Last week I had a post concerning (somewhat tangentially) the use of impressed African Americans as laborers on the defensive works at Galveston. It’s a subject that deserves much more close attention than I’ve had time to get into here, but I thought I’d pass along a few contemporary citations that address the prevalence of such laborers here, and the ongoing friction between the military, which needed every able-bodied hand it could get by any means, and slaveholders who were reluctant to turn their property over to the Confederacy for military labor.
Impressed slaves building fortifications at James Island, South Carolina. Schomburg Center for Research in Black Culture, New York Public Library.
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?
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.
Over the last few weeks there’s been a good bit of discussion about Ann DeWitt and her website on Black Confederates, particularly since the announcement of a new novel for young adults, written by her and Kevin M. Weeks, Entangled in Freedom. The discussion has been pretty volatile over at Levin’s place — who coulda’ seen that coming? — but I’ve tried to steer a little clear of criticizing Ms. DeWitt personally, because she seems a sincere, if ill-informed, advocate for the idea, and because at this point anything else will be perceived as “piling on.” But now, I think, she’s actually (and unwittingly) done us all a favor, by acknowledging explicitly what skeptics have been saying for a long time: that at the core of Black Confederate lies a definition of the word “soldier” that is so broad, so vague and nebulous that the word can be taken to mean virtually anything, and is applied to any person who had even the remotest connection to the Confederate army.
This morning, I noticed her project home page now opens with a definition:
Merriam Webster Dictionary defines a soldier as a militant leader, follower, or worker.
If we’re going to quote the dictionary, let’s be clear: she’s quoting the secondary, alternate definition. By citing it, Ms. DeWitt tacitly acknowledges that the primary definition of the word — “a: one engaged in military service and especially in the army b : an enlisted man or woman c : a skilled warrior” — does not generally apply, or is at least too narrow to describe, Black Confederates as she identifies them. It is not too much to say, I think, that in citing such a broad definition, Ms. DeWitt just knocked over the whole house of cards that comprises most of the “evidence” for Black Confederates.
There’s an old saying that a “gaffe” is what happens when a politician accidentally speaks the truth. This is a gaffe. This is the truth that forms the foundation of most Black Confederate advocacy. To qualify as a Black Confederate, one needs only to qualify as a follower or a worker. In short, the term “soldier” applies to anyone — enlisted man, musician, teamster, body servant, cook, hospital orderly, laundress, sutler, drover, laborer, anyone – involved with the army in any capacity.
A long time ago, I learned a rule that has stood me in good stead ever since: any time a writer or public speaker starts off his or her essay by quoting a definition from the dictionary, you can safely stop reading or listening, because nothing worthwhile or new is likely to follow. That’s still true, but it this case Ms. DeWitt’s use of the technique does do us all a genuine service, by admitting what Black Confederate skeptics have been saying all along — that the movement’s advocates are so loose with the their definitions, so willing to conflate service as a volunteer, enlisted soldier under arms with a slave’s compelled service as a cook and body servant to his owner and master, that the narratives they offer cannot stand close historiographical scrutiny at all. To borrow an analogy allegedly coined by Lincoln himself, Black Confederate advocacy is like shoveling fleas across the barnyard — you start with what seems to be a shovelful, but by the time you get to the other side, there’s very little actually there.
Update, August 22: I just noticed this on the website, as well:
Another challenge is the fact that 19th century CSA enlistment forms and pension applications did not include race, so unless all current SCV members come forward with more historical accounts, the world may never know the total number of African-Americans (Blacks) who served in any and all capacities of the American Civil War.
If I’m reading this correctly, Ms. DeWitt views any Confederate enlistment or pension document that doesn’t explicitly state otherwise to be potential evidence of a Black Confederate. Wowza!
Not sure what the call for “all current SCV members come forward with more historical accounts” means.