Searching For Edward Porter Alexander and Charley

I’ve said it before but it bears repeating that Edward Porter Alexander’s, Fighting for the Confederacy is a goldmine of information on the Confederate experience.  It has come in handy in just about all of my projects and that is a testament to his attention to detail as well as Alexander’s honesty.  What follows is me playing around a bit with a very, very rough draft of the beginning of an introduction or proposal for my latest book project, which is tentatively titled, Searching for Black Confederates in History and Memory.

At some point during the winter lull of 1861-62, Edward Porter Alexander purchased “two appendages” which remained by his side until the close of the war.  “I had bought a second horse, ‘Meg Merriles,’ a very pretty bay mare with a roan spot on one hip,” remembered Alexander, “& I had hired for an ostler & servant a 15 year old darkey named Charley—a medium tall & slender, ginger-cake colored, & well behaved & good dispositioned boy.”  Alexander’s physical description of Charley next to that of his horse plus his reference to the two as an “appendage” reflects the legal basis of their relationship and one of the many dehumanizing qualities of slavery that comes through in his writing even decades after the war.

Unfortunately, the historical record does not include Charley’s voice, but if we proceed carefully we can get a glimpse of a relationship that was at once defined by the cultural and legal strictures of a slave-holding society and shaped by the exigencies and uncertainties of war.  It was a relationship that included brutal punishment and genuine acts of kindness.  Alexander recalls having to give his “darkey” a “small licking” on two occasions, first in the summer of 1862 outside of Richmond, where Charley robbed a pear tree and a year later during the Gettysburg Campaign for “getting drunk, on some apple jack he had managed to purloin from our hospital stores.”  Swift punishment for various transgressions could be found throughout the army as a means to maintain discipline, but Charley’s punishment was meted out by his owner and reflected a need to reinforce personal boundaries in close proximity to the enemy and at a time when Charley’s continued fidelity to Alexander was most threatened.

At the same time Alexander was charged with looking after Charley and during their time together saw him develop from a boy into a young man.  Their shared experiences in camp and on the march left a clear mark on Alexander and led to a decision that years later could only be characterized as coming from an “unconscious cerebratim, or some ‘sub-ego’ whose mental operations were not my own.”   In March 1864 Alexander decided to empty a Richmond bank account that had been opened to make payments to Charley’s owner in Loudoun County.  His owner’s inability to draw on the account by the middle of the war led Alexander to withdraw the wages, exchange the amount for gold, and in an apparent act of generosity and appreciation offered it to Charley following the surrender of the Army of Northern Virginia in April 1865.  Their time together ended after Alexander refused to allow Charley to accompany him to Brazil.  Alexander believed that he “was very anxious to accompany me; & would have gone anywhere on Earth.”

Without Charley’s voice it is impossible to draw specific conclusions about the nature of their relationship.  Even at the time of the penning of his memoir, Alexander continued to struggle to explain the decision to reward Charley with the gold piece even going so far as to suggest that it was out of character for him and perhaps even a mistake.  Again, we can only speculate as to how Charley interpreted the transaction.  Whatever the case may be, it is likely that their perceptions of one another in 1865 shaped by their shared experiences could not have been anticipated in 1861.

Unfortunately, the story of Edward Porter Alexander and Charley has all but been lost in our popular memory of the Civil War.  Within a few short decades following the end of the war the relationship between Confederate officers and camp servants was transformed into the loyal or faithful slave narrative that came to define the Lost Cause.  The fidelity of the camp servant and the succor given to his benevolent master in camp and in battle created a partnership that helped to distance the failed Confederate experiment in rebellion from its expressed goals of the preservation of slavery and white supremacy.  In recent years, this narrative of the faithful slave has been transformed into countless stories of thousands of black soldiers, who fought alongside their masters and for the Confederate cause.  This latest incarnation of the loyal slave narrative brings the growing distance between slavery and the Confederate experience to its logical conclusion with the inclusion of large numbers of black men being situated within the ranks from the beginning of hostilities in 1861.  Not only does such a suggestion make it difficult to understand the bitter public debate that took place in late 1864-65 over the enlistment of slaves as soldiers, but also it renders the complex relationship between Alexander and Charley unintelligible.

Complicating this picture is the sharp response from a community that resists any effort to provide the proper historical context in which to understand the web of belief that defined the Confederate soldiers’ outlook on slavery.  Consider CNN commentator Roland Martin’s characterization of Confederate soldiers as “domestic terrorists” as well as his comparisons with Nazis during the heated debates following the release of Governor Robert McDonnell’s Confederate History Month proclamation.  While Martin’s passion may have been genuine, it had little to do with the past and, like his modern day Lost Cause counterparts, may have only worked to make the job of uncovering what was a complex story more difficult.  Neither side seems interested in doing the heavy lifting that comes with serious historical research, in part, because their one-dimensional interpretations continue to advance their own agendas.

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!

4 comments… add one
  • Keith Yoder Aug 10, 2011 @ 15:03

    You might find this post on “Bull Runnings” of yesterday interesting as well…

    • Kevin Levin Aug 10, 2011 @ 16:05

      Thanks. Harry Smeltzer was kind enough to alert me to it.

  • Margaret D. Blough Aug 8, 2011 @ 21:37

    Kevin-I read “Fighting for the Confederacy” and Moxley Sorrel’s memoirs around the same time. Sorrel was more blatantly racist (he was convinced that the only way black Union soldiers could be made to fight was to get them drunk); but I found the sheer casualness of Alexander’s references to purchasing and disciplining slaves far more disturbing. I think a lot of it is how engaging Alexander’s personality is.

    • Kevin Levin Aug 9, 2011 @ 3:12

      At the same time it is interesting to watch as Alexander struggled during the war and even much later over how treat and remember his companion.

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