Stonewall Jackson’s Black Friend

Update: Richard Williams has decided to respond to this post on his blog. What I find interesting is that he has nothing to say about the content of the post. Instead he takes issue with one of my comments about my characterization of his understanding of the influence of Nat Turner’s Rebellion on race/slavery and religion in Virginia.  Williams declares that many academics are “cynical” about attempts on the part of slaveholders to teach the gospel yet he provides not a single reference.  It is unclear as to why this should matter to begin with. Their attitude is irrelevant.  What matters is the interpretation.  A quick perusal of the bibliography points to an over reliance on relatively few secondary sources, which is why I take issue with his analysis of religion in a slaveholding society.  There simply isn’t much to work with.  I will leave it to you to judge.

Jim Lewis and Jackson in "Gods and Generals".

Jim Lewis and Jackson in “Gods and Generals”.

My recent essay on Confederate camp servants in The Civil War Monitor opens with a reference to an account in Edward Porter Alexander’s Fighting for the Confederacy.  In it he discusses the purchase of a camp servant named Charley and a horse.  Interestingly, Alexander refers to both as an “appendage”.  That reference, I believe, tells us a great deal about race relations in the South as well as the value of enslaved blacks to the Confederate war effort and individual officers who utilized personal servants. 

Today I was surprised to find an even more explicit reference to a slave and a horse in Richard Williams’s book, Stonewall Jackson: The Black Man’s Friend, which is a wonderful example of the continued influence of the loyal slave narrative.  This time it’s Jackson’s servant, Jim Lewis, and his horse, Old Sorrel.  Williams’s reference of this passage is to James I. Robertson’s biography, which cites a postwar account (1881) by Alexander Boteler:

The servant and “Old Sorrel being about the same color–each having the hue of gingerbread without any of its spiciness–their respective characters were in a concatenation accordingly.  For they were equally obedient, patient, easy-going and reliable; not given to devious courses nor designing tricks; more serviceable than showy and, altogether, as sober-sided a pair of subordinates as any Presbyterian elder with plain tastes and a practical turn, need desire to have about him.  Both man and horse seemed to understand their master thoroughly and rarely failed to come up fully to all his requirements.

Both Williams (pp. 138-39) and Robertson (p. 291) quote this passage without any attempt at analysis.  Williams utilizes this passage in a chapter devoted to the “intimate” relationship between Jackson and Lewis that relies almost exclusively on postwar sources.  More troubling is the extent to which Williams allows others to speak for Lewis.  We learn nothing about how Lewis viewed his relationship with Jackson, which is a staple of these loyal slave accounts from the postwar period through to today.

I am not suggesting that Jackson and Lewis did not establish a close relationship with one another, but whatever relationship developed between the two it must be built on evidence and interpreted within the culture of a slave society at war.  Boteler’s description of man and horse tells us very little about the complexity of a relationship during wartime, but it does tell us something very important about how white southerners continued to imagine a hierarchy based on race long after the end of the war and the end of slavery.

15 comments… add one
  • Bryan Cheeseboro Mar 28, 2013 @ 11:33

    Thanks for the response, Kevin. For all of it’s faults, Gods & Generals is, in its depiction of the Confederate Army in the field, light years ahead of Maxwell’s previous work, Gettysburg. In one of the first scenes in Gettysburg (when Harrison reports to Longstreet), a sweeping view of the Army of Northern Virginia is shown… without any Black servants and slaves. to me, the depiction is not very authentic. I know it’s just a movie but people talk about how accurate these films are and, at that moment, it wasn’t accurate at all.

    • Kevin Levin Mar 28, 2013 @ 12:17

      It’s probably a bit too much to expect from a Maxwell film. The lace of a black presence is also a criticism of Spielberg’s Lincoln.

  • Bryan Cheeseboro Mar 28, 2013 @ 6:51

    Does anyone know if there is any truth to this scene from Gods & Generals?

    It was deleted from the original theatrical release but is featured in the Extended Director’s Cut. The scene takes place after Stonewall Jackson speaks to the dying General Maxcy Gregg, mortally wounded in the battle of Fredericksburg. I’m wondering about the man in the conversation with Jim Lewis. I wonder if this is supposed to be William Rose, Gregg’s body servant and if the body he talks about “taking home” is Gregg’s. If you watch the scene, the man clarifies to Lewis, “he my BOSS, not my massa.” While this scene may be a depiction of true events (i.e. if Gregg freed Rose before his death), I think it amounts to another downplay of slavery that this movie is very well known for.

    • Kevin Levin Mar 28, 2013 @ 7:01

      I am familiar with the story of Rose and Gregg, but don’t know if that is who is represented in this scene. The place of slavery in this movie is highly problematic, but I’ve come across plenty of accounts of camp servants who escorted bodies home. Of course, the problem is that the stories, including this scene, present the motivations of these slaves as one-dimensional and likely meant to play to reinforce Ron Maxwell’s flirtation with the Lost Cause.

      • M.D. Blough Mar 28, 2013 @ 7:45

        There’s also the assumption that, because the body servant returns home, that this represents some ringing endorsement of slavery. Since I’m not aware of any first hand accounts from body servants, there are a multitude of possible alternate motivations. Fleeing slavery represented a move from a known, no matter what the issues, into an uncertain and possibly dangerous unknown. In addition to the peacetime dangers, there are the dangers of trying to move across battle lines. This is NOT the same thing as attaching oneself to a Union column on the move. In addition, one doesn’t know what family, if any, the body servant has back at the master’s home. Fleeing means severing all contacts with them for an indefinite if not permanent period and, potentially subjecting them to retaliation. Maxwell, Williams and Robertson don’t want to deal with the complexities of slavery because, IMHO, it interferes with turning a biography into a hagiography.

        I have great respect for Robertson particularly in the bluntness of his shootdown of those who deny slavery as the cause of the Civil War, but I have to say that, in his treatment of Jackson, he’s succumbed to the biggest danger to a biographer: falling in love with his subject.

        • Kevin Levin Mar 28, 2013 @ 7:49

          In the case of Silas Chandler he did indeed have a wife and children back home in Mississippi. No doubt other did as well. There simply is no getting around the problem of limited resources in interpreting how camp servants felt about the war. We can do our best to interpret through the eyes of whites through both wartime and postwar sources, but we need to do so with great care and an understanding of the system of slavery as it was practiced and how it unraveled during the war.

          Maxwell, Williams and Robertson don’t want to deal with the complexities of slavery because, IMHO, it interferes with turning a biography into a hagiography.


  • M.D. Blough Mar 27, 2013 @ 9:10

    I read “Fighting for the Confederacy” and Moxley Sorrel’s (Longstreet’s Chief of Staff) at about the same time. Moxley was bourgeoisie, not planter class, and, by modern standards, the more overtly racist (he was convinced that the only way Union soldiers who were black could be made to fight was for their officers to get them drunk before battle). However, it was Alexander, a planter class scion, who I found far more unnerving and unsettling when he discusses purchasing slaves to meet the needs of him and his family in such a matter of fact way. I know it’s because I came to like Alexander and even respect him (for starters, he doesn’t try to discount the bravery of the Union troops who were black and he bluntly acknowledges the atrocities by Confederate soldiers against those troops at the Crater) while there is no way to rationalize away the fact that he was born and raised a member of the slave-owning caste and did not appear to have any qualms about that, even after the war.

    • Kevin Levin Mar 27, 2013 @ 10:02

      Hi Margaret. Interesting point and one that I tend to agree with. You said:

      However, it was Alexander, a planter class scion, who I found far more unnerving and unsettling when he discusses purchasing slaves to meet the needs of him and his family in such a matter of fact way.

      This is exactly what I find so interesting about Boteler’s description of Jim Lewis. Robertson and especially Williams think that this is meant as an endearing description of a close relationship. It’s anything but that. It’s a statement about the instrumental value of slaves and horses.

      • M.D. Blough Mar 28, 2013 @ 6:18

        Kevin-Have you read Frederic Bancroft’s classic “Slave Trading in the Old South”? He talks about estate sales where livestock, both two legged and four legged, are listed together for sale, including listings of infants where there is no indication that the sale is paired with anyone else. It was business, very big business. Were there instances of personal fondness for slaves, especially house slaves, above and beyond that of horses? Certainly, for no other reason that slaves spoke the same language the owner/lessor classes did. Even when owners did try to do something above and beyond the call of duty for a slave, there were many barriers. Many states banned manumission or put onerous restrictions on it. Courts were very willing to grant the petitions of disgruntled heirs to set aside provisions in wills freeing slaves and, thus, diminishing the heirs’ inheritance. There’s also the chronic planter indebtedness. Even if Jefferson had wanted to, he couldn’t have freed most of his slaves because they were collateral for his massive debts.

        The bottom line is that it’s inherently impossible to have a relationship of equals when one party has the ability to, at their unfettered whim, sell the other to anyone he choses and they both know it.

        • Kevin Levin Mar 28, 2013 @ 6:54

          I have not, but I am certainly familiar with the content of your comment. Thanks. I agree that we have to think beyond the narrow concept of friendship to understand the possibility of other-regarding feelings between master and slave. The whole premise of Williams’s book is fundamentally flawed as it is weighed down by example after example of presentism. The most obvious example is Jackson’s Sunday School for slaves, which Williams interprets without any understanding of how religious education following Nat Turner’s Rebellion was intended to stabilize race relations and reinforce in the African American community that slavery was their natural position.

  • bryanac625 Mar 27, 2013 @ 6:00

    I believe that scene (the image shown in this blog post) is pure fiction. It’s like a glorified job interview. I think it’s more likely that Jim Lewis’ owner and Jackson discussed the transaction of Lewis working for Jackson and Jim probably wasn’t even in the room.

    BTW, Jackson’s horse was “Little Sorrel” known as such for its short legs.

    • Kevin Levin Mar 27, 2013 @ 6:25

      It is indeed pure fiction. Williams admits at the beginning of the chapter that there is very little documentation about Lewis. Unfortunately, this does not prevent Williams from concluding that the two were close. His handling of the available evidence is suspect. For instance, he dismisses Henry Kyd Douglas’s characterization of Lewis as being “fond of liquor” and “somewhat addicted to cards” because Jackson did not “tolerate” this behavior. That’s it. Perhaps I missed it, but there is not one shred of evidence from Jackson’s own hand that would help to flesh out this relationship. In fact, the lack of any reference in Jackson’s letters is telling. Perhaps he was not interested in what Lewis’s behavior beyond the role he was to play as his servant.

      • RUDOLPH YOUNG Apr 7, 2015 @ 21:57

        The master-slave relationship overrides any other relationship because both parties must have free will. The master- slave relationships prevents friendship, marriage, patriotism and business.
        The best that could be in this situation is called going along to get along.

  • Rob Baker Mar 27, 2013 @ 3:01

    Great post Kevin and great quote. I can’t tell if it represents a personification of the horse or the objectification of Jim Lewis.

    • Kevin Levin Mar 27, 2013 @ 3:07

      Which is a point entirely lost on both Williams and Robertson.

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