Dead Confederates, A Civil War Era Blog

How to Make a Black Confederate from Nothing at All

Posted in African Americans, Memory by Andy Hall on July 27, 2010


Mary Johnson, granddaughter of Pvt. Samuel Brown, holds an American flag presented to her at the event. Paul Chinn/SF Chronicle

Over the weekend, David Woodbury of Battlefields and Bibliophiles and Kevin Levin at Civil War Memory highlighted a story in the San Fransisco Chronicle, about Samuel Brown, an African American Civil War veteran whose grave in Vallejo, California, was recently marked with a stone commemorating his service with the 137th United States Colored Troops. The event came about because the original stone, which had been on Brown’s gravesite since shortly after his death, designated him as a Confederate veteran. Via the CBS teevee affiliate in San Fransisco, Brown’s grave had originally been marked with a stone that read, contradictorily,

So it was a fnckup at the engravers, simple as that. Someone assumed that a Civil War soldier from Georgia must’ve been a Confederate. Nothing nefarious or conspiratorial. Mistakes like this are unfortunate, but certainly not unheard of. Read the full article here.

What’s most remarkable about this story, though, is not the story itself, but the reaction to it. Corey Meyer, posting at Blood of My Kindred, asks, “is this how Black Confederates are created?

Why yes, Corey. Yes it is.

As Corey points out, the comments section of the original story is already filling with posters who, based on nothing at all, are accusing the ceremony’s organizers with changing Pvt. Brown’s history to conform to modern-day political correctness, and to cover up the fact that Brown was really a Confederate soldier. Commenter levesque writes, “my uninformed guess is that Mr. Brown was a black Confederate soldier who surrendered to occupying Union Army forces in Georgia.” He continues, “As anyone who has seen Gone With the Wind knows. . . .”

An “uninformed guess,” based on watching Gone with the Wind. There’s some scholarship. Watch out, Blight, you effete liberal hack, levesque is gunnin’ for your endowed chair.

Someone calling him- or herself whiteheat uses Brown as a jumping-off point for a Beckian rant about Lincoln and how he started the long, slow destruction of Real America™:

What this article does not mention is that many African slaves did indeed fight for the Confederacy. Lincoln’s ‘Emancipation Proclamation’ was issued two years into the civil war, and was mostly for propaganda purposes, since Lincoln said repeatedly that he would be willing to retain slavery if it would preserve the Union. Lincoln was all about Federal power and Big government. He also believed that whites and “negros” could not live together as equals.

After presiding over America’s most destructive war (quite a feat) Lincoln’s additional legacy is that he got us lurching towards Empire. America’s decline can (in part) be attributed to this magnificent war-maker.

Yet another commenter, blogorama, brings the snark:

How is this a positive story? For almost 100 years this man was laid to rest under a head stone that identified him as an ignorant buffoon instead of a hero. And his family never noticed. Gee, that’s heart warming.

Enfield53 — get it? — also jumps to the defense of the idea of Black Confederates, saying

Thousands of slaves and free blacks did serve with honor in the Confederate Army. Indeed, twenty percent of the Confederate Navy was black as well. There are hundreds of photographs taken of black Confederates taken with their white mess-mates at reunions held decades after the war. . . .

Dead Confederates regulars are already familiar with the pitfalls of relying on Confederate reunion photographs.

It doesn’t look like Private Brown has been credited as a Black Confederate up to now, but I wouldn’t be surprised if that changes. The claims made for Black Confederates are often based on the flimsiest of evidence, and a headstone reading “CONFEDERATE STATES ARMY” is undoubtedly sufficient in this case, especially if one overlooks that the original stone correctly identified Brown’s regiment. That last part is a detail that, I suspect, will get overlooked in the clamor about “political correctness” and denial of Brown’s “true” Confederate heritage. After all, it is the Bay Area. I’m sure somehow this whole thing is Nancy Pelosi’s fault.

Update: The Sacramento Bee has nice coverage of the story with additional details, and the Long Beach Press-Telegram has a story from last March on Brown’s family in the Vallejo area.  Below: One of Private Brown’s pension application index cards, dated January 6, 1894, via Footnote.

Update: Here’s a link to the blog post at Cenantua’s that Craig refers to in his comment.
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11 Responses

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  1. Craig Swain said, on July 27, 2010 at 1:12 pm

    Some time back, Robert Moore allowed me to guest post on his blog, and I made a comparison between the arguments for large numbers of black Confederates and extra-ordinary UFOs. This case in particular reminds me of that comparison. In all these cases there seems to be a point where the actual evidence suggests something contrary to the confabulations. At which the evidence is called into question, and wild speculation begins.

    So if Brown was originally in some CS unit, which one? I know the militia, state, and CS units around Savannah near the end of the war pretty well. Pick one and we’ll go over muster rolls.

    Oh, you say the Confederates were not good at record keeping at the end of the war. Funny that. They seemed to keep pretty good records on all sorts of things right up to the end of the war – i.e. ordnance reports, personnel figures, even after action reports.

    And it continues on and on.

  2. Andy Hall said, on July 27, 2010 at 1:55 pm

    Craig, thanks for commenting. The analogy between the notion of thousands of Black Confederates and extraterrestrial visitors is apt — if one chooses to believe in it, then virtually anything can be taken as evidence supporting it or, conversely, evidence of an official cover-up, which also plays a role in the Black Confederate tradition. Every scrap of paper, every anonymous or vague quote, every grainy picture of an elderly African American man at a veterans’ reunion is trotted out and applied, indiscriminately, to form a sort of pastiche that “proves” this or that individual was recognized, at the time, as a soldier under arms.

    What seemed notable in this case was that, within 24 hours of the ceremony at Private Brown’s grave-site in Vallejo, commenters in the newspaper were already spinning Black Confederate scenarios to explain his history, based on, what? Gone with the Wind, of course.

    I still think, six months or a year from now, we’ll see Samuel Brown’s name popping up on lists of Black Confederates, arguing in his case that “political correctness” was the motivation behind replacing the original stone that marked his grave, ignoring that fact that the original stone was correct in all details of his service apart from the reference to the CSA.

    • Craig Swain said, on July 27, 2010 at 5:17 pm

      One of the oft-cited bits of evidence is a quote from Frederick Douglass mentioning, not first hand observations, but reports of blacks on the Confederate Army. That quote is taken whole cloth as “evidence” without any context.

      What reports were Douglass referencing? What audience was Douglass addressing?

      Hard to use that quote as “evidence” until those two questions are addressed. Could just as easily be Douglass was stirring up the crowd using a salacious line just to get a reaction.

      Yet, we’ll hear far and wide how that comment is “proof, don’t you know!” of thousands upon thousands of blacks in CS ranks.

      • Andy Hall said, on July 27, 2010 at 5:44 pm

        Regarding ubiquitous use of the Douglass quote, the assumption is that the listener will see Douglass as an infallible and unimpeachable source, and so accept his assertion as objective fact., without further question.

        Just out of curiosity, do you know where that passage is from, because I’ve never seen it actually sourced — just quoted (and quoted, and quoted. . . .).

      • Andy Hall said, on July 28, 2010 at 3:42 am

        The Douglass quote seems to be from an editorial in Douglass’ own monthly, calling on the United States to enlist black soldiers. The editorial, entitled “Fighting Rebels with Only One Hand” (September 1861), concludes:

        It is now pretty well established, that there are at the present moment many colored men in the Confederate army doing duty not only as cooks, servants and laborers, but as real soldiers, having muskets on their shoulders, and bullets in their pockets, ready to shoot down loyal troops, and do all that soldiers may to destroy the Federal Government and build up that of the traitors and rebels. There were such soldiers at Manassas, and they are probably there still. There is a Negro in the army as well as in the fence, and our Government is likely to find it out before the war comes to an end. That the Negroes are numerous in the rebel army, and do for that army its heaviest work, is beyond question. They have been the chief laborers upon those temporary defences in which the rebels have been able to mow down our men. Negroes helped to build the batteries at Charleston. They relieve their gentlemanly and military masters from the stiffening drudgery of the camp, and devote them to the nimble and dexterous use of arms. Rising above vulgar prejudice, the slaveholding rebel accepts the aid of the black man as readily as that of any other. If a bad cause can do this, why should a good cause be less wisely conducted? We insist upon it, that one black regiment in such a war as this is, without being any more brave and orderly, would be worth to the Government more than two of any other; and that, while the Government continues to refuse the aid of colored men, thus alienating them from the national cause, and giving the rebels the advantage of them, it will not deserve better fortunes than it has thus far experienced.–Men in earnest don’t fight with one hand, when they might fight with two, and a man drowning would not refuse to be saved even by a colored hand.

        So that’s the context of the quote; publicly arguing the case for enlisting African American soldiers in the Union army. It’s strong, powerful rhetoric, but it’s also clearly hearsay.

  3. David Woodbury said, on July 29, 2010 at 8:25 am

    ‘An “uninformed guess,” based on watching Gone with the Wind. There’s some scholarship. Watch out, Blight, you effete liberal hack, levesque is gunnin’ for your endowed chair.’
    —————

    That was entertaining, thanks. Thanks, too, for the other newspaper links. There are many things about this story that are odd.

    • Andy Hall said, on July 29, 2010 at 12:00 pm

      Thanks. The first news story left more unanswered questions than it resolved. The story becomes somewhat clearer when cross-referenced with other news accounts.

  4. [...] has been that of Andy Hall at Dead Confederates and Corey Meyer at Blood of My Kindred. Click here for Andy’s post, and here for Corey’s. The latter two posts both include some excellent [...]

  5. Joe Marti said, on January 25, 2011 at 10:32 am

    I know there may be further questions about this story, and I’d be happy to answer them to quell any lingering doubts about the details of this story. Suffice it to say the story is accurate in that there is no evidence Brown was a Confederate and abundant evidence he was a Union soldier. It wasn’t an act of political correctness, but rather historical. I would have been just as engaged and interested to change it from Union to Confederate if that had been the case. That said, I never encountered a case like this before (and don’t expect to again), and was in the cemetery on other business at the time it was pointed out to me. Please do not confuse this with revisionist history, except in the purest and most correct sense.

    • Andy Hall said, on January 25, 2011 at 3:58 pm

      Joe:

      Thanks for taking time to comment. I hope you didn’t view my post on this subject — which in retrospect is a little ranty — as a criticism of your work. What you did in Pvt. Brown’s case is absolutely commendable.

      My intended point was that errors of the sort that appeared on Pvt. Brown’s headstone are too often exploited, and cited in isolation from other evidence, to further an entirely different agenda irrespective of the actual history of the person supposedly being honored. Your work in this case is an example of exactly how things ought to be done.

  6. Joe Marti said, on January 26, 2011 at 5:05 pm

    Nah, no hard feelings at all. It’s been mildly fascinating to note how when a story gets out there, perception and context play such a huge role in interpreting what’s presented. There’s so much justifiable cynicism in the air with regard to news media that I can entirely understand why this might raise some questions or question motives. I think your comments were in line with what I’ve seen in the wake of this story coming out. It’s been co-opted by a couple of people with ulterior motives or conspiracy theorists or whatever. What’s been of interest to me (at least once I was satisfied that my information was accurate) is answering the question as to why the error was there at all. Unfortunately, I don’t think I’ll ever get THE answer, although many theories abound, from wrong assumptions to sloppy work to racism. I have no idea, and neither does his family, so I guess it’s one for the ages.

    But dang, it sure was fun.


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