Dead Confederates, A Civil War Era Blog

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.

Richard Quarls and the Dead Man’s Pension

Posted in African Americans, Genealogy, Memory by Andy Hall on February 12, 2011

Kevin recently highlighted a story done by a local news station in Florida on Richard Quarls, in honor of Black History Month. Quarls is one of the better-known “black Confederate soldiers,” and in 2003 had a Confederate headstone placed over his grave by the local SCV and UDC groups.

In watching the video it occurred to me that, as presented, there are two narratives being told in the segment about Richard Quarls. One, as told by his great-granddaughter, Mary Crockett, is that of a slave who accompanied his master’s son to war. Ms. Crockett’s account, passed through her family, is clear about his status and role in the war, recounting that “when the master’s son got shot, and fell, [Quarls] picked up the gun, started firing the gun, and defending him while he laid on the ground.” The son is identified here as H. Middleton Quarles, who was killed in fighting at Maryland Gap, Maryland on September 13, 1862. It may have been in that action that Richard Quarls picked up Private Quarles’ rifle. There’s no reason to doubt Ms. Crockett’s account of her great-grandfather’s experience although, as always, family reminiscences are invariably subject to the vagaries of oral traditions passed from one generation to the next.

The second narrative is that overlaid by the SCV, which “discovered” Quarls’ military service and sponsored the headstone and memorial service. This second narrative is largely reflected in the dialogue of the news report, which is sprinkled with dramatic-sounding but vague phrases that blur the distinction between soldier and servant, slave and free. We are cautioned that “historians disagree about their numbers and how they served,” but also assured that “he may have been a servant and rifleman.” It’s suggested that he may have fought in thirty-three battles, and the viewer is told that at the end of the war Quarls was “honorably discharged.” It’s an impressive story to a general audience, but the historian immediately notices that there are very, very few specific facts presented that can be cross-checked against primary sources.

As noted in the video clip, the key element in identifying Quarls’ supposed service as a soldier is his pension record from the State of Florida (10MB PDF). The pitfalls of working with Confederate pension records have been discussed in detail elsewhere, and generally speaking, are less than fully-reliable in determining an individual’s status in 1861-65. They are particularly problematic on the case of Richard Quarls, and actually raise more questions about his wartime service than they answer.

Quarls applied for a pension in Pinellas County, Florida on July 10, 1916. On the first page of the application, he claims that he enlisted in Company K, 7th South Carolina Infantry, at Camp Butler, South Carolina, sometime in 1861. He gives his name upon enlistment as Richard Quarls. He claims to have been discharged in 1865 “near Richmond” Virginia, in 1865, on account of “Lee’s surrender.” The inference is that Quarls served almost the entire war with the 7th South Carolina Infantry. Quarl’s service claims were attested to by two witnesses, T. B. and O. W. Lanier. Both testified to have known Quarls during the war, affirmed his membership in the unit, and that they witnessed his full service as described in the application. These basic elements of his record during the war, claimed on the initial application, appear to have been accepted without question by the SCV, and form the wartime history of Richard Quarls that is now repeated as historic fact, his story being picked up by even non-Civil War authors, including Ann Coulter. (Coulter says Quarls’ grave was unmarked before the installation of the SCV’s stone, which is not true.) In fact, those self-same pension records cast serious doubt on much of what is “known” about Richard Quarls’ service during the Civil War.


Jubilo! on the Appeal of Black Confederates to African Americans

Posted in African Americans, Genealogy, Memory by Andy Hall on February 3, 2011

A new blog came online a few weeks back, that I want to highlight because of some very smart writing by a blogger going by the handle lunchcountersitin. Jubilo! The Century of Emancipation deals with much more than the Civil War, but as the central event in American history during the nineteenth century, that conflict gets particular attention. Here’s what strikes me as an insightful read on the phenomenon of modern-day African Americans embracing Southron Heritage™ groups’ designation of their ancestors as Confederate soldiers, willingly fighting for the Confederate cause:

We’ve seen this before: black families filled with honor at the recognition given to their enslaved ancestors, for the reason that those ancestors somehow fought for what was a pro-slavery regime. The sense of conflict inherent in that is hardly mentioned. I got to thinking: how is it that so many black families ignore these details of their ancestors’ lives, status, and circumstances? Why is it that they are not addressing a key part of the story? After a little bit of thought, the answer was obvious. Black folks are like everyone else: they want to feel that their ancestors were heroes.

Simply put, there is no honor or glory in acknowledging that a long deceased relative was near a battlefield solely to do menial work as act of submission and service to a slave master. People would much rather believe that their ancestors were called to fight – which would be a recognition of their manhood, of their worthiness to do battle, and of their willingness to make the ultimate sacrifice.

But here’s the rub: if these slaves were in fact recognized for their manhood and worthiness – then why were they slaves in the first place? The reality is, black men were seen as degraded, to use a common term of the era, and subservient. Loyalty, not the capacity for courage, was most valued in a slave. After all, a bondsman who was intrepid enough to flee for his freedom – and perhaps fight for the Union – was of no use to a slavemaster on the battlefield.

But people of today want to see their ancestors through their own eyes, and they want to see those ancestors as brave and courageous. This focus on “bravery not slavery” dovetails perfectly with the “heritage not hate” narrative of groups like the Sons of Confederates Veterans. By maintaining an unspoken rule to avoid the unspeakable – the horrors of slavery and the contradiction of a slave fighting for a slave nation – both sides get to honor their ancestors without pondering the issues this “service” raises.

Obviously this is generalizing, and as such can’t really be ascribed to this or that specific descendant. People were complicated in 1865, and they’re complicated in 2011. But on a human level, it makes a lot of sense that this is at least part of the equation.

An Update on the “Last Confederate Reunion”

Posted in African Americans, Memory by Andy Hall on January 23, 2011

A couple of months ago I did a post on a 1944 event in Montgomery, Alabama that was billed as the “Last Confederate Reunion.” In late 2009, the blog Confederate Digest had posted the image above, under the triumphant headline “Black Confederate, Dr. R. A. Gwynne, among the last Confederate Veterans of Alabama.” As I posted in November, it’s a dubious claim. A long, contemporary account of the reunion in the Alabama Historical Quarterly (Vol. 06, No. 01, Spring Issue 1944) mostly ignores Gwynne’s presence relative to the seven white attendees, but also mentions that he was 90 years old at the time. If that were true, he could not have been more than 11 at the end of the war — an child even by 19th century standards. Confederate Digest apparently overlooked this detail, in its intent to establish what one commenter referred to as “the indisputable fact that thousands of blacks, both slave and free, willingly served in the Confederate armed forces, defending their homeland against a brutal, invading northern army.”

I couldn’t find much more about R. A. Gwynne at the time, but last week I reposted my November piece at The Atlantic, and in response got a lot of very interesting and helpful comments. One regular commenter there, Alabama_Girl, noted that Guinn was a common name in north-central Alabama, and asked if I’d tried alternate spellings for the name. I hadn’t, but having now done so, I think we may know considerably more about Gwynne’s personal history. It also casts further doubt on Gwynne serving in any military capacity, given that he may in fact have been even younger at the time than previously suggested. He likely had not seen his tenth birthday by the time the war ended.


“Mr. Holland of Grimes”

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

Update, October 15, 2011: In the comments, Lynna Kay Shuffield provides an update on the death of Holland’s first wife, Samuella, and two of their children in October 1865. This profile has been updated to reflect that new information, as indicated in blue text — thanks!

If you type James Kemp Holland’s name into a search engine, you’ll quickly discover that he “became the highest ranking black, rising to the rank of Colonel and served on the staff of Governor Pendleton Murrah of Texas.”  This story has been picked up a number of places, including on H. K. Edgerton’s SouthernHeritage411 website.

Except that Colonel Holland wasn’t black, or of mixed race. James Kemp Holland is a case study of how well-intentioned but lax research can go very, very wrong.

James Kemp Holland (left, in later life) was born in 1822 in Tennessee. His family emigrated to the Republic of Texas in 1842 and settled in east Texas, what is now Panola County. In fact, family tradition holds that James Kemp Holland’s father, Spearman Holland, named Panola County, using a Native American word of cotton. The extended Holland family were planters, with large holdings in land and slaves.

Spearman Holland (1802-1872) was heavily involved in local and state politics. He was serving in the Texas Legislature when the Mexican War  began, and returned to East Texas from Austin with orders from the governor to raise a raise a company of mounted rangers. James Kemp Holland, at 24, was deemed too young to command the company, so his uncle Bird Holland was appointed captain. James Kemp Holland was subsequently elected lieutenant “by acclamation.”

At the opening of the Battle of Monterrey, Holland’s company was assigned to accompany a battery of the U.S. 3rd Artillery, commanded by Captain Braxton Bragg, positioned opposite the city’s main gate. When the Mexicans fell back, the Texans moved into the city proper where the fighting became close and heated:

Captain Bird Holland, having become disabled, it was here that Lieutenant Holland won his spurs when he made his dash into the city, gallantly leading the Second battalion of the Second Texas Mounted Volunteers under a galling fire from the Old Moor Fort and all the guns along the city’s fortification. Upon dismounting and scaling the walls of the city, the Seventeenth Rangers were again thrown with Captain Bragg on one of the main thoroughfares. And now the Battle of House-tops began, and from every roof and cross street came leaden hail.

The rangers were driven within, where they fought through the houses and walls. Later upon the house-tops the fight went bravely on, the Mexican soldiers disputing every inch of ground.

While this was going on, Bragg was sweeping the streets, and General Ampudia, who was present with the flower of the army, was driven pell mell towards the main plaza, where they intended making a last stand, but with a “little more grape” from Captain Bragg the white flag soon went up.

During the house to house and hand to hand conflict. Lieutenant Holland saw that across the street Texas Rangers were firing from the lower door and windows at the retreating Mexicans down the street, and Mexican soldiers on the top of the parapetted roofs of the same houses, were firing back at the Texans, neither knowing of the proximity of the other!

House-to-house fighting during the Battle of Monterrey. Library of Congress.

Lieutenant Holland’s uncle, U.S. Commissary Captain Kemp S. Holland, later died in camp before the Battle of Buena Vista, and Lieutenant Holland was assigned to bring his body back to Texas for burial. This appears to be the end of James Kemp Holland’s military experience until sometime during the Civil War.

James Kemp Holland soon followed his father into politics, serving in the Texas House of Representatives in the Third Legislature (November 1849 to December 1850). He was appointed U.S. Marshal for Eastern Texas in 1851, but successfully ran for state senator and served in the Fifth Legislature (November 1853 to February 1854). Sometime after that he relocated to Grimes County, northwest of Houston. He returned to the Texas House in late 1861, where he served alongside his father, who was referred to in the House Journal as “Mr. Holland of Panola,” while James Kemp Holland was known as “Mr. Holland of Grimes.”

James Kemp Holland in the 1850 U.S. Census for Panola County. His occupation is listed as “Representative.”

In early 1854 James Kemp Holland married Samuella Andrews in Houston. At this time James Kemp Holland was thirty-two, and Samuella about eighteen. By the time of the 1860 census, James Kemp and Samuella Holland had three children — Bettie, age 6, Lilly, age 4, and a son, J. D. A. Holland, age 2.

Holland’s property (lower left) just before the Civil War, located just northeast of present-day Navasota, along the Brazos River. The county seat, Anderson, appears at upper right. Texas General Land Office.

At the time of the 1860 census, Holland was a wealthy planter along the western border of Grimes County, just northeast of present-day Navasota. The census that year valued his land holdings at $15,000, and his personal property at $25,000. Holland does not appear in that year’s slave schedules, although $25,000 in that time and place would usually indicate property in slaves.

Holland in the 1860 U.S. Census for Grimes County.

During the early part of the Civil War, James Kemp Holland served in the Texas House of Representatives. He reportedly declined a nomination to the Texas Secession Convention, but was elected to serve in the the Ninth Legislature, November 1861 to March 1863. In 1863 he was appointed aide-de-camp to Governor Pendleton Murrah (left). A letter survives from the spring of 1864 in which the governor, writing to the Confederate general commanding the District of Texas, introduces Colonel Holland and asks that he not be interfered with in his travels around the state:

Executive Department
Austin 13th April 1864

Maj Genl
J. B. Magruder

Col. J. K. Holland is aid de camp to the executive of Texas appointed and commissioned by authority of her Laws — I need his services and [ask] that he may not be annoyed in his movements — you will do me a favor by endorsing this statement [and issuing] an order — that he shall not be interfered with by any military officers & that his commission shall be respected by those under your command. He is a planter of Grimes County.

I have the honor to be
Your Obt Svt,
P. Murrah

Governor Murrah’s letter of introduction for Col. Holland.

Based on the letter, it seems likely that Colonel Holland served at the governor’s liaison for military affairs around the state. Murrah was not in good health — he died in Mexico of tuberculosis shortly after the end of the war — and may not have traveled as much as a healthier man might be able to.

Early mention of Holland’s title of “colonel,” Texas State Gazette, April 4, 1854.

It’s not clear what sort of formal commission Holland held as colonel, apart from Governor Murrah’s assertion that it was “by authority of her Laws.” He almost certainly didn’t “rise” to the rank of colonel in any conventional sense; he undoubtedly was appointed at that rank. It’s also worth mentioning that, while his only previous known military experience was as a very junior officer in the Mexican War, he was already being addressed as “Colonel James K. Holland” a full decade before Murrah’s letter, when the Texas State Gazette used the title in announcing his marriage to Samuella Andrews. It was a tradition of sorts in Texas and across the South in the 19th century to address prominent men with a military background — almost any military background — by an inflated military title. It was such a common practice that it was even joked about, as when one old Hood’s Brigade veteran composed a ditty,

It’s General That and Colonel This
And Captain So and So.
There’s not a private in the list
No matter where you go.

After the war, James Kemp Holland returned Grimes County. There, Holland soon suffered great personal tragedy, the deaths of his wife Samuella and two of their young children John D. A. Holland, age 7, and Nannie Hicks Holland, age 5. The Houston Telegraph carried the following obituary on October 18, 1865:

DIED – At Farmingdale, Grimes county, on the 2nd October, John D. A., and Nannie Hicks, only son and youngest daughter of Col J. K. and Samuella Holland. They died almost at the same moment of Congestion, and on the 5th instant, Mrs. Samuella Holland, after forty-one days of suffering – disease, Gastro Interetis.

“Leaves have their time to fall,
And flowers to wither in the night-wind’s breath;
But all – thou hast all
Seasons for thine own! O, Death!”

The fairest picture of happiness on earth, “the only bliss that has survived the fall,” is an unbroken family household, where love and peace and harmony reign. Such was this domestic circle until the angle Death came and bore away one half of its number to their heavenly home.

Mrs. Holland was the daughter of Col L. D. and Eugenia Andrews, of this city, and one of the loveliest daughters of Texas; as pure and excellent in character, as she was fair and beautiful in person. She was a true woman, having all those feminine qualities which call forth admiration and affection from all classes. Although possessing intellectual culture, and those accomplishments which adorn society, the pomp and pleasure of life had no adornments for her. Her only happiness was in her home, where she was enshrined the idol of an adoring husband – the guide and companion of her children, and all that was perfect in the eyes of her faithful and devoted servants.

She had long been a conscientious Christian, and when our Heavenly Father called her she was ready, and the stream of her life passed away calmly and peacefully into the great ocean of eternity.

“So beautiful, she well might grace,
The bowers where angles dwell;
And waft their fragrance to His throne
Who “doeth all things well.”

Though he had served as an aide to Confederate Governor Murrah — and his uncle Bird Holland had been killed in action leading his Confederate regiment during the war — James Kemp Holland appears to have been committed to the smooth reunification of North and South, and a supporter of President Andrew Johnson’s relatively lenient Reconstruction policies. Along with Andrew Jackson Hamilton (left), a prewar U.S. Representative from Texas and the state’s first military governor under Reconstruction, Holland was a delegate representing Texas at the National Union Convention (also known as the Southern Loyalist Convention) in Philadelphia in August 1866.

Around 1867 he married Annie W. Jefferson, and together they had four children — daughters Ella, Louise, and Jessie, and one son, Earnest. In the 1870 U.S. Census, Holland’s property was valued at $1,800, and his personal property at $1,100. Unusually, his daughters from his first marriage, Betty and Lilly, ages 13 and 12 respectively, are each listed as holding $9,000 in real estate. Presumably this was being held in trust for them by their father.

The Holland family in the 1870 U.S. Census.

By 1880, Holland and his family had moved one county over, to Washington County, where they’d settled at Chappel Hill. It was a large household; in addition to Annie and four children, Annie’s mother and the mother’s sister were living with James Kemp Holland, along with another middle-aged widow, Susan Pierce, of unknown relationship to the family.

Holland and his family, residing in Chappel Hill, Washington County, in the 1880 U.S. Census.

In his later years, James Kemp Holland worked as a real estate agent in Austin, both on his own and with partners. He died after a carriage accident in 1898 in Tehuacana, Texas, east of Waco in Limestone County.

Obviously the foregoing is not a full-length biography of James Kemp Holland, nor does it represent exhaustive research incorporating all possible sources. But nowhere in the primary source materials available did I find anything that indicated James Kemp Holland was black, or of mixed race.

There are four available census rolls for Holland, spanning 1850 to 1880. (The 1890 U.S. Census was destroyed in a fire.) Of those four, none designate him black or “mulatto.” The 1850 censuses uses a tick mark ( – ) that continues uninterrupted for page after page of the enumeration, apparently as a sort of “ditto;” the 1860 census carries no notation for anyone for several pages; the 1870 and 1880 censuses explicitly designate each member of the Holland household as white.

None of the mentions I found of James Kemp Holland in a variety of sources published during his lifetime or soon after his death carried any suggestion that he was of mixed race or black. I saw no instance of “colored” or “mulatto” or “Negro” appended to his name in newspaper articles, directories, or official documents like the Texas House Journal, compiled and printed at a time when such notations were almost universal. There’s no mention of it in any biographical sketch I’ve seen, such as that published in the print edition of the Handbook of Texas.

Nor, frankly, is it especially plausible that a black or mixed-race man could hold a series of high elected and appointed offices in a state as virulently white supremacist as antebellum Texas. Free persons of color were an extreme rarity in Texas. Their presence was actually outlawed in the republic at the time the Hollands immigrated to Texas, and they were prohibited from owning land; there was a famous case in which a free black who had aided the Texas Revolution required — literally — an act of Congress to retain title to the land grant he’d been awarded for his services. Even after statehood, laws restricting the activities and rights of free persons of color were among the most repressive in the South. The free population of black and mixed-race persons in antebellum Texas was vanishingly small, and shrinking: 397 in 1850, and just 355 a decade later. (There were more than ten times that number of free colored persons in 1860 in Charleston County, South Carolina, alone.) During that same period, the slave population exploded, from 58,161 to 182,566, an increase of more than 200%. The free black population of Panola (1850) and Grimes (1860) Counties, where James Kemp Holland lived at the time of those censuses, were 2 and 1, respectively.

In short, the only place I find even a suggestion that James Kemp Holland was black or of mixed race is online, when he’s identified as a “black Confederate.” It is neither evidenced in primary sources, nor plausible in the context of the time and place.

Where did the notion come from that James Kemp Holland was black, or of mixed race? I’m not certain, but there are two possible sources I’ve found that may be the source of confusion.

The first is this webpage on the early history of the black community in Panola County. The page — and several others that repeat the same information — goes into considerable detail on the Holland family, including James Kemp Holland, because they were among the first large-scale planters in the area and their bondsmen formed the initial black community there, Holland Quarters. It doesn’t make the claim that James Kemp Holland was black, or of mixed race, but the page is such a poorly-organized mishmash of history, genealogy and commentary that it’s easy to be confused. A casual read of the page could easily lead one to believe that James Kemp Holland was himself a man of color.

The second possible source is the famous Handbook of Texas, the standard, quick-reference guide to the region’s history. Both the online and final print versions of the Handbook include biographies of Bird Holland that mention that he fathered three sons by a slave woman, one of whom was named James. It seems possible that this James Holland was confused for his first cousin, James Kemp Holland, leading one to believe that the latter was a man of mixed race.

Using either of these resources, it would be easy to get the impression that James Kemp Holland was black, or of mixed race. But — and this is important — it’s equally easy to correct. Even a little digging in readily-available, online sources would cast doubt on that notion of James Kemp Holland’s race. But as so often happens with men identified as “black Confederates,” it would seem that little other digging was done to actually establish much at all about his life or career.

It’s all very sloppy, and very misleading. It doesn’t have to be this way, and shouldn’t. A little due diligence, a little more digging, would have completely avoided this misrepresentation.


James Kemp Holland portrait from the Texas House Journal of the Ninth Legislature, First Called Session. Pendleton Murrah portrait from the Texas State Preservation Board.

Thomas Tobe and the Limits of Confederate Pension Records

Posted in African Americans, Genealogy, Memory by Andy Hall on January 2, 2011

Note: This post has been updated since it originally went online, to reflect Tobe’s service at a Confederate military hospital. Major changes from the original are marked in blue.


Corey Meyer, who blogs at The Blood of My Kindred, has been taking a closer look at pension records of individuals who have been claimed to be African Americans who served as soldiers in the Confederate Army. I think this is the right approach, for two reasons. First, it’s a rational way to cut through the routine (and unproductive) back-and-forth shouting of, “no, you’re wrong!”, to get at the actual evidence in specific cases. Second, this sort of methodical, “micro” approach to the evidence is much more likely to identify and confirm the existence of actual, verifiable African Americans who may have served as soldiers. Establishing a half-dozen solid, ironclad examples of such men that can be fully documented in contemporary records will do a better service to Civil War historiography that a thousand unidentified, undated photos of old black men at Confederate veterans’ reunions — let alone the outright frauds that occasionally turn up. It’s hard to find the proverbial needle in the haystack when someone’s throwing fistfuls of straw at you.

Recently, Corey took up the case of one Thomas Tobe (c. 1839 – 1922), a free African American man from Newberry County, South Carolina, who reportedly went to war with Company G of the 7th South Carolina Cavalry, Holcombe’s Legion. Tobe has been identified as a soldier based, it seems, entirely on the content of a 1919 South Carolina pension application where the local board ruled that Tobe had served as a soldier, and includes the notation that Tobe “was a free Negro who volunteered in this company and served to the end of war.” While the claim here is specific, the document (like all Confederate pension records) remains problematic, for reasons I’ll get to shortly.

Before getting into Thomas Tobe’s case in more detail, it’s important to look at Civil War pensions generally and remember how they were handled. This will be familiar ground to some readers, but it bears repeating, because it underscores why Confederate pension applications are not especially reliable sources for determining a man’s status in 1861-65.

Pensions for Union soldiers was handled by a central office within the federal government, where each claimant’s service was checked against official records compiled by the War Department. It was a centralized operation, with objective standards of service verification, with relatively little opportunity for personal influence i determining whether a man’s application was approved.

The situation was very different in the South, where pensions were set up by the individual states. Some states allowed pensions for black servants and other non-combatants, while others did not. Pensions were set authorized at different times, and so on. Generally speaking, each county or district was set up with its own pension board to evaluate and decide local cases. Because Confederate service records were somewhat fragmentary, and were not readily available to the local boards in any case, pensions were generally awarded based on the affidavit of witnesses to the man’s claimed service. Ideally these witnesses were other soldiers who had served in the same unit as the applicant, but often they were not. It was a system inherently weak on verification, capable of being manipulated for both good and ill purposes, with local political appointees issuing state pensions based on the affidavits of men who may or may not have actual first-hand knowledge of the applicants’ claims. Confederate pension records, absent corroborating documentation, cannot by themselves be considered definitive proof of the enlistment status of any individual veteran, white or black.

I should add that 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.

Thomas Tobe’s name has been cited before as a “black Confederate” in several places, including in the comments section over at Kevin’s place. In every case I can find, the claim directs back to these same pension documents without reference to any other evidence or, for that matter, providing any other information about Tobe at all. Tobe applied for a pension in 1919, under that year’s South Carolina Confederate Pension Act of 1919. Earlier South Carolina pensions had been issued primarily to men disabled by the war, or widows of men who died in Confederate service. The 1919 program included all veterans and widows over the age of sixty who had married veterans before 1890. But it did not include African Americans who had served as cooks, servants or in other non-combatant support roles; those men did not become eligible for pensions until 1923. Note that when one runs the search of South Carolina pensions as Ms. DeWitt suggests, the applications are listed in chronological order; Tobe’s name and 1919 application appear at the head of the list, with the next-earliest that of Wash Stenhouse, dated 1923.

I have been unable to find any contemporary (i.e., generated in 1861-65) military records for Thomas Tobe in the usual places, including the NPS Soldiers & Sailors Database or in the service record files via Footnote. Edit: However, as commenter BorderRuffian notes below, he does appear employed as a nurse on the roster of General Hospital No. 1 at Columbia, South Carolina for July and August 1864, having been attached to the hospital on June 30 of that year. Under “remarks,” the he entry carries the notation of “conscript Negro.” (There are also single-entry mentions of a black man named “Tobe” employed as a laborer in June 1863 at Meridian, Mississippi, and someone with the surname “Tobbe,” raced unknown, on the rolls of Co. C, 17th Regiment of South Carolina Volunteers. It’s not clear whether either of these refer to the Thomas Tobe discussed here; Tobe was a common 19th century nickname for Thomas.)

The term “nurse” here may encompass a wide range of duties. Bell Irvin Wiley, in Southern Negroes, 1861-1865, discusses the role of African Americans in Confederate hospitals during the war:

Slaves and free Negroes were employed as hospital attendants, ambulance drivers, and stretcher bearers. Their duties in the hospitals were the cleaning of wards, cooking, serving, washing, and, sometimes, attending the patients. In some hospitals all this work was done by convalescent soldiers. As the need f men became more acute in the later part of the war, Negroes were used more extensively, that the white men, convalescents included, might be available for fighting.

Wiley goes on to note that in 1864, the year Tobe is carried on the roster of the military hospital at Columbia, black hospital workers (or their masters, in the case of slaves) were authorized $400 annually in compensation.

The hospital roster also contradicts the assertion on Tobe’s pension claim that he served continuously with Holcombe’s Legion from 1861 through the end of the war.

The other factor that must be taken into account, of course, is that most all of the tens of thousands of African American men, slave and free, who were involved in one capacity or another with the Confederate Army served in non-combatant roles, as personal servants, cooks, teamsters, laborers, and so on. This is true for vast majority of men now publicly identified as “black Confederates,” as well, for whom detailed documentation exists. Based on the General Hospital No. 1 roster, I believe this is likely true for Thomas Tobe as well. Indeed, he may have also gone along with the 7th South Carolina as a civilian worker, in any number of roles. Although corroboration is lacking, I can easily see that happening. If this were the case — and it’s a speculative scenario — it would neatly explain both his absence from the regiment’s military roster and his claim, 55 years later, to have served with that regiment.

There are documented cases where African American men used different pension forms at different times to describe their wartime roles. The famous Holt Collier, for example, applied for a servant’s pension in Mississippi in 1906, and again in 1916, before applying as a soldier in 1924 and 1928. That, combined with the wide discretion given to local political appointees in determining who would qualify for a pension, it should be considered at least a possibility that the board in his case did not exercise particular rigor in his case to verify the claim made in the old man’s application. So it’s possible that Tobe, perhaps with the encouragement of someone with influence on the local pension board, encouraged him to apply for a pension. Having served as a nurse, and perhaps with other units as a civilian laborer or conscript, it’s easy to see how he and the pension board might both view him as being entitled to the meagre support it provided, whether he was technically eligible or not.

So was Thomas Tobe an honest-to-goodness Confederate soldier? The vocabulary here is important. I believe very much in keeping definitions as narrow as possible; otherwise terms get tossed around loosely to the point at which they have no real meaning. There’s a real tendency to conflate terms in this area of research so that historically-important distinctions between military and civilian personnel are blurred and confused. To me, the  definition of “soldier” that matters in this discussion is that used at the time: carried on the muster rolls, with military rank and recognized as such by his peers. And while in-the-ranks Confederate solders were sometimes detailed off from their units to work in hospitals, there’s no indication that that’s the case here. By those lights, then, and based on this evidence, I’d argue that the evidence does not fully confirm Thomas Tobe’s claim as a Confederate soldier, but clearly did serve as a nurse in a military hospital, most likely as a civilian but under military orders. Confederate service? Yes. As a soldier? I’m dubious, but open to further research findings.

As Kevin often points out, the lives of alleged “black Confederates” rarely get any attention at all apart from their supposed status as Confederate soldiers; those who cite them typically don’t dig much further beyond the one document that, to them, makes their chosen point. So while I retain some skepticism about whether Thomas Tobe was recognized as a soldier in the 7th South Carolina Cavalry during the war, I would like to share what else I have found out about him.

I was able to trace Thomas Tobe through most of the U.S. Censuses from 1850 to 1920. I could not find him in the 1860 Census, and the 1890 Census was destroyed in a fire, but he shows up in the others. The pension record gives his birth date as 1835, but various censuses indicate a birth date as late as 1839. His gravesite gives a birthdate of February 6, 1833, but I’m more inclined to trust the the early censuses, including the 1850 census, that reflect a birthdate of around 1839. It appears that, apart from the war years, he spent his entire life in central South Carolina, in Newberry and Lexington Counties, just west of Columbia.

In 1850 Tobe is lasted as being age 11, the son of William and Mary Tobe of Hellers (now Hellers Creek?), Newberry County, ages 50 and 35 respectively. William Tobe is listed as a farmer. Thomas has three siblings — Mary (15), Young W. (5) and Lucy (3). Thomas Tobe is described here as “Mulatto,” while in all following censuses he’s described as “Black.”

In 1870 Thomas Tobe is listed as a farm laborer in Newberry County, his age given as 31 He is married to Elizabeth, age 25, and they have four children residing with them — Delia (12), Thomas Jr. (9), William (7), John ( 4), and Samuel (1). Also living with them is a black farm laborer, George Wadsworth, age 23. Other records indicate Elizabeth’s maiden name was Wadsworth.

In 1880, Thomas is still in Hellers, now giving his age as 44. Elizabeth — giving her name as Betty — gave her age again as 25. Living with them are their children Thomas (17), William(15), John(14), Samuel (13), Garibaldi (12), Julius (10), Ebenezer (9), Hayes (8), and Florence (6). In that year’s agricultural census, Tobe is a renter on a 64-acre farm.

In 1900, Tobe is still in Hellers, giving his age as 60. He provides his birth date as July 1839. Elizabeth, given as Bettie, gives her age as 55, with a birth date of January 1845. They indicate they’ve been married 35 years. Living with them are two grandsons, their names listed as Lon (12) and Kite (10). He is still renting a farmstead.

In 1910, Thomas and Elizabeth Tobe are still in Hellers, giving their ages as 75 and 68, respectively. Living with them is a grandson, Thomas, age 21. The elder Tobe now owns his farmstead, with a mortgage. Elizabeth reports that she is the mother of 17 children, 10 of whom are still living. (It’s not clear how many of their children died young, and were not noted by the census, but at least one died as an adult during Thomas and Elizabeth’s lifetimes — Delia in 1915, of unknown causes — and their sons Julius (1898) and Hayes (1904) were critically injured in violent encounters; it’s not clear if either son survived.

In 1920, Thomas and Elizabeth Tobe are living in Broad River, Lexington County, with their ages given as 84 and 73 respectively. Although the two of them comprise a single household, the next household in the census is their son John, age 52, and his family, so it appears the elder Tobes either lived next door, or perhaps in an apartment adjacent to John.

Thomas Tobe died on August 1, 1922, and Elizabeth followed on March 29, 1923. Both are reportedly buried in the cemetery at Fairview Baptist Church, near Newberry.

Taken together, these decennial snapshots suggest a man whose life was stable but very linear. He and Elizabeth never learned to read or write, but were married for at least 55 years and raised a large family. He was, in his last years, able to purchase his own farm. It’s possible that, apart from his travels during the war, Thomas Tobe did not travel much beyond the region of central South Carolina where he grew up.

Thomas Tobe’s case is a fascinating one. It warrants further research, both to further illuminate Tobe’s specific circumstances and, more broadly, to illustrate the complexities of the role the African Americans played in the Confederate military effort. While there’s still no separate documentation to confirm Tobe’s service in the 7th South Carolina Cavalry, a little digging (in this case by commenter BorderRuffian) does reveal Tobe’s service as a nurse at a military hospital, and perhaps may even hint that he went with them into the field as a civilian laborer with the Seventh. It’s a complex story, one that doesn’t fit easily into simple interpretations of the conflict.


The Irresistible Appeal of Black Confederates

Posted in African Americans, Memory by Andy Hall on June 28, 2010

Photo by
JimmyWayne, via Creative Commons License.

Over at Civil War Memory, Kevin highlights photos by Robert Pomerenk of an exhibit on “Blacks Who Wore Gray” at the Old Court House Museum in Vicksburg. The display features an original document, the 1914 pension application for former slave Ephram Roberson — the document explicitly asks for “the number of the regiment. . . in which your owner served” — but is otherwise composed of nothing but printouts of various quotes and well-known photographs of African American men in the field with Confederate troops, or (decades later) participating in reunion activities. At least one of the latter photos is credited to the neoconfederate publication Southern Partisan. The “Chandler Boys” are included, of course, though no one else whose image is displayed in the exhibit is fully identified by name and unit. One old African American man is listed only as “Uncle Lewis,” and others are not identified at all.

In terms of presenting or explaining history, the exhibit is a hopeless mess. Its organization — there actually is no organization or structure to it — is exactly the same as many Black Confederate websites, which amount to nothing more than a hodgepodge of quotes and images, unconnected either to each other or to any larger context, that make reference to African Americans in connection with Confederate troops. Like the typical Black Confederate website, there’s no distinction at all made between men who went to war as slaves and those who might have been free; one wonders if those who compile and present this material before the public have any real sense of the most basic elements of the “peculiar institution.” Several of the men shown in the Old Court House exhibit are explicitly identified as servants; there is no recognition — or at least public acknowledgment — that these men were almost certainly slaves, and had no say in whether they went off to war with their masters or not. There’s virtually no information offered about these men that would allow the visitor to get any sort of understanding of these men’s lives, either in the 1860s or in the early 20th century, as old men. There’s no attempt to flesh out their stories, to understand the details of their experiences either during the war, or after; instead, one is left with random quotes from Nathan Bedford Forrest and paeans “to the faithful slaves, who loyal to a sacred trust, toiled for the support of the Army, with matchless devotion and sterling fidelity guarded our defenseless homes, women and children, during the struggle for the principles of our Confederate States of America.” These men were soldiers, we’re asked to believe, volunteering and fighting for their homes and way of life, but they are never allowed to speak for themselves — the only ones allowed to speak on their behalf are white, and even then only to praise their loyalty and fidelity to the Confederacy.

This effort does nothing to honor these men as men. It is simply an extension of the time-honored “faithful slave” narrative, updated to make it more palatable to a modern audience. The Old Court House Museum differs from other efforts to push the case for Black Confederates only in that they actually go so far as to describe them explicitly as “faithful slaves.”

This exhibit would do far more to further the case for Black Confederates as a group if it proved the case of even a single man — Ephram Roberson, perhaps — and really provided in-depth coverage and explication of his life and role during the war and after, and proved his case as a soldier. Show us his service records, if such exist. Show us his listing in the census. Show us his property records, if there are any, or his obituary. If he was a slave, did he talk to the WPA in the 1930s? Are there contemporaneous letters or diaries from his fellow soldiers that describe his service? Track down his descendants living today and interview them. That is how history is done, through dogged research and building a case from the ground up.

But none of that is present at the Old Court House. There is no discussion of these mens’ supposed military service in the larger context of the war, no discussion of the actions they each fought in, and — most significantly — no firsthand accounts by white soldiers within those same units of their African American comrades’ service. What the Old Court House exhibit (and a hundred others on the web and in print) does is just the opposite; it takes a dozen or fifty or a hundred different, unconnected and disparate snapshots and claims that they form a larger, coherent picture. They don’t. They’re like items pulled from a dozen different families’ albums, scattered and mixed into a single pile on the floor; they do not, can not, tell anything approaching a single, cohesive story, no matter how many times they’re rearranged, e-mailed or Xeroxed.

I want to give the Old Court House Museum a pass on this exhibit, which contributes nothing at all to the making the case for Black Confederates. I began my professional career in small, local history museums not unlike this one. I spent six years, starting as an undergrad and continuing after graduation, part- and full-time, researching, writing, designing and setting up exhibits on local history. After that, I spent two years in grad school getting a masters in the field. I’m trained as a museum professional, though I haven’t worked in one for years. So I don’t walk into any museum as a purely blank slate. I even visited the Old Court House Museum once, years ago, although at the time I paid more attention to the steamboat material on display. And while I don’t know much about the specific resources available to the Old Court House — their administration and staff page is blank — I’ve got a good idea of what their situation is like, and it ain’t pretty. Small history museums like the Old Court House often get little or no direct support from local government, apart from in-kind provision of space and utilities; they have minimal paid staff, and cannot afford to hire people with significant experience or training in the field; they get by hand-to-mouth, year after year, trying to squeak by on a few thousand visitors paying a couple of bucks for admission. They are eager to give space to almost any group or person with a new or provocative idea for an exhibit, particularly if it fits well with the museum’s own preferred image of itself and the community it documents. And, as an organization dependent on the good will of the local business community — think of the chamber of commerce crowd — they’re heavily and inevitably influenced by the wishes of a small number of local patrons who may not know the first thing about history, but have very strong ideas about what they do and do not want showcased in their local museum. You’re welcome to make your own speculation who those folks are in Vicksburg.

Vicksburg looms large in the memory of the Civil War; it has been argued that the Vicksburg campaign, which cemented effective Union control of the Mississippi, was the true turning point of the war. But among the moonlight-and-magnolias image the community likes to present to tourists, it’s easy to forget that Vicksburg remains a small, poor town in a small, poor state. Fewer than 25,000 people live there; they are, on the whole, older and less-educated than the rest of the country. The median household income in Vicksburg is a little over half that of the rest of the United States; one in four families live below the poverty level, compared to one in ten nationally. Three-fifths of Vicksburg’s population is African American, a proportion that is exactly the reverse of Mississippi as a whole. Like many cities in the South, it has an ugly postwar history of racial violence and intimidation.

One might assume that the presence of the Vicksburg National Military Park would reinforce the efforts of local museums like the Old Court House; in fact, I think presence of a major Civil War site in town actually (and inadvertently) undermines the efforts of the local museum in developing a strong historical interpretive program of its own, in two ways. First, the national military park is the heavy hitter in terms of history; those in the area who have the educational background or experience are naturally drawn to the park, whether to work as administrators, guides or volunteers. Second, with the National Park Service providing a solid, but conventional, interpretation of the city’s role in the Civil War, the Old Court House Museum would naturally be drawn into serving as an “alternative” museum, presenting material and ideas that, for whatever reason, the NPS won’t touch. That’s where Black Confederates come in.

The idea of Black Confederates has a ready-made appeal. The contribution of African Americans to military service in this country has often been overlooked by both historians and popular culture. On its face, demanding recognition for African American soldiers who fought for the Confederacy sounds not unlike recognizing the achievements of the Tuskegee Airmen of World War II or the 54th Massachusetts Volunteer Infantry — both groups of African American soldiers who had to fight bigotry and doubt even to win the chance to prove themselves against the enemy. The notion of the existence of Black Confederates, while seeming contradict everything most people remember from school about the South, the war and the institution of slavery, also carries with it a certain conspiratorial appeal as well — this is the secret that Northern history books don’t want you to know. Who wouldn’t want to get let in on something like that? Recognizing African Americans serving in butternut uniforms seems like the right and just thing to do; conversely, those who express skepticism (or reject the notion outright) are easily portrayed as being motivated by elitism, prejudice or other ulterior motives to keep these mens’ service quiet, as has supposedly been done these last hundred and fifty years. They want to deny African Americans in the South their heritage. The Black Confederate narrative has a strong element of conspiracy about it, attributed to those who reject it, and like all good conspiracy theories this one is self-affirming: of course they deny these men’s existence, just like they always have. But we know better, don’t we?

I don’t know how many subscribers to the narrative of African Americans in the Confederate ranks are genuinely sincere but ill-informed and unable to recognize an historiographical con game when it’s foisted on them, and how many are willfully, cynically, spinning a line of “evidence” that they know to be composed of smoke and mirrors. As I said before, I want to give the Old Court House Museum a pass on this exhibit, because I know (or think I do) how vulnerable they are to the whims of a few well-heeled patrons, and how poorly-positioned they are to push back. But it’s hard to give them that pass. They may not know better, but they damn surely ought to.