G. Ashleigh Moody Meet Ann DeWitt

Over the past few weeks I’ve used Ann DeWitt’s website as a case study of what is wrong with the current debate about black Confederates as well as the pitfalls of doing online research on this specific subject – a fact that was confirmed this past week.

This morning I was browsing the Virginia Sesquicentennial Commission’s Facebook page when I came across this response by G. Ashleigh Moody to a story about Carol Sheriff.  Moody is the registrant for the Petersburg Express website, which includes a great deal of information concerning black Confederates.  His response provides us with another useful case study of what is wrong with the popular debate about this subject as well as the dangers of researching this topic online:

What most college professors will probably not share with their students: As you will find documented here [Petersburg Express] are hundreds of Black Confederate SOLDIERS from Petersburg Virginia. documented from just one Virginia city.  And William and Mary is “just down the road” from Petersburg! Amazing! …. These are the stories that bring people together, not the Neo-Yankee version of the South that we are having to endure today. We could do with a lot less “presentism”!

Well, Petersburg Express is just a click away so why don’t we take a little tour of what they have to say about black Confederates.  The first thing you will notice is the claim made by Ed Bearrs that has already been challenged on this site.  Beyond that this is a fairly typical black Confederate website.  Notice the hodgepodge of primary source passages that contain absolutely no analysis or context as well as the photographs, which suffer from the same.  Included are references to Richard “Dick” Poplar and Charles Tinsley.  Even more disturbing are the links to that bastion of scholarship known as Dixie Outfitters and H.K. Edgerton’s, Southern Heritage 411.  This is cut and paste history at its worst and done on a 4th grade level.

Let’s take a look at one example.  The editors of this website chose to use the popular photograph of an officer and a black man in Confederate uniform.  This is an odd choice for a page titled, “Petersburg Black Confederates” because the two men are not from Virginia.  The man sitting is Lt. J. Wallace Comer of the 57th Alabama and the individual standing is his body servant/family slave, who is identified as Burrell.  The website identifies the black individual as “Heroic Henry Comer” though no references are included so for now I will refer to him as Burrell.  [Note: My information about Lt. Comer and Burrell are from Ken Noe’s new book, Reluctant Rebels (University of North Carolina Press, 2010). Petersburg Express also states that Burrell “carried this wounded officer 5 miles to safety, to medical care and saved the officers life.”  Again, no sources are provided to confirm this story.  There is nothing in Ken’s book that suggests that this slave saved Comer’s life, but I will wait for him to comment.  According to Ken, Burrell was one of sixty-one slaves working on the family’s plantation.  What is unfortunate is that this looks like a very interesting story about how the war challenged and shaped the master-slave relationship.  According to Ken:

…Comer praised the man he brought as an exception to other slaves in camp.  “If Burrell holds out fast full to the end,” Comer wrote from Kenesaw Mountain, Georgia,” & stick to me as well as he has done here to fore & I come out safe a mint could not buy him ther are very few Negroes in the army that are not worth enthying to their masters in times like this.”  What especially delighted Comer was Burrell’s bravery.  “Burrell is not afraid of anything,” Comer beamed, “he came to us the other day while we were on Picket…he said he wanted to kill One yankee before the war ended.”  At some point in 1864, the two men even posed together for a photograph.  Relatively relaxed, Comer sits in a chair, his hand on his sword and wearing his hat at a jaunty angle.  To his right, Burrell stands awkwardly, hat in hand, wearing the Confederate private’s uniform routinely given to African Americans with the army.  Yet, as Comer consistently maintained in his letter, Burrell was not really a soldier.  He was still a “Negro,” while Comer remained among the “masters.”  (pp. 43-44)

Again, there is a fascinating story here, but nothing that Moody provides gets us any closer to this important aspect of the past; in fact, it looks like the site contains basic factual mistakes.  But wait, it gets worse.  If you were to stumble on the Petersburg Express’s page on “Gettysburg’s Black Soldiers” you would also come across the same photograph.  Underneath the caption is says the following: “Please Click on these two Confederate Soldiers for a heart warming story of a Black Southern veteran of Gettysburg and a Prisoner of War.”  Clicking on it takes you two a page about Richard Poplar.  The directive gives you the impression that you are clicking on an image that contains Poplar.  This is so sloppy and careless that it is laughable.

Once again, Mr. Moody can whine and complain all he wants about “presentism” and “Neo-Yankees”, but in the end his site is useless as a historical source and serves as the perfect example of what went wrong this past week.

Searching for Black Confederates: The Civil War’s Most Persistent Myth

“Levin’s study is the first of its kind to blueprint and then debunk the mythology of enslaved African Americans who allegedly served voluntarily in behalf of the Confederacy.”–Journal of Southern History

Purchase your copy today!

19 comments… add one
  • John Maass Nov 11, 2010 @ 5:38

    Looks like there’s another school/textbook/slavery type issue in MI now. A black girl’s father has sued the school system there (Detroit area) after she had to listen to a fifth-grade teacher’s reading aloud from a book about slavery. http://www.foxnews.com/us/2010/11/10/father-sues-district-reading-slavery/?test=latestnews

    • Kevin Levin Nov 11, 2010 @ 6:30

      Thanks for the tip, John. I am going to follow up on this story.

  • Dick Stanley Oct 26, 2010 @ 10:17

    The photo of the cocky young aristo and the abject Burrell is one of the saddest I’ve ever seen of a master and slave. Curious that it would be touted as confirmation of black Rebel soldiers when Burrell obviously is unarmed.

    • Kevin Levin Oct 26, 2010 @ 10:20

      Yes, but the famous photograph of Silas and Andrew Chandler shows both armed and yet we know that Silas was a slave and not a soldier. A wide range of messages are being communicated through these wartime images, but they do not alter the status of these individuals.

  • Brendan Wolfe Oct 25, 2010 @ 7:22

    My apologies if this is old news, but exactly this same photo of Comer and Burrell is reproduced on the controversial page of the Virginia fourth-grade history textbook. A quotation, partially inset, reads: “We are willing to aid Virginia’s cause to the utmost of our ability. There is not an unwilling heart among us . . .” It is attributed to “Charles Tinsley, A Free Black, Petersburg, V.” The design’s implication is that the photograph is of Tinsley (rather than of Burrell) and represents a free black soldier — even if the staging of the actual photograph suggests otherwise. There is no caption to clarify matters.

    On the next page, the textbook notes that “many enslaved men and women . . . fled from their homes, drawn by the sweet promise of freedom,” while “for free African Americans,” the choice was much more difficult.” In fact, the subhead of this section reads, “A Difficult Decision.”

    If I were a fourth-grader, this might cause some cognitive dissonance. Was it true that there was “not an unwilling heart among us,” or was it true that black craved “the sweet promise of freedom,” or was it true that it was a difficult decision? These are not mutually exclusive, of course, but there is no real context or explanation, simply base-touching.

    In the meantime, Encyclopedia Virginia’s entry on free blacks during the Civil War, written by Susanna Michele Lee, tells a very different story:

    Free blacks in Virginia almost unanimously supported the Union over the Confederacy as a rejection of their subordinate positions within Southern society. Though not personally enslaved themselves, free blacks embraced the abolition of slavery. Elizabeth Wingfield of Dinwiddie County supported the Union side because “I thought they had come to free all the colored people & to give them their rights.” Wingfield, like many other free blacks in Virginia, counted a relative — her husband — among the enslaved. Even free blacks without enslaved relatives had reason to support the Union over the Confederacy. William James of Henrico County supported the Union because “I believed that if the Rebels gained their independence they would make slaves of all of us free colored people.” White Virginians never passed a re-enslavement law, but the possibility of such legislation rendered freedom for blacks precarious.

    • Kevin Levin Oct 25, 2010 @ 7:24

      Hi Brendan,

      I forgot to mention that so thanks for pointing it out. It’s one of the most popular images around in the black Confederate online world.

  • Ken Noe Oct 24, 2010 @ 9:56

    I have seen the bat signal.

    Comer was later wounded in the foot, and Burrell clearly served him until the soldier sent him home in November 1864, but I don’t see anything about the rest. As to whether Burrell really did want to kill a Yankee, who knows? We only have a young slaveholder’s word for it. What is most noteworthy to me is that Burrell consistently was subject to Comer’s authority, not the army’s. He was the one who sent him home twice to Alabama, or back to the wagon train to wash clothing, and as I say in the book referred to him as his “Negro.” To me that completely mitigates against the notion that Burrell was a soldier by any contemporary definition.

    The Southern Historical Collection has since scanned all of the letters in the Comer Family Papers, so interested readers can examine these issues further. Due to fading ink, however, be warned, some of the most pertinent to this discussion are hard to read. Perhaps others’ eyes are better than mine.


    • Kevin Levin Oct 24, 2010 @ 10:37

      Thanks Ken.

  • Dr. Sisco Oct 24, 2010 @ 5:34

    Regarding the quote from Comer that Burrell “wanted to kill One yankee before the war ended” – how do we know (if Burrell actually said this) that Burrell was not just telling his master what the master wanted to hear – if you know anything about black responses to slavery, this would be a perfect example of “masking”. Telling white people what they want to hear was a survival tactic. Moreover, this is another example of the “faithful slave” fantasy that never seems to die.

    • Kevin Levin Oct 24, 2010 @ 5:38

      It’s impossible to say much of anything because there is no reference of any kind provided. You are correct, however, in pointing out that these narratives almost always include a rescue reference. Hopefully, Ken Noe can add something here since it looks like he is familiar with the available manuscript sources.

  • JH Oct 23, 2010 @ 17:24

    The real question is what role did the slave play in the confederate war machine. That answer requires hard work and needs to be quantified. The same holds true for blacks in the union army. I belive the current myth is that the union could not have won the war without black soldiers. This debate is like the issue of the confederate flag, gets website hits but means nothing.

    • Andy Hall Oct 24, 2010 @ 6:45

      The real question is what role did the slave play in the confederate war machine.

      I think most of the folks here would argue that the answer to that is “huge.” Slave labor — either in the form of individuals serving specific soldiers or in large groups of slave laborers contracted or conscripted to construct siege works — made the Confederate machine run. It could not have succeeded as it did without them. But there is little evidence that significant numbers of African Americans served as soldiers, in the ranks, and were recognized as such by military authorities, until the last weeks of the war. That’s an entirely different situation from the Union army where, as controversial as the USCT initially were, their service as soldiers was recognized and acknowledged all along.

      • Kevin Levin Oct 24, 2010 @ 6:55


        I agree completely, but we should also note that acknowledgment of service as a soldier in the Union army did not imply that black men were considered equal.

        By the way, thanks for your post on the Confederate monument at Arlington. Moody actually references it as evidence that black Confederate soldiers existed. I am going to comment on this at some point because an important point needs to be made about our tendency to engage in presentism here.

    • Margaret D. Blough Oct 26, 2010 @ 18:03

      JH-Actually, I think there’s a very good argument for the impact of black troops on the war effort. For starters, it inevitably impacted the extent to which conscription among the white male population was needed to meet military manpower needs. The U.S. armed forces were fighting a war on multiple fronts in a war notable for its horrendous casualties so the need for fresh troops was acute particularly as even the longest enlistments from the beginning of the war were ending as the war went into 1864. The need for manpower would not have changed had approximately 200,000 black men not been allowed to enter the ranks of the U.S. armed forces but it would have had to been met from the white male population with potentially some very unpleasant repercussions, particularly politically and in white support for the Union war effort.

  • Margaret D. Blough Oct 23, 2010 @ 9:19

    This quotation in Moody’s website struck me, “On April 25, 1861 over three hundred free Blacks, and a few slaves “volunteered” by their owners, left Petersburg by train for labor service on the fortifications of Norfolk with their own Confederate flag, and leader.” Moody doesn’t seem to grasp the sarcasm in the air quotes.

    • Kevin Levin Oct 23, 2010 @ 9:26

      Moody needs to read Will Greene’s recent study of Petersburg. The city boasted a sizable free black population that must have been influenced by a number of factors at the beginning of the war in thinking about their own precarious position within the city’s social and economic hierarchy. http://www.amazon.com/Civil-War-Petersburg-Confederate-Crucible/dp/0813925703/ref=sr_1_2?ie=UTF8&qid=1287856568&sr=8-2

      • Marianne Davis Oct 23, 2010 @ 9:42

        Margaret and Kevin,

        You two and your ilk are clearly guilty of a peculiar type of bias I shall call “factism.” Symptoms of factism include a mania for documentation and evidence, and an entirely unreasonable assumption that other people averring a position ought to be able to provide same. It is factism that separates people who read to learn from people who read to confirm their own beliefs. The first is hard and the second is comforting. It is clear, therefore, that you factists are a problem. Why would you want to keep people from perpetuating the myths, uh-oh, I meant history, of their past. And, by the way, never forget it is THEIR past, not yours, so keep your factist bigotries out of it.

        • Kevin Levin Oct 23, 2010 @ 9:44

          I plead guilty as charged. 😀

        • Margaret D. Blough Oct 23, 2010 @ 11:27

          I plead guilty as charged as well. I blame my late mother who was a fanatical Factist and raised me to be one too. 🙂

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