A few days ago I referenced another essay by an individual masquerading as a legitimate authority on Civil War history and “black Confederates.” In the essay, Bernhard Thuersam, who is the executive director of the Cape Fear Historical Institute, makes the ridiculous assertion that the Richmond Howitzers were “an integrated artillery unit.” Since no references were provided we are forced to guess as to the origin of the claim. More than likely it stems from a story about the slave, Aleck Kean, who accompanied John Henry Vest into the Confederate army at the beginning of the war. Vest was killed in 1863, but for reasons unknown Kean decided to stay with the unit through to the end of the war.
In 1913 the Richmond Howitzers erected a stone to Aleck Kean that read: “In Testimony of this Admiration and Respect for a man who did his duty in war and peace. ‘Well done, good and faithful servant.’” [Unfortunately, I can't locate an image of the stone.] I did locate a short piece by Judge George L. Christian about Kean that appeared in the pages of Confederate Veteran in 1912:
…I affirm that he was the most faithful and efficient man in the performance of every duty pertaining to his sphere that I have ever known. His whole mind and soul seemed bent on trying to get and prepare something for his mess to eat; and if there was anything to be gotten honestly, Aleck always got the share which was coming to his mess, and he always had that share prepared in the shortest time possible and the most delicious way in which it could have been prepared in camp. The comfort of having such a man as Aleck around us in those trying times can scarcely be described and certainly cannot be exaggerated.
There is nothing unusual about the content of Christian’s personal memory or the broader collective memory of white southerners at the beginning of the twentieth century. In short, slaves became loyal servants worthy of remembrance. However, only an individual lacking the most basic knowledge of the Confederacy and slavery could make the assertion that the Richmond Howitzers were “integrated.”
I am pleased to report that I am making steady progress on revising my Crater manuscript. In fact, I recently contacted the publisher to inform them that I plan to mail the manuscript no later than the first week of August. It’s nice to finally be in the home stretch. Much of my time has been spent cutting content that detracts from the core issue of race and historical memory, which I am now convinced is this project’s most important contribution to the literature. One section that I am adding is a discussion of the black counter-memory of the battle. It’s not that I didn’t have any references to African American accounts, but there are so few that it was very difficult to weave them together as a coherent analysis. One of my reviewers suggested that I take another shot at it.
One of the more fruitful sources is the postwar accounts written by white officers from USCT units. I still don’t necessarily consider these sources to constitute a counter-memory, but they did help to preserve memory of the participation of African Americans at the Crater at the turn of the twentieth century. The problem for the historian is that so few of these articles actually tell the story of the men in the units or address the larger issues that defined the service of African Americans. The cultural and social divide between the two groups made it difficult for these individuals to relate to one another and very few officers remained in touch with the men in their units after the war. I have accounts in which the officers go on and on about the battlefield heroics of their fellow white officers, but say nothing about the men in the ranks. A few that do end up minimizing their claims to manhood by continuing the argument that black soldiers needed their white officers to control their innate emotional excesses. One account focuses specifically on denying claims that white officers were drunk during the battle without addressing continued claims that black soldiers were as well.
The few accounts that do attempt to tell the story of the men in Ferrero’s Fourth Division are very important primarily because they preserved a memory of the war at a time when the nation was moving away from a narrative of emancipation and embracing reunion. The majority of these articles can be found in The National Tribune, which was in publication between 1877 and 1917 and functioned as the principal Grand Army of the Republic’s weekly newspaper. Two officers in particular stand out for their contributions to this newspaper. The first is Lt. Freeman Bowley, who served in the 30th USCT. His writings and memoir were recently compiled and edited by Keith Wilson as Honor in Command (University Press of Flordia, 2006). The second is Colonel Delavan Bates, who also served in the 30th USCT.
This coming Friday I am scheduled to spend the day with a film crew from Eastern Carolina University, which is producing a documentary on the subject of “black Confederates.” I am excited about my first foray into the world of film and just a little apprehensive about how my commentary will be used. Still, I do think it is an opportunity that I can’t pass up given that my next book project will be a study of memory and black Confederates. The filming will be done at my home and we plan on spending about 4-5 hours discussing the subject.
I am going to put together some information sheets that I can refer to during the interview. My overall goal is first and foremost to help the audience to properly frame the discussion around the correct terms. This is a discussion about how the Confederate war effort altered the institution of slavery and not one about soldiers. We need to use the correct terminology. As anyone who is familiar with the primary evidence can tell you any examples of black southerners who actually served as soldiers are incredibly rare and therefore constitute and exception to this framework. As I’ve pointed out over the years this is not a problem confined to the general public, but even among those who work as public historians such Earl Ijames of the North Carolina Museum of History.
And if Ijames wasn’t disturbing enough for you than have a look at this essay written by Bernhard Thuersam, who is the director of the Cape Fear Historical Institute in Wilmington, North Carolina. The essay is a rough survey of the role of black soldiers in the Revolution, War of 1812, and Civil War. I am not going to sum up the entire article. I neither have the time nor the patience. On top of some of the same old pieces of evidence that appear in every article/website on the subject consider the following:
I have already mentioned what a pleasure it was to have the opportunity to talk last week with Earl Hess about our mutual interest in the battle of the Crater. During our discussion Prof. Hess asked if I dealt in any substantive way with the evidence that USCTs executed surrendered Confederates at the Crater. I told him that I reference these accounts, but that I had a very difficult time coming to terms with the numbers as well as the timing. One of the reasons I am looking forward to Hess’s upcoming book on the battle is that he attempts to put a number on it. I don’t know if this is possible given the scant evidence, but it is definitely an aspect of the battle that is often overlooked and I have no doubt that Hess will give it a good shot.
So, the short answer is, yes, USCTs did massacre Confederates at the Crater. It occurred during the initial advance of the two brigades of Brig. Gen. Edward Ferrero’s Fourth Division, which took place at approximately 8 A.M. While part of the unit was diverted into the chaos of the crater itself, a substantial portion of the division was able to skirt along its northern rim and advance west toward their objective along the Jerusalem Plank Road. Elements of the other three divisions were already engaged in this area by this time, but the rush of new soldiers led to the surrender of roughly 200 Confederates who were huddled in the complex chain of earthworks that dotted the landscape behind the salient.
It should come as no surprise that the black soldiers who made this attack did so having been incited by their white officers to “Remember Fort Pillow” and grant, “No Quarter.” It would be interesting to know what exactly these officers communicated to their men about the recent massacre of black soldiers at Fort Pillow given the levels of illiteracy among USCTs. These black soldiers would have also gone into battle knowing that it was unlikely they would be allowed to live in the even that they were taken prisoner. Accounts suggest that they “killed numbers of the enemy in spite of the efforts of their officers to restrain them.” Another Union officer recalled, “That there was a half determination on the part of a good many of the black soldiers to kill them as fast as they came to them. They were thinking of Fort Pillow, and small blame to them.” As far as I know this was the only moment in the battle where this type of killing on the part of USCTs occurred.
While it may be tempting to explain the Confederate massacre of USCTs following the battle as a direct response to these incidents, this would be a mistake. First, the evidence suggests that the killings were isolated and therefore probably not widely reported throughout the ranks. Mahone’s counterattack took place after this incident and while these men knew before going into battle that they would meet black soldiers there is no evidence to suggest that they were aware of these killings. Of course, many of them recalled having been told that the black soldiers would give, “No Quarter.” Finally, as I’ve argued elsewhere, Confederate soldiers did not need a massacre on the part of USCTs to justify a much larger slaughter of surrendered black soldiers. There are reasons as to why this happened that extend beyond the battlefield itself.
[Painting of Crater by Tom Lovell]
Update: This is what happens when you try to write a post when you are not feeling well. I called my contact again and now can confirm that the museum is 63 years old, while the exhibit was done within the last few years. Sorry about that.
Yesterday I shared photographs of an exhibit on black Confederates at the Old Courthouse Museum in Vicksburg, Mississippi. Today I had a chance to talk with a curator at the museum about the exhibit. I appreciate his willingness to answer my questions. Unfortunately, I wasn’t able to learn much about the exhibit itself given that it has been on display for 63 years. That, of course, explains the emphasis on faithful slaves. Andy Hall correctly surmises that this probably has as much to do with a limited budget as it does with a flawed interpretation of the Confederacy and slavery.
I asked about how it was possible that slaves were enlisted as soldiers given the Confederate government’s position, but all he could say was that these men were loyal to their owners and accepted by their comrades. For further reading it was suggested that I check out Holt Collier: His Life, His Roosevelt, and the Origin of the Teddy Bear by Minor Ferris Buchanan. I’ve never heard of this book before, but I will definitely take a look at it at some point. Given my initial assumption that the exhibit was much more recent, it is interesting to note that many of the most common images and accounts that can be found today Online were being used in the 1940s. That definitely changes my perspective on the history of when these accounts first surfaced. I want to know, for example, when the image of the Chandler Boys first came to be used as an example of loyal black Confederate soldiers, etc.
The problem with this exhibit can be reduced to its title. Calling it “Blacks Who Wore Gray” clouds the distinction between slave and soldier. Rather, it should be titled, “Slaves Who Wore Gray.”