Florida’s Black Confederates

There is something very disturbing and sad about the way stories of black Confederates are reported in the news.  I suspect that much of it has to do with the fact that those reporting these stories have very little understanding of the history behind their subject.  This seems to be the case in this story reported by the St. Petersburg Times about Nelson Winbush’s memories of his “black Confederate” grandfather.  We read about how unusual it is for a black American to adhere to a narrative that is usually associated with white Southerners and are asked to suspend disbelief and acknowledge the bravery of a man who subscribes to “a different version than mainstream America.”  Why not, after all here we have a decent man who wants nothing more than to acknowledge his family history and a grandfather who apparently had a profound impact on Winbush’s life.

The problem is that by hovering at the surface of this personal attachment we fail to consider the ways in which Winbush’s identification with the past has been shaped by the past itself.  In other words, we fail to acknowledge the ways in which the story of black Confederates was used to distance the Confederate experience from race and slavery.  Consider Winbush’s own evidence, which includes possession of his grandfather’s pension papers and obituary from 1934 along with personal stories handed down through the family. Never far from the personal is the standard interpretation of the causes of the “War Between the States”:

Winbush believes the South seceded because the federal government taxed it disproportionately. It was a matter of states’ rights, not slavery, which was going extinct as the United States became more industrialized, he says. He denies that President Lincoln freed the slaves, explaining that the Emancipation Proclamation affected only the Confederate states, which were no longer under his authority.

“It was an exercise in rhetoric, that’s all,” Winbush says.

And what about those family stories?

Slowly, in his deep, rough voice, Winbush tells the story of a young slave from a Tennessee plantation named Louis Napoleon Nelson, who went to war with the sons of his master. “They grew up together,” Winbush says. At first his grandfather cooked and looked out for the others, but later he saw action, fighting with a rifle under the command of Confederate General Nathan Bedford Forrest, a slave trader and plantation owner.

At Shiloh, a two-day battle in 1862 in which more than 23,000 American men were killed or wounded, the Confederate Army needed a chaplain. Louis Nelson couldn’t read or write, but he had memorized the King James Bible. He stayed on as chaplain for the next four campaigns, leading services for both Confederate and Union soldiers, before they headed back to the battlefield. He also foraged for food. One time, he killed a mule, cut out a quarter and hauled it back to his comrades. “When you don’t have anything else, mule meat tastes pretty good,” he would tell his grandson.

Some topics even the loquacious grandfather considered off limits. He wouldn’t talk about the Union siege of Vicksburg, a bloody battle that captured an important Mississippi River port and effectively split the South. Nearly 20,000 people died. After the war, he lived as a free man on the James Oldham plantation for 12 more years. Then he became a plasterer, traveling the South to work on houses. Over the years, he went to 39 Confederate reunions, wearing a woolly gray uniform that Winbush still has.In photos, he stands next to two white men who accompanied him to soldiers’ reunions until they were old men. Through the sepia gleams a dignity earned on the battlefield. “When he came back, that was storytelling time,” Winbush says. His grandfather died in 1934. The local paper ran an obituary that called him a “darky.” Winbush is proud that his grandfather’s death was marked at all.

There is a fascinating story in all of this; unfortunately, Winbush doesn’t have a sophisticated enough background to understand it.  The story of his grandfather is a story shaped by white Americans, which evolved as a means to satisfy both political and racial agendas.  Does Winbush know to ask whether his grandfather was brandishing that rifle with Forrest at Fort Pillow?  What does Winbush envision when he mentions that his grandfather “went to war” with the son of his owner?

There is a very interesting article in today’s New York Times about Japanese history textbooks which fail to acknowledge that “Okinawans had been coerced by Imperial troops into committing mass suicide” during the invasion of the island by Americans during WWII.  The protests by tens of thousands of people point to the importance of telling the truth about the past even if it brings the most painful of memories to the surface in both the family and nation.  With the story of Nelson Winbush and his grandfather we can see first-hand what happens when that advice is ignored.

Robert E. Lee: A Traditional General in a Modern War?

Last night Gary W. Gallagher presented a talk as part of UVA’s on-going symposium, “Lee at 200.”  Gallagher’s talk challenged a number of assumptions concerning Lee that collectively point to an old-style or traditional general who struggled to understand the tenets of modern war.  Such a view can be discerned in our popular culture, including the horrific movie Gods and Generals and even Ken Burns’s Civil War documentary.  Just think of the music that is played in the background whenever Lee enters the story or the tone of Lee’s voice.  Now think of the way in which both Grant and Sherman are portrayed.  Consider the two images of Lee above.  On the one hand we prefer to think of the Lee on the left dressed in full uniform rather than the photograph taken by Brady just days after Appomattox.  One of the most popular points of contrast – usually mentioned in the context of the surrender at Appomattox – is the contrast between the way Lee and Grant dressed.  We know the drill so I am not going to repeat it.  Gallagher suggested, however, that Lee often dressed with a simple military jacket and colonel’s insignia.  The image of Lee in full military regalia does satisfy our desire to see him as more sophisticated or as somehow cut off from the dirtiness of war in comparison with Grant and Sherman.

The tendency to interpret Lee along traditional lines conforms to our broader assumptions that distinguish an agrarian South made up of cavaliers and a more industrial North made up of raucous immigrants.  We prefer to think of the South as stuck in the past and the war itself as a defensive posture against modernism.  Never mind the fact that the South ranked as the 4th most industrialized region on the planet or that a great deal of recent scholarship has successfully challenged this traditional picture of the South and has even demonstrated that large segments of the population were in fact quite progressive along economic lines.  Never mind the fact that just everybody in the North still farmed in 1860.

Gallagher presented a thorough overview of the literature on Lee and focused specifically on the various ways in which popular writer, beginning in the late 19th century, and scholars continue to interpret Lee as a commander out of step with the demands of modern war.  Early writers include John Esten Cooke, John W. Daniel, Charles Francis Adams, and more recently, Clifford Dowdey and Gene Smith.  All of them utilize the cavalier and other medieval imagery.  More recently, historians such as J.F.C. Fuller, Thomas Connelly, Alan Nolan and T.H. Williams have argued that Lee was unable to take in and appreciate the military situation beyond the Blue Ridge; rather, he was preoccupied with Virginia.  One of the nice things about a Gallagher talk is that you can always expect to get a good dose of historiography.  In fact, I don’t know too many Civil War historians who have as strong a grasp of the historiography of 19th century American history as Gallagher.

In contrast to this popular image of Lee, Gallagher believes that Lee was “perfectly attuned to the realities of a mid-19th century war.”  He was an ardent Confederate nationalist who paid close attention to the relationship between events on the battlefield and morale on the home front.  Perhaps the best example of Lee’s nationalism is his strong advocacy for a national draft in the spring of 1862.  This was the first national draft in American history and it represented a fundamental shift in the degree of intrusiveness in ordinary American’s lives.  And it was the Confederacy which introduced this first!  Lee believed that the individual states ought to give way to the demands of the national government; in fact, at one point Gallagher mentioned that Lee advocated confiscating all of the cattle from southern farms if it was necessary to maintain the armies.  Lee also clearly understood that the war was about the preservation of slavery and wrote about this often in his correspondences with Davis and others.  Lee advocated arming slaves during the war in exchange for their freedom not because he was a closet emancipationist, but because he believed it to be necessary to achieve independence.  Gallagher suggested that the sum total of the Confederate government’s legislative actions during the war constituted a far more intrusive system compared with the United States.  Such a view does not fit our preconceptions of a government bent on protecting states’ rights.

Most importantly, Gallagher believes that Lee’s record and aggressiveness on the battlefield constitutes the best case for interpreting him as a modern general.  Lee’s offensive movements proved to be much more deadly compared with Grant.  In fact, in the three years up to the Overland Campaign Grant lost a total of 35,000 men compared with Lee who lost over 100,000 men.  Gallagher is quick to point out that the high numbers are not cited as a criticism of Lee, but as an indicator that he understood what would win the war.  Lee’s stunning victories galvanized white southerners during difficult times and dampened northern morale.

Anyone who knows Gallagher is aware that he grew up out west and was reared on D.S. Freeman’s studies of Lee and his army along with other more traditional Lost Cause writers.  That enthusiasm and boyhood attraction for Lee and his men continues to come through in his public talks; that said, Gallagher is a first-rate scholar who understands that generalizations about the past or colorful commentary is no substitute for thorough research and analysis.

This talk is based on an article that appeared in the journal Civil War History: “An Old-Fashioned Soldier in a Modern War?: Robert E. Lee as Confederate General (December 1999): 295-321; the article is reprinted in Lee and His Army in Confederate History (UNC Press, 2001).

Show Don’t Tell: Black Confederates

I just received the latest issue of North and South (Vol. 12, No. 3) and anticipated the negative responses to Bruce Levine’s recent piece on the myth of black Confederates.  The responses are typical in their tendency to go for the personal/political jugular of the author in addition to the ever ready individual sighting accounts of black Confederates.  The letters seem to have been written in response to editor Keith Poulter’s claim that we can put the idea of large numbers of Confederates to rest.  He is absolutely right about that.  Unfortunately, the "arguments" contained in these letters betray very little understanding of how historical research and interpretation is done.  The authors are clearly upset that Levine comes down strongly against the idea that their existed black units in the Confederate army, but apart from offering weak criticisms of his actual argument they offer nothing in the way of positive evidence to the contrary.  All we get are the standard sightings accounts without any analysis or thought that evidence needs to be confirmed along with vague references to lost evidence or poorly constructed analogies. 

I will believe anything about the past so long as the interpretation meets certain standards established by the professional community.  In other words, the explanation must include reliable evidence and the analysis must be able to withstand relevant counter-arguments.  If you believe that there were large numbers of black Confederate in the army or if you believe that Levine’s argument is incomplete or simply wrong than get out there and do the research.  Present your findings in a reputable publishing outlet and lets have a discussion.  Poulter has extended an invitation to one writer who claims to have found 2,000 black soldiers from Virginia alone.  I am confident that the article will be rejected if the research is shoddy, but if it does make it to the pages of North and South than we will be able to have a discussion about the findings.

Until then stop whining and complaining that the best research out there doesn’t fulfill your fantasies about the shape of the past.  Take a step back and ask yourself why you so desperately need this particular story to be true?  Why is that white men tend to be the ones who are so emotionally connected to this story?  I’ve said it before that there were thousands of black men with Confederate forces, but this doesn’t necessarily mean that they were serving in the same capacity as white men.  Nor does it reflect a level of allegiance to the Confederate cause that usually accompanies such suggestions.  Let’s do the research to better understand why black men were with the army and how their presence shaped the social and racial hierarchy.  Historian Peter Carmichael has recently revealed that his next project will address some of these questions:

My next book project, “Black Rebels,” will explore the experience of slaves who served Confederate soldiers. This unique master-slave relationship within Southern armies has never been examined by scholars, and to date the subject has only drawn the interest of those who write in the romantic tradition of the Lost Cause. My intention to focus on the master-slave relationship will allow me to examine the traditional subjects of living conditions and resistance. But I also intend to explore uncharted territory such as: how the shared experience of battle reconfigured the master slave relationship, what were the symbolic uses of the “camp servant” in Confederate propaganda, how did lower class whites in the army view slaves, and were camp servants a source of division in the white ranks? This project is in keeping with my interest in the construction and exertion of power in the Old South and the Confederacy.

Historian Charles Brooks ["The Social and Cultural Dynamics of Soldiering in Hood’s Texas Brigade" Journal of Southern History 67 (August 2001): 535-72] has recently written about the way the army shaped how white men from various social backgrounds related to one another.  Surely there is much to be explored along racial lines. 

Robert K. Krick, Robert E. Lee, and the Anti-Lee Historians

Last night I attended the first session of UVA’s “Lee at 200” conference which will run through the end of October.  Each week a historian will address a different aspect of Lee’s life and legacy with a roundtable discussion scheduled for Oct. 31.  I am scheduled along with two other panelists to lead this discussion.  Given my role in this symposium I plan to attend as many sessions as possible.  Bob Krick kicked things off with a talk on Lee’s legacy and commented on recent challenges to his reputation.  It was basically the same talk he presented a few months back at a “conference” hosted by the SCV.  I blogged about it then; click here for the post which links to an even earlier post on this talk.  At the beginning he quoted from three nameless historians which he used as representative samples of how academics seem to treat Lee.  He described them as anti-Lee which I still believe is misleading.  One passage was clearly from Alan Nolan who I actually do believe comes closest to fulfilling this description.  Nolan treats the historical Lee as if he is on trial and seems more concerned about arriving at a certain conclusion rather than understanding the historical reality in which Lee operated.  We can write Nolan’s book off as sloppy scholarship.

I thought the other two passages were from Thomas Connelly and Michael Fellman, but during the Q&A I learned that he had read from William G. Piston and Carol Reardon.  I asked Krick if he didn’t think that he had set up a strawman argument in the way he so quickly assumed what motivates these writers.  For someone who is so suspicious of psycho-history it is strange to see Krick so easily assume the psychological qualities of Reardon and Piston.  My underlying problem with his talk is that I still have no idea what he means by “anti-Lee.”  Is anything that challenges the standard picture of Lee to be placed in this category?  Why can’t we be content in acknowledging that historians often disagree with one another about the past?  I’ve never met Piston, but I’ve talked with Reardon on a number of occasions and she doesn’t strike me as someone who has a personal need to tear down anyone from the past.  I actually believe she is a pretty damn good historian.  Our job as historians is to challenge interpretations we disagree with by demonstrating where we believe the weaknesses to be.  Suggesting that someone is “anti-Lee” tells us more about the individual making the accusation than anything connected with the interpretation in question.

On a different note I should say that Krick’s latest reference book Civil War Weather in Virginia is well worth buying if you are the kind of person who needs to know all thing ANV related.  I recently completed a review of the book for the Virginia Magazine of History and Biography and will post it when it is published.