Kevin reminds us that today, January 8, is the sesquicentennial of Howell Cobb’s famous letter to the Secretary of War, James Seddon, rejecting the notion of enlisting slaves as Confederate soldiers. Under the circumstances, it’s worth revisiting this old post of mine from October 2010.
Lots of folks are familiar with Howell Cobb’s famous line, offered in response to the Confederacy’s efforts to enlist African American slaves as soldiers in the closing days of the war: “if slaves make good soldiers our whole theory of slavery is wrong.” It was part of a letter sent to Confederate Secretary of War James A. Seddon, in January 1865:
The proposition to make soldiers of our slaves is the most pernicious idea that has been suggested since the war began. It is to me a source of deep mortification and regret to see the name of that good and great man and soldier, General R. E. Lee, given as authority for such a policy. My first hour of despondency will be the one in which that policy shall be adopted. You cannot make soldiers of slaves, nor slaves of soldiers. The moment you resort to negro [sic.] soldiers your white soldiers will be lost to you; and one secret of the favor With which the proposition is received in portions of the Army is the hope that when negroes go into the Army they will be permitted to retire. It is simply a proposition to fight the balance of the war with negro troops. You can’t keep white and black troops together, and you can’t trust negroes by themselves. It is difficult to get negroes enough for the purpose indicated in the President’s message, much less enough for an Army. Use all the negroes you can get, for all the purposes for which you need them, but don’t arm them. The day you make soldiers of them is the beginning of the end of the revolution. If slaves make good soldiers our whole theory of slavery is wrong — but they won’t make soldiers. As a class they are wanting in every qualification of a soldier. Better by far to yield to the demands of England and France and abolish slavery and thereby purchase their aid, than resort to this policy, which leads as certainly to ruin and subjugation as it is adopted; you want more soldiers, and hence the proposition to take negroes into the Army. Before resorting to it, at least try every reasonable mode of getting white soldiers. I do not entertain a doubt that you can, by the volunteering policy, get more men into the service than you can arm. I have more fears about arms than about men, For Heaven’s sake, try it before you fill with gloom and despondency the hearts of many of our truest and most devoted men, by resort to the suicidal policy of arming our slaves.
No great surprise here; earnest and vituperative opposition to the enlistment of slaves in Confederate service was widespread, even as the concussion of Federal artillery rattled the panes in the windows of the capitol in Richmond. What’s passing strange, as Molly Ivins used to say, is that Howell Cobb is a central figure in one of the canonical sources in Black Confederate “scholarship,” the description of the capture of Frederick, Maryland in 1862, published by Dr. Lewis H. Steiner of the U.S. Sanitary Commission. In his account of the capture and occupation of the town, Steiner makes mention of
Over 3,000 Negroes must be included in this number [of Confederate troops]. These were clad in all kinds of uniforms, not only in cast-off or captured United States uniforms, but in coats with Southern buttons, State buttons, etc. These were shabby, but not shabbier or seedier than those worn by white men in the rebel ranks. Most of the Negroes had arms, rifles, muskets, sabers, bowie-knives, dirks, etc. . . and were manifestly an integral portion of the Southern Confederate Army.
This passage is often repeated without critique or analysis, and offered as eyewitness evidence of the widespread use of African American soldiers by the Confederate Army. Indeed, Steiner’s figure is sometimes extrapolation to derrive an estimate of black soldiers in the whole of the Confederate Army, to number in the tens of thousands. But, as history blogger Aporetic points out, Steiner’s observation is included in a larger work that mocks the Confederates generally, is full of obvious exaggerations and caricatures, and is clearly written — like Frederick Douglass’ well-known evocation of Black Confederates “with bullets in their pockets” — to rally support in the North to the Union cause. It is propaganda. Most important, Steiner’s account of Black Confederates under arms is entirely unsupported by other eyewitnesses to this event, North or South. Aporetic goes on to point out the apparent incongruity of Steiner’s description of this horde being led by none other than Howell Cobb:
A drunken, bloated blackguard on horseback, for instance, with the badge of a Major General on his collar, understood to be one Howell Cobb, formerly Secretary of the United States Treasury, on passing the house of a prominent sympathizer with the rebellion, removed his hat in answer to the waving of handkerchiefs, and reining his horse up, called on “his boys” to give three cheers. “Three more, my boys!” and “three more!” Then, looking at the silent crowd of Union men on the pavement, he shook his fist at them, saying, “Oh, you d—d long-faced Yankees! Ladies, take down their names and I will attend to them personally when I return.” In view of the fact that this was addressed to a crowd of unarmed citizens, in the presence of a large body of armed soldiery flushed with success, the prudence — to say nothing of the bravery — of these remarks, may be judged of by any man of common sense.
The Black Confederate crowd doesn’t usually include this second passage describing the same event, or explain Cobb’s apparent profound amnesia when it comes to the employment of African Americans in Confederate ranks. How is it, one wonders, that the same Howell Cobb who supposedly led thousands of black Confederate soldiers into Frederick in 1862 found the very notion of enlisting African Americans into the Confederate military a “most pernicious idea” just twenty-seven months later? How is it that the general who called on his black troops to give three cheers, then “three more, my boys!” came to believe that “the day you make soldiers of them is the beginning of the end of the revolution?” How is it that the commander of successful black soldiers felt that “as a class they are wanting in every qualification of a soldier?” But set aside Dr. Steiner’s propogandist account for the moment; it’s unreliable and unsupported by other sources. Events at Frederick aside, how is that Howell Cobb, in January 1865, was unaware of the thousands, or tens of thousands, of African Americans soldiers supposedly serving in Confederate ranks across the South? Howell Cobb’s Confederate bona fides are unimpeachable, and throughout the war he was irrevocably tied in to both political and military affairs. In his career he was, in turn, a five-term U.S. Representative from Gerogia, Speaker of the U.S. House Representatives, Governor of Georgia, U.S. Secretary of the Treasury, Speaker of the Provisional Confederate Congress, and Major General in the Confederate Army. He was a leader of the secession movement, and was elected president of the Montgomery convention that drafted a constitution for the new Confederacy. For a brief period in 1861, between the establishment of the Confederate States and the election of Jefferson Davis as its president, Speaker Cobb served as the new nation’s effective head of state. In his military career, Cobb held commands in the Army of Northern Virginia and the District of Georgia and Florida. He scouted and recommended a site for a prisoner-of-war camp that eventually became known as Andersonville; his Georgia Reserve Corps fought against Sherman in his infamous “March to the Sea.” Cobb commanded Confederate forces in a doomed defense of Columbus, Georgia in the last major land battle of the war, on Easter Sunday, April 16, 1865, the day after Abraham Lincoln died in Washington, D.C. Perhaps more than any other man, Howell Cobb’s career followed the fortunes of Confederacy — civil, political and military — from beginning to end. And yet, after almost four years of war and almost three years of commanding large formations of Confederate troops in the field, in January 1865 Howell Cobb seemingly remained unaware of the thousands, or tens of thousands, of African Americans now claimed to have been serving in Southern ranks throughout the war. It is passing strange, is it not?
This month’s “Treasure of the Month” at Rosenberg Library in Galveston really is a treasure — it’s an eyewitness sketch from January 1863, showing the aftermath of the Battle of Galveston and the capture of the Federal gunboat Harriet Lane. This is a familiar image to those who’ve studied the battle, but the drawing underwent extensive conservation on 2013 to correct the staining (or “foxing”) that had occurred and that obscured some details of the image. Click through to read more about this image, and (at the bottom of the page) view its original condition, before conservation.
For reasons I’m not exactly clear about myself, Harlan Sanders (of Kentucky Fried Chicken fame) has always seemed an interesting figure to me. (It ain’t the chicken, for which I have other loyalties.) So I enjoyed this essay by Molly Osberg on how Colonel Sanders became a sort of “Father Christmas” icon in Japan, of all places.
If America is oversaturated with fast food empires and too well-acquainted with the Old South’s history to reinterpret it as a fun and exotic myth, in Japan there has been no such problem. There are currently more than 1,200 KFC locations in the country, including an “Adult Kentucky Fried Chicken” bistro serving pasta dishes with beer and “KFC Route 25,” a posh KFC in Tokyo stocked with a full whiskey bar. Not to mention the whole Christmas thing. There’s a countdown to Christmas on KFC Japan’s website and banners celebrating “Kentucky Christmas 2014.”
Colonel Sanders remains an icon there, perhaps one as famous as Babe Ruth: In 1985 the Harshen Tigers, a Kansai-area baseball team, won the Japan Series for the first time, but during the ensuing celebration, reveling fans took hold of one of Osaka’s ubiquitous KFC Colonel Sanders statues and dumped it into the Dontonbori River. The Tigers haven’t won a series since they triggered the Curse of the Colonel. In 2009, divers found the statue and it was returned to the KFC closest to the stadium. Still, the story goes, the Colonel is mighty disappointed and he won’t lift his curse on the team until the statue’s missing hand and glasses are recovered.
When last we checked in on the Ridge Brothers of the Fifth Connecticut Infantry, their regiment had just marched into Atlanta at the head of Sherman’s column. One hundred fifty years ago this evening, December 22, the regiment was preparing to move out of their camp near Springfield, Georgia, and march the final distance into Savannah. Some of the regiment’s soldiers, though, had spent an exhausting day collecting forage for the brigade’s animals:
Thursday, 22d. Wagon train loaded and we have orders to march to Savannah to-night.
About this time Quartermaster [Edward K.] Carley organized a foraging expedition which proved quite a success. From the time the army arrived in the swamp section of Georgia, forage for the animals was exceedingly scarce, and they consequently became in very poor condition. All the vessels that arrived at the port of Savannah, for some time after its capture, were loaded down with supplies for the men and the animals were neglected. It was a two or three days’ trip back into the grain-growing sections of the State, and no train moving so far would have been safe without a very large guard. Carley concluded to make an expedition inland by water for the purpose of procuring sheaf rice for the animals of our brigade. He secured somewhere an old barge capable of conveying many tons, and an immense row boat like a whale boat, with oars and locks for several rowers. The whale boat was to be the motive power of the expedition and take the barge in tow if necessary. Lieutenant H. D. Redfield of Company B was also with the expedition. Details of from two to three from each company made up the party to about thirty in number. As the fleet was to move early, most of the detail went on board the evening before and made a jolly night of it. Long before dayliglit, when the tide commenced making up the river strong, we untied the barge and let her go. In this way we made fifteen or sixteen miles of our journey up the river by the force of the current, and then taking to our oars we continued to pull along rapidly, as the tide had not yet turned, till we came where the flats of the river bottom were covered with stacks of sheaf rice, and pulling into a creek, all hands ordered to fall to work lively for several hours and bring in the sheaves to the water’s edge, so they could be readily flung oil the barge at accessible points.
Before going to work the party were deployed and advanced a mile or more across the country, to make sure that there were no guerrillas about who might crawl near and surprise any of the party.
There being no signs of enemies in the vicinity, a couple of videttes were left out and the residue returned and set about loading the boat in good earnest, with the assistance of all the colored population of the vicinity. Long before night we had her loaded down to the water’s edge and hauled out into the current of the river, which was making down again, and with the main body of the party started homeward.
Sergeant H. M. Gibbs, with the party who were to come by the row boat, remained behind, by order of Quartermaster Carley, to examine some mills and dwelling houses on the plantation, to see if any kind of forage for man or beast could be found there. Nothing of any value was found in any of them, and Gibbs met with a painful accident in making the examination, making it necessary to lug him from the plantation houses and buildings all the way (a mile or more) back to the river.
These houses were all set up on posts, so as to be some five or six feet from the ground. The steps leading up to these were temporary and entirely unreliable, and as Gibbs came out of one of the houses after searching and stepped down to the first or upper step, which in that instance was a short, round log, it rolled under him, precipitating him to the ground in such a manner that the toes of his left foot were turned back out of place and up- rooted. His foot was useless for the time being, and he was lugged back to the boat on the guns of his comrades ; and it was not till nightfall that all were safely on board again.
After pulling steadily at the oars by turns for half the night, the expedition arrived in camp, and was voted quite a feather in the cap of the quartermaster, for when the next move was made his stock was found in better condition than any in the division.
Image: Plantation workers carrying rice, South Carolina, c. 1895.
Everyone knows that Sam Houston, governor of Texas during the secession crisis of 1860-61, opposed secession and opposed Texas joining the Confederacy. He famously predicted a long and bloody war would follow, with disastrous consequences for the South regardless of the outcome.
But I recently came across this address he made in Austin, sometime during the 1860 presidential campaign, in which Houston laid out the pro-slavery argument against secession. It’s a very different take on an old dispute:
[The seceded states] will soon whip themselves, and will not be worth whipping back [into the Union]. Deprived of the protection of the Union, of the aegis of the Constitution, they would soon dwindle into petty States, to be again rent in twain by dissensions or through the ambition of selfish chieftains, and would become a prey to foreign powers. They gravely talk of holding treaties with Great Britain and other foreign powers, and the great advantages which would arise to the South from separation are discussed. Treaties with Great Britain! Alliance with foreign powers! Have these men forgotten history? Look at Spanish America! Look at the condition of every petty State, which by alliance with Great Britain is subject to continual aggression!
When [the Union is] rent in twain, British Abolition, which in fanaticism and sacrificial spirit, far exceeds that of the North (for it has been willing to pay for its fanaticism, a thing the North never will do), will have none of the impediments in its path, now to be found. England will no longer fear the power of the mighty nation which twice has humbled her, and whose giant arm would, so long as we are united, be stretched forth to protect the weakest State, or the most obscure citizen. The State that secedes, when pressed by insidious arts of abolition emissaries, supported by foreign powers, when cursed by internal disorders and insurrections, can lay no claim to that national flag, which when now unfurled, ensures the respect of all nations and strikes terror to the hearts of those who would invade our rights.
But if, through division in the ranks of those opposed to Mr. Lincoln, he should be elected, we have no excuse for dissolving the Union. The Union is worth more than Mr. Lincoln, and if the battle is to be fought for the Constitution, let us fight it in the Union and for the sake of the Union. With a majority of the people in favor of the Constitution, shall we desert the Government and leave it in the hands of the minority? A new obligation will be imposed upon us, to guard the Constitution and to see that no infraction of it is attempted or permitted. If Mr. Lincoln administers the Government in accordance with the Constitution, our rights must be respected. If he does not, the Constitution has provided a remedy.
No tyrant or usurper can ever invade our rights so long as we are united. Let Mr. Lincoln attempt it, and his party will scatter like chaff before the storm of popular indignation which will burst forth from one end of the country to the other. Secession or revolution will not be justified until legal and constitutional means of redress have been tried, and I can not believe that the time will ever come when these will prove inadequate.
It’s interesting to see a prominent figure as that arguing against secession for the protection of the peculiar institution. But then again, Big Sam was never entirely conventional.
Company G, 1 st N.M. Vols.
Camp near Fort Craig
February 25th 1862
Lieut. Eben Everett Adjt.
1st N.M. Vols, Fort Craig.
In the Battle of Valverde, a man of my Company “G” 1st N.M. Vols., took from the hand of a Texan, a flag of the Confederate States. Before leaving the Battle Field. this flag was obtained by Captain [James] Graydon from the man who took it, and was by Captain Graydon turned in to the Department Commander as having been captured by him or his Company. I have been to the Head Quarters with the man who took the flag and he has identified it as the one that Capt. Graydon took from him.
As an act of justice to the man who captured the flag (Domingo Salazar), to my Company and my Regiment, I respectfully ask the Colonel Comdg. the Regt. to forward this report to Dept. Head Quarters, so that credit may be given where it is due.
I am Sir Very Respy Yr. Obt. Servt.
Capt. Ist Rgt. N.M. Vols.
Comdg. Co. (G)
Domingo Salazar was a 35-year-old soldier who had mustered into the First New Mexico Volunteers at the end of July 1861. He is described in official records as being five-feet-seven-inches tall, with a dark complexion, black eyes and hair, and a laborer by occupation. He was a native of the New Mexico Territory. The dispute over his capture of the Texans’ colors may have played into his transfer just days later, on March 4, 1862, from the First New Mexico Volunteer Infantry to Company F of the First New Mexico Cavalry. Captain Graydon commanded a different company in that same cavalry unit. Once joining the cavalry, Salazar appears to have engaged in a lot of active campaigning in the West, as his service record shows numerous periods of detached service away from his regiment. In late 1863, for example, he was listed as being on detached service to Los Pinos, New Mexico, for the purpose of “recorting [recording? recruiting?] Ind. prisoners.” The following spring Salazar was detached again to participate in an expedition against the Apache. Salazar mustered out of the service at the end of his three-year enlistment at Albuquerque, New Mexico, on July 31, 1864.
In November 1862, at Fort Stanton, Captain Graydon got in an altercation with a prominent civilian, Dr. John M. Whitlock, in which Graydon was shot in the chest. According to a contemporary press account, Whitlock left the scene but was intercepted by soldiers of Graydon’s company, who were waiting to ambush Whitlock by Graydon’s prior arrangement. The soldiers riddled Dr. Whitlock with 28 rifle bullets and 98 buckshot. Graydon’s commanding officer, Colonel Christopher “Kit” Carson, was instructed to allow Graydon, “in consideration of his past services,” to resign his commission provided he turn himself over for trial by a civilian court, but Graydon died of his own injury before that order worked its way through the Army’s scattered chain of command.
I found this letter in a volume I recently acquired, John P. Wilson’s When the Texans Came: Missing Records from the Civil War in the Southwest, 1861-1862 (University of New Mexico, 2001). It was the title that caught my eye initially, but it turns out to have an interesting genesis. Wilson realized that the 128 volumes of the Official Records give very little attention to the Confederate campaigns in the West in the early part of the war, and the Union’s response. (In the latter case, because of the time and distances involved, Federal forces consisted almost entirely of a handful of regulars and locally-raised units from the western states and territories, like Salazar’s First New Mexico Volunteers.) Wilson set out to compile a sort of one-volume Official Records for that much-overlooked part of the war, and I think he did a commendable job. It will made a valuable addition to the library of any Civil War enthusiast interested in the war on the frontier.
The odious Kirk Lyons is tired of the discussion:
There were more than a million Black Confederates if everyone will stop defining the term as an equivalent for “military” service.
He’s right, of course. Confederate Heritage™ is so much easier and satisfying when it’s completely disengaged from those pesky things like definitions and detailed evidence.
Y’all have a great weekend.
Another track from Divided & United: The Songs of the Civil War. Seemed like a good time to hear it again. Wherever Elvis is, I feel sure he’s walking around with a pebble in his shoe for what he did to this beautiful old song.
A letter was recently sold at auction that gives a wonderful, firsthand account of what it was like here in Galveston just after the city and island were retaken by General Magruder’s forces on New Years Day, 1863. The author is 30-year-old Private William C. Smith of the 26th Texas Cavalry. At the time Smith was on detached service from his regiment for duty as a clerk at headquarters.
Galveston, Jany 10th 1863
Saturday night 9 o’clock
The old saying that it is hard to say what an hour may bring proved true today. I was sitting at my desk quietly writing as I now am when I hear a gun go bang & directly the same thing again. I instantly dropped my pen & ran up on top of the house to see what was going on. It proved to be the enemy ships shelling our city, which they did pretty well for about two hours. They were too far out to sea for us to reach them at first, nor could they do us any harm. But they venture a little closer, where we opened upon them & they returned [fire]. The shot & shell make a curious noise. I was in a position that I could see every thing that was going on. You look at the ship. They fire, [you] see the smoke, wait about half a minute, then you hear the report of the gun, then the whistling of the shell, loaded with balls, pieces of iron, & c. when they explode in a house they tear it all to pieces. One shell bursted today about 200 yards from me in a house & tore it to pieces. We expect that we will commence fighting again tomorrow, [but] there was no one hurt today. I felt sorry to see the poor women & children running through the streets & getting out of the city as fast as possible, for fear of being hurt. Our troops are ordered to sleep with their guns in their hands tonight for fear of an attack. You can not imagine how our soldiers were laughing & joking during the fight. I did not see a man who looked [in] any way frightened, all of them saying only let them come ashore & we horse marines will show them what Texans can do.
A flag of truce went out to the [Federal] vessels yesterday They report that we killed a great many on the vessels that ran away on New Years Day.
The very next afternoon, on Sunday, January 11, a strange sail would appear on the horizon away to the south. One Federal warship, U.S.S. Hatteras, would be assigned to investigate. The strange sail was C.S.S. Alabama, and just 24 hours after First Sergeant Williams sat down to write his wife, Hatteras would be at the bottom of the Gulf of Mexico.
Image: U.S.S. South Carolina shelling Galveston, August 1861.