Dead Confederates, A Civil War Era Blog

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.


Sanding Smooth the Rough Edges of History

Posted in African Americans, Genealogy, Memory by Andy Hall on February 22, 2011

Several folks have noted online that one of the Confederate reenactors at last Saturday’s Jeff Davis inaugural in Montgomery was an African American woman. Her name is Barbara Marthal, and she’s been active in Confederate heritage activities for years. She is a member of the Tennessee Order of the Black Rose, does public presentations on “black Confederates,” and last spring was married in a Confederacy-themed ceremony (PDF) hosted by the local SCV camp and ladies’ auxiliary. Her commitment to a particular, SCV-endorsed narrative about the war is unquestioned.

I mention Ms. Marthal because, in response to a story on the event at NPR, she posted a comment in which she cited the case of a Civil War relative of hers, Handy Davis Crudup, “who fought for and received a pension from the Confederacy. One hundred fifty years ago he would have cheered Mr. Davis.” The characterization of Mr. Crudup here is interesting, because Crudup’s Tennessee pension explicitly identifies him as a slave, accompanying Pvt. Richard T. Davis of the 7th Tennessee Infantry. This is a salient fact — indeed the most fundamental fact of his wartime experience — but rather than being clear about that, Ms. Marthal instead offers the somewhat ill-defined assertions that Crudup “fought for” the Confederacy, and  “would have cheered Mr. Davis.” In place of specific fact, the reader is offered vague assertion and speculation. As with Jefferson Davis in 1861 and his doppelganger in 2011, the mention of slavery is avoided in preference to grander language. I really don’t know how she figures to know Crudup’s likely response to Davis” original speech.

It may seem unfair to examine too closely a comment posted to a news story, but in this case it’s not a quickly dashed-off response. They’re Ms. Marthal’s own words, unfiltered by a reporter or editor. Ms. Marthal’s comment is carefully-worded and clear. It is written in defense of the ceremony in Montgomery, addressed to other NPR readers whose own comments are clearly not sympathetic to her view. And it does as good a job of that as it can. But at the same time it badly misleads the casual reader about Mr. Crudup’s actual wartime status, leaving the clear impression that the man was recognized as a soldier. (Another news story gets closer, saying that Crudup “fought as a slave.”)

Ms. Marthal is clearly committed to her Southern heritage, as she views it. She seems conscientious and sincere, but it’s unfortunate that someone who commits so much time and effort to getting history right, falls into the trap of offering vague-but-grand-sounding language rather than clear and specific wording. We don’t do our ancestors honor by being vague or misleading about who they were. It’s hard enough to try to know them at all; it does no honor to their memory to avoid the unpleasant realities of their lives. They lived those hard, ugly realities; is it too much for us even to acknowledge them directly?

The Plywood Steps

Posted in Memory by Andy Hall on February 19, 2011

Today the SCV will be sponsoring a sesquicentennial parade and reenactment of the inauguration of Jefferson Davis as president of the Confederacy at the State Capitol in Montgomery, Alabama. It will be interesting to see how many folks turn out for this event, and what sort of media coverage it gets.

I’ve never visited the Alabama State Capitol, but it nonetheless resonates with me because of a story told me many times by an old friend. In the summer of 1965 he was in high school, and lived with his family in Houston. The family’s social life revolved around church, where my friend’s father was music director and a deacon, and their vacations usually consisted of going to family reunions. This was not a lot fun for a teenager.

My friend prevailed upon his parents that summer to fore-go the usual family reunion, and instead take a long driving trip across the South, with particular attention to visiting Civil War sites. This was in the last year of the Civil War Centennial, and my friend already had a pretty big fascination with the subject.

Their visit to Montgomery came a few months after the famous Third Selma-to-Montgomery March, which had ended with a rally at the State Capitol, yards from the spot where Jefferson Davis had been sworn in a century before. My friend remembered that event vividly, and was as interested to see the Capitol as much for that recent history as for its association with the Civil War. One thing he remembered clearly from watching coverage of the anticipated rally was that the capitol steps, at least some of them, had been covered with sheets of plywood. These formed a steep slope, and my friend hadn’t quite figured it out. Maybe, he thought, they’d been put out to allow people in wheelchairs to participate in the rally, but they seemed at too great an incline for that.

So when he actually visited the Alabama State Capitol a few months later, my friend made it a point to ask about the plywood. What was it for, he asked a state trooper on duty nearby. What was the purpose of the plywood covering the capitol steps?

“So the coloreds couldn’t desecrate them,” was the trooper’s answer.

Is it fair that I think of that story every time I see a mention of the Alabama State Capitol or Jeff Davis’ inauguration? Probably not, but the paths our minds take when we think about things, and how we feel about them, often isn’t fair. It just is.

My friend, a son of the South, continued his fascination with the war, and the Confederacy. By his own admission, he bought into the Lost Cause without hesitation, even tacking up an enormous Confederate Battle Flag in his college dorm room at a school that had only desegregated a few years previously. But looking back on his youth now, all these decades later, he sees that offhand comment by the Alabama state trooper at Montgomery, juxtaposed against Jeff Davis’ inauguration and the Selma-to-Montgomery March, to have been the first, crucial step in his questioning of the Lost Cause and developing a more mature, complex understanding of both the history of the war and the historical heritage of his own family. It was the beginning of a hard process of realization, and it took him a long time to understand the realities of those events, and ugly legacies of them that have come down to us, right to the present day.

Added: Scott MacKenzie, via Kevin Levin, attended today’s event (with a little cardboard “UNIONIST” sign) and has the pictures.


Image: Inauguration of Jefferson Davis, Montgomery, Alabama, 1861. Library of Congress.

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.