Today I am working on the final re-write for an article on Confederate camp servants that will be published in an upcoming issue of The Civil War Monitor. This involves reviewing changes made by the magazine’s editorial staff and responding to questions re: clarity, substance and interpretation. I am having some difficulty with one particular paragraph that I wrote about accounts of slaves on the battlefield. Here is what I wrote:
Camp servants who did not or could not escape were exposed to all the dangers of military life, from disease to the battlefield. Accounts of slaves marching into battle alongside masters, assisting them if they were wounded, or securing the body in the event of death, as well as tales of shooting at Yankee soldiers, remain the most contentious aspect of the memory of these men. Many of these accounts come from Confederate veterans’ postwar writings and rarely include the voice of the slave in question. As a result, they tell us much more about white southerners’ ideal version of their former slaves and not the often complex factors that motivated slaves during those moments of grave danger and uncertainty.
It goes without saying that I am not in any way concerned about whether these stories demonstrate that the men in question were soldiers. That, however, still leaves us with the accounts themselves. The editors responded with the following comment.
You don’t say whether you believe these accounts are accurate / reliable. I wonder if somehow you might, in a way to separate fact from fiction, as much as possible. And more detail would be nice in the way of quotes / evidence / examples.
The thing is, I do believe the general outlines of these stories. Camp servants were on the battlefields, they fired weapons at Yankee soldiers, and they rescued masters from the field and even escorted bodies home for burial. What I have trouble with is moving beyond the realm of personal memory to the question of historical veracity. None of the stories that I utilize include corroborating accounts between slave and Confederate officer and the vast majority that we do have were written after the war. Even the few accounts from former slaves leave me with more questions than answers.
The bigger challenge for me in interpreting battlefield accounts involving camp servants is that I struggle with how to reconcile the element of absolute authority that defined the master-slave relationship and the kinds of emotional bonds that were clearly present in certain cases. It’s a world that I simply do not have much of anything in terms of a frame of reference through which to interpret. It can hardly be denied that camp servants/slaves were present on battlefields and experienced all kinds of things. What that experience meant, at the time, for both slave and master as interpreted through postwar sources largely alludes me.
Here is something that is sure to make a rainy Boston Monday look just a bit more bleak. It’s the first local news report from Charlotte, NC from this weekend’s event in which nine slaves and one free black man were remembered for their service as soldiers in the Confederate army. You can’t really blame WBTV 3 for this report since all they can do is share what took place. Between the ceremony and this report it does give one the sense of just how woefully misinformed some people are about the institution of slavery and Confederate policy about arming black men as soldiers. The report begins: “Ten black military soldiers finally got the honor they deserve 150 years later.” Not one of these men served as a soldier.
On the brighter side, this morning I am heading over to Boston University to give a guest lecture in Nina Silber’s Civil War class. I am going to talk about my book and the broader topic of how black soldiers have been remembered in recent years. Part of the talk will focus on how the Internet has helped to spread and give legitimacy to the myth of the black Confederate soldier. All we can do is educate.
That’s a euphemism for slaves who were forced to work for the Confederate government during the war or who accompanied a master into the army. Of the ten men who will be recognized today in Union County North Carolina, nine were slaves. All received pensions after the war, but not for their service as soldiers. The marker reads: “In Memory of Union County’s Confederate Pensioners of Color,” and lists their names: Wilson Ashcraft, Ned Byrd, Wary Clyburn, Wyatt Cunningham, George Cureton, Hamp Cuthbertson, Mose Fraser, Lewis McGill, Aaron Perry and Jeff Sanders. I have the pensions for most of these men, including Clyburn’s whose file includes a letter confirming that his pension was not a recognition of service as a soldier – just in case there was any confusion.
It will be interesting to see whether event organizers, including speaker Earl Ijames, will mention that these men were indeed slaves. It is nice to see that at least one newspaper includes a reference to these men as slaves. That inconvenient fact is almost always ignored, but without it the history of these men makes absolutely no sense.
As I’ve said before, there is nothing wrong with remembering these men, but Confederate slaves ought to be recognized forsurviving the Confederacy.
Byron Thomas made a name for himself not too long ago by hanging a Confederate flag in his dorm window at the University of South Carolina – Beaufort. Since then he has utilized YouTube to promote his own vision of a post-racial society. Some of it is worth watching and some of it is not. Today Byron discusses the discovery of an ancestor, who he believes fought as a soldier in the Confederate army.
I really want to join the Sons of Confederate Veterans because Benjamin Thomas a Black Confederate just might be my ancestor and I want to honor him. Benjamin Thomas got a state pension from the state of South Carolina, so he definitely isn’t no make believe character. I really want to join, because I’ve been to some SCV meetings and I love what they stand for. They DON”T SUPPORT/STAND FOR any form of racism. They are no where near a racist group.I just want to honor my past ancestor that fought for the south, that’s all. America I want to join, but I’m not sure my family will like it, so can yall help me out!!! Kill People with Kindness and May God Bless America.
You get the sense that Byron hasn’t done much research at all on his ancestor. The direct answer to his question is obviously, yes, he should honor his ancestor. The only question that remains – assuming the relation is substantiated – is whether Benjamin Thomas will be honored for who and what he was during the Civil War.