Why Confederate Camp Servants

The most recent issue of The Civil War Monitor contains a letter-to-the-editor about a recent essay of mine on Confederate camp servants [Spring 2013]. From Mr. John H. Whitfield:

While the article was enlightening on the issue of enslaved Africans who were wartime “body servants,” it presented a rather narrow view of the panoply of roles in which the enslaved were critical to the Rebel war effort. For instance, the impressment of slaves, authorized throughout the Confederacy in 1862, sent countless men to construct earthworks at various strategic locations.

Mr. Whitfield is absolutely spot on regarding the place of enslaved blacks in the Confederate war effort. There are a number of excellent studies that examine these various roles, including books by Glenn David Brasher,Joseph Glatthaar, and Bruce Levine. Those of you with an interest in this topic will definitely want to check out Jaime Martinez’s forthcoming book, Confederate Slave Impressment in the Upper South, which will be out with UNC Press in December. Continue reading “Why Confederate Camp Servants”

Could This Be a Real Black Confederate Soldier?

Black Man in sack coatI was browsing some web pages and came across a very interesting link to a website that seems tailored (no pun intended) to Civil War reenactors/enthusiasts, with an interest in uniforms. This photograph of a young black man was taken in Richmond in April 1865. He is wearing what was called a sack coat. The description that accompanies the image offers a few interpretations.

Picture 10: A very distinct image taken in occupied Richmond, Virginia, April 1865, depicts a group of black freedman, some of them wearing Confederate uniforms. Those wearing the uniforms may have acquired them from government store houses at the fall of Richmond, or they may have been serving in Confederate Army in some capacity.  It is possible that may have been in the Confederate “Black Brigade,” formed in the last months of the war, that consisted of two or three battalions of infantry.  In any case, one of the freedmen wears a Confederate military sack coat and matching fabric pants.  The coat has four brass military buttons, but no exterior breast pocket.  It is similar to the Brooke coat in that the bottom edge extends almost down to the cuff.  The stand collar has no contrasting facing.  What is certain about this coat is that it represents the type used by the Army of Northern Virginia at the close of the war.  Image courtesy of the Library of Congress.

I would love for this to be a photograph of a soldier. The few black recruits that marched through the streets of Richmond at the tail end of the war are an incredibly elusive bunch, which I suspect will remain so. More than likely the uniform was acquired following the evacuation of Richmond. I am no expert, but that uniform looks to be in pretty good condition.

A Black Confederate We Can All Live With

black ConfederateEarlier this month Schuyler Kropf shared the story of Polly Sheppard, who was surprised to find the grave of a black Confederate soldier in the cemetery of the Emanuel African Methodist Episcopal Church of Charleston. The individual in question is Louis B. Middleton, whose grave is marked with a soldiers’ headstone. This has all the earmarks of another in a long line of distorted stories about blacks who somehow managed to evade Confederate law and a society committed to keeping weapons out of their hands. Continue reading “A Black Confederate We Can All Live With”

More Selective Outrage Over Confederate Heritage

cemetery2009

One of my favorite places to take students in Charlottesville was the University of Virginia’s Confederate Cemetery. It was a short walk and it allowed me to talk about wartime hospitals as well as postwar mourning and the evolution of the Lost Cause. I encouraged my students to look at and think about the headstones and to pick up trash. The men were buried in long trenches and when the cemetery was dedicated there were no individual headstones. That gradually changed and in recent years the local SCV has organized to order new markers from the federal government. The project continues, in part, with the financial support of the federal government. It’s a program that I contributed to on more than once occasion while in Charlottesville. Continue reading “More Selective Outrage Over Confederate Heritage”

“No Hired Hessians or Negroes in the Southern Army”

In 1909 Philip K. Fall, Commander of the Dick Dowling Camp in Houston, welcomed the United Daughters of the Confederacy to their annual meeting. His brief welcome acknowledged the UDC’s crucial role in preserving and protecting the memory of the men who fought under the Confederate flag. Fall’s address also reflects the “limits of reconciliation” between North and South at the beginning of the twentieth century by framing the conflict as a defensive war against radical abolitionists fighting to carry out John Brown’s final mission. In the process Fall also shares a little nugget that is lost on those who depict the Confederate army as a racially integrated institution filled with loyal black soldiers.

Being notified only a day since, that our comrade was called away on an important matter and could not represent Dick Dowling Camp, the duty devolves upon me to greet you, on behalf of our Camp. Such short time leaves me ill prepared to do the occasion justice, but I know our good women will accept the will for the deed. The veterans of Houston welcome you, one and all, and we shall prove your humble and loving servants during your stay with us. Command us whenever necessary. As the years pass by we feel more and more the benefits accruing from your loving and valiant struggle in our behalf. Had you not thrown down the gauntlet and assumed the offensive for the old soldiers of the Confederacy, their names would have gone down in a partisan Northern history as rebels and traitors; who tried to disrupt what they call the greatest and best government on earth, when in fact, they in arbitrary, puritanical spirit, brought about the disruption, causing a war such as the world has never known, hiring nearly a million Hessians and nearly two hundred thousand Africans, to slaughter their brethren of the South. Nothing but a civil war could have ever satisfied the John Brown stripe of abolitionists, especially after their leader John Brown was hung.

The war was not the worst feature of the sixties. The myriads of carpet-baggers that flocked like buzzards, all eager to filch from the already impoverished and heartbroken whites, as well as from the poor deluded ex-slaves, what little was left, proved to be a carnival of misery, which can never be blotted from the memory of any who experienced the miserable rule of those Northern birds….

This is a statement of facts, which cannot be controverted. What few of the Southern veterans that yet live, glory in the fact that their noble women are now their protectors, as were they of the women in the long, long, ago. No soldier in the past or present ever received the homage of their women, as do those of Dixie Land. There were no hired Hessians or negroes in the Southern army. All fought for a principle they knew to be right and thousands upon thousands gave up their lives in defense of truth.

Fall is not suggesting that there were no blacks present in the army. Confederate soldiers encountered them performing myriad roles in camp, on the march, and on a wide range of military projects. What Fall is saying is something very different. He is remembering a war of white citizen soldiers defending their homes and a new nation from radical abolitionists and their immigrant and black hirelings. Fall is drawing a sharp distinction between what he believed constituted two very different societies. To suggest that blacks fought as soldiers would be to place the Confederacy on the same moral level as the United States. Fall is sharing his understanding of Confederate Exceptionalism.

It’s a memory of the war that was no doubt filtered through a concern that many Americans expressed at the time over the effects of continued immigration on the cultural and political identity of the nation.

Look, if there were black Confederate soldiers in the army, individuals like Fall would have said so.