to double-check, but I don’t believe that Wesley actually focused on free and/or enslaved blacks already serving in Confederate ranks. Rather, it’s an article about the debate to enlist slaves as soldiers.
Jump ahead to the 1960s, the Civil Rights Movement, and the rapid growth of African-American history and slavery studies specifically and you will find nothing on the subject of black Confederates. On the one hand that may come as no surprise given the state of race relations throughout the country, and especially in the states that comprised the Confederacy. Than again there was plenty of opportunity to locate such individuals and I suspect that writers working along the lines of Lerone Bennett, Jr., would have been all too excited to point out the existence of loyal black Confederate soldiers. In 1969 James H. Brewer, who taught at North Carolina Central University, published The Confederate Negro: Virginia’s Craftsmen and Military Laborers, 1861-1865 (University of Alabama Press). As the title suggests, however, Brewer focuses on slaves who were impressed by the state and does not make any claims about black Confederate soldiers. Three years later, Robert F. Durden published The Gray and the Black: The Confederate Debate on Emancipation, but as the title suggests its focus is on the debate and says nothing about the presence of slave soldiers. Interestingly, Durden’s book was allowed to go out of print only to be brought back in 2000.