Dead Confederates, A Civil War Era Blog

Oh, About that Black Confederate at Arlington. . . .

Posted in African Americans, Memory by Andy Hall on October 23, 2010

One of the oft-cited elements in discussion of Black Confederates is the inclusion of an African American figure (left) in the frieze encircling the Confederate Monument at Arlington National Cemetery. The monument, funded by the United Daughters of the Confederacy and dedicated in 1914, includes around its base a bronze tableau of Confederate soldiers marching off to war, answering their nation’s call. The young black man, wearing a kepi, marches alongside a group of soldiers; the others are armed but the African American carries no visible weapon. Nonetheless, his presence among the soldiers is usually presented as prima facie evidence that African Americans, too, were enlisted as soldiers in the Confederate Army. He’s cited on multiple websites, such as here, here, here, here and here; a web search on the phrases “Black Confederate” and “Arlington” generates several thousand hits. This descripti0n, on the blog of the California Division of the SCV is typical:

Black Confederate soldier depicted marching in rank with white Confederate soldiers. This is taken from the Confederate monument at Arlington National Cemetery. Designed by Moses Ezekiel, a Jewish Confederate, and erected in 1914. Ezekiel depicted the Confederate Army as he himself witnessed. As such, it is perhaps the first monument honoring a black American soldier.

Sounds pretty convincing. Too bad it’s not, you know, true. As James W. Loewen and Edward H. Sebesta point out in their recent anthology, The Confederate and Neo-Confederate Reader, the booklet published by the United Daughters of the Confederacy at the time of the monument’s dedication gives an entirely different identification. Going back to that original text, it is detailed and explicit:

But our sculptor, who is writing history in bronze, also pictures the South in another attitude, the South as she was in 1861-1865. For decades she had been contending for her constitutional rights, before popular assemblies, in Congress, and in the courts. Here in the forefront of the memorial she is depicted as a beautiful woman, sinking down almost helpless, still holding her shield with “The Constitution” written upon it, the full-panoplied Minerva, the Goddess of War and of Wisdom, compassionately upholding her. In the rear, and beyond the mountains, the Spirits of Avar are blowing their trumpets, turning them in every direction to call the sons and daughters of the South to the aid of their struggling mother. The Furies of War also appear in the background, one with the terrific hair of a Gordon, another in funereal drapery upholding a cinerary urn.

Then the sons and daughters of the South are seen coming from every direction. The manner in which they crowd enthusiastically upon each other is one of the most impressive features of this colossal work. There they come, representing every branch of the service, and in proper garb; soldiers, sailors, sappers and miners, all typified. On the right is a faithful negro body-servant following his young master, Mr. Thomas Nelson Page’s realistic “Marse Chan” over again.

The artist had grown up, like Page, in that embattled old Virginia where “Marse Chan” was so often enacted.

And there is another story told here, illustrating the kindly relations that existed all over the South between the master and the slave — a story that can not be too often repeated to generations in which “Uncle Tom’s Cabin” survives and is still manufacturing false ideas as to the South and slavery in the “fifties.” The astonishing fidelity of the slaves everywhere during the war to the wives and children of those who were absent in the army was convincing proof of the kindly relations between master and slave in the old South. One leading purpose of the U. D. C. is to correct history. Ezekiel is here writing it for them, in characters that will tell their story to generation after generation. Still to the right of the young soldier and his body-servant is an officer, kissing his child in the arms of an old negro “mammy.” Another child holds on to the skirts of “mammy” and is crying, perhaps without knowing why.

My emphasis. “Faithful negro [sic.] body servant” is not a soldier under arms. But it is consistent with the “loyal slave” meme  — or “astonishing fidelity,” as the monument’s description calls it — so central to the Lost Cause during those years; similar sentiments appeared on monuments throughout the South.

The comparison to “Marse Chan” further reinforces the theme. “Marse Chan” was a short story by Thomas Nelson Page (1853-1922), that first appeared in Century Magazine in 1884. Nominally set in 1872, “Marse Chan” is told in flashback through the eyes of Sam, a young slave in antebellum Virginia who is assigned as body servant to his master’s son, Tom Channing. Tom grows up and, when the war comes, Sam follows his young master into the army, describing his assignment in the dialect-style of writing commonly used by white authors of the period when writing dialogue for black characters: “an’ I went wid Marse Chan an’ clean he boots, an’ look arfter de tent, an’ tek keer o’ him an’ de hosses.” A contemporary classic of Lost Cause fiction, “Marse Chan” was Page’s best-known work. It would have been familiar to those attending the dedication, who would have understood exactly how its protagonist was the literary parallel of the figure in bronze.

The figure on the monument doesn’t represent a soldier, but it wouldn’t matter much as historical documentation if it did; had the sculptor, Moses Ezekiel, depicted the man explicitly as a soldier, it would reveal only that thought it important to include as part of the story he wanted to present — not necessarily that such men were commonplace. Those claiming the figure as “evidence” of African American soldiers in Confederate ranks a half-century prior to the monument’s unveiling make the common era of assuming that the memorial represents history as it actually was. In fact, no memorial does that; rather, they reflect the story and impressions that their sponsors and artisans want to be remembered, and depict the past in a particular way. Some monuments are more objectively accurate than others, but none is without its bias.

The rush to point to the figure on the Arlington memorial is, sadly, typical of the “scholarship” that informs much of the advocacy for Black Confederates. It reflects a sort of grade-school literalism; there’s a black figure in among the soldiers, therefore this man was a soldier, therefore this is proof of African Americans in the ranks of the Confederate Army more generally. The truth, of course, is not quite so obvious, but revealing it requires taking time to go back to the primary sources and giving some consideration to the context of the time of the monument — 1914, that is, not 1861-65 — and the preferred interpretation of the monument’s sponsors, the UDC. Once you understand those things, and not before, you can start looking for meanings and evidence contained within.


Additional, October 28: Stan Cohen and Keith Gibson’s Moses Ezekiel: Civil War Soldier, Renowned Sculptor reveals no further information about his design process or his own views on the Confederate Monument at Arlington; it simply repeats the description in the official UDC booklet. Ezekiel also completed statues of Thomas Jefferson for the University of Virginia and of Stonewall Jackson on the parade ground at VMI. It’s beautiful little  book, highly recommended.

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19 Responses

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  1. Matt McKeon said, on October 23, 2010 at 6:09 pm

    In a sense its fitting that the depiction of the faithful black servant is used as an example of a black confederate soldier, since both are really the same idea; black people were content in their subordinate position.

    They loved each other the black slave and the white master, they just had really strange ways of showing it.

    • Andy Hall said, on October 23, 2010 at 6:37 pm

      In a sense its fitting that the depiction of the faithful black servant is used as an example of a black confederate soldier, since both are really the same idea; black people were content in their subordinate position.

      Exactlly. Black Confederates are essentially the old “loyal slave” theme, seasoned with a dose of self-empowerment to appeal to a modern audience.

      Significantly, almost every site where I saw the (usually word-for-word) description of the figure on the monument as a soldier also goes out of its way to mention that the sculptor, Mose Ezekiel, was Jewish, even though they say almost nothing else about him. After the third of fourth time, it really does begin to have a whiff of, “I can’t be a bigot; why, some of my best friends are _______.”

  2. Brooks Simpson said, on October 25, 2010 at 10:39 pm

    A very nice piece of research.

  3. Corey Meyer said, on October 26, 2010 at 1:35 am


    I second the comment by Brooks…very nice piece of research. Just goes to show what happens when someone does their homework.

    • Andy Hall said, on October 26, 2010 at 1:48 am

      Corey and Brooks (and Kevin): Credit where it’s due: the cite to the original monument dedication booklet identifying the figure as a body servant appears in Loewen and Sebesta’s Confederate and Neoconfederate Reader. Starting with that, I tracked down the full text and found it to much more explicit than a passing reference. So that was the critical nugget that was the genesis of the post.

  4. BorderRuffian said, on October 26, 2010 at 1:37 pm

    The quote appears to be the writer’s own personal interpretation of the monument.

    Most blacks attached to the Confederate armies were servants (+/-90%) so that interpretation can be made…but are you saying there were no black Confederate soldiers and therefore no one is allowed to make that interpretation?

    What did Moses Ezekiel have to say about it? Was it his intent to depict a servant or a soldier?

    • Andy Hall said, on October 26, 2010 at 2:23 pm

      Col. Herbert was Chairman of the Executive Committee of the Arlington Confederate Monument Association, writing for a booklet published by the UDC, the monument’s sponsor, to commemorate the unveiling of the work. The author served as master of ceremonies and as a speaker at that event. It’s pretty implausible that, coming from that perspective, the author is going off on his own here and expressing views that differ significantly from that of the organization she represents.

      If you want to argue that he was merely expressing her personal interpretation, as opposed to the intent and symbolism embraced by the UDC, you’re welcome to. But I don’t think you’ll find any contemporary evidence that the UDC endorsed the idea that African Americans served as soldiers in the Confederate army in significant numbers, or that they intended to convey that notion in the monument. One can speculate any number of scenarios, but the contemporary evidence is what it is — that the UDC chose to memorialize the “faithful Negro body-servant” rather than a soldier under arms. If you’ve found any contemporary documentation from the UDC (or UCV) to the contrary, please share it.

      Thanks for taking time to comment.

      (Minor edits 2/9/11 to correctly represent Herbert)

  5. […] the subject of “Black Confederates” at this time, and, in the CW blogosphere, I think Andy Hall and Kevin Levin are handling it just fine. I’ve engaged in discussion about the topic in this […]

  6. […] blog, precisely because of the research findings he shares.  Several months ago Andy posted some very interesting information concerning the Confederate monument at Arlington Cemetery, effectively challenging arguments that […]

  7. Jim said, on August 1, 2012 at 12:10 pm

    So there were Black Confederates and the numbers must have been staggering… I’ve heard 85,000 quoted by some…that might be accurate if most slave owners took their slaves into battle with them…

    • Andy Hall said, on August 1, 2012 at 12:23 pm

      The numbers tossed around — 85,000, 90,000, whatever — are estimates based on guesses based on speculation. They’re really pretty meaningless.

      Yes, thousands of African American slaves accompanied their masters (or the master’s sons) into the Confederate service, but they were not enlisted as soldiers, and they served their owners, not the Confederacy or the Confederate cause. There are anecdotes of some actually picking up a weapon when they found themselves in a tight spot, but they were never considered to be soldiers by actual Confederate soldiers themselves.

      You might want to spend some time with old issues of the Confederate Veteran magazine (linked under the resources list at right) to see how real Confederates viewed these men. It’s very different from the tales being told today by make-believe Confederates.

  8. George said, on November 12, 2012 at 12:54 am

    I’m sure that you’ve seen this. What’s your thoughts on it???

    • Andy Hall said, on November 12, 2012 at 8:53 am

      I remember reading that story at the time. Weary Clyburn’s wartime role has been gone over many times; he was an enslaved person and a body servant. His pension record makes that clear. Modern “black Confederate” advocacy very purposely elides over these distinctions, which were fundamental both during the war and in the decades after.

      There’s this passage, which turns up frequently in modern “black Confederate” narratives:

      But, Rice says, her father went to war willingly, though his story is complicated. He ran away with his best friend, who was white and the son of his master. Rice says no matter how historians view that narrative, she’s glad she proved her father contributed to the Confederate cause.

      I don’t know what Weary Clyburn’s actual views were at the time, but the he-went-willingly is a common explanation that sidesteps the coercive nature of his position — whether he wanted to go or wanted to stay, he really had no choice in the matter. To ignore that hard reality, and to focus on the “best friends” angle, makes one feel all warm and fuzzy, but it doesn’t move our understanding of history forward at all.

      One other thing from the article:

      Even so, University of North Carolina history professor Fitz Brundage says the contributions of enslaved blacks to the war effort should be recognized.

      “If Southern states in the early 20th century had given pensions to all the African-Americans who, as slaves, were conscripted to build trenches, work on railroads [and] do all manner of heavy labor for the Confederate war cause, there should’ve been tens of thousands of African-Americans who received pensions,” he says.

      This was by design. It’s not a bug, it’s a feature. The states that established pensions specifically for African Americans did so for personal servants who went to war with their masters, and not for general laborers who were hired out by their owners or conscripted to do that sort of work, even though must have been much more numerous, and (arguably) contributed more directly to the Confederate war effort through their work. (I’ve seen exactly one state pension awarded to an African American man who was conscripted to build fortifications; that was from the State of Texas, which appears never to have formally established a separate program for former slaves, but simply began allowing applications under the existing program around 1921.) If you go back and read the arguments made for awarding pensions to African American men (like this one in the Confederate Veteran Magazine), it’s made explicitly clear that those were intended to recognize service to their masters, rather than to the Confederate nation or military.

  9. terrymk said, on February 18, 2013 at 11:05 am

    The commentary and analysis of the Confederate Memorial at Arlington by Messrs. Loewen and Sebesta would be more meaningful if contrasted with how and when the service of US Colored Troops was finally
    recognized nationally. Would such recognition by the US government factually document the pervasive institutional racism the US Colored Troops were subjected to, including segregation, lesser pay and substandard uniforms and equipment, or would such recognition attempt to claim some moral high ground over their Confederate counterparts

    Whether Blacks were actual soldiers or Body servants is less relevant than their motivation in supporting the Confederacy. It seems that in the case of Weary Clyburn’s wartime service, it is difficult for some to accept that a black slave could be the best friend of the white son of his master and serve of his own volition. Having met members of the Clyburn family, they are unwavering in their view that Weary followed his friend Frank voluntarily and was immensely proud of his Confederate Service. The terminology used to define his service does not in any way diminish his sacrifice and contribution.

    • Andy Hall said, on February 18, 2013 at 11:20 am

      The description of the African American figure on the monument at Arlington is not from Sebesta and Loewen — it’s directly from the official commemorative book, authored by the chairman of the committee that raised the funds and approved the design.

      “Whether Blacks were actual soldiers or Body servants is less relevant than their motivation in supporting the Confederacy.”

      If you can point me to a contemporary primary source describing Weary Clyburns’s, or Louis Nelson’s, or Dick Poplar’s “motivation,” please do so. What’s often attributed to them, and men like them, is usually based on oral tradition passed on through the generations, or modern speculation based on nothing at all.

      Finally, if you see Brag Bowling, say hello for me and remind him that he never did send me that video of his and Richard Hines’ press conference that he said he would. It’s been more than two years now, and I’m still waiting to hear from him. If this goes on much longer I shall begin to doubt him.

  10. Larry Jerden said, on May 25, 2014 at 1:22 pm

    What about the black veterans at the early confederate reunions? And there were those who did want to serve because they thought their loyalty would result in freedom when the South won. But why can’t we just honor all who served, regardless of side, color or status, and try once again for reconciliation? Why do we have to keep the old wounds open, seeking to say “our side” was right and the other side “wrong” so we can punish the other side. Seems to be the reconciliation so valued in 1898 is not desired by anyone today — it is all about further division, alienation and domination.

    • Andy Hall said, on May 25, 2014 at 2:00 pm

      Thanks for taking time to comment. You’ll find that I’ve written quite a bit about African American men at Confederate reunions. If you go back and read what was written at the time, you’ll find that there was a real distinction made between the white veterans and the African American men, mostly former cooks and body servants, who participated with them. It’s a much more complicated relationship than a simple skimming of old photographs might suggest. We owe it to the past to be very clear about what was going on there.

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