Update on Vicksburg’s Black Confederates

Update: This is what happens when you try to write a post when you are not feeling well. I called my contact again and now can confirm that the museum is 63 years old, while the exhibit was done within the last few years. Sorry about that.

Yesterday I shared photographs of an exhibit on black Confederates at the Old Courthouse Museum in Vicksburg, Mississippi. Today I had a chance to talk with a curator at the museum about the exhibit. I appreciate his willingness to answer my questions. Unfortunately, I wasn’t able to learn much about the exhibit itself given that it has been on display for 63 years. That, of course, explains the emphasis on faithful slaves. Andy Hall correctly surmises that this probably has as much to do with a limited budget as it does with a flawed interpretation of the Confederacy and slavery.

I asked about how it was possible that slaves were enlisted as soldiers given the Confederate government’s position, but all he could say was that these men were loyal to their owners and accepted by their comrades.  For further reading it was suggested that I check out Holt Collier: His Life, His Roosevelt, and the Origin of the Teddy Bear by Minor Ferris Buchanan.  I’ve never heard of this book before, but I will definitely take a look at it at some point.  Given my initial assumption that the exhibit was much more recent, it is interesting to note that many of the most common images and accounts that can be found today Online were being used in the 1940s.  That definitely changes my perspective on the history of when these accounts first surfaced.  I want to know, for example, when the image of the Chandler Boys first came to be used as an example of loyal black Confederate soldiers, etc.

The problem with this exhibit can be reduced to its title.  Calling it “Blacks Who Wore Gray” clouds the distinction between slave and soldier.  Rather, it should be titled, “Slaves Who Wore Gray.”

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The Blue, the Gray, and the Gay

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What’s a Few Thousand Here or There?

Numbers play an important role in the Lost Cause view of the Civil War and the Petersburg Campaign in particular.  The image of the Army of Northern Virginia as hopelessly outnumbered and hanging on by a thread continues to exercise a strong hold for many.  There is something attractive about a narrative that pits a half-starved Army against an enemy that we believe must win owing to their unlimited resources.  There is a certain truth to this, but like most of the Lost Cause interpretation it quickly shades into a distorted view of the situation.  On Saturday evening one of Prof. Mark Snell’s former students, who is now working as a living historian for the Gettysburg Foundation, put on an excellent presentation that covered the state of the Army of Northern Virginia in 1864.  He suggested that during this period the army was fairly well supplied with clothing, which stands in sharp contrast with images of half-naked soldiers in the trenches.  In addition, it turns out that although the men in the trenches faced hardship, Lee’s soldiers were not starving.  Of course, much of this is borne out in the most recent literature on the campaign.

Back to the numbers.  Throughout our tour of the Petersburg Battlefields this weekend Will Greene made it a point to emphasize that the earthworks had worked to minimize the sheer advantage that the Federals enjoyed in terms of numbers.  They would need at least a 3 to 1 advantage when storming Confederate earthworks.  Such a view explains Grant’s tactics of continually pushing to extend the Confederate line in a series of offensive thrusts throughout the late Fall and early Spring of 1864-65.  Of course, one way to bypass any attempt at careful analysis of the balance of power is to simply exaggerate the numbers beyond any recognition of reality.  This was done early on in the case of Lee’s surrender at Appomattox on April 9, 1865.

It can also be seen at the Five Forks battlefield on a marker that was dedicated during the Centennial by the Dinwiddie Civil War Centennial Commission.  Well, at least they got they number of Confederates under Pickett’s command about right, but 50,000 Federals is way off the deep end.  Philip Sheridan had around 21,000 men at Five Forks.  Perhaps Dinwiddie County’s Sesquicentennial Commission can spray paint the right number on the anniversary of the battle in 2015.

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Black Confederates in the Old Courthouse

Special thanks to Robert Pomerenk, who took these photos of an exhibit on black Confederates in the Old Courthouse in Vicksburg, Mississippi.  It looks like a relatively old exhibit that was done with a very limited budget.  A quick perusal of these photos suggests that very little research went into this exhibit.  You will see the standard images as well as primary source accounts with absolutely no analysis whatsoever.  The exhibit is framed around the following assumption:

Dedicated to the faithful slaves, who loyal to the sacred trust, toiled for support of the Army, with matchless devotion and sterling fidelity guarded our defenseless homes, women and children, during the struggles for the principles of our Confederate States of America.

I’ve suggested that this debate ought to be understood as an extension of the central Lost Cause theme that assumes that slaves were faithful and had no interest in freedom.  This is one of the best examples of that point.  Yes, a book on this subject is desperately needed.

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Home From Petersburg

I want to thank Mark Snell and Denise Messinger of the George Tyler Moore Center for the Study of the Civil War and Will Greene and the rest of the staff at Pamplin Park for putting on a wonderful conference on the Petersburg Campaign.  It was nice to see so many familiar faces and I especially enjoyed making new friends.  It was indeed a busy three days and we spent a great deal of time in the sweltering heat, but it was well worth it.  I thoroughly enjoyed meeting and listening to fellow speakers, Chris Stowe and Earl Hess.  It was truly an honor to be on the same line up with Chris and Earl.  I was quite pleased with the response to my paper, which analyzed the Confederate response to the presence of U.S.C.T.’s at the Crater.  Speaking of that subject, I just reviewed the page proofs for the essay which will appear in the October issue of Civil War Times.  Dana Shoaf and company did a fabulous job of preparing the essay for publication and I look forward to hearing what people think.

In addition to the presentations we toured extensively around Petersburg.  For me it was an opportunity to familiarize myself with a campaign that I’ve had a great deal of difficulty understanding.  I think it’s safe to say that no one knows more about the city of Petersburg and the campaign than Will Greene.  He took us to City Point, the Crater, Weldon Railroad, Hatcher’s Run, White Oak Road, Five Forks, as well as the breakout battlefield at Pamplin Park.  There is something exciting about watching someone like Will, with such extensive knowledge, develop a narrative that makes sense of very complicated troop movements and then places those movements within a broader context for a public audience.  Not only is Will’s knowledge both broad and deep, he outlasted all of us by the end of what was an incredibly hot Saturday.

I encourage all of you to visit Pamplin Park if you happen to find yourself in the area.  The exhibits are well done and the grounds include some of the best preserved earthworks that you will see in the area.  I also highly recommend their film, “War So Terrible.” I have some things that I want to say about this film, so I am going to wait until later this week.  Finally, those of you looking for a summer Civil War seminar should seriously consider joining Mark Snell and the rest of the gang.  It’s a wonderful group of people, who enjoy one another’s company and who are well read in the history of the Civil War.  It looks like next year the conference will move to West Virginia to focus on the earliest battles while in 2012 the seminar will head southeast once again to focus on the Peninsula Campaign.  Check out the center’s website and get yourself on their mailing list.  You won’t be disappointed.

OK…back to work.

[Photo of me at the Crater]
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