Ervin Jordan’s Black Confederates (Part 2)

Lt. J. Wallace Comer of the 57th Alabama and his body servant (slave) Burrell

One of the things that I appreciate about Ervin Jordan’s research into this subject is his desire to more fully account for the myriad ways in which the war affected the lives of free and enslaved Southern blacks.  I’ve maintained from the beginning that what is desperately needed in this discussion is a move beyond the narrow categories that tend to animate those looking to find a home for blacks in the Confederate army that steers clear of slavery and offers a more palatable picture of race relations.  As I suggested earlier, Jordan is often cited as an academic ally in this endeavor.  Unfortunately, this is made all the more easier because his focus is so broad, which leaves plenty of opportunity to pick and choose what is convenient and ignore the rest.  A related problem that encourages such an approach can be found in the fact that Jordan’s analysis falls short in certain respects.  (see Part 1 of this post)

The last few pages of Jordan’s essay, “Different Drummers”, offers a much clearer picture of what his admirers fail to acknowledge.  Consider the following passages:

  • Afro-Virginian enthusiasts for the Confederacy assumed that by identifying and actively supporting the Confederate cause, white postwar gratitude would lead to expanded privileges and rights.  Their fidelity did not result in racial equality nor granting of social and political rights.  White Southerners considered them temporary indigenous allies but never formally recognized them no matter how loyal they seemed to be.  Clearly, the motivations of black loyalists were either sincerely patriotic or represented alarmed individuals acting on behalf for their own selfpreservation and economic interests. (p. 64)
  • White Virginians found themselves experiencing the same debates and fears of their Revolutionary forefathers relating to the problem of arming black men to kill white males, even if those males happened to be the enemy.  Nevertheless, one Campbell County planter advised his Confederate soldier-son: “[D0] not let Sam go into the fight with you.  Keep him in the rear; for [he] is worth a thousand dollars.”  (p. 65)
  • A member of the House of Delegates proposed the enrollment of free blacks but admitted their families would lack means of support while their sole wage earners were away.  The delegate hastened to explain that his proposal was not the result of any friendship toward free blacks since if it were in his power he would “convert them all to slaves.” (p. 66)
  • Several blacks (mulattoes) posed as whites and served in state regiments, some as officers.  George and Stafford Grimes of Caroline County enlisted with the Fredericksburg Artillery in 1862, though both later deserted.  George was recaptured and plans were made to court-martial him for desertion.  However the court decided against this because as a “Negro” he could not be a soldier nor tried as one. (p. 67)
  • Pro-Confederate blacks were riddles; white Southerners did not trust them, Northerners regarded them as lunatics, and the majority of blacks feared and scorned them as fools or racial traitors.  Afterwards some black Confederates wanted to forget their service.  Civil rights activist and anti-lynching crusader Mary Church Terrell recalled that one of her uncles, James Wilson, a black man with blue eyes, was so light-skinned that he was forced to serve in the Confederate army as a soldier.  Whenever his family mentioned this after the war he became embarrassed and angry. (pp. 68-69)

[click to continue…]

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Lionel Ritchie’s Black Confederate Ancestor

Here is another very touching and informative episode of “Who Do You Think You Are” featuring Lionel Ritchie.  Ritchie searches for his great grandfather, J.L. Brown, and discovers that he applied for a pension based on his presence as a servant to Morgan W. Brown, who served in the Confederate army.  Brown, it turns out, may have been his father or half brother. The historian who assists him is none other than Ervin Jordan. It is entirely possible that parts of this scene were edited, but Jordan makes no claims about this man’s loyalty to the cause or anything related to service as a soldier. It would have been helpful if they had included some kind of explanation as to why these pensions were given.  What we do learn is that Brown’s relationship with his father/half brother must have been a complex one and certainly difficult for a descendant to understand and ultimately come to terms with.  What we do know is that this man was not a soldier.  It is just this space between master and slave that I hope to explore in my own study of black camp servants and “black Confederates.”  This is an episode worth watching in its entirety.

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Confederate Flag Antics

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.

Perhaps our discussion will eventually get around to the continued controversy surrounding the public display of the Confederate flag.  Today I learned that a “Larry the Cable Guy” impersonator out in Grants Pass, Oregon, of all places, was fired from his job as a bus driver because of his Redneck flag.  On the other hand, the Detroit Chapter of the NAACP is slated to honor Kid Rock, who has masterfully transformed himself into a Southern Rocker.

Right, and what I write here at CWM is an attack on Southern Heritage. :)

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Ervin Jordan’s Black Confederates

Ervin L. Jordan, Jr.

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.

Stay tuned for Part 2.

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Public History at North Carolina State University

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.

Hope to see you there.

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