Searching For Black Confederates in Narrative

While a big chunk of my manuscript on the history and memory of camp servants/black Confederates is either completed as a rough draft or in outline form, I am still playing with the structure of the overall narrative. As it stands each chapter begins with a vignette that captures the theme of the chapter and includes its main argument. This is standard fare. The first chapter begins with Confederate General Edward Porter Alexander’s purchase of a servant in 1862 while the third chapter starts off with a detailed description of a Confederate veterans reunion that included former camp servants. As it stands, they work pretty well, but it is lacking in one important way.

Anyone who tackles this subject must confront the dearth of evidence from slaves and former slaves. This is a story that is told almost entirely from the perspective of Confederates, postwar Southern writers, and beyond. While individual chapters may dig into the master-slave relationship at war or the way in which the lives of former slaves continued to lend support to the Lost Cause narrative and Jim Crow, it can offer little in the way of detailed portraits of individual lives.

The one possible exception to this bleak picture is the life and memory of Silas Chandler, which is due largely to the famous photograph taken with his owner, Andrew Chandler. Over the years I’ve learned a great deal about Silas’s life owing to my relationship with one of his descendants, who has been a tireless advocate in correcting the many myths surrounding the relationship between Silas and Andrew.

With that in mind I decided to take a shot at writing a new outline for the book. Admittedly, it’s a very, very rough outline, but it does begin to anchor the book by including a thread that highlights how one individual’s story bridged the divide between history and memory. I am also hoping that as the outline evolves it brings, dare I say, a more personal element to the story.

I wrote up the outline as a Google Doc and it is accessible. As always, suggestions are welcome.

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20 comments… add one
  • Leo Jun 18, 2015 @ 3:45

    I find it both odd and comical that these heritage groups love to rail against political correctness when someone is offended by the display of the confederate battle flag in some situations all while these same heritage groups contort themselves every which way to include slaves and body servants in the ranks. It just boggles the mind.

    • Kevin Levin Jun 18, 2015 @ 4:14

      I wouldn’t spend too much time worrying about this relatively small group. This book is more for those people with a sincere interest in the history.

  • Hugh Lawson Jun 13, 2015 @ 19:35

    Isn’t the black-Confederate thesis meant to defend against the common accusation that CSA-reverencers are white racists? Maybe they feel that demonstrating comfort with the idea of black-rebel-soldiers ought to blunt the white-racism accusation. This may provide a “defense of the faith” used not to prove something in the public arena, but to comfort the minds of the faithful, who distrust the public arena to start with.

    • Al Jun 16, 2015 @ 10:42

      Hugh, while that defense of the so-called Black Confederate may be comforting to some, it belies the fact that we can’t simply make things up in order to make us feel good, or assuage hurts from long ago. While I don’t personally believe that all CSA reverencers are racists, I do believe that there is a concentrated effort on the part of some to rewrite history in order to tamp down some of the shame and humility still borne by many of the descendants of confederate veterans. The Lost Cause was indeed a lost cause which parts of our very young nation still have not come to grips with..

  • London John Jun 13, 2015 @ 3:57

    Perhaps it’s too obvious to mention, but I think a reason people who are by no means Lost Causers believe the claim that these camp servants were Confederate soldiers is that they are not aware that non-soldiers were present in all armies at that time. Today officers’ servants are private soldiers. Kevin has confirmed that Union officers sometimes had civilian servants with them whom they paid themselves.
    I’ve made this mistake myself. There’s a picture in the Tate Britain gallery in London called “the Death of Major Peirson” by J S Copley that I’ve passed dozens of times. It shows a group of British soldiers fighting French troops in 1781.In the centre is a Black man firing a musket. Although he’s wearing a rather splendid blue costume rather than a red coat, I always assumed he was a British soldier. I recently learned that he’s supposed to be the late major’s personal servant – not a slave, but paid by the major out of his own pocket. There were Black soldiers in the British regular army at that time, but the guy in the painting isn’t one of them.
    I’m guessing that many Americans make the same mistake about the camp servants.

    • Kevin Levin Jun 13, 2015 @ 4:02

      I think that explains part of the confusion, but the larger issue is the failure to fully understand the extent to which the institution of slavery was stretched to meet the military demands of the Confederacy. As you know any chance the Confederacy had of securing its independence militarily depended quite a bit on its ability to mobilize its slave population for various purposes.

      Thanks for the RW reference.

    • Jimmy Dick Jun 13, 2015 @ 5:05

      It has a lot to do with the way people think. They tend to use what is familiar to them as points of reference. Most people are just not aware of how different the past was compared to the present. Therefore they see things from a presentist point of view.

      They see the past in their current terms. So anyone at a battle is a soldier. They see people cooking or tending wounded, they must be soldiers. They are not aware of the vast amount of civilians accompanying troops these days. Due to the way armies have worked in the 20th century that is what they are familiar with. It seemed like everyone with the armies was a soldier. In the previous centuries that was not the case, but they just do not realize that without the facts being explained to them. Again, it is the point of reference that many people know that pervades their manner of thinking.

      • Andy Hall Jun 13, 2015 @ 8:13

        Exactly so. They make the argument over and over again that Army support personnel are soldiers, so therefore African Americans doing labor for the Confederate army must have been, also. It’s a generational thing, in large part, because thirty or forty years ago that was largely true — although it was not their jobs as mess cooks or truck drivers that made them military personnel. Being assigned to work in the mess hall doesn’t make one a soldier; being enlisted and enrolled as a soldier does.

        By contrast, the modern U.S. military relies very heavily on civilian contractors for that that same work, even in foreign combat zones like Iraq and Afghanistan. These men and women often face extreme dangers in doing their jobs, but they are nonetheless civilians, not soldiers.In that regard, at least, the modern U.S. military more closely resembles the organization of the Confederate army of 1861-65 than did the Vietnam-era U.S. military that a substantial number of heritage advocates are familiar with.

      • Andy Hall Jun 13, 2015 @ 12:38

        It has a lot to do with the way people think. They tend to use what is familiar to them as points of reference. Most people are just not aware of how different the past was compared to the present. Therefore they see things from a presentist point of view.

        This underlies a lot of “heritage” disputes. Many of the Confederate symbols that are being argued over are of relatively recent vintage, and were never actually present for Confederate veterans. (The flags at the VMFA chapel, dating from 1993, and the Battle Flag atop the South Carolina State House, dating to 1961, are both examples of this.) But they’ve been there long enough that they’re assumed to be permanent and integral to those sites, with a sense that it’s always been that way. Well, it hasn’t, but it does take a little imagination and effort to recognize that there is a reality and history their that exists beyond the limits of one’s own personal experience.

  • Doug didier Jun 13, 2015 @ 3:44

    Narriative ?

    Perhaps something like Desjardin did at the intro to his book on Gettysburg. After the battle everyone sat down for a couple of days to document what occurred. After going thru the history.. April fool.. Then explains how the memory came years later of an event during the heat of battle, men really had little bandwidth left to store events in long term memory.

  • James F. Epperson Jun 12, 2015 @ 10:09

    It is perhaps arrogant of me to suggest a source to you, but I’ll take that chance. There is testimony by former Confederate General Montgomery Corse before the Joint Committee on Reconstruction, in which he was asked about black men serving as soldiers in the Confederate Army and responded that he did not know of any. The date of the testimony is Feb. 8, 1866. I have a partial transcript, if you want it.

  • Jimmy Dick Jun 12, 2015 @ 7:39

    What about at the beginning of the conflict? What were those confederates thinking as they took their slaves with them to the army? How they used them at that point might be illustrative of how they viewed blacks in the military context and provide a point of reference for use in later chapters.

    • Kevin Levin Jun 12, 2015 @ 7:42

      Of course. Keep in mind that this was a very rough overview. It leaves out a great deal that will be covered.

  • fundrums Jun 12, 2015 @ 6:48

    Excellent post Kevin and I look forward to reading your book. I also took some flak for my chapter on camp servants in my book on Confederate Camps. One person accused me of spreading propaganda because I did not talk about black confederate soldiers. Another person called my house (not sure how he found me) and took me to task for being “ignorant of real history.” I also did a talk/book signing at a VA winery and after my talk (which had nothing to do with Black Confederates) an attendee cornered me and said that the Civil War wasn’t about slavery because the “blacks willfully fought for their masters.” All of these are ridiculous comments but at least I got their attention. If you are interested in what I wrote up as a result:– Michael Aubrecht

  • Allan Branstiter Jun 12, 2015 @ 4:42

    This is a fascinating project and I’m really excited to see that you’re going with a narrative format (I’m trying to do the same in my dissertation about Reconstruction). In your conclusion about the future of the imaginary black Confederates, have you considered the search for these “soldiers” as a part of an endeavor to de-racialize social conservatism since the 1990s? I can’t help but see the white conservative insurance that black Confederates existed as an extension of their fascination with black conservatism. I can’t help but think of the surge of support for Ben Carlson here in Mississippi, films like 2012’s Runaway Slave, Sean Hannity’s excitement whenever he ” discovers” an African American Reagan Democrat, or my father voraciously consuming Clarence Thomas biography and declaring it an important corrective to the history of being black in America.

    In many ways, the fact that white conservatism’s apologetic, if not supportive, view of the Confederacy and Lost Cause might account for its inability to bridge the racial gap and effectively communicate with their black counterparts. The fact that apologia remains the norm, black conservatism remains alienated, while the occasional African American apologist is celebrated.

    • Kevin Levin Jun 12, 2015 @ 5:08

      Thanks for the positive feedback.

      You raise some very relevant points that will be addressed toward the end of the book. While the black Confederate narrative first appeared in the late 1970s, it has become intertwined with the politics of black conservatism in a number of ways. Consider Walter Williams, who is an economics professor at George Mason and a well-known black conservative. He has written a number of editorials that support the existence of black Confederates. It’s a wonderful example of using history to reinforce a view of the history of- and present state of race relations within a black conservative framework.

  • John Tucker Jun 12, 2015 @ 4:27

    While the evidence is plainly out there for even the amimature hstorian about the fallacy of black Confederate soldiers in the 1000’s, most sleepwalks either don’t read or refused to accept the truth.

    Atychiphobia is the fear of being wrong., They sometimes react with anger when they see a chance of being proven wrong, making this phobia easy to spot in someone and very frustrating to deal with. People with this variant also tend to try to find flaws in everyone in there environment and exploit them to make them look and feel superior.

    First and most important, people who try to press this agend apply the word “soldier” to any person associated with the army, black or white, free or slave, regardless of their position or role. This misleads the reader, because it ignores most basic differences – social, cultural and legal – that were fundamental to the South in the 1860s. That’s simply not the way white Southerners, military and civilians alike, viewed their world. It was a hugely different world, and it does not improve our understanding of it to elide these very basic elements.

    Yes there are numerous accounts in the press, mostly early in the war, of African Americans volunteering, or organizing, or drilling, but these accounts usually have a few things in common. They almost never (1) specifically designate the company or regiment, (2) never identify the officers in command, and (3) they’re almost always offered at second- or third-hand. There’s no way to follow-up or corroborate them. These supposed African American units seem to disappear from the Confederate press after an initial mention. Where are the descriptions in Southern newspapers of these units, in field, with the regular army? These units comprised of African American men invariably disappear after some brief item in the paper.

    More important, where are the Confederate military reports, dispatches and memoranda that describe these units? Or, if you believe that Confederate companies and regiments were racially integrated, where are the letters and diaries that mention these men as fellow enlisted soldiers? There are virtually none, although there are plenty that talk about black servants around camp, including anecdotes where those men picked up a weapon in a tight spot. But even then, such incidents are described specifically because they’re unusual, underscoring that they are not fellow soldiers, as the soldiers themselves viewed them.

    Confederate pension records are not definitive in determining a man’s wartime status, decades before. As you probably know, what we generally term “Confederate” pensions were issued by individual states, each of which established its own criteria and review process. Some states, like Mississippi, established separate programs specifically for former slaves/servants, while others seem to have allowed men who clearly were slaves and body servants to a receive pensions under the same program as enlisted soldiers. (The famous Holt Collier of Mississippi applied first as a servant, then as a soldier, then as a servant again.) I’ve even outlined a case, Richard Quarls, where a former slave was awarded a pension based on the service record of his former master, Pvt. J. Richard Quarles. Pension records can be helpful, but in and of themselves, they’re unreliable to definitively establishing a man’s role forty, fifty, sixty years previous.

    • Kevin Levin Jun 12, 2015 @ 4:41

      Hi John,

      Thanks for the comment. As you know I have touched on all of these points in excruciating detail over the past few years.

      They sometimes react with anger when they see a chance of being proven wrong, making this phobia easy to spot in someone and very frustrating to deal with. People with this variant also tend to try to find flaws in everyone in there environment and exploit them to make them look and feel superior.

      Let me be clear that I am not writing this book to convince the diehard Lost Cause holdouts of anything. I am writing it for those people who are sincerely interested in the subject (both the history and memory aspect), but don’t have access to a reliable source.

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