Dead Confederates, A Civil War Era Blog

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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