Earlier this week I received my author copies of the latest issue of The Civil War Monitor, which contains my essay on Confederate camp servants. As I’ve said before, I am very excited about this particular piece. It encompasses some of what I am trying to address in the first chapter of my book on the same subject. Continue reading “Confederate Like Me”
I came across this little gem this morning while perusing the SHPG’s Facebook page. It’s a photo of a page from what I believe is the Minutes of the R.E. Lee Soldiers’ Home in Richmond. In it is a brief reference to a black man, who was present in the Confederate army as a blacksmith. His application for admission to the home was rejected based on what should be obvious. It was recommended that the “Board act in accordance with their rules in reference to admitting only those who were enlisted soldiers.”
While it would be a mistake to read too much into this brief reference, what I find interesting is that there is no indication of an investigation into this individual’s status. In other words, there is no implicit assumption that it might be possible to admit a black man into the soldiers’ home. The other photo of older black Virginians on the grounds of the home doesn’t add much to the issue at hand. They are not identified. A few appear to be wearing pieces of old uniforms as well as what I believe are reunion ribbons.
The author of the post titled it, “Negro Soldier – Rejected for Admission at the Soldiers’ Home in Richmond.” It’s an awkward title given that the institution in question concluded that he was not a soldier. Later he says, “I believe in their hearts, they wanted to belong to those they served, although – not allowed to Enlist.” I assume this is a reference to the application in 1887. There is likely a certain amount of truth to this statement depending on the nature of his experience during the war, but that doesn’t get us very far at all. In fact, I would suggest it tells us more about what the poster hopes to believe about this individual. What you need to believe is ultimately irrelevant to what we can know through a careful examination of the available evidence.
For me, it raises a host of questions. If we could identify the individual in question it would help to know a bit about his economic situation by this point in time. Did he have a family and a job? Was he homeless or soon to be? Was he familiar with the men already living in the home? Did he attend reunions? What this individual thought about his war experience and what he felt about the men around him (then and now) is anybody’s guess.
To conclude that he applied simply because he “wanted to belong” not only reflects a lack of imagination, but a lack of understanding of what is involved in serious (or even not so serious) research.
Well, that is at least the working title of an essay that will appear in the next issue of The Civil War Monitor. I just finished with the final edits and I am really happy with the final version. As far as I know there is nothing out there in a popular publication that deals with this tough topic. I do my best to bring some light to the relationship between slaveowners and their camp servants at war. It’s an incredibly frustrating and challenging topic and I don’t claim to have provided the last word. More than anything else, what I hope it does is raise questions and challenge assumptions on all sides – assumptions that almost always tell us more about the present as opposed to the past.
With that in mind, I hope my fellow high school history teachers will think about picking up a copy for their classrooms. I think the essay will work well in getting students to think critically about the slave-master dynamic and related issues related to the war generally.
It’s been an absolute pleasure working with Terry Johnston and his editorial team. They did a great job pushing back with questions that helped to improve both the narrative and analysis. It clearly reflects their commitment to put out a first-rate magazine that is both a pleasure to read and thought provoking.
Do yourself a favor and get a subscription today.
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.