Category Archives: Slavery

The National Park Service’s Black Confederates

[Hat-tip to Keith Muchowski]

Update #2: The information sheet has been removed.

Update: I just got off the phone with an NPS employee at Governors Island.  It turns out that the document was published just this month and was written by an undergraduate at Columbia University.  The woman I talked to was very nice and encouraged me to contact the individual in question as well as her supervisor.  It looks like the student used titles by Barrow and Rollins and other books that you can find on SCV websites.  In fact, I stated specifically that if I did not know anything about the document’s origin, I would have guessed that it was written by the SCV.  I will keep you updated.  This is a perfect example of why I am so focused on this subject.

Many of you know that I am a big supporter of the National Park Service and their commitment to battlefield preservation and interpretation/education.  Unfortunately, it appears that the quality of historical scholarship that exists at many sites is not uniform throughout.  At least that is the feeling I am left with after reading the following handout from Governors Island in New York City.  I am going to quote the document in its entirety, which includes a section, titled, “Black Confederates”:

Some black Americans in the South left to fight for the Union army, but 65,000 black men served as Confederate soldiers.  The Confederate States Colored Troops were officially organized in 1865, just months before the war ended.  However, many officers ignored rules banning black soldiers and allowed blacks to fight in biracial units.  Other black soldiers fought in state militias.  Free black soldiers were generally paid equally to white soldiers, unlike the disparate pay rates received by white and black soldiers in the North.  Eligibility for pensions differed by state, but black soldiers often did not receive pensions or received pensions much later than white soldiers.  In South Carolina, for example, black soldiers were considered ineligible for old age pensions until 1923. Black men also built entrenchments and fortifications and served as cooks and teamsters.  People fulfilling these jobs for the Army today would be considered soldiers, but at the time these sorts of tasks were not considered real soldiering.  This contributed to the perceptions of many white Southerners that blacks in the Army were more like servants than soldiers.

Black Southerners had many reasons for fighting for the Confederacy.  Like white Southerners, many held strong loyalties to the particular states in which they resided.  Some slaves were offered freedom for serving in the Confederate Army, while other slaves were required to fight or serve in support roles.  Many black Southerners desired the pay offered by the Confederate Army, as well as the new experiences, adventure, and pride that being a soldier entailed.  Other black Confederates were defending their homes from invading Northern troops, who would sometimes capture large groups of slaves to punish white secessionists, as well as rape black women.

I don’t really know where to begin in critiquing this narrative.  I have no idea how they arrived at a number of 65,000.  The author apparently missed the fact that in South Carolina the pensions were given to former slaves and not to black Confederate soldiers.  There are no documented biracial units in the Confederate army that I know about.  At times there is a failure to clearly distinguish between soldiers and slaves.  In addition, it is news to me that a significant number of white Southerners were confused about the status of the presence of black men with the Confederate army.  I am going to try to find out more about this through some friends in the NPS.  Unfortunately, this is as bad as anything you will find on the Internet.

The Heart of the Matter

I know some of you are probably already sick and tired of the frequency of posts on black Confederates.  Well, get use to it.  I am in the process of co-writing an article about Silas Chandler and in the beginning stages of what I hope to be a book-length manuscript on the subject.  Tomorrow I am finally going to film my segments for a documentary on the subject, which is being produced by a film professor at East Carolina University.  As a Civil War enthusiast who is interested in memory I couldn’t be more intrigued by this subject.  The most frustrating part of this debate for me is the way the question is all too often framed: Were there black Confederates and, if so, how many?  As I’ve said before, if we are talking about soldiers than it is a pretty straightforward process of providing enlistment papers to demonstrate this particular status within the army.  Anything else, including pension papers must be seen as inconclusive given what we know about the process.  As I see it the number is so small that any account will have to demonstrate how the individual soldier managed to maneuver through the strict enforcement that the Confederate government instituted when it came to the recruitment of free and enslaved blacks.  That, of course, will be an interesting story and one that I would love to hear more about.

More importantly, the contours of this debate prevents us from honestly exploring the lives of individual free and enslaved blacks during the war.  We lump all of them together as “loyal” “devoted” servants, who along with their white comrades “sacrificed” all for the Confederacy.  In this we learn next to nothing about the individuals themselves and how they understood the experience of camp life/battle and the time away from loved ones.  Consider the number of narratives that include the servant/slave bringing home his wounded master.  Just about all of these accounts come from the postwar period, but I’ve never come across an article written by the slave in question, which, of course, is not surprising given the illiteracy rates.  We know that Silas Chander escorted Andrew Chandler home after the latter was wounded in battle.  In most Online accounts this is reduced to his supposed faithfulness and devotion to Andrew,  which fall neatly into the broader postwar slave narrative.  Now there is little doubt that servants shared the challenges of camp life and even, on occasion, the dangers of the battlefield with their masters.  As historians we must be receptive to the ways in which the war shaped the relationship between slave and master.  I have little reason to doubt that certain bonds of affection would have been established as a result, but this cannot be the beginning and end of our analysis of these men.  In the case of Silas he had a wife and child back in Palo Alto, Mississippi.  But even if Silas did not have a family we should not be surprised that he might choose to bring his master home.  After all, he was still legally bound to his owner and may have viewed running away as more of a risk even though thousands of fellow slaves did just that.  What I find the most troubling about all of this is the extent to which slaves like Silas and even those who turn out to be legitimate soldiers (however small the number) will be ignored because it turns out that most people are not really interested in recounting their experiences.  The approach is to engage in hard-headed reductionism that may satisfy those desperate to vindicate a certain view of the past, but gets us nowhere in terms of understanding these men and the unique challenges they faced as black southerners.  Unfortunately, I suspect that in just about all of these cases we will be able to say very little because of a lack of sufficient documentation.  Of course, this will not stop the SCV from continuing to butcher this part of the past by placing headstones that distort the distinction between slave and soldier.  They did it with Weary Clyburn and in the case of Silas Chandler they placed an “Iron Cross” in front of his marker.  This needs to be denounced, not simply as bad history, but as a blatant attempt to use the lives of others as a means to an end.

My point is simple.  We have got to get over ourselves when confronting the past.  I do not claim complete objectivity when doing history nor do I believe anyone achieves such a perspective, but we can help ourselves by asking the right questions and by exercising a healthy dose of skepticism.