Black Family Reclaims History From Sons of Confederate Veterans

This is an encouraging story. Over the past twenty years the Sons of Confederate Veterans has distorted the stories of African Americans who worked as impressed slaves for the military and camp servants who served their masters during the war. In 1998 they placed a Cross of Honor on the grave of Silas Chandler in West Point, Mississippi. A couple of years ago the SCV honored Weary Clyburn with full military honors as well as a headstone in North Carolina. These ceremonies typically include SCV members dressed in Confederate uniform and white women in mourning attire. Speeches attest to the bravery of these men and their unflinching service to the Confederacy. At the center of many of these ceremonies are the descendants of the honored.

The descendants play a crucial role in the distortion machine that is the Sons of Confederate Veterans. They lend legitimacy to an organization that hopes to stay relevant even as our collective memory of the war comes to accept the central role that slavery played in the coming- and outcome of the Civil War. Since the late 1970s, the SCV has sought to utilize stories of so-called black Confederate soldiers to advance its preferred narrative of the war. The presence of the descendants of these men adds an additional layer of legitimacy to these stories. Continue reading “Black Family Reclaims History From Sons of Confederate Veterans”

What Did Lincoln Think of Black Confederate Soldiers?

President Lincoln offered the following remarks upon hearing the news that the Confederate government was recruiting black men into its army. It was reprinted in the Richmond Daily Dispatch on March 22, 1865.

A Confederate flag, captured by an Indiana regiment, was presented, on Friday, by Governor Morton, in front of the National Hotel, in Washington. The Governor concluded his speech by introducing Old Abe, who delivered a characteristic address, the closing part of which is subjoined:

They (the “rebels”) have concluded at last to take one out of four of the slaves and put them in the army. While I have often said that all men ought to be free, yet I would allow those colored persons to be slaves who want to be; and next to them, those white persons who argue in favor of making other people slaves. [Applause.] I am in favor of giving an opportunity to such, white men to try it on for themselves. [Applause.] I will say one thing in regard to the negro being employed to fight for them. I do know he cannot fight and stay at home and make bread too–[laughter and applause]–and as one is about as important as the other to them, I don’t care which they do. [Renewed applause.] I am rather in favor of having them try them as soldiers. [Applause.] They lack one vote of doing that, and I wish I could send my vote over the river, so that I might cast it in favor of allowing the negro to fight. [Applause.] But they cannot fight and work both. We must now see the bottom of the enemy’s resources. They will stand out as long as they can; and if the negro will fight for them, they must allow him to fight.–They have drawn upon their last branch of resources. [Applause.] And we can now see the bottom. [Applause.] I am glad to see the end so near at hand. [Applause.]

Lincoln understood that this was the ultimate act of desperation on the part of the Confederacy to keep their bid for independence alive. Two weeks later United States Colored Troops entered Richmond.

“A Confederate Negro General”

You can place this one into that ever growing file of wartime accounts that point to the fact that real Confederates never heard of black Confederate soldiers before March 1865. The following appeared in the Richmond Daily Dispatch on June 1, 1864. Enjoy.

–A correspondent of the Houston Telegraph says:

I saw in a Boston paper, not long ago, a statement that we had not only negro troops, but negro officers in our armies. This prodigious tale probably originated as follows:

In the army of Tennessee a Brigadier General had a negro servant who was raised with him from childhood, and who wore all his cast-off clothes Coffee was very proud of an old uniform coat of his master’s, and wore it on gain days. In time or battle, mounted on a spare [h]orse of the General’s, and with excitement, he would charge up and down the field beyond the reach of the shells and On one of these occasions the enemy were in full retreat, and our forces advancing, when a Sergeant with fifteen or twenty prisoners came up with the sable General as he was careering at headlong speed over the plain.

“General,” said the Sergeant, “what shall I do with these prisoners? ”

“Double quick the d — d rascals to the rear,” was the emphatic

Accordingly, the humorous Sergeant trotted his Yankees down the broken road for a mile and a half, and they never could be convinced afterwards that Cuffee was not in the military employ of Cousin Sally Ann.

Interesting that the storyteller acknowledges that the servant was present on the battlefield, but makes it a point to note that he remained out of the “reach of the shells.” I’ve come across a number of these kinds of accounts, which I interpret as white Southerners holding on to a racialized understanding of the battlefield. White men behaved bravely on the battlefield and black men served as an extension of their character, but did not supersede it.

A Camp Servant at De Battle Uv De Crater

Here is a little gem that I somehow missed in my research on the battle of the Crater. I will, however, include a few stanzas in my book on camp servants and Black Confederates. What follows is a poem written by a former camp servant who was present at the Crater on July 30, 1864. It was included in a book of slave reminiscences published in 1916 by Mary Louise Gaines. The poem was written by “Old Sam” and falls neatly within a body of postwar literature that glorified the Old South and the relationship between the races at a time of intense racial violence and political realignment following Reconstruction. Continue reading “A Camp Servant at De Battle Uv De Crater”

“I Have Been on the Battlefield”

Over the past few days I’ve been working through wartime accounts of camp servants who took part in battles in one form or another. It’s a challenging topic for a number of reasons. As you might imagine wartime accounts authored by camp servants are next to impossible to find for the obvious reasons and the accounts of their masters must be treated with care. Postwar accounts by former slaves, in some cases written decades after the war, are even more difficult to interpret.

In dealing with the wartime accounts one thing I have noticed is that officers did not seem to make any assumptions about how their slaves would behave once a battle commenced. There is very little evidence that they intended for their servants to follow them onto the battlefield. I have found plenty of accounts of masters who specifically assigned their servants to guard their personal items, treat the wounded, bury the dead, assist doctors and a few that expected a meal to be ready once the battle ceased. Continue reading ““I Have Been on the Battlefield””