We finished shooting my interview for Ken Wyatt’s documentary on black Confederates not too long ago. I thought Ken would come in with a camera and a few other pieces of equipment, but this was a full production. It took 1 hour just to set everything up. Overall, it was a positive experience, but it was also incredibly draining and even a bit nerve racking. I was pleased with the questions and I feel comfortable with most of my answers and I tried to be as concise as possible and to answer the questions directly. At times it felt more like a conversation as opposed to a straightforward interview. Still, I would be lying if I didn’t admit that I am still just a little nervous about how my answers will be used in the final production. From what I can tell Ken is more interested in presenting the multiple perspectives on this subject rather than arriving at any firm conclusions. I know Ervin Jordan has been interviewed and Ken is trying to find the time to interview Earl Ijames as well as H.K. Edgerton. A few of the questions asked me to respond to folks that I have challenged on the blog. I am not surprised by this, though I tried my best to steer clear of mentioning people by name because I would rather keep the attention focused on the subject itself.
O.K….back to work.
If the SCV really wants to be taken seriously during the upcoming Civil War Sesquicentennial than they are going to have to do better than what Walter L. Adams Jr. offers as a critique of North Carolina’s sesquicentennial website. Adams is the heritage defense officer for Pettigrew’s Partisans, Camp 2110 of the Sons of Confederate Veterans. That’s right, he is the heritage defense officer. First, check out the website, which I think is an incredible resource and reflects a strong commitment on the part of the North Carolina Department of Cultural Resources to commemorate the war in an inclusive and educational manner. What’s he upset about?
How can I become a heritage defense minister?
I know some of you are probably already sick and tired of the frequency of posts on black Confederates. Well, get use to it. I am in the process of co-writing an article about Silas Chandler and in the beginning stages of what I hope to be a book-length manuscript on the subject. Tomorrow I am finally going to film my segments for a documentary on the subject, which is being produced by a film professor at East Carolina University. As a Civil War enthusiast who is interested in memory I couldn’t be more intrigued by this subject. The most frustrating part of this debate for me is the way the question is all too often framed: Were there black Confederates and, if so, how many? As I’ve said before, if we are talking about soldiers than it is a pretty straightforward process of providing enlistment papers to demonstrate this particular status within the army. Anything else, including pension papers must be seen as inconclusive given what we know about the process. As I see it the number is so small that any account will have to demonstrate how the individual soldier managed to maneuver through the strict enforcement that the Confederate government instituted when it came to the recruitment of free and enslaved blacks. That, of course, will be an interesting story and one that I would love to hear more about.
More importantly, the contours of this debate prevents us from honestly exploring the lives of individual free and enslaved blacks during the war. We lump all of them together as “loyal” “devoted” servants, who along with their white comrades “sacrificed” all for the Confederacy. In this we learn next to nothing about the individuals themselves and how they understood the experience of camp life/battle and the time away from loved ones. Consider the number of narratives that include the servant/slave bringing home his wounded master. Just about all of these accounts come from the postwar period, but I’ve never come across an article written by the slave in question, which, of course, is not surprising given the illiteracy rates. We know that Silas Chander escorted Andrew Chandler home after the latter was wounded in battle. In most Online accounts this is reduced to his supposed faithfulness and devotion to Andrew, which fall neatly into the broader postwar slave narrative. Now there is little doubt that servants shared the challenges of camp life and even, on occasion, the dangers of the battlefield with their masters. As historians we must be receptive to the ways in which the war shaped the relationship between slave and master. I have little reason to doubt that certain bonds of affection would have been established as a result, but this cannot be the beginning and end of our analysis of these men. In the case of Silas he had a wife and child back in Palo Alto, Mississippi. But even if Silas did not have a family we should not be surprised that he might choose to bring his master home. After all, he was still legally bound to his owner and may have viewed running away as more of a risk even though thousands of fellow slaves did just that. What I find the most troubling about all of this is the extent to which slaves like Silas and even those who turn out to be legitimate soldiers (however small the number) will be ignored because it turns out that most people are not really interested in recounting their experiences. The approach is to engage in hard-headed reductionism that may satisfy those desperate to vindicate a certain view of the past, but gets us nowhere in terms of understanding these men and the unique challenges they faced as black southerners. Unfortunately, I suspect that in just about all of these cases we will be able to say very little because of a lack of sufficient documentation. Of course, this will not stop the SCV from continuing to butcher this part of the past by placing headstones that distort the distinction between slave and soldier. They did it with Weary Clyburn and in the case of Silas Chandler they placed an “Iron Cross” in front of his marker. This needs to be denounced, not simply as bad history, but as a blatant attempt to use the lives of others as a means to an end.
My point is simple. We have got to get over ourselves when confronting the past. I do not claim complete objectivity when doing history nor do I believe anyone achieves such a perspective, but we can help ourselves by asking the right questions and by exercising a healthy dose of skepticism.
I think this is a question that anyone interested in this subject eventually has to come around to. For the moment let’s set aside H.K. Edgerton and the very small number of African Americans who have involved themselves in this movement. When you get right down to it, this is a subject that whites, who are mainly associated with Southern heritage groups are interested in promoting. You don’t find black Americans celebrating the participation of freed and enslaved blacks in the Confederate army as part of Emancipation Day celebrations at the turn of the twentieth century and you will be hard pressed to find references to these individuals during the 1960s, at a time when the African American community had rediscovered its Civil War past as part of the broader Civil Rights Movement.
You don’t even find whites highlighting the sacrifices of black Confederate soldiers until relatively recently. What you will find are plenty of ceremonies, monuments, and markers to the “faithful slave” that dot the landscape in parts of the South. As I pointed out in a previous post the subject of black Confederates can be traced to the late 1980s- early 90s and I suspect in reaction to the success of the movie, Glory. Why did the black community of Petersburg not recognize Richard Poplar before five years ago or even Weary Clyburn. [Note: The evidence suggests that Poplar may have indeed served as a soldier, but I still have some questions about the documentation.] What about the rest of the ceremonies that have taken place over the past few years? Why are whites the ones who get so enraged when I write about this subject and question the veracity of claims made about these men? Apart from one comment by H.K. Edgerton I have never heard from an African American who was upset with me for addressing this issue or believed that I was somehow denigrating the Southern past. As some of you know I am currently co-authoring an article with a descendant of Silas Chandler, who is one of the most visible black Confederates. It turns out that almost nothing about the popular account is right.
I guess we could explain this new direction in Southern history as one of whites coming to the rescue of African Americans in revealing a history that was somehow forgotten or even intentionally ignored. No doubt, that is a comforting explanation. Unfortunately, it’s a bit more complicated. Perhaps the fact that the Confederate government and military explicitly denied the right of free and enslaved blacks the right to serve as soldiers has something to do with this. That would leave us with the question of why whites are so interested in black Confederates. Of course, I think I know the answer to this question.