Category Archives: Slavery

A Black Confederate General That We Can All Embrace?

I trust that after this post no one will accuse me of dismissing any and all evidence for the existence of black Confederate soldiers.  Better yet, I give you at least one black Confederate general.  The interesting question is whether the Sons of Confederate Veterans and others will accept him as one of their own.  From The Boston Globe:

Randall Lee Gibson, an urbane, Yale-educated Confederate general, mocked black people as “the most degraded of all races of men.’’ Later, as a US senator from Louisiana, he helped broker the end of Reconstruction, freeing the South to harass and lynch blacks virtually at will…. In the 20th century, his orphaned son, Preston, was raised by an aunt and her husband, who had been a justice on the US Supreme Court that legitimated racial segregation in the infamous case of Plessy v. Ferguson…. What Senator Gibson did not know was that his great-grandfather Gideon Gibson was a free man of color, and a substantial landowner and slaveholder, who led the “Regulators’’ to a successful back-country revolt in Colonial South Carolina. To his peers, the author contends, Gideon Gibson was neither black nor white but merely rich and respected. His marriage to a white woman further blanched his progeny, and their relocation to Mississippi and Louisiana allowed the family’s African-American past to fade away altogether.

The following passage comes from a review of a new book that explores the complex web of racial identity through the experiences of three families that straddled the the racial divide.  Gibson’s life is also the focus of a recent biography by Mary Gorton McBride, titled, Randall Lee Gibson of Louisiana: Confederate General and New South Reformer (Louisiana State University Press, 2007).  In 1876 Gibson was attacked by former Republican governor James Madison Wells, who accused him of being “colored” in the pages of the New York Times.  Gibson followed up by consulting with two historians in Mississippi concerning his family history.  Apparently neither Gibson nor his siblings had any knowledge of their black ancestors, but what is more interesting is that the accusations apparently had no impact on how he viewed himself or on society’s acceptance of Gibson as a “white” leader.

So, was/is General Randall Lee Gibson a black Confederate?

 

“Great Fight Over the Nigger in the Rebel Congress”

From the Civil War Era Collection at Gettysburg College

Description: “Robert E. Lee and a southern planter pull apart a slave into two pieces.  Lee states, “I must have the slave or cave in.”  The southern planter states, “Anyhow you can’t have MY Nigger.”  His armies were so depleted in 1864, that General Lee advocated the conscription of blacks into military service.  This was thought to be fundamentally against the ideas of the South, and planters severely opposed the idea causing a political battle in the Confederate Congress.  It was not until 1865 that blacks were conscripted, and even then they did not see any action in the war.”

Comment: Slaveholders resisted the efforts on the part of the Confederate government to conscript as well as impress their slave property.  They resisted, in large part, because they viewed these efforts as a direct violation of their rights as property holders.  In other words, they viewed these efforts as a reflection of a government that had overstepped its constitutional bounds.  The cartoon also places the eventual conscription of a small number of blacks into the army as an act of desperation rather than a measure that conformed to the expectations and assumptions of a slaveholding society at war.  In short, it was a last ditch effort that made no impact on the eventual outcome of the war.

These cartoons serve to remind us of just how far removed the public discussion is from anything approaching a proper historical context.  Thanks again to Vicki Betts for passing along this reference – wonderful image.

 

Ervin Jordan’s Black Confederates (Part 2)

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)

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Lionel Ritchie’s Black Confederate Ancestor

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.

 

“Negroes Fighting In the Ranks of the Rebels”

Here is another example of a newspaper clipping on the subject of black Confederates with the compliments of Vicki Betts.  [See here and here ] This is just the kind of evidence that certain parties love to tout as indisputable proof of the existence of black Confederate soldiers.  I have to say that if I came at this issue with no prior background knowledge of Confederate policy on this issue and lacked the ability to ask careful questions of my sources I might be drawn in as well.

NASHVILLE DAILY UNION, February 19, 1863, p. 4, c. 1

Negroes Fighting in the Ranks of
the Rebels.

The following letter containing facts of much interest to the public, is printed by the author’s permission in the Washington Republican of yesterday:”Washington, D. C. Feb. 2, 1863.

“Hon. William Whiting, Solicitor of the War Department”
“Dear Sir:  While at Yorktown, soon after its evacuation by the rebels, I was informed that during the siege the guns in those fortifications were manned and served by negroes, who were recognized as soldiers in the rebel army.

“A few days subsequently at West Point, the day after the fight at that place, I was informed by some of our officers and men engaged in that fight that during the engagement our forces encountered a full company of negroes, armed and equipped, serving in the rebel army; that said negro soldiers drove a portion of our forces into a swamp and deliberately cut the throats of our officers and men, and that our troops caught one of these negroes with a commission in his pocket for a lieutenancy in the rebel army signed by Jeff. Davis.

“At Mechanicsville a full regiment of blacks was seen under drill, in full view of our lines, for several days.

“The above facts are well known and often spoken of.  All this, if true, shows conclusively that there does not seem to be any nice question with Davis as to the equality of blacks, such at least as is now raised in Congress by his friends on the same question.

“Yours truly,
“Thos. W. Beardslee.”

We have evidence also that negroes are enlisted in the rebel army, and paid as white soldiers are, and the man who gives this evidence is a captain in the rebel army.  Read the following advertisement from the Georgia Constitutionalist:

$30 Reward.

Deserted from Company A, 29th Georgia Regiment, stationed at Dawton Battery, on Savannah River, John Rose, 22 years of age, about 5 feet 7 inches in height, complexion a brown black.  He is a free negro and an excellent drummer.  Was enlisted October 16th, 1861, and deserted November 13th, 1862.  He is at present concealed in Savannah.

W. H. Billapp,
Captain Commanding Dawton Battery.

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