Bringing Earl Ijames to You

Update: I now have the audio of this talk.  Unfortunately, the files are very large and as it stands I am unable to upload them for your listening pleasure. I will continue to work on this.  The talk is literally just a string of individual stories strung together.  There is almost no analysis of the documents or the broader issue of slavery and race in the Confederate South.

A couple of weeks ago one of my regular readers mentioned that he would be in town for Earl Ijames’s recent talk on “Colored Confederates” as part of the 21st Annual Savannah Black Heritage Festival.  Well, not only did this reader attend the talk, he took detailed notes as well as an audio recording of the presentation.  I have not heard the audio yet, but I am going to share the notes.  As you will see, it looks like this presentation rests on a great deal of circumstantial and weak evidence.  In fact, there is nothing surprising in terms of the kind of evidence that is typically offered in these cases.  The inclusion of so many pension records is quite telling.  So now we have a list of so-called black Confederates which can be easily checked and examined.  Apparently, during the talk Ijames mentioned that Henry Louis Gates Jr. contacted him during the research for the documentary “Looking for Lincoln.”  Gates wanted a firm number of “black confederates” to quote in the film.  Ijames responded, “only God in his holy archives really knows.”  I don’t really know how to respond to such a statement.  I have yet to hear from anyone at the North Carolina Museum of History or North Carolina Office of Archives and History re: Mr. Ijames’s unprofessional response to my request for his presentation.  Clearly, most of the documents cited in this talk were pulled from the NCDAH.  At this point we must assume that Mr. Ijames speaks for both institutions and that these institutions sanction his public presentations.  Here are the notes:

Official Records of the War of the Rebellion, Series 1, XVI, Part 1, p. 805
“There were also quite a number of negroes attached to the Texas and Georgia troops, who were armed and equipped, and took part in the several engagements with my forces during the day.”

Jeremiah Day Letter (In NC Archives?)
Manuscript letter dated August 22, 1861 written to North Carolina governor Henry Toole Clark.  Day, a free black, writes of two sons “in the army,” and wants the governor to return a younger son conscripted into “service” for the army.

Hawkins W. Carter
A black man from Warren County, NC who claimed in his pension application to “fighting seven days with the Confederacy.”

John W. Venable
Enough said already.

C. M. McKaughan
Pension application filed July 23, 1929 (after mentioning McKaughan, Ijames went into a long diatribe about North Carolina Governor Charles B. Aycock, whose administration “kept blacks” from seeking pensions)

Tarboro Southerner, Saturday April 30, 1864
Notice for free blacks to register for “service.”

Miles Reed
North Carolina Troops Service Record, dated May 24, 1864.  Private Reed noted as a “free negro.”

Daniel Brooks
A black man interviewed by the High Point Enterprise on June 7, 1942.  (Ijames admitted to getting this information from an SCV member).  In the interview, Brooks claimed his master “enlisted” him to “build roads” for the Confederate Army.  He also worked on constructing defensive works before the Battle of Bentonville (Ijames claimed this as evidence for black “pioneer battalions” in the Confederate Army).

Lewis Douglas
A black man from Bertie County, NC that claimed in a 1928 pension application to serving as an “office boy” for a Confederate surgeon.

Adam Moore
A black man from Lincoln County, NC who claimed in a pension application dated February 6, 1931, that “I did my best for the Confederate Army.”  Furthermore, Moore mentioned officials “press[ing] me into service” to haul gold bullion for the Confederate Treasury.  (After this example, Ijames said he “would rather believe Adam Moore than some college professor.”  Greeted with applause from crowd).

Rufus Holloway
Quoted by the Raleigh News & Observer on July 24, 1955 as a member of the “slave army.”  Worked as a “body servant” for Dr. Tom Holloway.

Isaac High
In a pension application, High recalled his master “sending” him along with three other black men, Wylie Richardson, Porter Hunter, and Abe Dunn, to build obstructions at the mouth of the Cape Fear River.  High also worked on earthworks around Raleigh.  High wanted the pension since he “own[ed] a farm of 25 acres that has a mortgage of $700 and I can’t pay the interest.”  He claimed that during eighteen months of working for the Confederate Army, he “never received any compensation for the work rendered.”

Archibald McLean Letter (In NC Archives?)
In an August 1861 letter to North Carolina Governor Henry Toole Clark, the mayor of Fayetteville, NC discusses slaves working on arms in the former Federal Arsenal and performing “police duties.”

Confederate Veterans Reunion Photograph
Ijames exhibited a photograph dated 1925 from a reunion of the 45th North Carolina Infantry Regiment, Company C in High Point, North Carolina.  He pointed to the dark complexions of three men in the picture as photographic evidence of black Confederates.  He referred to one as Sergeant H.L. P. Watson.

Harper’s Weekly
Ijames displayed the infamous “Negro Pickets” sketch from the January 10, 1863 issue of the periodical.

Note: I want to thank my anonymous reader for taking the time to attend the talk and especially for taking such detailed notes that can be used as the basis for further exploration. I think it’s safe to say that a public debate between myself and Mr. Ijames is unnecessary at this point.

“All His Life He Was a White Man’s Darkey”

One of the most disturbing aspects of so called accounts of “black Confederates” is the almost complete absence of the voice of the individuals themselves.  All too often these men are treated as a means to an end.  Accounts all too often reduce complex questions of motivation to one of loyalty to master, army, and Confederate nation.  Organizations such as the Sons of Confederate Veterans and United Daughters of the Confederacy [see here and here] now routinely publicize the discovery of what they believe to be black Confederate soldiers and in some cases even involve the descendants of these men, who almost always turn out to be slaves.  What is so striking is the failure on their part to acknowledge their roles as slaves even in the face of overwhelming evidence.  It is important that we see this as little more than the extension of the faithful slave narrative that found voice before the war and reached its height at the turn of the twentieth century.  Apart from the ability to influence the general public through websites, blogs, and other social media formats there is really little that is new in the more recent drives to rewrite black Confederates into the past.  The war, in the end, had little or nothing to do with slavery and slaves remained loyal throughout.

The extension of this faithful slave narrative in recent years can be clearly discerned in the case of Weary Clyburn.  I’ve talked quite a bit about Clyburn over the past few years and in recent weeks.  He seems to be the darling of heritage groups like the SCV as well as a favorite of curator Earl Ijames.  Consider the recent SCV ceremony that acknowledged Clyburn for his loyal service to the Confederacy and resulted in a military marker.  Sadly, this ceremony involved the descendants of Clyburn and gave them the false understanding that he had served in the army.  Clyburn was, in fact, a slave; however, that little fact is never mentioned during the ceremony and it is rarely mentioned in most modern accounts.  In the midst of all the flags, bagpipes, and praise by SCV speakers and Earl Ijames we learn absolutely nothing about Clyburn himself.  What we, along with Clyburn’s descendants, learn is what falls within the boundaries of the faithful slave narrative that has been passed down from generation to generation.

Consider Clyburn’s obituary, which appeared in the Monore Journal on April 1, 1930 under the title, “Old Colored Man Is Buried in the Uniform of Gray.”  He was given this “honor by reason of having been in the Confederate ranks and a life time of faithfulness to the men and their descendants who made up the Confederate armies.”  The obituary is clear to point out the distinction between being “in” the Confederate ranks and serving as a soldier.  Later in the notice the writer does note that Clyburn went to war to “cook for his master, Col. Frank Clyburn of the 12th South Carolina Regiment.”  The story of Weary saving Frank on the battlefield is referenced, which fits perfectly in the overall emphasis on faithfulness.

Had Uncle Weary been a white man he would have been a Confederate hotspur.  Being dark of skin and born a slave he could approach his ideal by being as near as the fighting white folks that he grew up among as his skin and lack of education would allow.  All his life he was a white man’s darkey and his principle did not change when came back from the war.  He went with his white folks and became a Democrat.

It’s a remarkable passage and tells us quite a bit about what white North Carolinians chose to remember about Clyburn’s life.  At every point, beginning with a reference to “Uncle” is the man himself ignored.  He was worth remembering because his actions could so easily be interpreted in a way that would not upset a well-established Jim Crow society by 1930 and at the same maintain their belief in loyal blacks both before, during and after the war.  After the war Clyburn was best known for his participation in Confederate veteran reunions; however, he apparently was never acknowledged as a soldier.  Rather, he played the fiddle at these events and around area hotels to bring in money.

The tragedy in all of this is that Weary Clyburn’s past did not have to be distorted for it to be recognized and honored.  The point that needs to be made is that Clyburn is a hero.  He survived the horrors and humiliation of slavery and war and even managed to make it through the height of the Jim Crow South.  If that is not worthy of remembering and commemorating than I don’t know what is.  Unfortunately, we may never be able to fill in the details of Clyburn’s life, which is itself part of the legacy of slavery and racism in this country.  Sadly, Clyburn is still playing the fiddle for various groups and individuals who for one reason or another choose to distort the past.

“It Ain’t Right and It Ain’t Wrong. It Just Is”

Another trimester of my Civil War Memory class has come to an end.  This is my second go around with this particular elective and overall I am pleased with the results.  This trimester I decided to focus the course on Civil War films.  We viewed five full-length movies and numerous small videos that span the spectrum from NPS and American Experience documentaries to YouTube videos.  I am confident that my students both enjoyed and profited from the course.

Yesterday we finished viewing the movie, Ride With the Devil, which attempts to capture the chaos of the “Border Wars” in Missouri and Kansas.  The movie follows a small band of “Bushwhackers”, including Tobey Maguire (Jake Rodell or “Dutchy”), Skeet Ulrich (Jack Bull Chiles), and Simon Baker (George Clyde), along with Jewel (Sue Lee) who plays a young widower.  The movie does a pretty good job of exploring the confusion of the guerilla war along with the intersection of ethnicity and shifting loyalties.  One of the highlights of the movie is an excellent recreation of William Quantrill’s raid on Lawrence, Kansas.

My favorite character has got to be Daniel Holt, who is a former slave but remains loyal to his former master’s son, George Clyde.  Holt’s character goes through the most dramatic transformation throughout the movie, but it is a subtle transformation.  You hear very little from Holt at the beginning of the movie.  His character sticks close to George and is routinely referred to as “George Clyde’s Nigger.”  As the movie progresses Holt emerges from the shadows as a result of George’s leave from the group and his evolving relationship with Rodell.  At one point Holt shares his full name with Rodell as well as his own personal story, including his mother’s sale to Texas.  One of the most important scenes for this character comes during the Lawrence Raid where Holt confronts a large pile of free blacks who were murdered by the very men he was fighting with.  On the trip back to Missouri from Kansas and the loss of George Clyde in battle Holt experiences his first real taste of freedom.  A bit later, Holt shares with Rodell that he will never be known as “someone else’s Nigger.”

The changes in Holt’s character take place slowly, but gradually and sets up the viewer for the final scene in the movie.  The final sequence follows Rodell, Jewel, and Holt west to start new lives.  Rodell confronts Pitt Mathieson one final time in what many anticipate will be a shootout.  After allowing Mathieson to take his leave on a suicide run into town Rodell sums up his war experience: “It ain’t right and it ain’t wrong.  It just is.”  In the final scene Holt take his leave from Rodell for one final time.  After tipping his hat to a sleeping Sue Lee and baby the two men say goodbye with a poignant gesture.  Holt rides off alone and free and in contrast with Rodell’s previous comment finally adds a morally redeeming quality to the movie.  The movie ultimately becomes a story of freedom and emancipation.

The scene is punctuated by Holt taking control of his horse and doffing his hat.  No doubt, I am making too much of it, but it reminds me of some of the most popular images of Civil War generals.  At that moment Holt embodies the glory that has traditionally been attached to these men.

Peer Review and the Problem of Black Confederate Studies

In my ongoing series of posts concerning the public presentations by Earl Ijames about “colored Confederates” I have consistently emphasized the importance of publishing in peer-reviewed journals.  I maintain that only through the careful scrutiny of our ideas and conclusions are we able to better judge the veracity of the research and the difficult process of interpretation and analysis.  The peer review process functions as a quality control mechanism and allows historians to critique the work of others from the safety of anonymity.  Most academic journals and university presses have some kind of system of oversight in place and I have experienced it firsthand on a number of occasions, both from the writer’s side as well as from the reviewer’s side as a member of the Editorial Advisory Board for the Virginia Magazine of History and Biography (2008-2010).  If there is one area of Civil War history that desperately needs oversight it is “black Confederate” studies.

Since describing it and emphasizing why it is so important is difficult to do I thought it might be helpful to provide you with an example.  I first experienced this process back in 2004 while attending graduate school at the University of Richmond.  Even before I started the program I had an interest in William Mahone and the Readjuster Movement and had hoped that I would have a chance to explore his public career in a research seminar course and perhaps as a thesis topic.  I eventually wrote an essay on Mahone and went on to expand my focus to include the battle of the Crater as a thesis topic.  My adviser suggested that I submit the Mahone essay to the VMHB for consideration, which I did.  I had published a few essays, magazine articles, and book reviews, but this was my first attempt at a peer-reviewed publication so I didn’t really know what to expect.  Within about 6 months I received an email that included a letter from the journal editor and three anonymous reviews of my essay.  The editor indicated that while the reviewers believed there was some merit to the essay and thesis they would be unable to publish as is.  He suggested that I review the comments and revise the piece.  I have to say that it took me a few days to pick my ego up off the floor and get back to work, but I did.  I took just about every suggestion offered and within about 9 months I had a revised essay.  What I learned was invaluable, both about the process of writing a serious work of history as well as my topic.  I learned that thinking through complex questions is a group activity.  There must be room for honest and sometimes blunt feedback.  The result is that I have a much better grasp of Mahone and his postwar years because I benefited from the critique of three professional historians who are experts in some aspect of post-Civil War Virginia politics.

I am happy to say that my revised essay was accepted for publication by the VMHB [vol. 113, no. 4 (2005)] and even went on to win the Rachal Prize for best essay in 2005.  Given that it’s been close to 5 years since its publication I feel comfortable sharing one of the three reviews.  This is one of the nicer reviews.

Continue reading “Peer Review and the Problem of Black Confederate Studies”

Were Slaves Soldiers?

I have enjoyed following the debate over at Richard Williams’s blog re: my handling of Earl Ijames’s research.  Much of the give and take relates to my decision to publicly request Ijames’s presentation as well as my decision to Cc: the director at the North Carolina Office of Archives and History.  I’m still not sure why the gang over there is making such a big deal of this given that there is nothing offensive about the letter.  It simply requests the materials in question and nothing more.  What I do find funny is that no one seems to have anything to say about Ijames’s response, which he decided to Cc. to that same director.  Anyway, I will leave this to the vultures to sort out.  I want to move on to something that I find much more interesting and that actually relates to history.

In a number of places Mr. Williams suggests that slaves in the Confederate army ought to be acknowledged as soldiers.  Here are a few quotes to consider:

And, as I’ve pointed out before, it is disingenuous to suggest that these men should not be honored for their service – as soldiers – simply because they may have been forced to serve – in whatever capacity. An analogy I’ve used before: During the Vietnam war, many who opposed it were drafted. Many no doubt would have fled to Canada or simply refused to go had it not been for the influence and pressure of family, society and the legal ramifications of refusing service. So they went with no emotional or intellectual support of their own for “the cause.” However, many of these same men, once on the field, bonded with their comrades and were exposed to the same dangers as those who volunteered. They served honorably. Should their service be discounted because they were drafted? I think the answer is clear.

I’ve not delved into Mr. Ijames’s specific research either. I do agree with Ijames’s contention, however, that blacks – whether slave or free – should have their service in the Confederate Army honored where appropriate and that there is nothing improper referring to these men as “soldiers.”

In the recent post about Nelson Winbush’s grandfather, I said, “Private Nelson was a slave.” I do not believe the term “soldier” and “slave” are mutually exclusive.

Mr. Williams arrives at this conclusion via analogy with soldiers in the Vietnam War.  The basic problem with his claim is to confuse two distinct meanings of “forced to serve.”  Americans who are drafted to go to war ought to be understood as a function of their legal standing as a citizen.  As citizens we are obligated to register for the draft and under certain circumstances may be forced to honor that obligation.  Again, the salient point is that draftees are citizens.  It is our status as free men which places us in this relationship to the government.  In contrast, slaves were not citizens of the United States or the Confederacy.  That this distinction even needs to be acknowledged is troubling.  In short, the analogy does not work.  Finally, it should be pointed out that USCTs were not citizens at the time of their service in the army, but it also must be remembered that they were not drafted either.  Many of them expressed the hope that their service would eventually lead to the rights of full citizenship.  That, of course, is another sad chapter in our history.

I am closer with Mr. Williams on the issue of honoring and commemorating those free and enslaved blacks who were present with the Confederate army.  If it can be demonstrated that a black man (regardless of status) enlisted or was drafted as a soldier than he should be honored as such.  I have never said otherwise.  That said, as historians distinctions should matter.  As I make my way through the letters of Capt. Winsmith from South Carolina (which I am editing for publication) I can’t help but be impressed with his commentary on his “servant” who accompanied him to camp.  Winsmith writes glowingly about this man as well as his various activities in camp and on the march.  This man actually procured a uniform by performing functions for other officers.  I have no doubt that this slave endured many of the same hardships along with the rest of the army and I have little doubt that he bonded with his master and others as well, even though I don’t have access to one word from this individual.  He eventually escaped to the Union navy off the coast of South Carolina in the summer of 1862.  That said, there is nothing that indicates that his owner or anyone else for that matter viewed this man as anything other than a slave.  Nothing about his relationship with his master or his experience changed his legal status.

These distinctions matter because as historians we are trying to better understand how the war affected the master-slave relationship and race relations generally.  As historians we should do our best, with the limited evidence available, to understand how the realities of war brought whites and blacks in the army closer together on occasion and further apart at other times.  However, in order to do so we must be sensitive to the distinction between soldier, slave, conscript and other designations.

It goes without saying that if we were to accept Mr. Williams’s analysis we would have a number of fundamental questions to grapple with.

  • What exactly was the Confederate government referring to when it explicitly denied slaves and free blacks the right to serve in the army?
  • How are we to understand the debate during the war over whether to arm slaves as soldiers?
  • What exactly was the Confederate government doing when it finally authorized the enlistment of a limited number of slaves as soldiers in the final weeks of the war in 1865?

In other words, how did the Confederate government as well as the rest of the white South define a soldier during the war?  How would they respond to Mr. Williams’s analysis?