Thanks to Brooks Simpson for providing me with a good laugh as I continue to make the tough decisions about what stays and goes from my library. Most of you now know that my wife and I are moving to Boston this summer. The overwhelming majority of emails and comments have been nothing but supportive, but I have received a number of messages that have not been so kind. These come from a small, but vocal minority that I fondly refer to as the “Confederate Taliban.” Their hate-filled pronouncements do little more than highlight an inability to intelligently discuss history and in many cases I suspect that their rants are a function of very little, if any, understanding of a history that they claim to own and defend against those they perceive as outsiders. Oh well.
As I contemplate my life in Boston I find it funny that – all things being equal – I ought to expect the very same attitude in response to my blogging that I’ve experienced here in Virginia. After all, I will be as much of an outsider in Boston as I am in Charlottesville. Will there be an equivalent to the Confederate Taliban in Massachusetts that springs into action when a boy from New Jersey asks questions or delves into certain aspects of its past? When I point out the role of slavery or explore difficult moments in the history of race relations in the region will I hear that the South also had slavery and that it was much worse? And what will happen if I ask certain questions about John Adams or Col. Robert Gould Shaw?
On the one hand I know the CT will miss me. They thrive on being able to explain all that they perceive to be wrong by pointing the finger at those they perceive as outsiders. Interestingly, I never felt like an outsider during my ten years in Virginia, which is a testament to the kindness I experienced from the many new Virginia transplants as well as those who can trace their lineage back to the early years. In the end, very little about this blog is going to change in terms of content and style. I know the CT will take comfort in knowing that what I blog about in Massachusetts will still be accessible down here in Virginia. Perhaps once I am gone they can reorganize and go after those of their own, who have betrayed the sacred cause.
Lt. J. Wallace Comer of the 57th Alabama and his body servant (slave) Burrell
One of the things that I appreciate about Ervin Jordan’s research into this subject is his desire to more fully account for the myriad ways in which the war affected the lives of free and enslaved Southern blacks. I’ve maintained from the beginning that what is desperately needed in this discussion is a move beyond the narrow categories that tend to animate those looking to find a home for blacks in the Confederate army that steers clear of slavery and offers a more palatable picture of race relations. As I suggested earlier, Jordan is often cited as an academic ally in this endeavor. Unfortunately, this is made all the more easier because his focus is so broad, which leaves plenty of opportunity to pick and choose what is convenient and ignore the rest. A related problem that encourages such an approach can be found in the fact that Jordan’s analysis falls short in certain respects. (see Part 1 of this post)
The last few pages of Jordan’s essay, “Different Drummers”, offers a much clearer picture of what his admirers fail to acknowledge. Consider the following passages:
Afro-Virginian enthusiasts for the Confederacy assumed that by identifying and actively supporting the Confederate cause, white postwar gratitude would lead to expanded privileges and rights. Their fidelity did not result in racial equality nor granting of social and political rights. White Southerners considered them temporary indigenous allies but never formally recognized them no matter how loyal they seemed to be. Clearly, the motivations of black loyalists were either sincerely patriotic or represented alarmed individuals acting on behalf for their own selfpreservation and economic interests. (p. 64)
White Virginians found themselves experiencing the same debates and fears of their Revolutionary forefathers relating to the problem of arming black men to kill white males, even if those males happened to be the enemy. Nevertheless, one Campbell County planter advised his Confederate soldier-son: “[D0] not let Sam go into the fight with you. Keep him in the rear; for [he] is worth a thousand dollars.” (p. 65)
A member of the House of Delegates proposed the enrollment of free blacks but admitted their families would lack means of support while their sole wage earners were away. The delegate hastened to explain that his proposal was not the result of any friendship toward free blacks since if it were in his power he would “convert them all to slaves.” (p. 66)
Several blacks (mulattoes) posed as whites and served in state regiments, some as officers. George and Stafford Grimes of Caroline County enlisted with the Fredericksburg Artillery in 1862, though both later deserted. George was recaptured and plans were made to court-martial him for desertion. However the court decided against this because as a “Negro” he could not be a soldier nor tried as one. (p. 67)
Pro-Confederate blacks were riddles; white Southerners did not trust them, Northerners regarded them as lunatics, and the majority of blacks feared and scorned them as fools or racial traitors. Afterwards some black Confederates wanted to forget their service. Civil rights activist and anti-lynching crusader Mary Church Terrell recalled that one of her uncles, James Wilson, a black man with blue eyes, was so light-skinned that he was forced to serve in the Confederate army as a soldier. Whenever his family mentioned this after the war he became embarrassed and angry. (pp. 68-69)
Here is another very touching and informative episode of “Who Do You Think You Are” featuring Lionel Ritchie. Ritchie searches for his great grandfather, J.L. Brown, and discovers that he applied for a pension based on his presence as a servant to Morgan W. Brown, who served in the Confederate army. Brown, it turns out, may have been his father or half brother. The historian who assists him is none other than Ervin Jordan. It is entirely possible that parts of this scene were edited, but Jordan makes no claims about this man’s loyalty to the cause or anything related to service as a soldier. It would have been helpful if they had included some kind of explanation as to why these pensions were given. What we do learn is that Brown’s relationship with his father/half brother must have been a complex one and certainly difficult for a descendant to understand and ultimately come to terms with. What we do know is that this man was not a soldier. It is just this space between master and slave that I hope to explore in my own study of black camp servants and “black Confederates.” This is an episode worth watching in its entirety.
This afternoon I will be spending a few hours with a French newspaper reporter to discuss the Civil War Sesquicentennial. He arrives in Charlottesville having already visited Atlanta and Gettysburg, where he spent some time with the folks at the Civil War Institute. I plan on taking him to some of the Civil War related sites in town followed by a relaxing cup of coffee/cappuccino at my favorite cafe. I like the fact that I will get to respond to much of what he has learned thus far on this trip. Expect a full report in the following days.