I remember the disappointment on the faces of some of my students when I revealed that many of the images used by Ken Burns in his documentary to accompany his narrative about slavery were actually from the postwar period. As horrified as we are by the harsh reality of slavery we still seek a connection with that past. We want to understand the human dimension of this sad chapter of American history. It’s no surprise that the release of an image purportedly of two young slave children from North Carolina would receive so much attention. The photograph even comes with a bill of sale that is attributed to one of the two children. New York collector Keya Morgan said he paid $30,000 for the photo album including the photo of the young boys and several family pictures and $20,000 for the sale document.
Representatives of the historical community were quick to offer their own assessment of the document’s significance:
Such photos were circulated in the North by abolitionists to garner support for the Union during the Civil War, said Harold Holzer, an author of several books about Lincoln. Holzer works as an administrator at the Metropolitan Museum of Art. Most of the photos depicted adult slaves who had been beaten or whipped, he said. The photo of the two boys is more subtle, Holzer said, which may be why it wasn’t widely circulated and remained unpublished for so long. “To me, it’s such a moving and astonishing picture,” he said.
Ron Soodalter, an author and member of the board of directors at the Abraham Lincoln Institute in Washington, D.C., said the photo depicts the reality of slavery. “I think this picture shows that the institution of slavery didn’t pick or choose,” said Soodalter, who has written several books on historic and modern slavery. “This was a generic horror. It victimized the old, the young.”
I posted this story on my Facebook page and agreed with others that the image was probably from the postwar period. Leonard Lanier offered the following comment after going back to the 1850 Slave Schedule:
I have my doubts over whether the slave bill of sale goes with the photograph. The 1850 Slave Schedule for Brunswick County, NC lists a “George W. Potter” as the owner of seven slaves, including two boys aged 16 and 14. The census also lists two adult male slaves aged 24 and 30. Considering the large sum paid Potter’s estate administrator in .1854, $1150, for “John” I think the bill of sale is for one of these older men. Such a high price reflects their value as able field hands. However, either man is clearly too old by 1860 to be the subject of the photograph.
It’s not conclusive, but it should lead to further questions. Either way it is a fascinating photograph and a wonderful find.
This is great. In 1993 Professor Edward C. Smith addressed a Sons of Confederate Veterans meeting on the subject of black Confederates. Unfortunately, only the first ten minutes of his presentation was posted, but it is extremely helpful. First, Prof. Smith is a Professor of Anthropology at American University. It is unclear to me on what grounds he can claim to be an authority on this particular subject. As far as I can tell he has never published anything on the subject in a scholarly journal. I suspect that he can claim as much authority as Earl Ijames. What is interesting is the timing of the speech just a few short years after the release of Glory, which I suggested yesterday functioned as a catalyst for interest in this issue. Well, Smith confirms my suspicions, but he also helps us to better understand why African Americans may be interested in this subject. From what I can tell Smith views this subject as the next step in more fully understanding the place of African Americans within the broader national narrative. Blacks served as soldiers in the Union army so it must be the case that they also served in Confederate armies. Smith wants a more inclusive history that does justice to the accomplishments of black Americans. That is certainly understandable. I hope the rest of this speech is eventually posted.
One of the challenges that I faced this past year as head of the history department was filling one final vacancy. You would think that with this economy we would have had no problem finding the right individual. Well, think again. Private schools face a number of challenges in the hiring department. We are looking for folks that excel at teaching, work well with students, have an interest in coaching, and in our case, living in the dormitory. This year we were flooded with resumes.
For the department we were looking to bring someone in with an interest in non-western history and International Studies. It’s important for us to be able to offer courses that challenge our students to think globally. We want them to be able to build on their understanding of world history in the 9th and 10th grades with a thorough understanding of global politics and culture in the modern world. As April wore on I was worried that we were not going to find the right person, but thankfully on one of the last visits we hit the jackpot. This means that we are going to be able to offer a slate of new courses next year and I couldn’t be happier with what our new teacher came up with. Below you will find short course descriptions. Please keep in mind that these are rough sketches that will be revised for the course catalog. That said, I think you will get a sense of what each course will involve. Given the excitement surrounding the World Cup I couldn’t be more excited about the first offering. I probably should anticipate some brain drain from my own electives once students get wind of these. I am also excited about a pilot program that we are offering in American Studies as well as an elective on Government and Politics that will prepare students for the AP test in that subject area.
Update: Since writing this post I’ve had to push the time line back a bit to the mid-1970s. Click here.
Seem like a strange question? What I am wondering is when the first accounts of substantial numbers of loyal black Confederate soldiers surfaced. For the moment I am not drawing any distinctions between professional and non-professional historians. I simply want to know when the first claims were made public and by whom. Perhaps there is something to be discovered in the Dunning School, which emphasized a Lost Cause narrative of the war that included loyal slaves. In 1919 Charles H. Wesley published his essay, “The Employment of Negroes as Soldiers in the Confederate Army. Wesley argued that slaves demonstrated their loyalty to their masters and the Confederacy by “offering themselves for actual service in the Confederate army.” According to Wesley, like their white counterparts, slaves also believed “their land [had been] invaded by hostile forces.” I will have to double-check, but I don’t believe that Wesley actually focused on free and/or enslaved blacks already serving in Confederate ranks. Rather, it’s an article about the debate to enlist slaves as soldiers.
Jump ahead to the 1960s, the Civil Rights Movement, and the rapid growth of African-American history and slavery studies specifically and you will find nothing on the subject of black Confederates. On the one hand that may come as no surprise given the state of race relations throughout the country, and especially in the states that comprised the Confederacy. Than again there was plenty of opportunity to locate such individuals and I suspect that writers working along the lines of Lerone Bennett, Jr., would have been all too excited to point out the existence of loyal black Confederate soldiers. In 1969 James H. Brewer, who taught at North Carolina Central University, published The Confederate Negro: Virginia’s Craftsmen and Military Laborers, 1861-1865 (University of Alabama Press). As the title suggests, however, Brewer focuses on slaves who were impressed by the state and does not make any claims about black Confederate soldiers. Three years later, Robert F. Durden published The Gray and the Black: The Confederate Debate on Emancipation, but as the title suggests its focus is on the debate and says nothing about the presence of slave soldiers. Interestingly, Durden’s book was allowed to go out of print only to be brought back in 2000.
Yesterday I had one of those moments, while working on the Crater manuscript, where I was able to see the big picture of the history of race in Virginia in the nineteenth century. It all came together around one individual, William E. Cameron. Those of you familiar with Virginia will recognize the name. Since the connections I made in my head were fairly simple, I am going to keep it simple here.
Cameron served as a captain in the 12th Virginia, which was raised in Petersburg. He took part in the counterattack at the Crater, which included an entire division of black Union soldiers. Their presence constituted a direct threat to the social and racial hierarchy that Confederate soldiers hoped to secure in their bid for independence. Interestingly, by March 1865 we find Cameron trying to convince slaveowners to release some of their slaves for service in the Confederate army. It is important to remember that the act President Davis signed into law on March 13, 1865 made no provision for the emancipation of slaves in exchange for service; nevertheless, Cameron’s involvement in this process came only after a very public debate about the identity and status of slaves in a society committed to maintaining the institution. Finally, in 1882 Cameron secured the governorship of Virginia for the Readjuster Party, led by his former commander, William Mahone. The Readjusters achieved victory, in part, based on the support of the state’s black population, which benefited in numerous way during the party’s short time in power.
And there you have it. Cameron took part in a war fought to protect slavery only to see his government desperately attempt to utilize these very same people as soldiers, but without any change in legal status. After the war he engaged black Virginians as free political agents that led him to the highest office in the state. Just another reason why Virginia’s history is so damn interesting and important.