Were Slaves Soldiers?

I have enjoyed following the debate over at Richard Williams’s blog re: my handling of Earl Ijames’s research.  Much of the give and take relates to my decision to publicly request Ijames’s presentation as well as my decision to Cc: the director at the North Carolina Office of Archives and History.  I’m still not sure why the gang over there is making such a big deal of this given that there is nothing offensive about the letter.  It simply requests the materials in question and nothing more.  What I do find funny is that no one seems to have anything to say about Ijames’s response, which he decided to Cc. to that same director.  Anyway, I will leave this to the vultures to sort out.  I want to move on to something that I find much more interesting and that actually relates to history.

In a number of places Mr. Williams suggests that slaves in the Confederate army ought to be acknowledged as soldiers.  Here are a few quotes to consider:

And, as I’ve pointed out before, it is disingenuous to suggest that these men should not be honored for their service – as soldiers – simply because they may have been forced to serve – in whatever capacity. An analogy I’ve used before: During the Vietnam war, many who opposed it were drafted. Many no doubt would have fled to Canada or simply refused to go had it not been for the influence and pressure of family, society and the legal ramifications of refusing service. So they went with no emotional or intellectual support of their own for “the cause.” However, many of these same men, once on the field, bonded with their comrades and were exposed to the same dangers as those who volunteered. They served honorably. Should their service be discounted because they were drafted? I think the answer is clear.

I’ve not delved into Mr. Ijames’s specific research either. I do agree with Ijames’s contention, however, that blacks – whether slave or free – should have their service in the Confederate Army honored where appropriate and that there is nothing improper referring to these men as “soldiers.”

In the recent post about Nelson Winbush’s grandfather, I said, “Private Nelson was a slave.” I do not believe the term “soldier” and “slave” are mutually exclusive.

Mr. Williams arrives at this conclusion via analogy with soldiers in the Vietnam War.  The basic problem with his claim is to confuse two distinct meanings of “forced to serve.”  Americans who are drafted to go to war ought to be understood as a function of their legal standing as a citizen.  As citizens we are obligated to register for the draft and under certain circumstances may be forced to honor that obligation.  Again, the salient point is that draftees are citizens.  It is our status as free men which places us in this relationship to the government.  In contrast, slaves were not citizens of the United States or the Confederacy.  That this distinction even needs to be acknowledged is troubling.  In short, the analogy does not work.  Finally, it should be pointed out that USCTs were not citizens at the time of their service in the army, but it also must be remembered that they were not drafted either.  Many of them expressed the hope that their service would eventually lead to the rights of full citizenship.  That, of course, is another sad chapter in our history.

I am closer with Mr. Williams on the issue of honoring and commemorating those free and enslaved blacks who were present with the Confederate army.  If it can be demonstrated that a black man (regardless of status) enlisted or was drafted as a soldier than he should be honored as such.  I have never said otherwise.  That said, as historians distinctions should matter.  As I make my way through the letters of Capt. Winsmith from South Carolina (which I am editing for publication) I can’t help but be impressed with his commentary on his “servant” who accompanied him to camp.  Winsmith writes glowingly about this man as well as his various activities in camp and on the march.  This man actually procured a uniform by performing functions for other officers.  I have no doubt that this slave endured many of the same hardships along with the rest of the army and I have little doubt that he bonded with his master and others as well, even though I don’t have access to one word from this individual.  He eventually escaped to the Union navy off the coast of South Carolina in the summer of 1862.  That said, there is nothing that indicates that his owner or anyone else for that matter viewed this man as anything other than a slave.  Nothing about his relationship with his master or his experience changed his legal status.

These distinctions matter because as historians we are trying to better understand how the war affected the master-slave relationship and race relations generally.  As historians we should do our best, with the limited evidence available, to understand how the realities of war brought whites and blacks in the army closer together on occasion and further apart at other times.  However, in order to do so we must be sensitive to the distinction between soldier, slave, conscript and other designations.

It goes without saying that if we were to accept Mr. Williams’s analysis we would have a number of fundamental questions to grapple with.

  • What exactly was the Confederate government referring to when it explicitly denied slaves and free blacks the right to serve in the army?
  • How are we to understand the debate during the war over whether to arm slaves as soldiers?
  • What exactly was the Confederate government doing when it finally authorized the enlistment of a limited number of slaves as soldiers in the final weeks of the war in 1865?

In other words, how did the Confederate government as well as the rest of the white South define a soldier during the war?  How would they respond to Mr. Williams’s analysis?

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Interview With Lincoln Impersonator

I think we need to lighten things up a little around here.  This is a funny, but interesting little interview with a Lincoln impersonator.  You can also read this recent piece on Daniel G. Storck in the Washington Post.

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We Have a Responsibility to Take Care of the Past

That includes the North Carolina Museum of History and the Office of Archives and History.

Earl Ijames on Weary Clyburn:

Weary Clyburn was one of thousands of slaves who served in the Confederate Army, Ijames said. There’s no way to quantify the number of slaves who served. “But it’s in the thousands, easy.” People today often wonder why slaves fought for the Confederacy. Ijames said the only course they had to freedom was through the Confederate Army. “Why not go and defend what they know versus running away and going to the unknown,” Ijames said.

Mr. Ijames has a responsibility to explain these statements to the North Carolina Museum of History, Office of Archives and History as well as the rest of the historical community.

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Debating Earl Ijames

Earlier today fellow blogger and historian, Brooks Simpson, left a comment offering to host a debate between myself and Earl Ijames at Civil Warriors.

Sounds to me as if Earl Ijames has challenged Kevin Levin to a duel, so to speak.

Now, by the code duello, Mr. Levin has choice of weapons. I assume he’d rather conduct the contest on the written page/screen/blog, where all of us can see the result, not some hand-picked venue chosen by Mr. Ijames. And I think that’s appropriate. I’m perfectly willing to offer Civil Warriors as a field of honor where this can happen, so that historians can judge the result.

So, Mr. Ijames, it’s up to you. Are you going to make your case? Are you willing to conduct yourself according to the rules of scholarship?  Remember what you said, Mr. Ijames: ” I’ll re-iterate that offer to you to put your money where your loose lips leak erroneous information…. If you don’t show, then we can conclude that you’re not as serious of a student of history as you misrepresent yourself to be.”  I’d hate to see those words come back to haunt you. But it’s now a matter of public record. It’s up to you whether you’ll be as good as your word.

I think this is a great idea and I am more than happy to participate.  It seems to me that the best way to proceed is for Mr. Ijames to write up a short essay (endnotes/sources included) on Weary Clyburn and/or John Venable.  Let’s nail down the interpretation first and steer clear of broad generalizations about numbers and other ancillary concerns.  It would be very helpful to me and the rest of us if we can just focus on one or two individuals.  In fact, Mr. Ijames could do us all a favor by demonstrating how someone in his position goes about researching and constructing a profile for a “Colored Confederate”.  I know I would greatly appreciate it.

Well, Mr. Ijames, the ball is in your court.

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Mr. Ijames, Was Weary Clyburn a Soldier or a Slave?

One of the reasons why it is important for serious historians to publish in peer-reviewed journals is that it provides the community with stable reference points.  Scholarly publications are intended to add to our knowledge of the past by providing rich interpretation along with supporting documents that can be verified.  In this setting interpretation can be challenged and revised if necessary.  I find it troubling that in 15 years Mr. Ijames has yet to publish, but still considers himself to be an expert on the subject of “Colored Confederates” and is considered to be an expert by various constituencies.  No doubt, Mr. Ijames is aware that free and enslaved blacks functioned in various capacities in the Confederate army, but what I am interested in are his vague claims about those that supposedly served as soldiers.  His claims in various forums, including this one, are impossible to pin down which raises more questions than answers.  Consider his public statements about Weary Clyburn, who was the subject of a series of posts I did in 2008.  The SCV honored Clyburn with a headstone that designated him as a soldier in the Confederate army.  Mr. Ijames took part in the SCV’s public and well publicized ceremony for Clyburn, which you can see in this short video clip:

It can be safely assumed that Ijames’s comments as well as his participation in this event implies that he believes Clyburn served as a soldier.  Once he discovered my posts on the subject, along with commentary about his participation in the event, Ijames offered the following comment:

The term is “Colored Confederate”. I have always maintained that Weary Clyburn was ENSLAVED! He wasn’t even counted in the census, much less in a Confederate Regiment! You discount what he actually did, while hiding behind your rambling attacks on me!

So, we go from taking part in an event that commemorated Clyburn as a soldier in Co. E, 12th S.C. Volunteers to acknowledging that he was a slave.  Finally, in yesterday’s response to my open letter, Ijames said the following:

What’s more, you should be ashamed at the dishonor and discredit that you (et als) intend for Weary Clyburn, Co. E, 12th S.C. Volunteers, his daughter, and family.  You might be hearing from their lawyer.

What could this possibly mean other than to imply that I am “dishonoring” a soldier?  I should point out that there is nothing dishonorable about being a slave.  It is their stories that give continued meaning to our lives and a nation that strives towards freedom and equality.  There is also nothing dishonorable about speaking out when those in the historical community engage the past with such reckless abandon.

Mr. Ijames and a few others are wondering why I don’t accept his invitation to debate in some public forum.  As I’ve already pointed out the idea itself is absurd, but how can I debate someone who doesn’t seem to have the basic facts of his own story straight?

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