A Black Confederate Without the Black Ancestor

Willie Levi Casey

I am making my way through a small collection of essays in Thomas Brown’s Remixing the Civil War: Meditations on the Sesquicentennial (Johns Hopkins University Press, 2011).  Fitz Brundage opens his essay on African American artists, who have interpreted the Civil War in recent years, with a reference to Willie Levi Casey.  You can see Casey in the image to the right and while I’ve seen it on a number of websites, up until now I didn’t know anything about his background.

While Casey is dressed to commemorate those black men who “served” in Confederate ranks and “support preserving Southern history and telling it the way it is,” his connection to the war does not end with a black individual at all.  Here is an excerpt from one news item that I found online:

Casey’s persona as a re-enactor is a free black cabinetmaker from eastern Tennessee, able to read and write, with a wife and a child at home. But he has a real-life link to the Confederacy as well–one he always vaguely knew about but pinned down only in recent years.  Casey grew up in Cross Anchor, S.C., in the 1960s and ’70s. It was an area full of Caseys, black and white.  He and his siblings knew they had a white great-grandfather, a man who had never married their American Indian/African-American great-grandmother even though they had six children together.  A family photo of the couple’s son Barney Casey shows a bulky man in overalls with lank gray hair and white skin. He’s Willie Casey’s grandfather.  Willie Casey was well into adulthood when he decided to research the white side of his family.  In the course of his genealogical effort he came across the Civil War record of one Pvt. Martin Luther Casey, a South Carolina soldier killed in 1862. That man was the older brother of Casey’s great-grandfather.  Being a collateral relative of a Civil War soldier qualified Casey for membership in the SCV.

Interestingly, websites maintained by H.K. Edgerton and J.R. Vogel conveniently overlook the fact that Casey’s ancestor is not black.

OK, so I readily admit that I am confused.  On the one hand Casey was accepted into the SCV based on his connection to the brother of his great-grandfather.  The living interpretation that he adopts for reenactments and other events, however, is based on a fictional character whose connection to history is tenuous at best.

I guess what I am having trouble understanding is that in his effort to ‘tell it the way it is’ he ignores what has to be a fascinating Civil War legacy in the story of his great-grandfather and great-grandmother.  Why doesn’t Casey do the necessary research to interpret the offspring of his great-grandparents?  That would go much further in challenging the public to expand their understanding of slavery and race relations at a critical point in American history. I am sure the SCV would be more than happy to accommodate such a living memory of one’s Civil War ancestors.

Instead, we are presented with nothing more than the same tired commentary that reinforces outdated tropes that paint the Confederacy as some kind of experiment in civil rights.

[Image Source: The Free Lance-Star]

17 comments… add one
  • Bob Huddleston Feb 28, 2012 @ 8:49

    An interesting point of this is how many African-Americans are eligible for membership in the SCV based on an historically reliable descent from a Confederate veteran — but that veteran was a white man. In 1860 13% of the blacks were mixed blood. Indeed, in the Debates, Lincoln responded to Douglas’ race baiting by pointing out the prevalence of mulattoes in the slave states (CW 2:408). But I guess the SCV does not want to talk about that.

  • Bryan Cheeseboro Feb 25, 2012 @ 12:58

    Amazing when you think about it: people look at websites produced by anybody without any credentials whatsoever and believe the Black Confederate narrative; yet many people (and probably many of those same people) refuse to believe Barack Obama is a United States citizen despite the presntation of an official birth certificate.

    • Kevin Levin Feb 25, 2012 @ 13:02

      I think you are taking it just a bit too far, Bryan. My guess is that the overwhelming number of people who fall for the black Confederate narrative are simply misinformed. The very small, but vocal group that denies the presidents legitimacy are just nuts.

      • Bryan Cheeseboro Feb 25, 2012 @ 14:45

        How is that taking it too far, Kevin? I know a guy who believes the BC myth AND questions Obama’a citizenship.

        I realize there are well-meaning, intelligent people who have bough into the BC story. I also realize for some, no amount of evidence will EVER get them to see the President is an American. I’m just saying I would not be surprised if many of the “nuts” believe both things.

        • Kevin Levin Feb 25, 2012 @ 15:04

          I just don’t see any reason to make this connection.

          • Margaret D. Blough Feb 28, 2012 @ 7:22

            Neither do I, Kevin. There are people in that group and every other group in the spectrum. I’ve seen neo-Confederates sites where people flat out argue in favor of slavery for blacks. However, I’ve seen a much larger group who do believe that slavery was a bad thing and always was but for whom that creates a major cognitive dissonance between their view of slavery and their need to be proud of their Confederate ancestor (white). People do not like to experience cognitive dissonance and they tend to try to resolve it in the least painful way possible. The racists do not need the BC story; arguing that states rights, economics, big v. small government (ANYTHING but slavery) caused the war meets that need fine and, if necessary, there’s that old favorite, the Happy Slave myth. My admittedly unscientific observation is that the ones who are most vulnerable to believing BC uncritically are the ones who, more than anything else, want to be proud of their ancestor(s). They’ll leap onto the BC story with its portrait of a integrated Confederate Army like a drowning man into a pool of water.

            • Kevin Levin Feb 28, 2012 @ 7:58

              All good points, Margaret. A big part of the problem is our tendency to distinguish between slavery and race. The BCM is as much about the place of race in southern society as it is about the master-slave relationship specifically.

              • Bryan Cheeseboro Feb 28, 2012 @ 18:02

                With all due respect to all of you, I still don’t think it’s difficult to make a connection between people who support BC mythology and believe the President is not a citizen. I think for many, it all has to do with their comfort level of African-Americans. A racist can be very knid to Black people he or she is comfortable with and are no threat to them.

                First of all, I do not believe everyone who believes in Black Confederates is a racist. But for those who are, I see so often that they have a great deal to say about BC soldiers and nothing ever to say about Black Union soldiers. Why is that? After all, didn’t Black Union troops fight for their own personal freedom first and then the Union and the flag? Amazing that some Confederate apologists are into the Irish Brgade, the Iron Brigade and the 20th Maine; yet a group of men who won over 23 Medals of Honor is simply ignored by these people. Try to talk about the movie “Glory” and all they want to talk about is Black Confederates. Anyway, I think the USCT soldiers are rejected by neo-Confederates because they stood up for themselves to end slavery … and as a Black man, I can personally tell you when you stand up for yourself, you can piss a lot of people off, be called angry, a racist, etc. Anyway, I think what makes Black Confederates attractive is that they are Blacks doing what I (the neo-Confederate) want them to do- they’re not complaining about racism; they’re not demanding special rights; they’re head-down, mouth shut, bust-your-butt soldiers… Black people I feel safe with and can control. So when somebody- like the President- comes along and is out of my control, I reject him by saying things like “he’s not a citizen” and stuff like that. It’s basically like the old “Well, you have Blacks and you have ni—rs” BS.

                So it’s no surprise to me that people, like the college-educated man I know, can buy into both farfetched beliefs. Don’t know if I’ve said all of this right but it’s just my 2¢.

                • Forester Feb 29, 2012 @ 13:47

                  Oh, there’s a connection. I know plenty of people who fall into both catagories. And on a personal level, I’ve been both but not at the same time. I believed in Black Confederates until discovering this blog about a year ago. And I was dubious about Obama’s documentation until the birth cirtificate was released last summer.

                  Though, questioning politicians or history books is NOT a bad thing. It’s what you do with the answers that defines you.

                  I am a definite EX-racist. It’s sad to say, but a certain amount of racism (often unconcious) is hard-wired into white Southern boys. As it is something that I have personally overcome, there is no way I can deny its existence.

                  Much of how we overcome that is through knowledge, which can only come from asking questions. For example, I’ve heard word-of-mouth tales of a viscious race riot in my hometown of Norfolk, VA. I started researching it this week (the given story is of rampaging blacks taking revenge on random whites in April 1866). I found a House report by Edwin Stanton (Secretary of War) with some extremely damning facts: turns out, it was WHITES perpetrating the violence on random blacks (injuring 7, killing 2). But because only blacks were arrested, the rumor spread and became the exact opposite, a story used by previous generations to instill fear in white boys like me.

                  I can’t deny being a little racist in my intentions when I started reading about the subject, but when I found the truth it definitely changed my outlook on race issues. And this was just 3 days ago! A week ago, I would’ve thought I was fully progressive and didn’t have more to learn. How wrong I was!

                  So, @Bryan, you’re spot on with the comment about how racists can be very kind to non-threatening blacks. But sometimes they don’t know they’re racists, and its burried beneath layers of denial and brainwashing. Racists are themselves victims: victims of the scam that places on classification of human beings over another.

                  And yes, I have family members who believe in BCs and not Obama’s citizenship. So I can say with firsthand authority that they can be from the same group.

                  • Bryan Cheeseboro Feb 29, 2012 @ 19:01

                    Thanks so much for your thoughts and personal testimony. Glad to hear very good things are happening in your life!

  • Kate Halleron Feb 24, 2012 @ 15:10

    I find this personally offensive, because his character is similar to my gg-grandfather (although he was a blacksmith). Free black, check. East Tennessee, check. Wife and kids at home, check. Confederate soldier, check.

    Mixed black/white/native american heritage, check.

    Except mine was pressed into the Confederacy and ran like, um, heck, to the Union as soon as he was able. But that’s the kind of story none of these folks want to hear about.

    And yet the truth, about his ancestor and mine, is so much more interesting. Really would love to understand what motivates someone like him to embrace a false, soft and squishy narrative when the truth has so much more meat on it.

    • Woodrowfan Feb 25, 2012 @ 5:15

      I wonder the same thing. I suspect that in some cases the person gets pleasure from being contrary. If most people believe X then they can feel smart and somehow superior by believing Not-X. You can see it in many conspiracy theories and in movements such as “Sovereign Citizens.” “I’m smarter because I know something that is being suppressed by ‘them.'”

    • Kevin Levin Feb 25, 2012 @ 5:21

      Really would love to understand what motivates someone like him to embrace a false, soft and squishy narrative when the truth has so much more meat on it.

      I think it comes down to the fact that most people simply do not understand the complex history of race and slavery in the United States.

    • Forester Feb 27, 2012 @ 8:22

      In reeinacting, the CSA does have a certain amount of “Star Wars” appeal (the underdog, “normal” people versus superior and more orgainized military force, ect). In a purely fictional sense, I can understand his wanting to inact such a character. There is a dramatic appeal to blacks in the CSA, if nothing else because it sounds so “wrong.”

      @Kate, I don’t think he’s “trying” to be offensive. Just because he’s pushing a different story doesn’t mean that yours isn’t true. I think there’s some truth in both viewpoints, but obviously Northern black soldiers numbered in the thousands where “Black Confederates” were at best a maybe 10 dudes. It doesn’t made those 10 dudes invalid, just a danged small minority.

      Hundreds of women fought on both sides, but it was certainly not allowed. That said, a movie about a woman soldier would be a really interesting work of art, but it wouldn’t make the Confederacy an experiment in feminism. She would just be one of the odd flukes of the period that didn’t fit an easy label.

      The problem with Black Confederate mythmakers, IMO, is that they make Black Confederates sound much more numerous than they were. Even Kevin has acknowledged that some SLAVES may have fired a rifle in battle. But so did some women, children and men in their 70s. It wasn’t common, accepted or “normal” by any means.

      • Andy Hall Feb 27, 2012 @ 10:05

        This captures a lot of my thinking on this topic. Casey’s chosen “impression” for reenacting probably has less to do with his own ancestry than with looking the part. It’s not that complicated, y’all.

        Stepping back a little from Casey’s specific case, though, it’s not hard to see why the black Confederate meme has tremendous appeal. In addition to the “Star Wars” factor Forester mentions, that applies to Confederate things generally, black Confederates have an extra special popular appeal, one that combines simple patriotic memes (brothers-in-arms, defending hearth and home against the perfidious Yankee invader, etc.) with a certain conspiratorial tease — this is the real story they don’t tell in the history books!. One really does need to dig down into the sources to see what a historiographical house of cards the whole black Confederate meme is, but to the general public, it comes across as sound enough. Certainly none of Mr. Casey’s SCV or reenacting buddies are going to dissuade him from his impressions; for them, his presence is itself confirmation of the historical reality of men like the character he portrays. It’s like the headstone thing — first they use fuzzy (or fundamentally flawed) research to get a Confederate headstone, then cite the headstone itself as evidence of the accuracy of the research. It’s very circular.

        • Forester Feb 27, 2012 @ 12:01

          Also, if you can provide examples of Black Confederates in the present day, than it stands to reason that there must have been some back then too. I’m not sure what that logical fallacy is called, but people use it all the time. For example, if a white person gets along with black people today, they assume that their ancestors time would’ve been equally placid. Or people who insist “my grandaddy wasn’t fighting for slavery” because they don’t approve of slavery in a 2012 context. I think this is ‘presentism’?

          On a funny side note, I was Googling “black confederates” once and I saw one of those automated sidebar “bot” ads that tailor themselves to your search topic. It boasted “Black Confederate Daing” and “Meet Sexy Black Confederate Singles in your Area today.” The ad also claimed to have T-shirts, jackets and coffee mugs.

          If you can date them online, they must exist. If they exist now, they existed then. And it’s all on the Internet. 😀

      • Bryan Cheeseboro Feb 27, 2012 @ 16:50

        I think your “Star Wars” analogy to the Confederacy is spot-on. I think many Lost Cause, pro-Confederate apologists have a post-Star Wars Trilogy reading of the Civil War. They see the Confederacy as this plucky, righteous Rebel Alliance- vastly outnumbered by the technological power and might of the evermore populous North- that somehow manages to pull out victories. Kind of like a soapbox derby race where the underdog kid with the ugly car made of balsa wood beats the rich kid with the beautiful car.

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