What Happens When Your USCT Unit Disbands

Black Civil War re-enactors join the ConfederacyToday Cleveland.com [associated with the Cleveland Plain Dealer] is running a textbook example of how the myth of the Black Confederate soldier is spread.  Start off with what appears to be an unusual story of two black individuals who play Confederate soldiers.  Treat them as authorities in the relevant history and fail to do any preparation as a reporter that might allow you to ask a few penetrating questions about historical literacy and you’ve got yourself a nice little human interest story.

From the article:

Estimates of their number, varying from several hundred to more than 10,000, are debated among Civil War historians.

Jones, 51, of Youngstown, noted, “If we can honor the black Union soldiers who fought, we can honor the black Confederate soldiers who fought.”

Jones said that famed black abolitionist Frederick Douglass noted in 1861: “There are at present moment many Colored Men in the Confederate Army doing duty not only as cooks, servants and laborers, but real soldiers, having musket on their shoulders and bullets in their pockets, ready to shoot down any loyal [Union] troops.”

Jones utilizes the biographies of past black Confederate soldiers Holt Collier and John Wilson Buckner for first-person portrayals.  Collier was in the Battle of Shiloh, then served in a Texas cavalry unit. Buckner served with a South Carolina artillery unit and was wounded in the battle for Fort Wagner in 1863.

Given these few passages we can safely assume that their research involved little more than a scan of websites.

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16 comments… add one
  • Yulanda Burgess May 15, 2013 @ 11:19

    Disband??? There is always a story behind the story which all leads to the misrepresentation of true events. The 5th USCI company under which Steffon Jones was the leader mythicized into being a group of two men who wanted to portray confederates.

    Like Bryan Cheeseboro, I am also familiar with Seffon Jones and remember Shane Williams as a teenager. As Bryan has indicated, these two men dropped out of the USCT movement. There were several commemorative companies of the 5th USCI, one was being lead by Mr. Jones. When Mr. Jones’ company “kinda died out a little bit” it was because Mr. Jones was swinging towards portraying confederates. It was more fun too him. Mr. Jones comments indicates the depth (or lack thereof) of his research regarding African Americans’ involvement with the Confederate Army. The researcher Bennie McRae, Jr. (also an Ohioian) has used primary documents to debunk the 10,000 black confederate issue and has shared his research extensively with the USCT regiments — which has been accessible to Messrs. Jones and Williams. These two men are among those who choose to ignore it. Unfortunately, their views have been captured by the Cleveland journalist. … And here we are discussing it. Again.

    As long as the public is a witness to our commemoration of the American Civil War, those you portray history (whether they call themselves reenactors or historical interpreters) have a duty to be as accurate in their portrayals as possible. The general public often assumes that the visual presence of those who wear the uniform has some historical basis. The general public often assumes that the spoken words of those who wear the uniform has some factual basis. Unfortunately, Messrs. Jones and Williams exemplify the assumption.

    The focus on the alleged 10,000 black men fighting as confederates distracts from the 200,000 or more black men who fought for the Union as an investment for their freedom and liberty. While folks are reading articles focusing on the Steffon Jones and Shane Williams, those who are trying to preserve the legacy of the USCTs are being forgotten. Let us focus our energies on what’s real. What’s real is the lack of an official national observation of General Order No. 143 instead of this topic.

    -Yulanda Burgess
    Founding Member of the USCTLHA
    Descendant of a Fort Pillow Survivor

  • Andy Hall May 8, 2013 @ 4:02

    “My point is, does it really matter if a Black person reenacts as a Confederate soldier for a weekend?”

    It matters because reenactors are often perceived — and sometimes promote themselves — as having and representative authoritative knowledge of all things related to the conflict. There is a sheen or authority that comes with highly specialized knowledge. It stands to reason that someone who can spend 20 minutes discussing stitching patterns and appropriate buttons on a Richmond Type 2 shell jacket will be able to get the “big picture” right, as well. That’s not necessarily true, of course, but it’s a natural assumption.

    I lean toward being inclusive in the way I look at reenacting (from the outside), but in this case these men do seem to be extending beyond doing it for their own enjoyment, and using it as a mechanism for teaching an inaccurate and misleading narrative, even though it’s one I’m sure they themselves believe true.

    • Andy Hall May 8, 2013 @ 5:16

      Meant to say “sheen of authority,” among other grammatical burbles in that.

      • Bryan Cheeseboro May 8, 2013 @ 9:27

        Hi Andy,
        Thanks for the response. Believe me, I’m very disappointed to see these guys buy into the Myth. Even though the unit became inactive, and even though the many USCT reenactment units have been brigaded together to form the United States Colored Troops Living History Association (USCTLHA), it’s a shame these guys couldn’t find anything better to do than to become Confederate reenactors. But I know the Confederate side has a lot of appeal to people, and not just Southern Americans.

        Reenacting is a lot of fun and it’s a great place to learn about history and experience many of the things you’ve spent years reading about. But it’s only there to give people a glimpse of the way things were. And many things happen at reenactments that have little to no basis in the facts… such as my me going into battle with a White unit. I think these guys definitely have history all wrong. But how different is it than the Confederate soldier my wife saw, who was a woman with purple hair? Or people who are too old and too big to portray Civil War era Americans? Would a person of an ethnicity with no connection to the war not be allowed to participate in a reenacment?

        Having said all of this, I know what you mean about reenactors who care more about thread count and musket minutia than they do about the issues (or should I say THE ISSUE) that caused the war. I bought my musket from a guy who stopped reenacting in part because of people like that. I think some of that is about the reason some people do the hobby to begin with and are extremely hardcore about it: to drop out of the 21st Century and politics and social issues altogether. So I can spend a weekend at Gettysburg and get away from stories like hearing that several women were raped and tortured for 10 years in Cleveland, practially in plain sight of the neighbors and the police. Or that another crazy man gets a hold of an assault rifle, shoots up innocent people at a movie theatre, and boobytraps his home to kill the police he knows will come there after the fact.

  • Bryan Cheeseboro May 7, 2013 @ 18:02

    I used to be part of that USCT unit that “kinda died out a little bit.” It was the 5th USCT. I lived in Ohio for a few years and was involved with this group in 2004-05 before moving a few years later. We had members in Toledo, Youngstown and Columbus. He is right about the group dying out. I just communicated with a civilian reenactor connected with the group and she told me the 5th is “very inactive” these days. Anyway, I remember Shane (the younger of the two men) when he was a teenager. He was with us when we went to the Olustee (Florida) 140th.

    I don’t go along with the Black Confederate Myth. I think it’s funny that some people complain about what they call “revisionist” history. But the narrative these two men are trying to communicate to the public is nothing more than revisionist history, pure and simple. Having said all of that, I’m not sure what to say about a Confederate reenactor. This past weekend, I participated in the Chancelorsville 150th. I was there with the 23rd USCT (a unit historically not part of the battle and not even in existence in May 1863). We participated in the battle reenactment with the 3rd US Regulars (a White unit that historically had no Black troops). My point is, does it really matter if a Black person reenacts as a Confederate soldier for a weekend?

    I’m Black. I know without a doubt I could get involved with a Confederate unit and I would be welcomed with open arms. I believe people would be courteous and respectful to me and I could have a lot of fun. But I don’t think I could reenact Confederate, knowing all that I know.

    If these guys want to reenact Confederate, be my guest. I just wish they wouldn’t misinform the public.

  • Brendan Bossard May 5, 2013 @ 15:18

    Something else bothers me a little: their desire to make their experience more “fun” by doing something different in their unit. Not that there is really anything wrong with this, but I wonder how much the fun-factor reduces their desire to deepen their research into something very serious. It seems to me that commemoration of anything important should be taken very seriously.

  • Sam Vanderburg May 5, 2013 @ 11:58

    I am not sure of which side you are coming down upon this article. Do you agree or disagree with what these re-enactors are doing? Are you saying their research is shallow? Or is it that you are defending their statements? I personally have problems with the generalization of figures, but have read of several instances where blacks served in Confederate forces or against Union forces.

    • Kevin Levin May 5, 2013 @ 12:04

      Hi Sam,

      Thanks for taking the time to write. I am not sure how long you’ve been reading this blog, but this is a subject that I’ve written about for a number of years now. It is a confusing and widely misunderstood topic and this article is a perfect example of why. Make no mistake, my writing and research on this subject stands squarely against the claims made by these two individuals. I suggest you start here: http://cwmemory.com/book/black-confederate-resources/ You can also track what I’ve written on the subject here: http://cwmemory.com/tag/black-confederates/ Finally, I highly recommend heading to your local bookstore to pick up the latest issue of The Civil War Monitor which includes an article I wrote on Confederate camp servants and the myth of the black Confederate: http://cwmemory.com/2013/03/01/confederate-like-me/

      • Bill Dennison May 5, 2013 @ 13:06

        “Given these few passages we can safely assume that their research involved little more than a scan of websites.” – And then the only reference(s) you give are entries on your own blog? Boy, that’s balanced.

        • Kevin Levin May 5, 2013 @ 13:08

          Hi Bill,

          Thanks for taking the time to write. If you look at my previous response you will see links that take you to pages that include numerous references beyond this blog. Many of the posts that I’ve written on this subject contain references to scholarly work on this subject.

      • Sam Vanderburg May 5, 2013 @ 16:06

        Thanks for the answer! I will follow up!

      • Sam Vanderburg May 5, 2013 @ 17:27

        To deny slavery as a non-issue in the Civil War is totally illegitimate. To deny any blacks fought for the Confederacy is also illegitimate. To state that there were more than a handful that freely took up arms is stretching any thing I have ever seen in documentation. And I am only a casual scholar of the Civil War. However, to say the only issue is slavery is a bit of a stretch. (I would like to see more treatment of the other reasons.) To deny or ignore the horrendous treatment of liberated slaves by both armies is scholastically unfounded. The Cival War brought pain, suffering, and death in increased numbers to black and white. The awful post-war treatment of blacks is dispicable. Hopefully, as a nation, the USA is moving beyond that.

        Is that the historical essense of this Civil War issue?

        • Kevin Levin May 5, 2013 @ 18:32

          Who exactly are you addressing with this comment? I have been as clear as I can be on this issue. I suggest you go back and read what I’ve written on this subject if you expect a response.

          • Sam Vanderburg May 5, 2013 @ 18:50

            I continue to read, Kevin. Am asking in general – especially of you, the scholar – if I am getting the gist of the subject about the involvement of “Negro” soldiers and sailors in the Conferate effort. And looking forward to continue in this new-to-me subject. I certainly can understand your concern with history being rewritten. Am I headed in the correct direction?

            One thing obvious in your responce – you certainly are a professional educator! I can appreciate that!

        • Bryan Cheeseboro May 7, 2013 @ 0:59

          Hi Sam,
          Your post is interesting, because you say you’re “only a casual scholar of the Civil War” and then you make statements as if you have a great deal of knowledge on the war and its issues, including Black Confederates. I mean you no disrespect at all with my observation. But I’m saying this because I believe if anybody really wants to understand the issue of Black Confederates, it’s definitely going to take more than a casual interest in the Civil War.

          I have seen pictures of Black men in Confederate uniforms, with guns, and standing next to White Confederates. With only a casual interest, they are soldiers to us. With a commitment to historical analysis, we learn anyone can wear a uniform (just like a batboy in a uniform on a baseball team is not one of the players); anyone can hold a gun for a portrait (though southern states made it illegal for Black people to own or carry guns); and the Black man standing next to a White man in a photograph was most likely his personal slave and not his comrades. Historians have studied the actual writings for years of Confederates and have yet to find any letters or diaries that refer to Black men as soldiers, comrades, or brothers-in-arms. And the Confederacy never had any genuine effort towards enlisting Blacks as soldiers or the emancipation of slaves.

          Again, there is nothing wrong with having a casual interest in the Civil War. But it’s going to take more that a “casual interest” to understand this subject.

          • Sam Vanderburg May 7, 2013 @ 17:56

            For certain, Bryan. My curiosity has been tweeked and I continue to try to get the answers.

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