Tag Archives: black Confederates

I Can’t Win

I have a fairly large file of emails that I’ve accumulated over the years from folks who interpret my writings as anti-South/Confederate or some other variation.  It’s a narrative that I’ve grown accustomed to and represents a clear misunderstanding of what I do.  More importantly, it reflects an oversimplified reading of the past, particularly when it comes to what I’ve written about Confederate camp servants and black Confederates.

So, you can imagine my surprise when I read the following comment from Mr. Ross Williams of Grand Rapids, Minnesota that was recently posted to a column I published on the relationship between John Christopher Winsmith and his camp servant, Spencer.  I did my best to interpret the available evidence, which comes down to Winsmith’s own letters as well as my understanding of the relevant secondary literature. As is the case with many of these stories I am left with more questions than answers.

After being accused for so long of being a “South hater” it is strange to suddenly be accused of being a slavery apologist.  Which reminds me, I haven’t heard a peep from my Southern heritage friends about this essay.

I really would like to know what they think of it.

‘The Best Servant By Far’

My latest column at The New York Times’s Disunion page is now available.  The essay briefly explores the relationship between John Christopher Winsmith and his body servant, Spencer.  The Winsmith letters are housed at the Museum of the Confederacy and offer an incredibly rich account of the war from a Confederate officer in the slaveholding class.  I still plan at some point to publish the letters and/or write a biography of Winsmith.

This is my third column for the Disunion page.  The first explored the challenges of using the Internet to do history and the second examined how I use battlefields to teach Civil War history.  Hope you enjoy it.

Confederate Pensioners of Color Day

Aaron Perry Did Not Serve in the 37th NC

The date has been set.  On December 8, Union County, North Carolina will dedicate a privately-funded marker on the Old County Courthouse honoring area slaves who performed various functions for the Confederate army.  This has been a long time coming and many of you have followed this story here at Civil War Memory.  Despite the reference to slaves in this article, the reference to these men as “Confederate Pensioners” does not bode well for an event that supposedly intends to recognize the role and place of slaves in the Confederate war effort.  Both Wary (Weary) Clyburn and Aaron Perry are included in the list of men to be honored and have been discussed on this site at length.

As for the article itself, I would love for someone to explain this sentence to me.

While it’s impossible to know how many of the men willingly followed their masters into war and how many were forced, supporters of the plan called it an appropriate, if overdue, recognition of their service.

What does it mean to willingly follow your master to do anything?

Costumed Civil War re-enactors, national and state leaders of the SCV, and a color guard also will be on hand.

Will that include reenactors, who will play the role of camp servants?  Will the audience get a glimpse into the world of slaves, who accompanied their masters to war or are we going to get the black reenactor in Confederate uniform routine?  Will those attending and the many more who will read the marker later understand that we are talking about slaves?
As I’ve said all along, these men deserve to be recognized, but we should do so with a critical eye toward getting the history right rather than distorting it for our own self-serving reasons.  I look forward to having my fears proven wrong.  Oh, and Earl Ijames will deliver the keynote address.

H.K. Edgerton Addresses Confederate Youth…I Mean, Kids

This video just came across my YouTube feed and it’s a winner.  This one features Edgerton addressing a group of kids at the 8th Annual Confederate Heritage Youth Day in Clover, S.C. this past weekend.  This has got to be one of H.K.’s most incoherent presentations.  At times I can’t tell what he is talking about.  One kid looks horrified and the others just look amused and/or perplexed.

Eugene Genovese, 1930 – 2012

Like many of you I was sad to hear of the passing of historian Eugene Genovese earlier today.  I was never formally introduced to the historiography of slavery in graduate school; rather, I relied on various friends and other contacts to point me in the direction of important studies as my interests both widened and deepened.  Genovese’s name continued to appear and it was just a matter of time before I read Roll, Jordan, Roll: The World the Slaves Made.  It took me a long time to read it and even longer to begin to understand it.  I find myself continually going back to it to review sections and even individual sentences.

More recently, I’ve been reading and contemplating his most recent book, Fatal Self-Deception: Slaveholding Paternalism in the Old South, which explores the intellectual world of slaveholders during the antebellum period and through the war.  The book briefly explores the slave enlistment debate and Genovese even offers a few thoughts specifically about camp servants, which is my current research topic.  The following sentence is one that I’ve been struggling with for weeks.  It beautifully captures the complexity of the slave – master relationship in the midst of war.

Body servants may have had as strong a desire for freedom as other slaves, but their fidelity to particular masters cannot be gainsaid. (p. 141)

Genovese forces us to acknowledge that freedom and fidelity were not mutually exclusive desires among this particular group of slaves.  Both the modern day Lost Cause apologists and those who would deny any feelings of loyalty harbored by slaves cling to a one-dimensional view.  The interesting question for me is how camp servant and master negotiated the dangers of camp life, march, and battle and how that resulted in a certain set of expectations between the two and a great deal of disappointment specifically for the slavemaster as the war progressed.

He will be missed.