The outrageous claims made by the Sons of Confederate Veterans and others about so-called “black Confederates” would hold up just fine if it weren’t for that little thing called evidence. Thanks toDavid Woodbury for bringing this story to my attention. He suggests that once we have finished counting we may find 7 or 8 black Confederate soldiers. I think that is much too generous. 😀 My guess is that at the end of the day we may find 4 or 5 legitimate black Confederate soldiers and their stories will tell us much more about how they managed to evade identification rather than as examples of some ludicrous notion of Confederate civil rights. In this case a little bit of digging into the available primary sources revealed that Scott Brown was, in fact, a soldier in 137th Colored Infantry and not, as previously indicated on his head stone, in the “Confederate States Army.”
The first example comes from a recent Confederate Day celebration in Dixie County, Florida, which was hosted by the SCV Dixie Defender Camp 2086. The speaker is Al Mccray, who hosts a radio/talk show in the Tampa Bay area. This is a wonderful example of why the black Confederate argument has proven to be attractive to a certain number of African Americans. Listen to Mccray’s understanding of Lincoln’s emancipation policy. Behind the vague references to his position on colonization and his famous response to Horace Greeley in the spring of 1862 there is disillusionment with the mythology attached to the mythology/narrative of the “Great Emancipator.” It’s that same narrative that drove Lerone Bennett to write his famous essay for Ebony magazine and later, Forced Into Glory. The problem, of course, is that Mccray substitutes an incredibly vague account for this mythology.
More interesting, however, is the way in which this argument morphs into commentary about what Mccray and the SCV perceive as our present political situation. Mccray bounces back between history and politics with ease. In referring to slavery, Mccray suggests that “pretty soon we all will be slaves to the Washington administration” and later notes that the “Army of the Potomac is still around.” Finally, Mccray argues that we are losing more and more rights at the hands of a corrupt government. I suspect that both H.K. Edgerton and the economist, Walter Williams, also fit into this camp. All of them operate on the flawed assumption that while the Civil War led to a larger and more intrusive government in Washington, D.C. the Confederate government preserved a stricter state sovereignty and states rights. This is simply not true. In fact, most slaveowners viewed the continued attempt by the Confederate government to impress and later recruit slaves for military purposes as a violation of their sovereignty.
From Florida we travel to of all places, “30 Rock.” That’s right, thanks to one of my readers I learned that there is a reference to black Confederates in the episode “Fireworks” [season 1, episode 18]. The plot, involving Tracy Morgan, runs as follows:
“Tracy is served with paternity papers and insists that the child is not his. After the DNA test, Tracy learns that the child is not his but that he is a direct descendant of Thomas Jefferson. The news angers Tracy and he talks to Toofer and Frank about it. Toofer learns that he is a direct descendant of Tobias Spurlock, a black Confederate soldier. Tracy and Toofer are upset about the news until Tracy has a dream in which Thomas Jefferson (portrayed by Jack Donaghy) appears to him on The Maury Povich Show. In the dream, Jefferson takes credit for “inventing” America and tells Tracy to forget his past. Tracy decides that he wants Toofer to write a movie about their experiences and Thomas Jefferson’s life. Tracy intends to play all of the parts in the movie, except he intends for the film to be a drama.”
Toofer is terribly distraught to learn that his ancestor Tobias Spurlock was a Black Confederate officer who is known by Civil War scholars as the “Confederate Monster”, who harbored the fugitive John Wilkes Booth following his assassination of Lincoln, and who personally knew Robert E. Lee, rather than a Union officer who knew Ulysses S. Grant as Toofer had always believed.
Unfortunately, I can’t find a clip of this particular segment. This is the first reference to black Confederates that I’ve seen in mainstream culture.
A few days ago I referenced another essay by an individual masquerading as a legitimate authority on Civil War history and “black Confederates.” In the essay, Bernhard Thuersam, who is the executive director of the Cape Fear Historical Institute, makes the ridiculous assertion that the Richmond Howitzers were “an integrated artillery unit.” Since no references were provided we are forced to guess as to the origin of the claim. More than likely it stems from a story about the slave, Aleck Kean, who accompanied John Henry Vest into the Confederate army at the beginning of the war. Vest was killed in 1863, but for reasons unknown Kean decided to stay with the unit through to the end of the war.
In 1913 the Richmond Howitzers erected a stone to Aleck Kean that read: “In Testimony of this Admiration and Respect for a man who did his duty in war and peace. ‘Well done, good and faithful servant.'” [Unfortunately, I can’t locate an image of the stone.] I did locate a short piece by Judge George L. Christian about Kean that appeared in the pages of Confederate Veteran in 1912:
…I affirm that he was the most faithful and efficient man in the performance of every duty pertaining to his sphere that I have ever known. His whole mind and soul seemed bent on trying to get and prepare something for his mess to eat; and if there was anything to be gotten honestly, Aleck always got the share which was coming to his mess, and he always had that share prepared in the shortest time possible and the most delicious way in which it could have been prepared in camp. The comfort of having such a man as Aleck around us in those trying times can scarcely be described and certainly cannot be exaggerated.
There is nothing unusual about the content of Christian’s personal memory or the broader collective memory of white southerners at the beginning of the twentieth century. In short, slaves became loyal servants worthy of remembrance. However, only an individual lacking the most basic knowledge of the Confederacy and slavery could make the assertion that the Richmond Howitzers were “integrated.”
This coming Friday I am scheduled to spend the day with a film crew from Eastern Carolina University, which is producing a documentary on the subject of “black Confederates.” I am excited about my first foray into the world of film and just a little apprehensive about how my commentary will be used. Still, I do think it is an opportunity that I can’t pass up given that my next book project will be a study of memory and black Confederates. The filming will be done at my home and we plan on spending about 4-5 hours discussing the subject.
I am going to put together some information sheets that I can refer to during the interview. My overall goal is first and foremost to help the audience to properly frame the discussion around the correct terms. This is a discussion about how the Confederate war effort altered the institution of slavery and not one about soldiers. We need to use the correct terminology. As anyone who is familiar with the primary evidence can tell you any examples of black southerners who actually served as soldiers are incredibly rare and therefore constitute and exception to this framework. As I’ve pointed out over the years this is not a problem confined to the general public, but even among those who work as public historians such Earl Ijames of the North Carolina Museum of History.
And if Ijames wasn’t disturbing enough for you than have a look at this essay written by Bernhard Thuersam, who is the director of the Cape Fear Historical Institute in Wilmington, North Carolina. The essay is a rough survey of the role of black soldiers in the Revolution, War of 1812, and Civil War. I am not going to sum up the entire article. I neither have the time nor the patience. On top of some of the same old pieces of evidence that appear in every article/website on the subject consider the following:
Update: This is what happens when you try to write a post when you are not feeling well. I called my contact again and now can confirm that the museum is 63 years old, while the exhibit was done within the last few years. Sorry about that.
Yesterday I shared photographs of an exhibit on black Confederates at the Old Courthouse Museum in Vicksburg, Mississippi. Today I had a chance to talk with a curator at the museum about the exhibit. I appreciate his willingness to answer my questions. Unfortunately, I wasn’t able to learn much about the exhibit itself given that it has been on display for 63 years. That, of course, explains the emphasis on faithful slaves. Andy Hall correctly surmises that this probably has as much to do with a limited budget as it does with a flawed interpretation of the Confederacy and slavery.
I asked about how it was possible that slaves were enlisted as soldiers given the Confederate government’s position, but all he could say was that these men were loyal to their owners and accepted by their comrades. For further reading it was suggested that I check out Holt Collier: His Life, His Roosevelt, and the Origin of the Teddy Bear by Minor Ferris Buchanan. I’ve never heard of this book before, but I will definitely take a look at it at some point. Given my initial assumption that the exhibit was much more recent, it is interesting to note that many of the most common images and accounts that can be found today Online were being used in the 1940s. That definitely changes my perspective on the history of when these accounts first surfaced. I want to know, for example, when the image of the Chandler Boys first came to be used as an example of loyal black Confederate soldiers, etc.
The problem with this exhibit can be reduced to its title. Calling it “Blacks Who Wore Gray” clouds the distinction between slave and soldier. Rather, it should be titled, “Slaves Who Wore Gray.”