Black Confederates - “Soldiers?”
Those who question the existence of the “Black Confederate” level a variety of criticisms at the idea, i.e., how could black men fight for those who would keep them in slavery, there is no mention of these men on the muster rolls, the Confederate army would never allow a black man to be a soldier, they weren’t REAL soldiers as they were never officially enrolled as such, or, at best, they were the equivalent of “civilian contractors” today and at worst they were simply coerced, etc etc. One yankee blogger even likened the search for black confederates to the search for UFOs. Well, that sure is creative if nothing else!?
While Kevin Levin’s “Civil War Memory” blog isn’t the only naysayer out there it is nonetheless, a perfect example of what I’m talking about. I can’t claim to being a frequent visitor to the site, but it’s hard to do a Google search for “Black Confederates” without continually blundering into it. Give Levin credit for one thing - he knows how to make his blog visible.
The latest complaint against the “black confederate,” and one which emanates from his site, seems to be about how the SCV, UDC and others mislabel black men in Confederate armies as “soldiers.” This comes in response to a number of newspaper stories in the last few years about ceremonies honoring such men – ceremonies, I might add, that the descendents and families of those men actually participated in. According to Levin and others, we should not be labeling these men as “soldiers,” but as Confederate “slaves” who were, of course, coerced, because there is no way that these men would be doing what they did of their own free will. In fact, Levin and others like him go so far as to accuse us of promoting deception insofar as the real stories of these men are concerned. We are accused of “using and abusing the history of slavery,” apparently for our own nefarious purposes, and indeed, of “blackwashing” the Confederacy.
I have included a couple of references from Levin’s blog to illustrate my point.
“….the proper term is “Confederate Slave” since that denotes the status of the overwhelming number of blacks who were present in the Confederate army….If this little discussion about [John] Venable has helped with anything it is in reminding us of just how difficult it is to research and confirm the existence of legitimate black Confederate soldiers, as opposed to those who were present with the armies as slaves.”
“At some point we are going to have to come to terms with the fact that the available evidence doesn’t point to some of the more extravagant (or even modest) claims about thousands of loyal black Confederate soldiers. Why is there such scant evidence? Because they were slaves. As I’ve said before, the most disturbing aspect of these stories is the deception of the general public as well as the families who are curious about their history. History is a dangerous thing when you don’t know how to do it.”
Most amusing I suppose is Levin’s last comment “History is a dangerous thing when you don’t know how to do it.” I guess this is Kevin’s way of saying, “Don’t try this at home boys and girls!?” God forbid that any of us should do his or her own research and come to any conclusions which differ from contemporary orthodoxy!
With respect then, to the use of the word “soldier” in reference to “Black Confederates,” it is true that most of these men were not enrolled as soldiers, and that their duties normally did not include participation in combat, and that indeed, the Confederate government (as well as the Union government for the first two years of the war), technically prohibited their enrollment as such. There were a few men like Holt Collier, for example, who actually were enrolled as soldiers, however these instances were rare and constituted no more than a small handful of men. With this I have no argument. Most black men in Confederate armies were support personnel, i.e., body servants, cooks, hostelers, teamsters, musicians, etc. While there are numerous instances of them taking up arms to participate in combat, and numerous instances as well of them coming under fire and performing with as much courage as any white soldier, the claim that there were 90,000 gun-totin’ black men in the Confederate armies who were functioning as actual soldiers or who were enrolled as such is simply incorrect.
So then, where did the word “soldier” come from?” Let me quote a few items from my research notes with respect to the use of that word as well as other similar words such as “veteran.”
**The Story of Amos Rucker, a Confederate body servant who “went with his master to war,” and who actually saw combat, though not officially enrolled as a soldier, was reported on in the old “Confederate Veteran” magazine, page 496 of the October 1909 issue. The title of the article reads, “Amos Rucker, the Negro Veteran,” and it reports of the pallbearers at his funeral in 1909, that they “very tenderly carried the OLD VETERAN to his grave.”
**Dick Poplar, a free black man from Petersburg Virginia, was a chef in the Bollingbrook Hotel before the war. At the start of the war he joined the 13th Va. Cavalry. Other than the fact that he was captured at Gettysburg and spent 19 months as a POW in Point Lookout, little is known of what his duties were or what his official status was or what he did in that unit between 1861-63. A reasonable guess, in light of his culinary reputation, is that he was a cook and not a sword-wielding/pistol packing trooper. However, when he died, the title of the article in the Petersburg Index-Appeal, dated May 23, 1886 read, “The Passing of Richard “Dick” Poplar, COLORED CONFEDERATE SOLDIER.” The article the following day in that same newspaper which reported on his funeral used the same description, “COLORED CONFEDERATE SOLDIER.”
**Henry Warfield, of Mississippi, one of those interviewed in the “Slave Narratives, was a slave and one of the many body servants who accompanied his master to war. When the interviewer asked him if he went back to farming after the war he replied, ”No maam, I didn't go back to de plow any more after de war. I worked alright but my spirit was broken. When a man is a SOLDIER he ain't fit fur nothing else."
**The “Confederate Veteran” magazine, March 1903 issue, page 110, reported the passing of “A Faithful Negro, Frederick Pouncey,” a body servant and slave. While “Faithful Negro” may seem patronizing and condescending to us today, the article in the magazine nonetheless describes Pouncey as “A Christian and a SOLDIER.”
**The “Confederate Veteran” magazine, May 1902 issue, page 199, describes a reunion which was attended by one Henry Johnson, of Bossier Parish, La. Johnson “went to war with his master, Joseph Hodges, and into the firing line with him and when he was shot down carried him on his back for 4 miles to the rear.” The article says of Henry Johnson, “He is highly respected by his white friends and proud that he was a Confederate SOLDIER.”could give many more examples but I believe that these few should demonstrate my point, which is that while most black men serving in Confederate armies were not officially enrolled as soldiers, that they nonetheless, in some instances, did refer to themselves as “soldiers” or “veterans.” And on occasion as well, their white comrades also referred to them using those words, as did newspapers that reported on their service or on their passing. I don’t expect that these men, or their white comrades, or the newspapers who reported on them, ever envisioned a day when certain people would get bent out of shape over it and would stand, mightily huffing and puffing, on technicalities and semantics. Well, the huffers and puffers will just have to deal with it. Use of the terms “soldier” or “veteran” when describing these men is not “Neo-Confederate” invention, no one is attempting to mislead anyone, and no one is “blackwashing” anything. The words in question may not have been technically correct, but nonetheless, they were, on occasion, used by the actual Confederates themselves! No Kevin, if you’re reading this, as I’m sure you or one of your “monitoring” minions are, we “Neo-Confederates” didn’t invent the use of the word – the original Confederates did. And if you have a problem with it, I suppose you’re going to have to take it up with them. Good luck. Let me know how it turns out!
As far as “Black Southerners in Confederate Armies” being “coerced,” their own words, as well as the words of witnesses tell us otherwise. Numerous examples of such can be found in the “Slave Narratives,” in the “Southern Historical Society Papers,” the old “Confederate Veteran” magazine, as well as other sources, of these men (or witnesses) relating tales of their service in which clear indication is given that they viewed this service in a positive way, whether this service included combat or not.
In my research I have found no shortage of black men (and women) in the military and out of it, with or without combat experience, some slave and some free, who voiced support of the South. The bottom line, (and this is what really irks the critics), is that black men, did not universally look upon the Yankees as their saviors. In short, black folks did not behave monolithically.
The way out of this quandary of course is for the naysayers to imply that such stories are fabrications, or that the sources are “anecdotal.” I’m not sure who would have fabricated these stories on such a grand scale or why? And as far as them being “anecdotal,” Levin and company can label them as such if it assuages their angst, but the fact that so many stories exist in so many different sources would suggest to any objective person that they are not fantasy.
I suppose the thought of a black man, especially a slave, lending his support to the Confederacy, would have to be very upsetting to the naysayers. Yankees have never dealt well with rejection. Just look at how they reacted when the South rejected them and left the Union - they chastised the South for rejecting “the best government on earth” and then promptly launched an invasion. Some things never change – especially the Yankee psyche. I can therefore, completely understand the incredulity that a modern day Yankee must feel when he finds that black men of the past sometimes rejected what he was peddling, or that some of their descendents today still reject his advances. It must be so painful. Somebody call Dr. Phil!
If I were to continue evaluating why it is that people like Levin have such a crying need to deny and accuse I suppose I’d be writing all day long. Perhaps the best overall assessment though comes from a visitor to Levin’s blog whose post apparently made it past the censor.
John Cummings: “What is most disturbing Kevin, is your zest for cultural cleansing. You have a dogged determination to eradicate the possibility of any vein of reality to these stories. You have elevated yourself to such a position of absolute authority, and you demean anyone of color who might embrace an ancestor claiming such fraternization. The way you treat it as so abhorrent is the real danger. You do an injustice to history by using words like “silly” and “deception”. I have a personal friend whose family has maintained one of these claims throughout their family history, all by themselves, not influenced by the likes of the SCV or any other group you may determine as somehow duping them. You already acknowledge the problem of a lack of clear records due to their “status”. How much of our history is anecdotal because of these conditions? Diminishing a “family memory” is a barbaric form of research. How much of the slave narratives do you pick and choose from to meet the needs of your theorem? What do you dismiss when it is contrary to your end game? If you really want an examination of this aspect of history then get off the pedestal.”
Kudos to John Cummings, whoever he is. I think he said it better than I ever could.