Tag Archives: black Confederates

Not Everyone Is Upset With Me

Wow…these posts on Confederate slaves really do excite the masses. I really do love the excitement and outrage that it causes within certain groups since it tends to highlight the anti-intellectual streak that runs through our Civil War community.  You would think that with all the time that a few readers are spending on this site that they could have uncovered an entire regiment of black Confederate soldiers.  Anyway, I received this very short, but encouraging email from one of my readers this morning.

Your Thinking About the Civil War Sesquicentennial postings have been one of the better overviews of the causes of the war that I have read anywhere.  Maybe you can get it put in print as a sort of Causes of the Civil War for Dummies.  Also thanks for indulging me; I grew up in a Rural Ole South County seat Town and many of the things on your Blog have enlightened me and some have enraged me.  I recognize we are working from different world views and philosophies yet we are share a common goal of Historical Truth.   Thanks for the Blog and have a great weekend.

[You are very welcome.  It's always nice to be reminded that the overwhelming majority of my readers are considerate, open-minded, and appreciative of what I do.  As always, thanks.]

The UDC, Black Confederates, and the Manipulation of the Past

Thanks to Betty Baye for a brief, but thoughtful column about a recent phone conversation with a receptionist at the national headquarters for the United Daughters of the Confederacy in Richmond, Virginia.  Apparently, Ms. Baye was invited to their national convention and decided to follow up to see if the organization included any African Americans.  The receptionist noted that somewhere between 60-93,000 blacks “served” in the Confederate army though “many” went to war as “body servants” with their masters.  Well, at least she didn’t suggest that they were soldiers, but one wonders what “many” is meant to denote or why we constantly fail to describe these men for what they were: slaves.

The author goes on to describe recent ceremonies conducted by the UDC and SCV to commemorate the “service” of black Confederate soldiers such as Creed, Cornelius, and Claiborne Holland.  I have no idea whether these men were enlisted as soldiers or just another case of sloppy research and poor analysis.  Of course a representative described their presence in the army as “patriots who loved our Southland and suffered in its defense.” Creed Holland’s great-great grandson called the occasion “a day of unification.”  Of course, I cannot say what primary sources were consulted to justify such a claim, though I am willing to wager that whatever the source it was not penned by any of the three men cited or even from the war years.  The author also cited the case of Henry Nenderson, but you can imagine my surprise when I read the following:

Kevin Levin, who regularly blogs about the Confederacy, upon seeing a photo of two white women dressed in mourning attire decorating Pvt. Henderson’s grave, wrote just last month that the women aren’t “honoring a soldier, they are honoring a slave,” who was forced to join his master and who “must be understood as an extension of a broader life story of coercion.” The United Daughters of the Confederacy and similar groups, Levin argues, “teach us nothing about the complex history of race relations in the Confederacy,” and, in fact, “are completely incapable of commemorating Henderson’s life because they fail to acknowledge him for what he was — a slave.” [Read my post on Henderson here.]

Some of you are no doubt tired of these posts on “black Confederates”, but I want to make it clear that I am not writing them for you.  My goal is to build up sufficient SEO weight to counter these ridiculous stories that hearken back to a naive Lost Cause narrative that emphasizes slave loyalty and, ultimately, the distancing of the Confederate experience from slavery.  The UDC has been distorting the history of slavery and the Civil War since the early twentieth century, but their increasing black membership is what is truly disappointing.  By involving the descendants of these men as soldiers with full military honors they are using these family members for their own aggrandizement.  No doubt, the family members involved simply want their ancestors to be remembered and to identify with a larger historical narrative.  If the UDC and SCV want to commemorate and remember the lives of these men than they should acknowledge them for what they were.  There is no shame in acknowledging these men as slaves.  In fact, in the case of Henry Henderson it only makes his life that much more worthy of remembrance.

I am going to conclude this post with Betty Baye’s own assessment:

When the black Hollands were memorialized, Virginia state Sen. Charles Hawkins, a Republican, said, “We need to come to grips with the ghosts of our past. … We need to understand this history if we are to grow and prosper.” Fine words. But some find it impossible to confront ghosts of beloved ancestors who engaged in the dirty business of buying, breeding and selling human beings — a business made no less dirty by speaking of it with gentle words; for example, calling a slave “servant,” a plantation a “farm,” and implying that slaves willingly, and knowingly, fought for a cause that, had it not been lost, would have perpetuated their bondage and spread the evil to yet more territories of a young nation. Rather, the United Daughters of the Confederacy comfort themselves with the words and imagery of Mary Nowlin Moon, who, in 1915, wrote of “a heritage so rich in honor and glory that it far surpasses any material wealth that could be mine.”  Few members today, I daresay, see any irony either in their group hosting a “silent auction” at its national convention.

Earl Ijames’s “Colored Confederates”

It looks like Earl Ijames is at it again.  You may remember this past summer that Ijames – a curator at the N.C. Museum of History – was involved in a grave site dedication for Weary Clyburn, who supposedly served as a soldier in the Confederate army.  I covered this story closely and offered a number of reasons to doubt these claims as I have for most of these silly stories about black Confederate soldiers.  Today it is being reported that Ijames will tell Clyburn’s story to 1,500 people later this week at the National Genealogical Society’s annual conference in Raleigh.  The problem is that there is no evidence that Clyburn served in the 12th South Carolina Volunteers, though that should not stop Ijames from making the claim.

The available evidence suggests that Clyburn was a slave who went to war with Capt. Frank Clyburn (12th S.C.) and was the legal property of his father.  In the most recent issue of North and South Magazine (June 2009) historians Thomas Lowry and Rev. Alex H. Ledoux offer a few observations about the difficulties of researching “black Confederates.”  One of the examples they cite is Clyburn.  According to the two there is no listing for Clyburn in Broadfoot’s Roster and there is no record of him whatsoever in the National Archives – even under alternate spellings.  [In fact, every case they cite begins with the usual evidence and ends with no record of service.]  Clyburn did apply for a pension, but this is of no help in determining his status in the army, though without any official military records it points to the obvious.  Though not Ijames’s exact words, it is safe to assume that the reporter captured his overall view:

“The historically accurate term is ‘colored Confederates,’” Ijames says, and thousands of them went to war from Southern states, including North Carolina. Some were slaves sent in place of their masters, or were forced or volunteered to serve alongside them. Others were freed blacks who offered their services.

Notice the lack of clarity in distinguishing between those who volunteered or were forced to accompany an officer.  They are treated as if they all deserve to be interpreted and remembered along similar lines – a complete lack of historic understanding.  How many free blacks openly served in Confederate ranks given the fact that the Confederate government did not allow it and that men in individual units were committed to running non-whites out of the army.

It isn’t clear whether Clyburn went to war just because his friend had gone; or he thought, as some soldiers did, that no matter who won, slaves would be set free; or he believed he could raise his stature by serving; or he fought because the South was the only homeland he had ever known and he was willing to die to protect it.

At some point we are going to have to come to terms with the fact that the available evidence doesn’t point to some of the more extravagant (or even modest) claims about thousands of loyal black Confederate soldiers.  Why is there such scant evidence?  Because they were slaves.  Look for their names in the private records of individual slaveholders and businesses, though we should always keep in mind that the vast majority have been forever lost owing to their status.  As I’ve said before, the most disturbing aspect of these stories is the deception of the general public as well as the families who are curious about their history.  History is a dangerous thing when you don’t know how to do it.

A Few More Thoughts About Confederate Slaves

Peter Carmichael was kind enough to take the time to add a few thoughts to a post of his that I recently republished.  His comment is fair and balanced in its critique of the way various groups have approached this complex topic, which is why I decided to feature it in a new post.

In all the debate that the Confederate slave subject generates on this blog and elsewhere, I am still mystified by the failure of some to appreciate a fundamental fact that applies to every African American who existed in a Southern army—he was a slave and thus denied the ability to have free will in exercising his political loyalty. All the acts of bravery and fidelity on the part of slaves in battle and camp cannot overturn this basic and defining fact. Once we recognize this hard reality we will be better prepared to subdue our emotion and begin to consider the complicated ways in which slaves and whites coexisted in the army. To suggest that a slave who purchased a gray uniform was somehow committed to the Southern cause or loyal to his master overlooks the fact that there wasn’t a blue one at the Sutler’s store for him to purchase. Even if he was able to secure one, he sure as hell wouldn’t have been allowed to wear it in the Confederate ranks. What choices and political options were available to slaves is what we should be focusing on in this debate, for we cannot consider any act of “devotion” without also considering at the same time what punishments awaited a black man who failed to do his “duty” to the master class.

For those who are emphatic that Confederate slaves were both brave and loyal in their service to the Southern cause I would like for them to explain the implications of this argument. When I am in a charitable mood, I would like to believe that those who cherish the idea of the loyal Confederate slave do so as a way to protect their ancestors from being demonized by Americans who see history as a morality play. I understand their insecurities, but if they really want Americans to take their Southern ancestors on the historical terms of the antebellum South then they will have to abandon the notion that they are a minority group that is under siege from the political left–in doing so they will take the first step to seeing the past as a search for complexities and not for universal truths that can be used to assail PC radicals. Too many Americans have the insatiable need to see themselves as a minority group under attack. This perspective fosters a strange way of seeing the world in which the “persecuted” feel that they are the true owners of truth because the rest of the world has conspired against them. This position is intellectually debilitating and it is a paranoia that pervades both political extremes, not just the right. Those of us who are baffled by the folks who go to sleep every night believing that Confederate armies were composed of slaves who wanted to die for their masters and the Southern cause deserve our serious engagement, not our ridicule. We cannot make fun of their ceremonies, even if we think they are doing injustice to the complexities of the past. We have to find a way to create a dialogue.

I have no doubt that some slaves felt a strong sense of attachment to their masters and maybe even to the outfits that they served, but this “attachment” was forged as part of a slave system that was based, at the most fundamental level, on coercion. Let’s stop getting so misty-eyed over those slaves who served with white soldiers as a band of brothers and let’s also stop denouncing anyone who sincerely wants to understand the intimate relationship that existed between slaves and their masters. We are missing the complexities of this relationship in the army and its broader impact on soldier relations, the home front, and the political ideology of the Confederacy.

UDC Uses and Abuses the History of Slavery

In my last post on “black Confederates” I wondered whether the two women dressed in mourning attire were white.  Well, I have no doubt that the women in  these images are indeed white.  And…yes, they are decorating the grave of “Pvt. Henry Henderson, a black Confederate soldier.” This article is so poorly reported that it is impossible to know for sure the status of Henderson without going to the archives.  That said, I have an idea.  According to the article:

Henderson was born in 1849 in Davidson County, NC. He was 11 years old when he entered service with the Confederate States of America as a cook and servant to Colonel William F. Henderson, a medical doctor. Records show Henry was wounded during his service, but he continued to serve until the war’s end in 1865. He was discharged in Salem, NC, age 16.

As Peter Carmichael notes in his essay, Confederate officers often brought their slaves with them as camp servants as a reflection of their social status and for their services.  And many were even outfitted with uniforms.  After noting that 60-90,000 “black Confederates served” in the Confederate army the author notes that Henderson’s sons received their father’s one and only pension check from the state of Tennessee in 1926.  Of course, as many of you know the receipt of a pension check does not tell us much of anything about the status of black men in the Confederate army.  [Consider the case of Weary Clyburn and see a recent post by Robert Moore, here]

Like the Sons of Confederate Veterans, the United Daughters of the Confederacy teach us nothing about the complex history of race relations in the Confederacy.  Henry Henderson deserves to have his story told as well as have his life recognized and honored by his descendants.  Based on the skimpy evidence provided in this article we should conclude that Henderson was a slave who happened to find himself with the army as a young boy.  That this boy was forced to join his master in the army at such a young age, and was eventually wounded, must be understood as an extension of a broader life story of coercion.  I often wonder what Henderson himself would say about such a spectacle.

The women in these images are not honoring a soldier, they are honoring a slave.