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.
I have referenced Ann DeWitt’s new black Confederate website on a few occasions, but at this point we know very little about her. The website is filled with misinformation and vague references that can be found on the many websites that purport to educate. In the case of Ms. DeWitt, she hopes to eventually turn this site into a resource for teachers and students: “The goal is to have a comprehensive site by April 2011 for students and teachers – in time to commemorate the 150th Anniversary of the American Civil War from April 2011 to April 2015. This research is for our youth.” I am horrified by such a plan. I’ve been unable to track down any information about this woman or the website itself. [Note: I now understand why Richard Williams got so upset about my last post re: DeWitt. He apparently sent her a complimentary copy of his book, which is now being advertised on the site. Update: Williams responds to this post here. I am more than happy to retract whatever is assumed to be implicit in my referencing of the presence of his book on DeWitt's site.]
Individuals who set up websites claiming to be legitimate historical resources for teachers and students have a responsibility to share their credentials. In short, the public has a right to know who you are, including your professional background and education. Whether you agree or disagree with what I write on this site you can find everything there is to know about my qualifications by clicking on my resume. You don’t need to be impressed with anything that I’ve done over the past ten years, but it is there for your consideration. One of the most important things that we must teach our students is how to judge Online information. If you do nothing else in this regard in your classroom this year at least reinforce the necessity of questioning the authorship of websites. Failure to do so renders all sites and the information contained therein equal. I can’t tell you how many people comment on this site by doing little more than parroting what they read elsewhere. Then when you question their information they get defensive and scold you for daring to disagree or responding in a skeptical manner.
As I’ve said, at this point I have been unable to locate any information about Ann DeWitt. This is nothing new in the Online world of black Confederates as most of these sites are set up by folks who have absolutely no experience working in anything close to the field of historical research or digital history.
I have written extensively about Earl Ijames’s mishandling of evidence related to the presence of black southerners (free and enslaved) in Confederate armies, but it is truly disturbing to learn that a historian such as Henry L. Gates endorses his shoddy research. You can find the following in Gates’s book, Lincoln on Race and Slavery:
pp.xxxviii-xxxix “The pioneering research of Earl Ijames reveals that some slaves bore arms, and some free Negroes in the South actually enlisted and fought in the Confederate Army, as Frederick Douglass as early as 1861 warned Lincoln they would do, in an attempt to persuade Lincoln to authorize the use of black men as soldiers.”
And the subsequent footnote, p.lxvi n13. “Earl L. Ijames, correspondence, November 17, 2008; … Ijames, the curator of the North Carolina Museum of History, says that, among others, the Fortieth Regiment of North Carolina Troops, Company D, included several free black men who enlisted voluntarily and fought with guns in combat against the North. His book Colored Confederates is forthcoming.”
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