On the Black Confederate Front

H.K. Edgerton

Today I completed a rough draft of an essay on John Christopher Winsmith and his servant Spencer for the NYTs Disunion column.  Winsmith’s letters are incredibly rich and help to sketch a constantly evolving master – slave dynamic during the first sixteen months of the war.  As a teaser consider the following reference to Spencer accompanying Winsmith on picket duty in northern Virginia in September 1861:

I took Spencer along to carry my knapsack [etc], and Ralph and I with him stopped at a house on the road, and drying ourselves thoroughly had a most delightful rest.  Sunday just after daylight we left and joined to Regt.  Then we proceeded to Upton’s Hill in sight of Munsin’s to do picket duty.  The enemys lines are not so near the former as the latter place, and therefore our men got no shots at the Yankees.  The view was fine, and just such as I have described in a former letter as having enjoyed from Munsin’s.  Occasionally in the distance we could see the Yankees moving about, but no fight occurred during our stay.

This is the only time that Winsmith acknowledges this role in his letters, though I suspect it was quite common among officers at least during the early stages of the war.  One wonders how many of these Yankee sightings of black men in Confederate ranks were of this nature.

Head on over to Andy Hall’s Dead Confederates site for an excellent post on the pensions that were handed out to former servants/slaves at the turn of the twentieth century.  This is one of the most misunderstood aspects of this subject.  It looks like the recent decision in Union County North Carolina to recognize former slaves as if they occupied a position akin to a soldier was premised on their having been granted pensions.  Do yourself a favor and read Andy’s post.

Finally, today I got a call from Ken Wyatt, who is the director of Colored Confederates: Myth or Matter of Fact?  I was interviewed as a talking head back in 2009.  It’s been shown at a number of film festivals, but other than a preview I have yet to see it.  Fortunately, it is being shown this weekend as part of the Roxbury International Film Festival here in Boston on Sunday at noon.  I am looking forward to commentary by H.K. Edgerton that goes way off the deep end.

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15 comments… add one
  • London John Jun 15, 2012 @ 10:05

    I don’t know more about this Edgerton than one can learn from this blog, but from that may I ask if the attitude of the SCVers & their allies to him is similar to that of the real confederate veterans towards the former “loyal slaves”.

    • Andy Hall Jun 15, 2012 @ 12:36

      Edgerton was born a century too late. Ninety or a hundred years ago he would have been a bona fide celebrity at reunions of real Confederate veterans. They wouldn’t have liked his habit of wearing sergeant’s chevrons, but otherwise he would’ve eclipsed them all — Howard Divinity, “Uncle Steve Eberhart,” William Mack Lee and all the rest. His performance art is genuinely unique.

      Edgerton’s specific message is a little different from theirs; those old guys a hundred years ago were explicitly there to show ongoing and perennial loyalty of slaves to their former masters, decades after the end of the conflict, to reinforce antebellum views of the respective places of whites and African Americans. That meme doesn’t get a lot of traction these days, so Edgerton and the True Southrons™ have instead collectively latched onto the notion that, 150 years ago, slavery was mostly a really bad working situation, imposed on the South by the North, but that whites and blacks in the South really understood that and worked together during the war against a common foe, brothers-in-arms, in mutual respect and understanding, etc., etc. (Edgerton has actually claimed that Jim Crow laws were unwillingly forced on black and white Southerners by Yankees on the Supreme Court.) The modern narrative about black Confederate soldiers springs from this same desire to depict a South as a place full of good and thoroughly honorable people, black and white, who were making the best they could of a situation they held no moral responsibility for, and (God forbid) certainly weren’t fighting to maintain.

      So while men like Edgerton now, and Howard Divinity ninety years ago, were a little different in their framing and language, the larger role they play in public discourse is pretty much the same, a means of reassuring the faithful (real Confederates then, make-believe Confederates now) that they need not worry themselves with harder questions about race and culture and power in the South, then or now.

      • Kevin Levin Jun 15, 2012 @ 12:56

        I pretty much agree with you, but I also suspect that there was a financial incentive. They may have seen attendance at a very public event as a means to maintain good standing within their communities.

        • Andy Hall Jun 15, 2012 @ 16:34

          “I also suspect that there was a financial incentive.”

          Sure. He claims to charge a very large public appearance fee, and he has a merchandising deal with Dixie Outfitters. Nothing at all wrong with that, except that he’s simultaneously soliciting donations and letting his Heritage 411 be depicted by others as a not-for-profit organization. Southern Heritage 411 was, at least until its dissolution on September 2010, a for-profit corporation registered in Odum, Georgia, at the same address as Dixie Outfitters. Edgerton himself lives 300+ miles and two states away in western North Carolina.

          For anyone itching to blow through a wad of cash, I’ll be happy to come and give a Texas blockade runner talk for $20,000. I don’t dress in costume or recite turgid poetry, but I’ll pay my own travel expenses, so it works out about even.

          • Kevin Levin Jun 15, 2012 @ 17:53

            I should have been clearer. I was referring to camp servant veterans, though I would agree that Edgerton could give any of these guys a lesson in how to entertain white folks. 🙂

          • Margaret D. Blough Jun 15, 2012 @ 23:35


            I agree. I think he desperately wants to be a big shot and, when the NAACP failed to give him the platform he believed he deserved, he picked what he saw as a bunch of suckers waiting to be exploited who would pay very well for the experience. However, as Jesus said in Matthew 16:26, “For what is a man profited, if he shall gain the whole world, and lose his own soul? or what shall a man give in exchange for his soul?” (or, even more to the point here, the marvelous line given to Paul Scofield in “A Man for All Seasons” when Sir Thomas More confronts the protege who betrayed him for a government appointment, “Why Richard, it profits a man nothing to give his soul for the whole world… but for Wales? “) . I don’t know who is using whom any more. It may well be mutual.

  • Chris L. Robinson Jun 14, 2012 @ 11:12

    Every time I hear Edgerton speak, it is like a heavy blow to my head. I keep promising myself to try to pull up audio from back before he took up the CBF. Did he always talk this way? They trot him out like a dog.

    He cannot be caricatured. I just want to shake him. Black man, what the hell?!

    I guess my black ancestors would recognize the type, but boy, he is hard to take.

    • Kevin Levin Jun 14, 2012 @ 11:40
    • James Harrigan Jun 15, 2012 @ 4:58

      Chris, Edgerton is a sad case. It is pretty obvious to me that he is mentally ill, and his exploitation at the hands of white supremacists is painful to watch. But I think we should all have compassion for the poor guy, rather than laughing at him.

  • Margaret D. Blough Jun 13, 2012 @ 19:44

    Kevin-I think it says something of the effect of slavery on the whites that Winsmith so casually speaks of bringing a slave along to carry Winsmith’s knapsack, an item that many soldiers, on both sides, had to carry on their own backs. It reminds me of the shock I felt in reading Porter Alexander’s “Fighting for the Confederacy” when he writes, in a matter of fact way, that his wife needed additional help when she started having children so they bought a nursemaid. Moxley Sorrel, in his memoirs, is much more identifiably racist (Moxley was convinced that the only way that blacks could be made to fight in battle for the Union was to get them drunk). Alexander, on the other hand, acknowledges the atrocities at the Crater and that they happened because the Union soldiers victimized were black. I realized it was because Alexander is so likable and accessible that it makes it so much harder to comprehend that he could be such an unquestioning beneficiary of and participant in enslaving others.

    Do you know if there are any plans to release this documentary on DVD/Blue-ray?

    • Kevin Levin Jun 14, 2012 @ 2:08

      It reflects just how much Winsmith trusted his slave.

      That is the true value of Alexander’s narrative. He references John Brown when discussing the Crater, which was quite helpful in my framing of the Confederate response as putting down a slave rebellion. I found a number of accounts that suggest the only way blacks would fight is if they were drunk, which fits into the broader narrative of our slaves would never cause harm to us unless forced to or manipulated to do so.

      I believe Ken is still tweaking the documentary, but it should be out at some point.

  • Andy Hall Jun 13, 2012 @ 16:15

    Now that I’ve watched the trailer, I can’t help but notice that Edgerton is the only one in it who requires subtitles. There’s a lesson in there somewhere.

    • Kevin Levin Jun 13, 2012 @ 16:18

      He is quite the entertainer.

      • Margaret D. Blough Jun 13, 2012 @ 19:46

        Does he get that his sponsors treat him like something out of a 19th century minstrel show?

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