A Few More Thoughts About Confederate Slaves

Peter Carmichael was kind enough to take the time to add a few thoughts to a post of his that I recently republished.  His comment is fair and balanced in its critique of the way various groups have approached this complex topic, which is why I decided to feature it in a new post.

In all the debate that the Confederate slave subject generates on this blog and elsewhere, I am still mystified by the failure of some to appreciate a fundamental fact that applies to every African American who existed in a Southern army—he was a slave and thus denied the ability to have free will in exercising his political loyalty. All the acts of bravery and fidelity on the part of slaves in battle and camp cannot overturn this basic and defining fact. Once we recognize this hard reality we will be better prepared to subdue our emotion and begin to consider the complicated ways in which slaves and whites coexisted in the army. To suggest that a slave who purchased a gray uniform was somehow committed to the Southern cause or loyal to his master overlooks the fact that there wasn’t a blue one at the Sutler’s store for him to purchase. Even if he was able to secure one, he sure as hell wouldn’t have been allowed to wear it in the Confederate ranks. What choices and political options were available to slaves is what we should be focusing on in this debate, for we cannot consider any act of “devotion” without also considering at the same time what punishments awaited a black man who failed to do his “duty” to the master class.

For those who are emphatic that Confederate slaves were both brave and loyal in their service to the Southern cause I would like for them to explain the implications of this argument. When I am in a charitable mood, I would like to believe that those who cherish the idea of the loyal Confederate slave do so as a way to protect their ancestors from being demonized by Americans who see history as a morality play. I understand their insecurities, but if they really want Americans to take their Southern ancestors on the historical terms of the antebellum South then they will have to abandon the notion that they are a minority group that is under siege from the political left–in doing so they will take the first step to seeing the past as a search for complexities and not for universal truths that can be used to assail PC radicals. Too many Americans have the insatiable need to see themselves as a minority group under attack. This perspective fosters a strange way of seeing the world in which the “persecuted” feel that they are the true owners of truth because the rest of the world has conspired against them. This position is intellectually debilitating and it is a paranoia that pervades both political extremes, not just the right. Those of us who are baffled by the folks who go to sleep every night believing that Confederate armies were composed of slaves who wanted to die for their masters and the Southern cause deserve our serious engagement, not our ridicule. We cannot make fun of their ceremonies, even if we think they are doing injustice to the complexities of the past. We have to find a way to create a dialogue.

I have no doubt that some slaves felt a strong sense of attachment to their masters and maybe even to the outfits that they served, but this “attachment” was forged as part of a slave system that was based, at the most fundamental level, on coercion. Let’s stop getting so misty-eyed over those slaves who served with white soldiers as a band of brothers and let’s also stop denouncing anyone who sincerely wants to understand the intimate relationship that existed between slaves and their masters. We are missing the complexities of this relationship in the army and its broader impact on soldier relations, the home front, and the political ideology of the Confederacy.

Calvin E. Johnson’s Neo-Confederate Fantasy Land

I get a kick out of the editorials and short essays by Calvin Johnson, which you can find at such places as Lew Rockwell and the Conservative Free Press.  Given the last few posts on the mythology of black Confederates I thought it might be nice to share another little story.  Yes, I am beating a dead horse, but if this blog can help to correct this skewed view of the past than my time on this site will be worthwhile.  In this essay, Johnson examines the history of the monument to Confederate soldiers, which is located on the grounds of Arlington National Cemetery.  The monument was organized by the United Daughters of the Confederacy to mark the graves of 267 Confederate soldiers.  Designed by Moses Ezekiel, it was unveiled in 1914 and included a dedication speech by President Woodrow Wilson.  Here is what Johnson has to say about the monument itself:

Around the start of the 20th century this country also honored the men who fought for the Confederacy. This site of men who fought for “Dixie” is located in section 16.  There is an inscription on the 32.5 foot high Confederate monument at Arlington National Cemetery that reads, “An Obedience To Duty As They Understood it; These Men Suffered All; Sacrificed All and Died”!  Some claim this Confederate Monument at Arlington may have been the first to honor Black Confederates. Carved on this monument is the depiction of a Black Confederate who is marching in step with the White soldiers. Also shown is a White Confederate who gives his child to a Black woman for safe keeping.[my emphasis]

What exactly is Johnson referring to?  The photographs below are close-ups of the freezes included around the perimeter of the monument.

You can see what appears to be a black man marching in rank with Confederate soldiers as a well as a female slave who is about to take charge of what must be her master’s children.  This is a wonderful example of why the study of memory is so important to our understanding of the Civil War.  To understand this statue and the choices of the sculptor we must understand the historical context in which it was dedicated.  Monuments and other public spaces dedicated to historic events are as much about the time in which they were build as they are about the event in question.  The year, 1914, places us right at the height of Jim Crow.  The images helped to justify the emphasis within Lost Cause narratives of loyal slaves and a war that was supposedly fought simply for states rights.  Wilson’s presence at the dedication is also important given his order at just this time to segregate federal office buildings along racial lines.  In other words, this is not simply a monument to commemorate the lives of Confederate soldiers, but part of an attempt to shape a certain version of the past that worked to minimize the theme of emancipation and distance the Confederate experiment from the preservation of slavery altogether.  The enforcement of white supremacy by legal means helped to ensure that African Americans would be unable to shape their own emancipationist legacy of the Civil War, which in turn helped to perpetuate the political monopoly that whites enjoyed through the 1960s.

Unfortunately, Calvin Johnson doesn’t really understand what he is looking at.

UDC Uses and Abuses the History of Slavery

In my last post on “black Confederates” I wondered whether the two women dressed in mourning attire were white.  Well, I have no doubt that the women in  these images are indeed white.  And…yes, they are decorating the grave of “Pvt. Henry Henderson, a black Confederate soldier.” This article is so poorly reported that it is impossible to know for sure the status of Henderson without going to the archives.  That said, I have an idea.  According to the article:

Henderson was born in 1849 in Davidson County, NC. He was 11 years old when he entered service with the Confederate States of America as a cook and servant to Colonel William F. Henderson, a medical doctor. Records show Henry was wounded during his service, but he continued to serve until the war’s end in 1865. He was discharged in Salem, NC, age 16.

As Peter Carmichael notes in his essay, Confederate officers often brought their slaves with them as camp servants as a reflection of their social status and for their services.  And many were even outfitted with uniforms.  After noting that 60-90,000 “black Confederates served” in the Confederate army the author notes that Henderson’s sons received their father’s one and only pension check from the state of Tennessee in 1926.  Of course, as many of you know the receipt of a pension check does not tell us much of anything about the status of black men in the Confederate army.  [Consider the case of Weary Clyburn and see a recent post by Robert Moore, here]

Like the Sons of Confederate Veterans, the United Daughters of the Confederacy teach us nothing about the complex history of race relations in the Confederacy.  Henry Henderson deserves to have his story told as well as have his life recognized and honored by his descendants.  Based on the skimpy evidence provided in this article we should conclude that Henderson was a slave who happened to find himself with the army as a young boy.  That this boy was forced to join his master in the army at such a young age, and was eventually wounded, must be understood as an extension of a broader life story of coercion.  I often wonder what Henderson himself would say about such a spectacle.

The women in these images are not honoring a soldier, they are honoring a slave.


Revisiting Peter Carmichael on “Confederate Slaves”

This guest post on black Confederates/Confederate slaves by historian, Peter S. Carmichael, ran last July and received a great deal of attention.  Given the number and range of comments on a recent post on the subject I thought it would be helpful to run it again for those of you who are new to the blog.  I refrained from responding to most of the comments since we are still mired in fundamental problems when confronted with this question.  Yes, a few of you out there get it that what is needed is serious research and attention to the question of what it is we are even talking about. Others are citing sources that make little sense without serious critical analysis while others are hung up on vague comparisons with the north that have nothing to do with the subject.  And then there are always a few on the fringe who fail to see beyond their attachment to contemporary political/cultural issues.  As far as I am concerned, Carmichael’s essay constitutes a starting point for those of you who first want to understand the broad analytical contours of the subject.  It does not provide all the answers, but does address the questions that need to be examined.

“We were the ‘men’”: The Ambiguous Place of Confederate Slaves in Southern Armies

On August 6, 1861, the Richmond Enquirer ran an extended article, entitled “Ebony Idols,” on a camp slave named Sam who refused to leave his master during the battle of First Manassas. Sam received public acclaim for his stalwart behavior under fire, and the Enquirer recounted a boastful speech that he delivered to a group of Richmond slaves. Sam promised his black audience that “I wasn’t scared. I am not one of those kinds.” The story of Sam was intended to assure white audiences that slaves, even when the Yankees were shooting at them, would remain forever faithful. This claim of slave fidelity largely rested upon the Enquirer’s denying Sam his manliness, and utilizing antebellum stereotypes to describe black men as effeminate sambos.

Continue reading “Revisiting Peter Carmichael on “Confederate Slaves””

Comment From H.K. Edgerton

You can imagine my surprise when I noticed this comment from H.K. Edgerton in response to the last post.  For those of you who do not know of Mr. Edgerton, he is one of the more outspoken and charismatic proponents of the black Confederate myth.  Interestingly, Mr. Edgerton is African American.  He can be found in a Confederate uniform and carrying a Confederate flag on long treks through the South.  His last mission took him to the inauguration of Barack Obama in January.  I’ve offered extensive commentary about Mr. Edgerton over the course of the life of this blog, which you can find at the bottom.

It is unfortunate that those of you who were educated in the Federal school system have such a dim view of the honorable Black confederate soldier. If you can be so proud of the Black Union soldier who received half the pay of his counterpart, one who fought with a bayonet at his back from his white counterpart, watched as his wives were raped by the union soldier and used as concubine, watched as his Southern Black and White families homes were burned, food stuffs to feed innocent women and children stolen, animals killed, women raped and murdered. You go ahead and be proud of the Battle of the Craters, and Denzelle Washington’s Glory as the Union Whites murdered their black’s returning to their lines.

Here in the South we shall continue to honor Napoleon Nelson ant the other the Black men who rode with the Honorable General Nathan Bedford Forrest , and the likes of Holt Collier, Levi Carnine, Rev. Mack Lee and celebrate Dick Poplar in Petersburg, Virginia. The shame is that you truly believe the propaganda of your Northern Master.

Unfortunately, Edgerton’s comment follows the standard Lost Cause narrative along with vague comparisons/references to the challenges that blacks faced in the Union army as well as the North generally.  Still, it’s nice to know that he is reading the blog.  See the following posts for additional commentary about Edgerton:

H.K. Edgerton Marches Through Texas

H.K. Edgerton and Nathan B. Forrest: Brothers in Arms

The Real Price of Forgetting the Past

H.K. Edgerton Goes to Washington

Edgerton Sighting in Ringgold, Georgia

The Last Black Confederate Surrenders