Black Confederates in the Old Courthouse

Special thanks to Robert Pomerenk, who took these photos of an exhibit on black Confederates in the Old Courthouse in Vicksburg, Mississippi.  It looks like a relatively old exhibit that was done with a very limited budget.  A quick perusal of these photos suggests that very little research went into this exhibit.  You will see the standard images as well as primary source accounts with absolutely no analysis whatsoever.  The exhibit is framed around the following assumption:

Dedicated to the faithful slaves, who loyal to the sacred trust, toiled for support of the Army, with matchless devotion and sterling fidelity guarded our defenseless homes, women and children, during the struggles for the principles of our Confederate States of America.

I’ve suggested that this debate ought to be understood as an extension of the central Lost Cause theme that assumes that slaves were faithful and had no interest in freedom.  This is one of the best examples of that point.  Yes, a book on this subject is desperately needed.

Another Black Confederate Website

Black Confederate Soldiers has more of a professional look to it, but the information and commentary provided is as misleading as anything you will find online.  You will find all of the standard accounts on the “History Facts” page as if to assume that serious history involves a simple listing of facts without any attempt at analysis or confirmation.   The bibliography is nothing more than an assortment of neo-Confederate/Sons of Confederate Veterans propaganda that fails to draw any distinction between secondary and primary studies.  The authors of this site invite readers to share their own sources on the subject.

Interestingly, both Kevin Weeks and Ann DeWitt are African American.  DeWitt seems to be responsible for much, if not all, of the content of the website.  As in the case of Edward C. Smith I get the sense that we are looking at another example of wanting to acknowledge the presence and importance of African Americans in our collective memory.  And as I’ve said before, this is certainly understandable.  In this case, however, there is something very personal at stake for DeWitt:

Born and raised in the south, I was taught forgiveness. (Matthew 18:21-22).  During my research, I visited a 19th century church in Oxford, Georgia called “The Old Church.” Sitting in the front pew during a tour, I finally understood that one cannot completely understand the complexity of the American Civil War and its ties to slavery until there is complete forgiveness. The people I met on this journey gave an open reception and led me down the safest trails in obtaining the facts about Black Confederate Soldiers. For this, I am grateful.

Perhaps, Christian slaves forgave and picked up arms to fight for the little they acquired during their years on American soil. Not until we set aside our differences can we have the necessary dialog about everyone, regardless of color, family lineage, political, or military affiliation, who made tremendous sacrifice from the first shots fired on Fort Sumter in April 1861 until the the final surrender of General Robert E. Lee at the Appomattox Court House in April 1865.

I have no interest in critiquing what motivates Ms. DeWitt to explore American history and the history of race relations specifically.  That said, there is something very honest about the above passage and I certainly sympathize with the ways in which understanding history can help to bring about understanding and reconciliation.  Unfortunately, this site does little more than promote the same tired myths and moves us even further away from understanding how the war effected the master-slave relationship.

Edward C. Smith on Black Confederates

This is great.  In 1993 Professor Edward C. Smith addressed a Sons of Confederate Veterans meeting on the subject of black Confederates.  Unfortunately, only the first ten minutes of his presentation was posted, but it is extremely helpful.  First, Prof. Smith is a Professor of Anthropology at American University.  It is unclear to me on what grounds he can claim to be an authority on this particular subject.  As far as I can tell he has never published anything on the subject in a scholarly journal.  I suspect that he can claim as much authority as Earl Ijames.  What is interesting is the timing of the speech just a few short years after the release of Glory, which I suggested yesterday functioned as a catalyst for interest in this issue.  Well, Smith confirms my suspicions, but he also helps us to better understand why African Americans may be interested in this subject.  From what I can tell Smith views this subject as the next step in more fully understanding the place of African Americans within the broader national narrative.  Blacks served as soldiers in the Union army so it must be the case that they also served in Confederate armies.  Smith wants a more inclusive history that does justice to the accomplishments of black Americans.  That is certainly understandable.  I hope the rest of this speech is eventually posted.

How Old Are Black Confederates?

Update: Since writing this post I’ve had to push the time line back a bit to the mid-1970s. Click here.

Seem like a strange question?  What I am wondering is when the first accounts of substantial numbers of loyal black Confederate soldiers surfaced.  For the moment I am not drawing any distinctions between professional and non-professional historians.  I simply want to know when the first claims were made public and by whom.  Perhaps there is something to be discovered in the Dunning School, which emphasized a Lost Cause narrative of the war that included loyal slaves.  In 1919 Charles H. Wesley published his essay, “The Employment of Negroes as Soldiers in the Confederate Army.  Wesley argued that slaves demonstrated their loyalty to their masters and the Confederacy by “offering themselves for actual service in the Confederate army.”  According to Wesley, like their white counterparts, slaves also believed “their land [had been] invaded by hostile forces.”  I will have to double-check, but I don’t believe that Wesley actually focused on free and/or enslaved blacks already serving in Confederate ranks.  Rather, it’s an article about the debate to enlist slaves as soldiers.

Jump ahead to the 1960s, the Civil Rights Movement, and the rapid growth of African-American history and slavery studies specifically and you will find nothing on the subject of black Confederates.  On the one hand that may come as no surprise given the state of race relations throughout the country, and especially in the states that comprised the Confederacy.  Than again there was plenty of opportunity to locate such individuals and I suspect that writers working along the lines of Lerone Bennett, Jr., would have been all too excited to point out the existence of loyal black Confederate soldiers.  In 1969 James H. Brewer, who taught at North Carolina Central University, published The Confederate Negro: Virginia’s Craftsmen and Military Laborers, 1861-1865 (University of Alabama Press).  As the title suggests, however, Brewer focuses on slaves who were impressed by the state and does not make any claims about black Confederate soldiers.  Three years later, Robert F. Durden published The Gray and the Black: The Confederate Debate on Emancipation, but as the title suggests its focus is on the debate and says nothing about the presence of slave soldiers.  Interestingly, Durden’s book was allowed to go out of print only to be brought back in 2000.

Continue reading “How Old Are Black Confederates?”

Black Confederates on Film

Well, my summer has officially started and it promises to be quite busy.  I have a couple of talks to give, a number of writing projects to finish, and somewhere in between, I need to relax and do nothing at all.  I am loathe to add anything to my plate, but I would have been foolish not to accept an invitation to be interviewed for a documentary on the history and memory of “black Confederates.”  The director of the documentary teaches at East Carolina University.

The project is in the beginning stages so I don’t have much to report.  Admittedly, I was skeptical after receiving an email from one of the director’s assistants, but a couple of phone conversations alleviated my worst fears.  My biggest concern is not having control over my interviews, specifically in terms of how they will be edited and placed in the documentary.  As you all know this is a controversial and widely misunderstood subject and the last thing that I want to see happen is my own words used to further some of the more pernicious myths.  Even with those concerns, however, I still think it would be a mistake to pass up this opportunity.

Continue reading “Black Confederates on Film”