This afternoon I will be spending a few hours with a French newspaper reporter to discuss the Civil War Sesquicentennial. He arrives in Charlottesville having already visited Atlanta and Gettysburg, where he spent some time with the folks at the Civil War Institute. I plan on taking him to some of the Civil War related sites in town followed by a relaxing cup of coffee/cappuccino at my favorite cafe. I like the fact that I will get to respond to much of what he has learned thus far on this trip. Expect a full report in the following days.
Spend enough time in the confusion that is the black Confederate debate and you will come across a short list of talking points. One of the most popular references is to Ervin L. Jordan’s Black Confederates and Afro-Yankees in Civil War Virginia, which was published by the University Press of Virginia back in 1995. It’s one of the very few books on the subject published by an academic press and proponents of this narrative love to cite it. Unfortunately, as far as I can tell the overwhelming majority of people who cite it provide no evidence that they’ve actually read it. They simply cite his name and position in Special Collections at UVA, along with one of his claims that historians have engaged in censorship of some kind, as if this constitutes an argument.
I suspect that if certain people actually took the time to read it they would not so quickly reference it to buttress some of the wilder claims about the supposed military service of thousands of free and enslaved blacks in the Confederate army. Out of 300 pages of text Jordan devotes close to 185 on antebellum slavery in Virginia. His deep research is supported by a command of the relevant secondary sources, but this section of the book does not introduce much of anything that is new to historians. In Part 2 Jordan moves to the war, but even in this section very little is devoted to actual soldiering by blacks; rather, he focuses on the various ways that these men found themselves with the army. There is a chapter on body servants, the precarious position of property-owning free blacks, as well as a chapter on black Union soldiers from Virginia. Go through this section and you will find very few actual claims about the service of black enlisted soldiers. What I find most interesting about this book is Jordan’s attempt to carefully delineate the ways they identified with Virginia and the Confederate war effort. There is much more ambiguity in his analysis than most proponents of this narrative grant and, again, I suspect it is because they have not read the book. We certainly need to leave room for the notion of black fidelity and loyalty to the Confederate cause, but we must move beyond the self-serving definitions that most Lost Cause adherents apply.
At times, however, I do think that Jordan’s handling of evidence and his analysis of that evidence is questionable. Rather than look at his book to make my point I want to spend a few minutes with a short essay that Jordan wrote for Richard Rollins’s edited collection, Black Southerners in Gray: Essays on Afro-Americans in Confederate Armies, which was published by Rank and File in 1994. It is very clear that none of the essays went through any kind of peer review and this seriously diminishes the value of the book. Jordan offers a short version of some of the claims found in the larger study that is titled, “Different Drummers: Black Virginians As Confederate Loyalists” (pp. 57-74).
In the essay Jordan attempts to scope out the limits of “Afro-Virginian patriotism”:
Black Confederate patriotism took many forms: slaves devoted to their owners, free blacks who donated money and labor, blacks who joined the Confederate army and slaves who loyally supervised plantations of absentee-owners.
What is interesting is that Jordan fails to include one example of an actual soldier. He certainly has collected a great deal of evidence pointing to the myriad ways in which blacks contributed to the Confederate war effort, but more often than not I am left scratching my head when it comes to the analysis of specific sources. Here are a few examples:
James T. Ayer, a black farmer in Suffolk, sold so much food to Southern quartermasters that Union officers accused him of being an employee of the Confederate commissary department. (p. 59)
There are numerous but forgotten examples of Afro-Virginian civilians who were Confederate patriots. “Uncle Billy,” owned by Bedford County customs collector Micajah Davis, buried Davis’s official records during the Union raid in 1864 and proudly returned them to a surprised Davis after the war. Lewis, a Mecklenburg County slave who served with the Boydton Cavalry as its bugler during antebellum times, was denied permission by the Confederate War Department to enlist when it became the 3rd Virginia Cavalry. He donated his forty-dollar bugle plus an additional twenty dollars to the regiment. (p. 59)
A Winchester newspaper gleefully reported the outcome when Union raiders carried off nine slaves belonging to a local slaveowner. In Maryland, the slaves were offered a choice of freedom or return to their owners; they unanimously stated a preference for the Old Dominion, their wives and children and claimed devotion to their masters. (p. 59)
None of these examples necessarily implies anything close to a patriotic outlook. In the last example one wonders what freedom could possibly mean for these men without the presence of the rest of their families.
Included in his discussion of the cost of this patriotism to the Confederacy, Jordan presents the following two examples:
But some black Confederates paid a high price for their fealty. A free black pastor in Hampton named Bailey, permitted to purchase his family’s freedom and two houses, took the Confederate side to protect both. His fellow blacks considered it a sign of divine justice when his houses were destroyed by fire after Confederates burned the town in the summer of 1861. Another black Baptist minister, grateful to whites for allowing him to purchase his beautiful daughter and save her from the sexual advances of licentious slaveowners, was so appreciative that he publicly offered the service of himself and his sons to the Old Dominion. Enraged fellow Afro-Virginians rebuked him for this act and at first he tried to defend his actions with the excuse that he had done what he thought best for his race. As his congregation dwindled to almost nothing, he became alarmed and desperately attempted to restore himself in their good graces by way of apologies but was ostracized by the black community. (p. 61)
Notice that in neither example are these individuals able to speak for themselves, but in the case of ascribing motive that is absolutely crucial. I find the latter example to be incredibly interesting and I want to know more, not because it has anything to do with “fealty” but because it seems to tell us quite a bit about divisions within the free black community. Based on Jordan’s analysis I have no idea as to why this minister made such a gesture.
There is an incredibly rich body of literature that explores patriotism and nationalism among white Confederates. Here I am thinking of recent studies by Stephanie McCurry, Anne S. Rubin, Aaron Sheehan-Dean, Gary Gallagher, George Rable, and Emory Thomas. The relevant conceptual analysis that this overwhelming amount of evidence demands is crucial if we are to better understand how white Southerners responded to the demands of war as well as how they viewed themselves in relation to their government. I am with Jordan all the way in respect to the goal of being more receptive to both free and enslaved black Southerners as historical agents, who occupied a myriad of different spaces that included their own unique set of challenges. I just don’t believe that Jordan gets us all the way there.
Those of you interested in issues at the intersection of Civil War history, public history, and memory may be interested in an upcoming symposium hosted by North Carolina State University’s history department on March 26. It’s a one day event, but the panels look to be quite interesting. The website for the event can be found here and includes a list of panels and participants. My panel focuses on the challenges of interpreting race at various historic sites and includes Ashley Whitehead (Doctoral Student at West Virginia University, Brian Jordan (Doctoral Student at Yale) and John Hennessy, who will offer his usual words of wisdom following the three presentations. Here is the title and abstract for my presentation:
“When You’re Black, the Great Battlefield Holds Mixed Messages”: Discussing Race at the Petersburg National Battlefield:
Tremendous changes have taken place within the historical community, both public and academic, since the 1960s. Nowhere have these changes been more dramatic than on Civil War battlefields maintained by the National Park Service. At the center of these interpretive shifts is a renewed focus on the role of race and slavery, which has led to more inclusive programs meant to enrich the public’s understanding of the Civil War and attract a wider segment of the general public. While this agenda has made some inroads in the black community, some NPS frontline staff remain bewildered and confused by the lack of a black reaction to this interpretive shift. This is complicated by the resistance on the part of some to question why so many African Americans are reluctant to embrace their Civil War past when there are so few impediments in their way as had been the case prior to 1970. This talk examines the recent history of the Petersburg National Battlefield and the challenges associated with interpreting the Crater battlefield in a predominantly black community. The battle of the Crater is best remembered for the failed Union assault following the detonation of 8,000 pounds of explosives under a Confederate salient that included an entire division of United States Colored Troops. Over the past few decades the NPS in Petersburg has worked closely with local government officials and other private groups to bridge a racial divide that prevented African Americans from visiting the battlefield throughout much of the twentieth century and all but guaranteed that black involvement in the battle would be minimized, if not ignored entirely. A close look at the recent efforts made by the NPS to reach out to the local black community in Petersburg offers a number of strategies for historical institutions to implement which may help to challenge and even overcome deeply entrenched racial boundaries on the eve of the Civil War Sesquicentennial.
Here is another example of a newspaper clipping on the subject of black Confederates with the compliments of Vicki Betts. [See here and here ] This is just the kind of evidence that certain parties love to tout as indisputable proof of the existence of black Confederate soldiers. I have to say that if I came at this issue with no prior background knowledge of Confederate policy on this issue and lacked the ability to ask careful questions of my sources I might be drawn in as well.
NASHVILLE DAILY UNION, February 19, 1863, p. 4, c. 1
Negroes Fighting in the Ranks of
The following letter containing facts of much interest to the public, is printed by the author’s permission in the Washington Republican of yesterday:”Washington, D. C. Feb. 2, 1863.
“Hon. William Whiting, Solicitor of the War Department”
“Dear Sir: While at Yorktown, soon after its evacuation by the rebels, I was informed that during the siege the guns in those fortifications were manned and served by negroes, who were recognized as soldiers in the rebel army.
“A few days subsequently at West Point, the day after the fight at that place, I was informed by some of our officers and men engaged in that fight that during the engagement our forces encountered a full company of negroes, armed and equipped, serving in the rebel army; that said negro soldiers drove a portion of our forces into a swamp and deliberately cut the throats of our officers and men, and that our troops caught one of these negroes with a commission in his pocket for a lieutenancy in the rebel army signed by Jeff. Davis.
“At Mechanicsville a full regiment of blacks was seen under drill, in full view of our lines, for several days.
“The above facts are well known and often spoken of. All this, if true, shows conclusively that there does not seem to be any nice question with Davis as to the equality of blacks, such at least as is now raised in Congress by his friends on the same question.
“Thos. W. Beardslee.”
We have evidence also that negroes are enlisted in the rebel army, and paid as white soldiers are, and the man who gives this evidence is a captain in the rebel army. Read the following advertisement from the Georgia Constitutionalist:
Deserted from Company A, 29th Georgia Regiment, stationed at Dawton Battery, on Savannah River, John Rose, 22 years of age, about 5 feet 7 inches in height, complexion a brown black. He is a free negro and an excellent drummer. Was enlisted October 16th, 1861, and deserted November 13th, 1862. He is at present concealed in Savannah.
As excited as I am about moving to Boston I am dreading having to pack up my library. I am seriously considering gutting a sizable chunk of it. It will be painful, but necessary. Here is a video I did a few years back on my Civil War library. Anyway, I haven’t bought too many books over the past months. Just about everything listed below was mailed to me by the publisher directly.