Dead Confederates, A Civil War Era Blog

How — and Why — Real Confederates Endorsed Slave Pensions

Posted in African Americans, Memory by Andy Hall on June 13, 2012

In another forum recently, there was a lively discussion going on about the historical basis for present-day claims about black Confederates. One of the topics, naturally, was the pensions that some states awarded to African American men who had served as body servants, cooks, and in other roles as personal attendants to white soldiers. One person asked why it was that the former states of the Confederacy were so late in authorizing pensions for these men, or (in some cases) did not authorize them at all. It’s a good question, that I’m sure defies a single, simple answer.

But in the process of looking for something else, I came across this editorial in the October 1913 issue of the Confederate Veteran, calling on the states to provide pensions for a “a particular class of old slaves.” I’m putting it after the jump, because it’s peppered with racial slurs and stereotypes that are hurtful to modern ears, but were wholly unremarkable for that time, place and publication. So let me apologize in advance for the language, and hope that my readers will appreciate the necessity of repeating it here, in full and in proper context, in order to be crystal clear about the author’s meaning and intent. There are times when polite paraphrasing just doesn’t do the job.

As you read this editorial, keep in mind that the Confederate Veteran, by its own masthead, officially represented (1) the United Confederate Veterans, (2) the United Daughters of the Confederacy, (3) the Sons of Veterans (i.e., the SCV), and other groups. The magazine was mostly written by Confederate veterans and their families, to be read by Confederate veterans and their families. While the editorial may not reflect formal UCV/UDC/SCV policy, its appearance in the magazine does indicate that its perspective is one that would be shared by the magazine’s readership, and its call for action would reach a willing and receptive audience.

In short, if you want to know how real Confederate veterans viewed the purpose and necessity of pensions for former slaves, start here:

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Confederate “Body Soldier” Honored with Fake Grave, Yankee Headstone

Posted in African Americans, Education, Genealogy, Memory by Andy Hall on May 29, 2012

Update, June 12: The researcher behind the stone, Julia Barnes, pushes back hard against my piece below:

Andy, as with many issues, reporters make mistakes. The reporter did a good job and was trying to do a public service. The records for Wade Childs stated that he was a “body servant,” not “body soldier.” The burial site for both men, Lewis and Wade Childs, was the West View cemetery in Anderson. This is not supposition. It is based upon the death certificates. Both were buried in the same cemetery, by the same undertaker, about 12 months apart. This is not a fake grave. It is a placement based upon the records of the Anderson Cemetery records office, the South Carolina Vital Records department, and the Pension records found in the SC Archives, which noted his burial location and date. All of this was reviewed by the City attorney for approval of the placement of the headstone.

Fair enough. More in the comments.

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Even in the muddle of half-understood documents, vague definitions and simplistic, patriotic tropes one comes to expect of news stories about black Confederates, this one’s a mess:

Childs served as a body soldier with Orrs Regiment of the South Carolina Rifles in the Confederate army during the Civil War. He carried the belongings and camp supplies of white soldiers, one of some 20,000 to 50,000 slaves who labored during the war.

[Julia] Barnes believes he might also be one of the 3,000 to 10,000 black Confederates who Harvard researchers suspect fought for the South. The Southern army did not record black soldiers, said Barnes, an Anderson County historian.

I’ve never heard the term “body soldier” before, but I suspect I will again. It’s a modern obfuscation that both sounds substantive and conveniently elides the terms used 150 years ago. It’s not a term real Confederates would have understood or used. Childs would have been known as a “body servant,” or simply as a slave. There is a passing reference to Wade Childs’ being enslaved, but no reference to soldiers Private John Chiles or Captain James S. Cothran, to whom (according to his pension record) Childs was acting as servant. Childs labored for those men, not for the Confederate army. The headstone makes no reference to Childs’ role whatsoever. That’s almost unheard of on such stones, and suggests very strongly that the folks who put it up feel like the less said about that status, the better.

Mike Barnes, the local SCV camp commander, is quoted as saying that “they are considered veterans by the state of South Carolina,” but in fact the state viewed men like Childs very, very differently than it did rank-and-file Confederate soldiers. South Carolina first awarded pensions to disabled white veterans and their widows in 1887, and gradually expanded eligibility for other white veterans in the decades following. It was almost forty more years, though, before men like Childs were made eligible:

Act No. 63, 1923 S.C. Acts 107 allowed African Americans who had served at least six months as cooks, servants, or attendants to apply for a pension. Then in 1924, apparently because there were too many applications, the act was amended to eliminate all laborers, teamsters, and non-South Carolinians by extending eligibility only to South Carolina residents who had served the state for at least six months as “body servants or male camp cooks.”

The evidence for Child’s involvement with the Confederate military seems to rest entirely on his 1923 pension application (read it here), which is fine as far as it goes. (See another example of the limits of Confederate pension records here.) But the pension application is very clear about what Childs’ (or Chiles’, as it’s given in the application) role was during the war as a servant — none of this vague “body soldier” business mentioned there.

It’s also important to note that, as is often the case with such applications, the case for Childs’ worthiness for such a pension was made not only on his wartime service to his master, but also on his continued adherence to the racial status quo antebellum in the South. “Wade has been a faithful, dependable negro [sic.],” his primary sponsor writes, “humble to white people and always willing to serve them.” Contrary to the assertions of the local SCV camp commander, this is hardly a case of Childs’ service being recognized by the state as being anything like that of white veterans, armed and in the ranks.

Make note also of the fact that, as of 1924, African Americans who had worked as laborers and teamsters, men whose activities were arguably more directly beneficial to the South’s military effort, were explicitly excluded from the pension program in favor of those men like Childs who had served individual white soldiers. Cooks and personal servants counted; the men who built earthworks and drove wagons did not. That was the policy of the state of South Carolina.

All of this is par for the course in “honoring” black Confederates, but there’s an additional element here that adds another layer of dubious research findings:

Barnes and her husband discovered that Childs’ brother Lewis was buried at Westview, a historically black cemetery. They concluded that Wade Childs must be buried there, too.

Westview’s military corner facing Reed Street is “wall-to-wall” with unmarked graves, Barnes said.

“I had been looking and found his brother there,” Barnes said. “It’s logical that he would be there since his brother is there. We don’t know where, but when we saw Lewis, we felt his was there, too.”

Yes, you read that right — they have no damn idea where Wade Childs is actually buried. They’re guessing, and placed a stone in that cemetery, on that spot, because they “felt” that was the spot, that it was “logical” to them. It’s a fake grave, just like the ones in Pulaski — with the exception that the folks in Tennessee at least added fine print noting that location of the person mentioned is unknown. No such truth-telling here.

To add an extra bit of irony, these noble defenders of Southron Honour™ put up a stone with a rounded top, like those of of U.S. veterans, not the peaked top usually used for former Confederates. How on earth did they get that one wrong?

I dare say these folks found a local African American man in the South Carolina pension rolls, and ended up so determined to commemorate their very own black Confederate that little details like, oh, actually knowing where he’s buried became irrelevant to putting up a marker and chalking up another “forgotten segment of South Carolina’s past.” Thank goodness these folks are only promoting heritage — if they called this half-baked foolishness history, they’d be laughed out of town.

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Update, May 31: I originally put this down in the comments, but it might be useful to explain further why I’m a bit exercised about this “fake grave” business, an action that I (still) consider to be so misleading as to border on willful dishonesty.

Long-time readers may recall my post just about exactly a year ago on Peter Phelps, a white Confederate soldier who’d been named as a “black Confederate” by another website. In researching Peter Phelps, I found documentation not only of the cemetery he was buried in, but also the section. Unfortunately, there is no marker there now to identify the exact spot, so I posted a photo of the area with a caption that it showed the area where he was buried, but the precise location is not known. That’s fair, that’s accurate, and that’s honest. What I did not do is take a picture of an empty patch of soil and state, “this is Peter Phelps’ grave,” which is essentially what the Barnes are doing with Wade Childs.

As for their assumption that Wade Childs is buried next to his brother, the Phelps case is also instructive. Peter’s wife, Lucinda, died several years before he did, and we know (again from interment records) that she was buried in a plot in the same part of that cemetery. But section and plot numbers also make it clear that they are not buried together, as one might assume a married couple would be. While it may seem “logical” to think that Childs is buried near his brother, in the absence of actual evidence of that, it seems foolhardy to me to make that assumption and set it in stone (literally) for future generations. Visitors to that South Carolina cemetery a week from now, a year from now, fifty years from now, are going to be left with the belief that they saw the grave of Wade Childs, when in fact they might not have been within fifty (or a hundred) yards of it. Does that sort of precision really matter? Yes, I think it does, especially when it involves placing a marker that’s intended to last for generations to come.

As I’ve said, there are many ways to recognize a person, or a burial, without setting up a fake grave. It can be done. Even the faux cemetery for black Confederates at Pulaski, which is disingenuous and misleading in so many ways, acknowledges that the men so “honored” do not actually lie under those stones.

For those who want to engage in the heritage vs. history debate, this commemoration of Wade Childs offers lots to chew on. It’s a great example of the difference between two different approaches. Serious historians know the limits of their knowledge of a subject, and are willing to say “we don’t know that; we don’t actually know where Wade Childs is buried.” A serious historian does not go around setting up a simulated gravesite as a means of “honoring” a deceased person, or making up a term like “body soldier” to muddy the waters around the man’s actual role in the war, while ignoring critical elements of the primary, documentary record that undermine the chosen narrative. “Heritage” advocates do that sort of thing all the time, and aren’t even aware they’re doing it, or understand that it’s a problem.

So by all means, “forward the Colours,” y’all. Just don’t think what you’re doing counts as history.

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Image: Jennifer Crossley Howard, IndependentMail.com.

Research a Mile Wide, and an Inch Deep

Posted in African Americans, Memory by Andy Hall on December 28, 2011

The deeply shallow “research” to prove the existence of black Confederates continues apace. This image, from the Alabama Department of Archives and History, is of men from the 15th Alabama Infantry attending a statewide Confederate veterans reunion in Montgomery, in November 1902. The 15th Alabama, many will recall, is the regiment that made repeated attempts to dislodge the Union flank on Little Round Top on the second day at Gettysburg, facing the famous 20th Maine Infantry. I believe the former commander of the 15th Alabama, William C. Oates, is the first man at left in the front row in the image, directly above the C in “C.S.A.”

The image has become a point of discussion online recently, particularly in reference to the dark-skinned man in the second-to-last row, third from the end on the right. The discussion seems to center around whether the man is African American, of mixed race, or perhaps is a white man with very dark, tanned skin. Whether he’s actually African American or not is critical, because the beginning and end of the question is whether or not a black man attended a Confederate reunion. That fact, in and of itself, is apparently supposed to tell us all we need to know about African Americans and the Confederacy.

Of course, it doesn’t.

Warning: The following includes historical quotes that use offensive language and themes.

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Steve Perry and “Uncle Steve Eberhart”

Posted in African Americans, Memory by Andy Hall on November 11, 2011


Steve Perry, a.k.a. “Uncle Steve Eberhart,” c. 1934.

As many readers will know, African Americans were a fairly common sight at Confederate soldiers’ reunions in the late 19th and early 20th centuries. Today, some view photographs from these reunions as evidence that the black men shown were considered full and equal soldiers by the white veterans. While there was undoubtedly plenty of reminiscing and genuine bonhomie between the white and black men at such events, a closer look at contemporary descriptions from the time reveals that there were crucial differences in the way each group was viewed and treated that subtly but firmly reinforced the long-established racial order in the South. Simply put, even after the passage of forty, fifty or sixty years, former slaves and body servants were still expected to keep their place and defer to the attitudes that prevailed in the Jim Crow South.

Warning: The following includes extensive historical quotes that use offensive language and themes.

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General Stephen D. Lee Disses Black Confederates

Posted in African Americans, Leadership, Memory by Andy Hall on November 4, 2011

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):

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Mustering Black Confederates

Posted in African Americans, Media by Andy Hall on August 24, 2011

A new page added to the blog, indexing by category my previous postings on black Confederate soldiers.

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Image: Ransom Gwynn (seated) with white Confederate veterans at what was billed as the “Last Confederate Reunion” at Montgomery, Alabama in September 1944. Rev. Gwynn attended at least two Confederate reunions (1937 and 1944) on the claim that he had been a “body guard” to his former master, but historical records indicate Gwynn was likely not more than 11 years old, and perhaps as young as 8 or 9, when the war ended. Alabama Department of Archives and History.

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Famous “Negro Cooks Regiment” Found — In My Own Backyard!

Posted in African Americans by Andy Hall on August 8, 2011

More crackerjack analysis from the leading online researcher of “black Confederates”:

Captain P.P. Brotherson’s Confederate Officers record states eleven (11) blacks served with the 1st Texas Heavy Artillery in the “Negro Cooks Regiment.” This annotation can be viewed on footnote.com. See the third line on the left. Also, the record is cataloged in the National Archives Catalog ID 586957 and microfilm number M331 under “Confederate General and Staff Officers, and Nonregimental Enlisted Men.”

Could this be one of the types of regiments many Confederate historians have documented as part of Confederate History?

Here’s the document in question:

Note that the critical phrase “Negro Cooks Regiment,” as quoted by the researcher, does not appear in the document, which is a routine statement of rations drawn for conscripted laborers. The actual text reads, “Provision for Eleven Negroes Employed in the Quarter Masters department Cooks Regt Heavy Artillery at Galveston Texas for ten days commencing on the 11th day of May 1864 & Ending on the 20th of May 1864.” There’s a similar document in the same collection, covering the period May 21 to 31, as well.

“Cook’s Regiment” is an alternate name for the 1st Texas Heavy Artillery. Like many Civil War regiments, it was widely known and referred to by the name of its commanding officer, Colonel Joseph Jarvis Cook (right). The regiment, formed from a pre-war militia unit, served at Galveston through most of the war, manning the artillery batteries around the island. The African Americans referred to in the document, attached to the regiment’s quartermaster, were likely used in maintaining the trenchwork and fortifications occupied by the regiment, or moving supplies and munitions between them. After the war, the former members of the regiment reorganized themselves as a sort of unofficial militia unit again, which eventually morphed into a social club. The Galveston Artillery Club exists right down to the present day. (Highly recommended for lunch, if you can score an invite.)

I wouldn’t expect most people, even Civil War buffs, to know what “Cook’s Regiment” was off the top of their heads, but it’s quite clear from the original document that it’s an artillery unit, as opposed to a regiment of cooks. The key phrasing quoted, “Negro Cooks Regiment,” is an outright fabrication. And 30 seconds with a search engine would’ve clarified the situation immediately.

Or maybe doing minimal due diligence like that is just a trick used by politically-correct, revisionist “pundits” like myself.

Forget interpretation. Forget analysis. Forget trying to understand the document within the context of the time and place it was written; these people don’t even seem capable of reading the documents they cite. This particular researcher has a track record of misreading documents, and drawing conclusions based on that misreading. A few weeks ago she claimed that the record of one African American, attached to a cavalry regiment, carried the notation, “has no home,” and went on to argue this showed special commitment to the Confederate cause: “with no home, [he] was not phycially [sic.] bound to the south. However, he stayed and served the Confederate States Army.” The actual notation, repeated again and again on cards throughout his CSR, was “has no horse.”

On another occasion, she quoted from a book on Camp Douglas, supposedly to show that a black servant held there had not been released as a former slave, but was held as a prisoner because the Federal authorities had determined that he was a bona fide soldier. This, she argued, was evidence that enslaved personal servants were deemed Confederate soldiers by the Union military. Unfortunately, the very next lines of the book she was quoting from verify that the prison camp did, after months of dragging their heels, determine the man was a slave, and released him on exactly those grounds by order of the Secretary of War.

And now, an entire regiment of “Negro cooks,” right here in my own home town. How did I miss that one? 😉
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Image: Order for the evacuation of Galveston, October 1862, signed by Col. Joseph Jarvis Cook, commanding Confederate troops on the island. Rosenberg Library, Galveston.

Frederick Douglass and the “Negro Regiment” at First Manassas

Posted in African Americans, Memory by Andy Hall on July 30, 2011

From the Douglass Monthly, September 1861:

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.

This quote, and most specifically the first part of it in bold above, is often waved triumphantly as an incontrovertible bit of evidence that the Confederacy did enlist African Americans as bona fide soldiers, “having muskets on their shoulders, and bullets in their pockets.” Those who advocate for the existence of large numbers of BCS seem to view Douglass’ quote as a sort of rhetorical trump card, as though the assertion of someone so genuinely revered could not possibly be questioned. If Frederick Douglass said so, the thinking seems to be, then even the most biased, politically-correct historian has to accept that.

The truth, of course, is that Frederick Douglass’ claims are subject to same scrutiny as anyone else’s. It’s worth remembering that Douglass was neither a reporter nor an historian; he was, by his own happy admission, an agitator, and is his September 1861 essay excerpted above he was again making the case for the enlistment of African American soldiers in the Union army. If there were reports that the Confederate army had used black troops at First Manassas — a battle that by September was well understood as an embarrassing setback for Union forces — then that made all the more compelling case for the Lincoln administration to respond in kind.

But why did Douglass believe that there were, or at least plausibly might be, such units in the Confederate army? He lived in upstate New York, in Rochester; he was nowhere near the battle and saw nothing of it at first hand. He might have spoken to someone who claimed first-hand knowledge of the event, but there’s no evidence that that’s the source of the claim. Indeed, the opening clause of the passage — “it is now pretty well established” — acknowledges that Douglass was not writing about something he knew to a certainty, but rather a conclusion based on what were likely numerous reports, rumors and press items.

Earlier this week Donald R. Shaffer looked at the evidence of black Confederate soldiers taking part in First Manassas, and argued that Douglass may have been basing his claim on an exchange in the Congressional Globe that took place soon after the battle, in which the involvement of African Americans in the Confederate army in a variety of capacities is discussed. Shaffer concludes, “it is apparent from the debate above that some servants and other African Americans attached to both armies were armed. This did not make them soldiers officially, but it does make murkier the line dividing soldiers and civilians attached to the armies in the Civil War.”

Dr. Shaffer, author of After the Glory: The Struggles of Black Civil War Veterans and Voices of Emancipation: Understanding Slavery, the Civil War, and Reconstruction through the U.S. Pension Bureau Files, makes a solid argument. Douglass closely followed the political debates of the day, and may well have followed the discussion in the Congressional Globe. But I would respectfully submit that it’s even more likely that he believed there were black Confederate troops at Manassas because he read it in the newspaper. From the New York Tribune, July 22, 1861, p. 5 col. 4:

A Mississippi soldier was taken prisoner by Hasbrouck of the Wisconsin Regiment. He turned out to be Brigadier Quartermaster Pryor, cousin to Roger A. Pryor. He was captured on his horse, as he by accident rode into our lines. He discovered himself by remarking to Hasbrouck, “we are getting badly cut to pieces.” What regiment do you belong to?” asked Hasbrouck. “The 19th Mississippi,” was the answer. “Then you are my prisoner,” said Hasbrouck.

From the statement of this prisoner it appears that our artillery had created great havoc among the rebels, of whom there are 30,000 to 40,000 in the field under command of Gen. Beauregard, while they have a reserve of 75,000 at the Junction.

He describes an officer most prominent in the fight, and distinguished from the rest by his white horse, as Jeff. Davis. He confirms previous reports of a regiment of negro [sic.] troops in the rebel forces, but says it is difficult to get them in proper discipline in battle array.

This account, with minor changes to the wording, appeared in newspapers all across the North, and even in Canada, in the days immediately following the battle. It was published in Batltimore, New York, Massachusetts, Albany and — yes — Rochester. A quick search of digitized newspapers suggests how far, and how often, the report of a back Confederate regiment in the field, seemingly confirmed by a captured Confederate officer, made it into print:

  • St. John, New Brunswick Morning Freeman, July 25, 1861, p. 4, col. 3 (Google News)
  • Baltimore American and Commercial Advertiser, July 22, 1861, p. 1 (Google News)
  • Baltimore Sun, July 22, 1861, p. 2 (Google News)
  • Lewiston, Maine Daily Evening Journal, p. 2, col. 2 (Google News)
  • Springfield, Massachusetts Daily Republican, July 22, 1861, p. 4, col. 3 (GenealogyBank)
  • Lowell Massachusetts Daily Citizen and News, July 22, 1861, p. 2 (GenealogyBank)
  • Albany Evening Journal, July 22, 1861, p. 1. col. 6 (GenealogyBank)
  • Jamestown, New York Journal, July 26, 1861, p. 2, col. 4 (GenealogyBank)
  • Mineral Point, Wisconsin Tribune, July 26, 1861, p. 1, col 4 (NewspaperArchive)
  • New York Daily Tribune, July 22, 1861, p. 5, col. 4 (Library of Congress)
  • Moore’s Rural New Yorker, July 27, 1861, p. 6, col. 3 (Rochester Area Historic Newspapers)

As noted, these eleven citations are not an exhaustive list of papers that published this account in 1861; these are only examples that, 150 years later, survive in digitized, searchable form. The actual number of papers, large and small, across the country that repeated these short paragraphs may have counted in the dozens. Summaries based on Pryor’s account went even farther, with the British papers picking up and embellishing the claim. The Guardian was almost certainly rehashing Pryor’s account when it reported on August 7 that “Jefferson Davis was conspicuous on the field, on a white horse, in command of the centre of the army. A negro regiment fought on the same side.” The Illustrated London News went farther, claiming not only that such a unit went into action, but that “Northern troops found themselves opposed to a regiment of coloured men who fought with no want of zeal against them.”

I have no idea who “Brigadier Quartermaster Pryor” was; the 19th Mississippi had two Pryors, neither of which appear to be the man mentioned in the story. But who he was is less important here than assessing the reliability of his claims. I asked Harry Smeltzer of Bull Runnings for a quick assessment of Pryor’s report, as printed in the papers. Harry agreed, so long as I would indemnify him against getting dragged into the black Confederate discussion. (Done.) The Confederate numbers quoted are way off, he said, but then “numbers were wildly overstated by both sides, each being convinced they were outnumbered.” He continued:

OK – lots of [redacted barnyard term] in there, of course. The Federals did not move again on Manassas.

No 19th Mississippi at the battle: 2nd, 11th 13th, 17th, 18th. Last two were with Jones at McLean’s Ford. 2nd & 11th were with Bee and 13th with Early, so those three could have been where the 2nd Wisc was at some point. Pryor would have to have been very lost to wander from Jones to 2nd Wisc. Best bet to me is the 2nd or 11th. . . .

[Jeff Davis] arrived shortly after the fighting had stopped, during the retreat. . . .

Whoever “Brigadier Quartermaster Pryor” may have been, his claims about the battle and the Confederate army are a mess. Even allowing for the fog of war and the reality that no one, even the generals themselves, has a full and accurate picture of the fight in real time, Pryor’s claims are dubious and unreliable. It’s impossible to know, at this remove, what Pryor said on the battlefield, but what he’s quoted as saying in the newspaper is pretty worthless.

We’ll likely never know what caused Douglass to make his claim that the Confederacy had put African American soldiers on the field at Manassas. He may have heard about the battle from someone present, though Douglass’ passage doesn’t suggest that. He may well have followed the debate in the Congressional Globe, but at the same time he almost certainly was aware of the claims of “Brigadier Quartermaster Pryor,” printed in at least two papers likely to have crossed his cluttered desk in Rochester, Horace Greeley’s New York Daily Tribune and one of the local sheets, Moore’s Rural New Yorker. The presence of black men in Confederate uniform was an oft-repeated rumor that the time, and Douglass very likely saw “Brigadier Quartermaster Pryor’s” dubious account as further confirmation. Even an esteemed author like Frederick Douglass can only be a reliable as the material he has to work with.

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Image: Issue of Douglass’ Monthly newspaper, via Division of Rare & Manuscript Collections, Carl A. Kroch Library, Cornell University.

Were Cooks Enlisted in the Confederate Army?

Posted in African Americans, Memory by Andy Hall on July 17, 2011

In a recent post, I took to task a well-known researcher on the subject of black Confederate soldiers, for her misrepresenting the case of a private in the 21st U.S. Colored Infantry, who upon enlistment was taken out of the ranks and assigned to work as a company cook. Although his subsequent disability discharge paperwork makes clear that the 42-year-old private’s reassignment as a cook was because “he has never been able to drill, or to march with the company, or do any military or fatigue duty,” the researcher stated, incorrectly, that he had enlisted specifically as a cook, and she then went on to argue that, because that man was a soldier in the Union army, all cooks in the Confederate army were soldiers, too.

In making her case, the researcher compared the USCT soldier to William H. Dove, an African American man who appears on the rolls of the 5th North Carolina Cavalry. In the comments that followed, one of my regular readers made a blunt point: “But if they were enlisted they were soldiers. William Dove, Cook, Co. E, 5th NC Cavalry was a soldier.”

That’s an entirely reasonable position to take. It’s simple, it’s logical, and it’s easily applied as a standard. But it also raises the question: were the cooks who accompanied and served the Confederate army actually enlisted?

[Before proceeding, let me clarify that in this post, I’m discussing men who worked full-time as unit cooks, not individual soldiers who took turns acting as “cook” for their messes.]

There are several ways to approach this question. A reasonable place to start would be the actual regulations for the Confederate States Army. Several editions of the regs were published from 1861 through 1864; I haven’t found an 1865 edition. But the wording in different editions of the regulations is so similar that I’ll take the mid-war edition of the Regulations for the Army of the Confederate States (“the only correct edition”), published in 1863, as representative. It also happens to be the edition in effect at the time William Dove joined the 5th North Carolina as a cook in December 1863.

While the Regulations go into considerable detail on the provision of cooks in military hospitals (see here and here and here), when it comes to field formations it’s almost completely silent. Article XLVI on the Confederate recruiting service, makes no mention of enlisting cooks in eighteen pages. Elsewhere the regulations are unclear, if not contradictory. They state, for example, that “as soldiers are expected to preserve, distribute, and cook their own subsistence, the hire of citizens for any of these duties is not allowed, except in extreme cases,” but elsewhere provide that each company would be allowed four cooks (as well as four washer-women) for distribution of rations, and that cooks of units embarked on military transports were exempted from one of the two required inspection formations daily. There were other arrangements, as well; in the closing days of the war, for example, Nathan Bedford Forrest issued general orders reorganizing and consolidating his command, instructing that “there will be allowed a negro cook to every mess of ten” troopers, a proportion more than double that allowed under army regulations for infantry units. There’s little clarity to be found in existing army policy and procedure. While the Regulations acknowledge the presence of, and make explicit allowance for, cooks in the Army, there’s no indication that the Richmond intended those men to be formally enlisted.

But regulations are one thing; practice is often another. Anyone who’s been part of a large organization knows that there’s often a wide divergence between policy — what’s supposed to be done — and what actually is done in the day-to-day operations of the group. Is there a way to get a rough estimate of how common it was for the Confederate Army to formally enlist cooks? Yes, there is.

The Data. The National Park Service developed its Civil War Soldiers & Sailors System (CWSSS), an online database, to include essential facts about servicemen who served on both sides during the war. It contains about 6.3 million names, which are themselves drawn from compiled service records (CSRs) held at the National Archives. CSRs are not regimental muster rolls, but are abstracted from them; long before they were transferred to NARA, file clerks at the War Department meticulously copied each man’s name, on each roll, to a long card along with other information about him drawn from the rolls. These, along with other paperwork — hospitalization records, receipts, requisitions, discharge papers and the like, were combined and filed in small folders, one for each man. (These are the documents, microfilmed and digitized, that are now available via commercial services like Footnote.) Because any given man might have his name listed differently on several documents, and because the clerks doing the work had no practical way to sort them out, there many duplications of names, alternate spellings, and so on. The end result of all this is that, while the CSRs and NPS database derived from them are not “clean” data — due in large part to the duplication of names — the CWSSS is a relatively comprehensive database.

It’s true that many contemporary records were lost, particularly Confederate unit records from the last months of the war, and so are not reflected in either the CSRs at the National Archives or the CWSSS. But while this poses a problem for researchers looking for a specific individual, it’s less a concern for the simple analysis offered here, which focuses on extant records only, to see how often cooks are reflected in the muster rolls of Confederate units. The fields available in the CWSSS include “Soldier’s Rank_In” and “Soldier’s Rank_Out,” which allow the researcher to quickly scroll through the names listed for each regiment, to identify men with the listing of “Cook” in either field.

Methods. I selected twenty Confederate regiments to look for men who appear in the CWSSS as “Cook,” either as their initial or final rank. Several regiments were ones that my own relatives had served in; others were suggested by readers of this blog. I tossed in a couple of other regiments on a whim, including the parent regiment of the famous companies of the (supposedly integrated) Richmond Howitzers, just for fun. I also included William Dove’s 5th North Carolina Cavalry, which was the only unit I knew going into the project that had at least one entry for a cook — the number of cooks in the other nineteen regiments were unknown to me at the time I began going through the lists.

Results. There are five entries for cooks, in 40,825 names total — one one-hundredth of one percent, as opposed to a figure between 3% and 5%, based on the organization outlined by army regs, at four cooks per company, or 40-45 cooks per infantry regiment at full strength. It’s possible I missed a few cooks in skimming through the regiments listed here, but even a dozen more men would barely move the needle. But if this sampling is broadly indicative of the Confederate army as a whole — and I don’t know why it wouldn’t be — then the larger situation is clear, that cooks were almost never carried on the rolls as enlisted men. Certainly there are other examples than the five men in the 5th North Carolina Cavalry, but even if there are scores more, they much represent a very tiny fraction of the thousands of men who served as army cooks at one time or another during the war.

So why, in this sample of 20 regiments, are there only a handful of examples clustered in the 5th North Carolina Cavalry? The answer may lie in those five men’s CSRs — four of the five were carried on the rolls of Company E of that regiment, and were placed there by Captain Thomas W. Harris. (The fifth man, like Hannibal Alexander, has a CSR that reflects only his parole from a Federal prison camp; his presence with the 5th North Carolina is not recorded.) Why did Captain Harris, in particular, formally enter these men on his company’s rolls when the other officers of the regiment did not? It’s apparent that these men were not themselves cavalry troopers; each one’s CSR carries the notation, like William Dove’s, “has no horse.” Did he he misunderstand the regulations, or common practice, or was there a specific reason? Whatever the answer, Harris’ decision to enter these men on the roster of Company E clearly stands in stark contrast to common practice; it’s very much a one-off situation.

There’s no question that Confederate cooks, body servants and others considered non-combatant did sometimes find their way into action. Richard Quarls, for example, is reputed to have picked up his master’s rifle when the man was hit, and defended him until he could be removed from the field. There are many such anecdotes, but it’s useful to keep in mind why such incidents were recorded in the first place — because they were out of the ordinary, and beyond the expected scope of those mens’ stations.

But against this there are at least as many accounts from Confederate soldiers of African American cooks and servants that gently mock them for supposed dumb indifference to enemy fire, or for their alleged comical cowardice. Val Giles, describing how his company of the 4th Texas Infantry was pinned down at the foot of Little Round Top after the previous day’s assault, noted that “Uncle” John Price brought up the company’s rations under fire, and promptly lay down behind a boulder and went to sleep, even as Yankee Minié balls splatted against the rocks, “making lead prints half as big as a saucer.” The Rev. J. N. Crain, told of an incident in an 1898 issue of the Confederate Veteran, about an outdoor religious service held after the Battle of Chickamauga:

In the early part of the service a battery belonging to “out friends the enemy” sent a shell, which exploded some two or three hundred yards below our position. A negro [sic.] cook, who had his belongings just outside of the place occupied by the congregation, put them over his shoulder with the significant remark: “this nigger is gwine to git out o’ here.” That caused a ripple of laughter in the congregation, but all sat still. During the long prayer of our service another shell came much nearer. When the prayer was finished and the chaplain’s eyes were opened he saw that the congregation, with the exception of five or six, had followed the cook.

African American cooks and servants were often remembered in this way, as a sort of comic relief, and even so august a personage as Robert E. Lee joined in humor at the expense of the servants’ dignity. John Brown Gordon, a corps commander in the Army of Northern Virginia and later the first Commander of the United Confederate Veterans, wrote in his memoir that

General Lee used to tell with decided relish of the old negro [sic.] (a cook of one of his officers) who called to see him at his headquarters. He was shown into the general’s presence, and, pulling off his hat, he said, “General Lee, I been wanting to see you a long time. I ‘m a soldier.”

“Ah? To what army do you belong—to the Union army or to the Southern army ?”

“Oh, general, I belong to your army.”

“Well, have you been shot ?”

“No, sir; I ain’t been shot yet.”

“How is that? Nearly all of our men get shot.”

“Why, general, I ain’t been shot ’cause I stays back whar de generals stay.”

This anecdote reinforces Gordon’s (and Lee’s) dismissal of the idea that the service of black men like the cook should be considered soldiers; what made the story amusing to both generals is that the man’s claim to status as a soldier was, to their thinking, preposterous on its face, and (according to Gordon) thought by Lee himself to be worthy of telling and re-telling.

These men were also sometimes the direct target of ribald and occasionally dangerous pranks by bored soldiers, in ways that fellow soldiers likely would not be. Clement Saussy, a private in Wheaton’s Light Battery (Chatham Artillery), told of  one such incident in a 1906 issue of the Confederate Veteran:

Of course we had to have some amusement as the time passed, and I decided to have some fun with a negro [sic.] named Joe, who was cook for the “Jeff Davis Mess.” He was ignorant and superstitious. I told him the Yankees were going to shell our camp. He lived in a small hut near the mess house, and every night held a solo prayer meeting. While on picket duty at the ordnance stores I had obtained the powder from an eight-inch shell, and then had removed the fuse. The powder I took to camp and made a bomb out of an old canteen, placed it behind Joe’s house, and lighted the fuse. A number of the boys stood by with bricks, so that when the bomb exploded they were to pelt the house. The fuse burned too slow, and one of the boys said: “Saussy, go look at the fuse.” I crept up. peeped in, and said : “It’s burning all right.” “Blow it,” my companion said, and, without thinking, I blew it and it blew me, for off it went, about two pounds of powder close to my face, blinding my sight for the instant and burning my eyebrows and eyelashes. I fell over, but this was not all. The boys began the brickbat bombardment, and I received my full share of the bricks. Joe was badly scared and ran from the hut. I was temporarily put out of service, but it was fun all the same.

Saussy doesn’t say whether Joe also found being scared and pelted with brickbats “fun all the same.”

These are not respectful accounts; these are not the way one speaks of, or remembers, a peer. Anecdotes like these make clear that, while they might occasionally be praised for noteworthy actions, more commonly army cooks were mocked and derided, the butt of jokes and pranks at their expense. (One should note that their treatment in the Union army was probably little better.)

While it does appear that at least a handful of African American men were carried on the rolls of Confederate regiments, it’s equally clear that the practice was not only not common, but exceedingly rare compared to their actual numbers. Formal regulation, personnel records from the National Archives, and anecdotal evidence all make clear that, while Confederate cooks were an indispensable part of the army, and part of soldiers’ daily lives, they were almost never formally enlisted or carried on military rolls. As a general rule with (it seems) very few exceptions, cooks in the Confederate were not enlisted, and though part of the army, were legally, socially and operationally fundamentally different from the  privates, corporals and lieutenants they served.

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Image: “Dick, sketched on the 6th of May, on return to camp,” by Edwin Forbes. A Union Army cook from 1863. Library of Congress.

Soldiers All

Posted in African Americans, Education, Memory by Andy Hall on July 6, 2011

Recently I’ve gotten the sense that, among those who are pushing broad, generalized assertions about the involvement of African Americans in the Confederate war effort, there’s been a notable tendency to back off the specific claim that they were recognized as soldiers at the time, opting instead for much more vague terms like “black Southern loyalist” that, having no clear objective standard to begin with, can also neither be directly refuted. Such language is warm and fuzzy, but has the great advantage that it can be applied to almost anyone, based on almost anything. It also tells us as much about the speaker as it does about the subject.

Nonetheless, one of the more prominent advocates on the subject of BCS continues to twist herself in rhetorical knots to demonstrate retroactively that African American cooks, body servants, teamsters and so forth should actually be considered Confederate soldiers, regardless of how they were viewed at the time. She recently proposed definitions of “Black Confederate” and “Black Confederate Soldier:”

A “Black Confederate” is an African-American who is acknowledged as serving with the Confederate States Army during the American Civil War (1861-1865).

A “Black Confederate Soldier” is (1) an enlisted African-American in the Confederate States Army, (2) an African-American acknowledged by Confederate Officer(s) as engaged in military service, and/or (3) an African-American approved by the Confederate Board of Pension Examiners to receive a Confederate Pension for military service during the American Civil War (1861-1865).

There are multiple problems with these definitions. The first is that there’s no practical difference between “acknowledged as serving with the Confederate States Army” (Definition 1) and “acknowledged by Confederate Officer(s) as engaged in military service” (Definition 2). A Venn diagram of these would be an almost perfect circle. In this suggested scheme, “Black Confederate” and “Black Confederate Soldier” are entirely equivalent. Anyone should be able to see that, even without knowing anything more about the subject.

Second, she defines a soldier as anyone acknowledged “as having engaged in military service,” which falls back on the never-defined, all-encompassing word “service.” This is a common technique — see the discussion thread here — which sounds simple enough, but conflates a whole range of activities that, at the time, fell into clearly-defined realms.

Third, she’s still hopelessly muddled on the subject of pensions — who awarded them, and what they were awarded for, and what classes of pensions were awarded. Some states awarded pensions explicitly for former slaves/servants (e.g., Mississippi), while others did not. There was no single, central body called the “Confederate Board of Pension Examiners;” pension programs were set up by individual states, each with their own rules and procedures. Individual applications were usually reviewed and endorsed by local boards, which introduces all sorts of unknown variables in procedure and documentation. In at least some cases, the state verified applicants’ service records with the War Department — these materials were later transferred to the National Archives — and even this verification process appears to have resulted in at least one error of mis-identification. The famous Holt Collier, who probably comes as close as anyone to having actually been a Confederate combatant in practice, received three pension awards from Mississippi in his old age — first as a personal body servant, then as a soldier, then again as a servant. In short, pension records tell us very little about the applicants’ status forty, fifty, sixty years before. (The basic primer to understanding the process for awarding Confederate pensions — and their limitations — remains James G. Hollandsworth, Jr.’s manuscript, “Looking for Bob: Black Confederate Pensioners After the Civil War,” in the Journal of Mississippi History.)

This particular researcher has a long track record of glossing over distinctions between slaves and free African Americans, personal servants, cooks, and enlisted soldiers under arms. In the interest of reconciliation and reunion, she consistently rejects the hard realities of race, law and society in the mid-19th century, and insists that all Confederates, writ broad, saw themselves as standing on an equal footing. In an effort to draw an equivalency between African American men employed as cook in the Confederate army with those in the Union, she latches onto a single, three-word notation in the record of one Private Lott Allen of the 21st USCT :

On the left, Lot Allen enlisted with the Union Army 21st United States Colored Troops (USCT) Company A as an “on order cook.” [sic., “in duty cook”] On the right, William Dove enlisted with the Confederate States Army North Carolina 5th Cavalry Company D as a “cook.”  Both men contribute to United States Military history; and their soldier service records are each recorded in the National Archives and Records Administration (NARA).

Her statement about Private Allen is factually incorrect;  as his compiled service record from NARA (14MB PDF) makes clear, Lott Allen enlisted as a U.S. soldier and, being 42 years old, was immediately assigned to work as a cook because he couldn’t keep up as an infantryman. His disability discharge from June 1865 says so explicitly: “Since his enlistment to the present date he has been Company Cook and is too old a man to perform the duty of a soldier.” The regimental surgeon, John M. Hawks, goes on to explain that Allen is unable to perform the duties of a soldier because of “old age; its consequent disability and infirmities. He has never been able to drill, or to march with the company, or do any military or fatigue duty; and he is too careless and slovenly for a cook.” Private Lott Allen didn’t enlist as a cook; he enlisted as a soldier, couldn’t cut it, and (it seems) wasn’t very good as a cook, either.

Posting elsewhere, the researcher takes her assumption about Private Allen and spins it off into a grand, sweeping claim encompassing thousands or tens of thousands of others:

The question is: Were there cooks, teamsters, laborers in the Union Army United States Colored Troops? The answer is yes. As an example in the image of this post, Private Allen Lot [sic.], a soldier with the Union Army 21st United States Colored Troops, served as an “On [sic.] Duty Cook.” See Private Allen Lot’s Union Soldier Service Record (NARA Catalog ID 300398).

Therefore, with this preponderance of the evidence, African-Americans on Confederate Soldier Service Records (muster rolls) who are listed as cooks, teamsters, laborers, etc. should likewise be called soldiers. The sun rises and it shines on us all.

She takes a single notation that this man was assigned as a cook and then extrapolates that to argue that all “who are listed as cooks, teamsters, laborers, etc. should likewise be called soldiers.” She makes what is formally known as a “converse accident,” but is a simple and obvious logical fallacy: she reasons that this soldier was a cook; therefore all cooks were soldiers. (And teamsters, and laborers. . . .)

It’s hard to know whether this researcher bothered to look at all of Allen’s CSR or just didn’t understand it, but it really doesn’t matter. Either way she misrepresents Allen’s actual situation, and then uses that flawed example to make a sweeping rhetorical argument applied to tens of thousands of men in an entirely different army.

This is, sadly, typical of most of the “research” that goes into BCS advocacy; it’s a mile wide and a half-inch deep. It’s pulling out a word here, a line there, and announcing it as “proof” with little consideration of the full record, even when, as in this case, it’s readily available. It’s about adding names to a list, with little or no real understanding of the larger story, or the historical context of the claim being made. It’s just unbelievably superficial.

There’s no question that tens of thousands of African Americans went into the field with the Confederate army as cooks, personal servants, teamsters, laborers, and so on. Some were free; most were slaves. Some undoubtedly went willingly, but far more went with with some degree of coercion (legal, economic, physical) guiding their steps. Some saw combat, even though very, very few were officially in a combat role. There is a tremendous, untapped resource there for serious research. But they were not formally considered soldiers at the time, by either the Confederate or Union army. Robert E. Lee didn’t recognize these men as soldiers; he thought such pretensions made a fine joke. Howell Cobb didn’t recognize these men as soldiers. Kirby Smith didn’t see these men as soldiers. So why do some people today, like this researcher, devote so much effort to retroactively designate them so? Why is “proving” that point so much more important than telling their actual stories as individuals? Sure, this researcher finds Lott Allen and William Dove useful for making an analogy, but does she offer any additional information about them? (Hint: if you’ve read this far, you already know more about Lott Allen than you’re ever likely to find on the researcher’s site.)

I regret feeling obligated to make this post at all, and have no doubt it will be framed as a personal attack on this particular researcher’s character. It’s not; I’ve repeatedly said before, and still believe, that she is sincere and well-intentioned in her efforts. But it’s also clear that she doesn’t understand the materials she’s working with, and has no sense of her own limitations in that regard. But she is viewed as a among BCS advocates as a leading researcher on the subject, and maintains an extensive website dedicated to it. If she is to be respected and valued as a researcher, she needs to be subject to the same fact-checking on her research and methodology that the rest of us are; she doesn’t get a pass because she’s not professionally trained, or because she’s well-intentioned.

There’s a saying, much quoted by True Southrons™, that “history is written by the winners.” This reflects their sincere belief that their own preferred historical narrative is somehow suppressed by professional historians and censored in academic curricula. That’s wrong; history is history, regardless of who writes it. But the work they do needs to stand up to scrutiny, and most of it just doesn’t.
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