General Stephen D. Lee Disses Black Confederates
One area that the advocates of black Confederate soldiers (BCS) are mostly silent on is the stated attitudes and opinions of actual Confederate leaders who lived and fought through the war of 1861-65. Those views comprise a hard, bitter lump of historical reality that must surely cause indigestion for BCS advocates, given that the “Confed cred” of those men is unassailable. We’ve seen, for example, how both Howell Cobb and his fellow Georgian, Governor Joseph Brown, viewed the prospect of arming slaves with revulsion, and saw it as a betrayal of everything the Confederacy stood for. We’ve seen how Kirby Smith asserted that the Confederacy should “go to the grave before we enlist the negro [sic.].” And we’ve seen how, according to John Brown Gordon, even the venerable Robert E. Lee himself liked to humor his colleagues with an anecdote mocking the pretensions of an African American cook to being a soldier. It’s ugly, unpleasant stuff, but it’s right there, and ignoring it won’t make it go away.
Stephen Dill Lee (right, 1833-1908) was a Confederate general — the youngest of the South’s lieutenant generals, in fact — who after the war went on to a varied career as an author, a legislator, and educator. He was very active in Confederate veterans’ organizations, and succeeded Gordon as Commander-in-Chief of the United Confederate Veterans. In many ways, S. D. Lee was the public face of Confederate veterans, both in the North and the South. S. D. Lee is remembered today particularly for his charge to the Sons of Confederate veterans, given as part of a speech in New Orleans in 1906. Lee’s charge has been used ever since as the guiding principle of the organization, and features prominently in SCV publications, both in print and online. (Read it here, at the bottom of the page.) Indeed, the quasi-academic arm of the SCV, the Stephen Dill Lee Institute, is named in his honor.
The SCV has, of course, spent a great deal of time and effort in recent years pushing the BCS meme. While lots of folks endorse or promote the idea that there were large numbers of African Americans formally enlisted and armed in the Confederate ranks, the SCV is (through its state divisions and local camps) by far the largest single proponent of the idea. Much of this is simply based on careless research or misunderstood documents, but it also results in cases of over-reach that should be genuinely embarrassing to the group, including retroactive assignment of name and rank to men who never claimed such, or the creation of an entire faux cemetery of black Confederates, without a single actual interment there.
So it comes with considerable irony to learn that around the same time the SCV was founded, S. D. Lee was telling reporters at a Confederate reunion what he thought of as a funny anecdote, complete with cartoonish African American “dialect,” that relies on ugly racial stereotypes about African Americans’ courage under fire and instinct for self-preservation for its “humor.” From the Idaho Statesman, January 25, 1896 (warning: offensive language and themes follow):
The Safest Place in Battle.
General Lee told an amusing story to a Charlottesville Chronicle reporter. When he was about to deliver his address to the Confederate reunion, in Craig County [Virginia] recently, some one came to him and asked if he would speak to an old colored man who wished to speak to him. The general consented, and the old negro [sic.], whose name was Sam, and who had fought throughout the war, came and received the proffered hand. General Lee at once began to put questions to the old fellow, who answered with wonderful skill. The general then asked where he had seen the best time during the war.
“At Chickamauga,” at once replied the darky, “because I ran as soon as the firing began.”
“But how did you know which way to run in such a hot battle?” asked General Lee, with a merry twinkle in his eye.
“I went directly to the safest place, and the first I could find,” answered Sam, coming to his climax.
Again he was asked how he could tell which place was safe.
“I knowed it was safe,” answered Sam, ” ’cause I skipped for de place whar de generils was.”
“General Lee enjoyed the joke and laughed heartily at the darky’s wit. — Charlottesville (Ky.) [sic.] Chronicle.
(This item appeared in in late January, but it was a news wire story that appeared, word-for-word, in other newspapers around the country from October 1895 on.)
To be sure: most Northerners were not a whit better than S. D. Lee in their prejudices against African Americans. My point is (and has been) that there’s a deep, wide chasm between the way real Confederates viewed African Americans in support roles with the army, and the way some folks today like to imagine they did. There’s an affinity there, but fairly open mockery and patronizing, as well.
In other words, your white Confederate ancestor wasn’t nearly as jazzed about the idea of black Confederates as you are.