A friend of mine is currently working in an archive in South Carolina and came across a reference to the Crater from a soldier who served in the 18th South Carolina Infantry:
The Negro troops were slaughtered without mercy, we not allowing them to surrender, they huddled together in the pit formed by the explosion and our men deliberately capped down on them and beat out their brains and bayoneted them until worn out with exhaustion. We took the other prisoners, a number however were shot or hung after brought to the rear- this may seem cruel and heartless to those at home but let them come to VA and see the sights we have seen and they will no longer say so. Kill, kill every negro soldier is my motto.
I have files and files of Confederate accounts that reflect this mindset, but what I find so interesting about this particular account is the explicit reference to the home front. It is tempting to speculate as to the “sights” that this particular soldier is referring to, but it seems reasonable to suggest that it was specifically the presence of black men with guns that so impressed him. It must have been a challenge for soldiers to depict the sight of large numbers of black men with guns to loved ones back home, especially in South Carolina.
The first example comes from a recent Confederate Day celebration in Dixie County, Florida, which was hosted by the SCV Dixie Defender Camp 2086. The speaker is Al Mccray, who hosts a radio/talk show in the Tampa Bay area. This is a wonderful example of why the black Confederate argument has proven to be attractive to a certain number of African Americans. Listen to Mccray’s understanding of Lincoln’s emancipation policy. Behind the vague references to his position on colonization and his famous response to Horace Greeley in the spring of 1862 there is disillusionment with the mythology attached to the mythology/narrative of the “Great Emancipator.” It’s that same narrative that drove Lerone Bennett to write his famous essay for Ebony magazine and later, Forced Into Glory. The problem, of course, is that Mccray substitutes an incredibly vague account for this mythology.
More interesting, however, is the way in which this argument morphs into commentary about what Mccray and the SCV perceive as our present political situation. Mccray bounces back between history and politics with ease. In referring to slavery, Mccray suggests that “pretty soon we all will be slaves to the Washington administration” and later notes that the “Army of the Potomac is still around.” Finally, Mccray argues that we are losing more and more rights at the hands of a corrupt government. I suspect that both H.K. Edgerton and the economist, Walter Williams, also fit into this camp. All of them operate on the flawed assumption that while the Civil War led to a larger and more intrusive government in Washington, D.C. the Confederate government preserved a stricter state sovereignty and states rights. This is simply not true. In fact, most slaveowners viewed the continued attempt by the Confederate government to impress and later recruit slaves for military purposes as a violation of their sovereignty.
From Florida we travel to of all places, “30 Rock.” That’s right, thanks to one of my readers I learned that there is a reference to black Confederates in the episode “Fireworks” [season 1, episode 18]. The plot, involving Tracy Morgan, runs as follows:
“Tracy is served with paternity papers and insists that the child is not his. After the DNA test, Tracy learns that the child is not his but that he is a direct descendant of Thomas Jefferson. The news angers Tracy and he talks to Toofer and Frank about it. Toofer learns that he is a direct descendant of Tobias Spurlock, a black Confederate soldier. Tracy and Toofer are upset about the news until Tracy has a dream in which Thomas Jefferson (portrayed by Jack Donaghy) appears to him on The Maury Povich Show. In the dream, Jefferson takes credit for “inventing” America and tells Tracy to forget his past. Tracy decides that he wants Toofer to write a movie about their experiences and Thomas Jefferson’s life. Tracy intends to play all of the parts in the movie, except he intends for the film to be a drama.”
Toofer is terribly distraught to learn that his ancestor Tobias Spurlock was a Black Confederate officer who is known by Civil War scholars as the “Confederate Monster”, who harbored the fugitive John Wilkes Booth following his assassination of Lincoln, and who personally knew Robert E. Lee, rather than a Union officer who knew Ulysses S. Grant as Toofer had always believed.
Unfortunately, I can’t find a clip of this particular segment. This is the first reference to black Confederates that I’ve seen in mainstream culture.
A few days ago I referenced another essay by an individual masquerading as a legitimate authority on Civil War history and “black Confederates.” In the essay, Bernhard Thuersam, who is the executive director of the Cape Fear Historical Institute, makes the ridiculous assertion that the Richmond Howitzers were “an integrated artillery unit.” Since no references were provided we are forced to guess as to the origin of the claim. More than likely it stems from a story about the slave, Aleck Kean, who accompanied John Henry Vest into the Confederate army at the beginning of the war. Vest was killed in 1863, but for reasons unknown Kean decided to stay with the unit through to the end of the war.
In 1913 the Richmond Howitzers erected a stone to Aleck Kean that read: “In Testimony of this Admiration and Respect for a man who did his duty in war and peace. ‘Well done, good and faithful servant.’” [Unfortunately, I can't locate an image of the stone.] I did locate a short piece by Judge George L. Christian about Kean that appeared in the pages of Confederate Veteran in 1912:
…I affirm that he was the most faithful and efficient man in the performance of every duty pertaining to his sphere that I have ever known. His whole mind and soul seemed bent on trying to get and prepare something for his mess to eat; and if there was anything to be gotten honestly, Aleck always got the share which was coming to his mess, and he always had that share prepared in the shortest time possible and the most delicious way in which it could have been prepared in camp. The comfort of having such a man as Aleck around us in those trying times can scarcely be described and certainly cannot be exaggerated.
There is nothing unusual about the content of Christian’s personal memory or the broader collective memory of white southerners at the beginning of the twentieth century. In short, slaves became loyal servants worthy of remembrance. However, only an individual lacking the most basic knowledge of the Confederacy and slavery could make the assertion that the Richmond Howitzers were “integrated.”
According to George Rable, who holds the Summersell Chair in Southern History at the University of Alabama and served as chair of the prize jury, Sutherland’s book “shows the grim and gritty reality of the Civil War beyond the major battlefields and throughout both the Confederacy and border states.” In addition, the “engagingly written” book “reconfigures our understanding of the relationship between the battlefield and the Southern home-front” in a way that makes “a distinguished and lasting contribution to the field.” The award announcement was made on June 19 at the SCWH biannual conference in Richmond, Virginia. Sutherland will formally accept the award and deliver the keynote address at the Society’s annual banquet at the Southern Historical Association in Charlotte in November. The award is funded by the Watson-Brown Foundation in honor of the broadcaster, philanthropist, and Civil War enthusiast Tom Watson Brown.
“It’s significant that in the inaugural year of the prize, the Watson Brown jury recognized not a book on a battle or a military leader but one that took as its subject the terrible toll of the war on ordinary citizens far from the battlefield and the role that irregular warfare played in undermining popular support for the war,” says UNC Press editor-in-chief, David Perry. “We’re immensely pleased for Dan Sutherland and grateful for the recognition that this prize brings to his important work.”
The book has also won the Distinguished Book Award from the Society for Military History and the Jefferson Davis Award from the Museum of the Confederacy. I read this book when it was first published and can’t recommend it highly enough. By the way, the last time I talked with Professor Sutherland he was working on a biography about James Whistler.
I am pleased to report that I am making steady progress on revising my Crater manuscript. In fact, I recently contacted the publisher to inform them that I plan to mail the manuscript no later than the first week of August. It’s nice to finally be in the home stretch. Much of my time has been spent cutting content that detracts from the core issue of race and historical memory, which I am now convinced is this project’s most important contribution to the literature. One section that I am adding is a discussion of the black counter-memory of the battle. It’s not that I didn’t have any references to African American accounts, but there are so few that it was very difficult to weave them together as a coherent analysis. One of my reviewers suggested that I take another shot at it.
One of the more fruitful sources is the postwar accounts written by white officers from USCT units. I still don’t necessarily consider these sources to constitute a counter-memory, but they did help to preserve memory of the participation of African Americans at the Crater at the turn of the twentieth century. The problem for the historian is that so few of these articles actually tell the story of the men in the units or address the larger issues that defined the service of African Americans. The cultural and social divide between the two groups made it difficult for these individuals to relate to one another and very few officers remained in touch with the men in their units after the war. I have accounts in which the officers go on and on about the battlefield heroics of their fellow white officers, but say nothing about the men in the ranks. A few that do end up minimizing their claims to manhood by continuing the argument that black soldiers needed their white officers to control their innate emotional excesses. One account focuses specifically on denying claims that white officers were drunk during the battle without addressing continued claims that black soldiers were as well.
The few accounts that do attempt to tell the story of the men in Ferrero’s Fourth Division are very important primarily because they preserved a memory of the war at a time when the nation was moving away from a narrative of emancipation and embracing reunion. The majority of these articles can be found in The National Tribune, which was in publication between 1877 and 1917 and functioned as the principal Grand Army of the Republic’s weekly newspaper. Two officers in particular stand out for their contributions to this newspaper. The first is Lt. Freeman Bowley, who served in the 30th USCT. His writings and memoir were recently compiled and edited by Keith Wilson as Honor in Command (University Press of Flordia, 2006). The second is Colonel Delavan Bates, who also served in the 30th USCT.
The 150th anniversary of one of the most fascinating Civil War battles is fast approaching. Learn about what happened on that bloody day and how the battle has been remembered. Get your signed and discounted copy direct from the author.
"Levin is both superb scholar and public historian, showing us a piece of the real war that does now get into the books, as well as into site interpretation.” –David W. Blight, Yale University