Dead Confederates, A Civil War Era Blog

Norris White, Black Confederate “Brothers” and the “Flipside” to Glory

Posted in African Americans, Memory by Andy Hall on April 17, 2013

A while back, Kevin highlighted a news item on Norris White, Jr., a graduate student at Stephen F. Austin State University who was making the rounds last year, doing presentations and generally talking up the subject of African American soldiers in the Confederate army. Norris White seems to be serious and well-intentioned, and (thankfully) he’s no stream-of-consciousness performance artist like Edgerton. But being sincere is not the same thing as being right. For all his insistence that he’s using primary sources, White’s interviews seem to be little more than reiterating black Confederate rhetoric that the SCV has been asserting for years. While he insists on the importance of primary source materials — “100 percent irrefutable evidence — letters, diaries, pension applications, photographs, newspaper accounts, county commission records and other evidence” — there’s little indication that he’s looked carefully at the materials, or understands them in the larger context of the war and the decades that followed. It’s very shallow stuff he’s doing, hand-waving at a pile of reunion photographs, pension records and loose anecdotes and saying, “see? Black Confederates!” Anyone can do that, and plenty of people do.

It says a lot about the depth of his research that in interviews, White has repeatedly singled out two Texas Historical Commission markers as evidence of his much larger claims about “Black Texans who served in the Confederate Army.” These markers, one to Randolph Vesey (Wise County) and the the other to Primus Kelly (Grimes County), are worth closer examination for what they say, and what they don’t. I obtained copies of the historical marker files for both markers, that you can dowload here (Vesey) and here (Kelly). Both men, as was usual at the time the markers were set up, were explicitly and effusively lauded for their loyalty and sacrifice not to the Confederacy but as (in the case of Kelly), “a faithful Negro slave,” right there in the very first line of the marker.

The files are thin — the THC was less diligent about documentation in past decades than they are now — but neither file contains any contemporary documentation of its subject at all. Both amount to a recording of local oral tradition, which is vivid not though always reliable. Both accounts make it explicitly clear that the two men went to war as personal servants, Vesey to General William Lewis Cabell, and Kelly to the West brothers, troopers in the Eighth Texas Cavalry. But it’s very thin stuff to spin into a claim that “the number of black Texans who participated in the Confederate Army in the War Between the States may have been as high as 50,000,” which would be a figure substantially higher than the entire male slave population of Texas between ages 15 and 50 in 1860, which was a bit under 44,000. Claims like that on White’s part seriously undermine his credibility.

Vesey’s and Kelly’s stories, as reflected in the marker files, are well worth reading, and telling. In Vesey’s case, his wartime experiences with General Cabell probably paled in comparison with his being captured by Indians a few years later and being held prisoner for three months, until his release was secured by one of the legendary characters of the Texas frontier during that time, Britt Johnson.

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Primus Kelly’s marker file, though, is much more interesting from the perspective of the advocacy for black Confederates, because included in the file is a 1990 article by Jeff Carroll on Vesey from Confederate Veteran magazine, the official publication of the SCV. The magazine article is a reprint of an article that first appeared in the Midlothian, Texas Mirror on May 31, 1990. Kevin has often suggested that the Confederate Heritage™ groups’ push to find black Confederates in the 1990s was, in part, a reaction to the success of the film Glory (1989), and its depiction of both African American Union soldiers. In light of that, it’s significant that Carroll’s article was originally published just six weeks after Denzel Washington won an Oscar for his role as Private Trip in that film, and moreover, was explicitly framed by its author as the “flipside”  to that work:

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If you’ve seen the movie Glory that won so many awards then you’ve heard and seen part of the story of those “free men of color” who joined the Union army during the War-Between-the-States. They proudly wore the blue of “Mr. Lincoln’s Army” and performed their duties with honor. But, there is a flipside to this story and that brings us to Primus Kelly.

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There’s no indication that Carroll referenced any materials on Kelly other than the text of the marker itself, but he embellishes that text with all sorts of assertions that are completely unsupported. Take, for example, this passage from the marker:

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At the outbreak of the Civil War, [John W. S.] West sent Kelly to take care of his three sons — Robert M., Richard and John Haywood — who joined the famous Terry’s Texas Rangers, where they served with distinction.

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In Carroll’s retelling, this becomes:

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Primus Kelly became the constant companion of John West’s three sons: Robert, Richard and John, Jr. Then came the War and all three boys joined Terry’s Texas Rangers. Primus refused to stay at home and when they boarded the train In Houston, he was there.

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There’s a world of difference between “West sent Kelly” and “Primus refused to stay at home,” but it’s entirely typical of the way advocates like Carroll depict African American men’s involvement with the Confederate army; it’s always shown as voluntary choice, motivated by noble intent, never out of legal obligation or against their wishes.

The is no evidence in the historical marker files of Kelly’s relationship with the West sons, much less the suggestion that they were “constant companions.”  Carroll begins his essay by making the generalized claim that “custom often dictated that the sons of a slave owner received as their own property and slaves of their own age when they’ were children. They were daily and inseparable companions who shared the experience of growing up and became surrogate brothers,” and then paints that assertion right across Primus Kelly. He characterizes Kelly’s relationship with the Wests as that of “brothers” three more times in five short paragraphs, based (as far as I can tell) on no evidence whatsoever. We’ve seen claims like these made falsely before.

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It’s also highly unlikely that Primus Kelly would have been an “inseparable companion” to any of the West brothers, given the difference in their ages. According to the 1870 U.S. Census (above), Primus Kelly was born about 1847, making him much younger than Robert (age 22 upon enlistment in 1861, giving him a birthdate of c. 1839), John (age 27 upon enlistment in 1861, birthdate c. 1834), or Richard (age 32 upon discharge in January 1863, birthdate c. 1831). Primus Kelly was about eight years younger than the youngest of the Wests, and in fact was barely into his teens when he accompanied the Wests off to war. He was not a childhood companion of any of these men, and the three brothers were living at Lynchburg in Harris County — almost 100 miles away from their father in Grimes County — at the time of the 1860 census.

Carroll’s description of the Wests is somewhat misleading, as well. According to the marker, Richard was reportedly wounded twice in battle and escorted all the way back to Texas by Kelly. Carroll repeats this claim, without question. But if this happened, neither wound is recorded in his compiled service record at NARA. What is recorded is that Richard was given a medical discharge for chronic illness not related to combat injuries in January 1863, nine months after enlisting. It seems very unlikely that during those nine months, Richard West would have been twice wounded so severely that he required an extended convalescence back home in Texas, and made the round journey twice, without there being a record of it in his file.

The three brothers did not enlist together, as Carroll suggests; Robert and John, ages 22 and 27 respectively, enlisted in September 1861, when the regiment was first being organized, while their older brother Richard, age 31 or 32, didn’t join the regiment until May of 1862. Carroll cites Chickamauga (September 1863) and Knoxville (November/December 1863) as fights in which Terry’s Rangers participated, but only Robert might have been present, as he was taken prisoner sometime during the latter part of 1863. Richard was medically discharged, and John was dead. Robert died in April 1905, his obituary appearing in the Confederate Veteran magazine in July of that year.

Kelly is said to have followed the Wests into action, “firing his own musket and cap and ball pistol.” There are many such anecdotes from the war, and they may well be true in Kelly’s case. There is a report in the OR (Series I, Vol. XVI, Part 1, p. 805) by a Union officer from the Battle of Murfreesboro, July 1862, that “The forces attacking my camp were the First [sic., Eighth] Regiment Texas Rangers, Colonel Wharton, and a battalion of the First Georgia Rangers. . . . There were also quite a number of negroes [sic.] attached to the Texas and Georgia troops, who were armed and equipped, and took part in the several engagements with my forces during the day.” But if this is one of the events that Kelly participated in, it underscores the argument that those men were camp servants following their troopers into action, rather than troopers in their own right.

Did Carroll set out to fictionalize Primus Kelly’s story? I don’t know, but to all intents and purposes that was the result. The end product is as much happy fantasy as fact. And even then, it wouldn’t matter so much were it not that other authors have gone on to cite Carroll, including Kelly Barrow’s Black Confederate. In fact, the article is a mess, in which even knowable, factual information is misrepresented. Under the circumstances, I actually think there is one other thing that this article could appropriately borrow from Glory, and it comes right at the very, very end of the movie:

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This story is based upon actual events and persons.
However, some of the characters and incidents portrayed
and the names herein are fictitious, and any similarity
to the name, character, history of any person,
living or dead, or any actual event is entirely
coincidental and unintentional.

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Like so much else that’s been written about black Confederates in the last 23 years, Jeff Carroll’s article takes a kernel of fact, churns it in a bucket with inaccurate or flat-out-false information and untethered speculation, to create a warm-and-fuzzy story that reassures the Confederate Heritage™ crowd that it was all good, and there’s nothing particularly troubling or complex about any of it — because, you know, they were like brothers. The thing that’s notable about it is that (1) it’s undoubtedly one of the earliest of its type, (2) it’s offered explicitly as a corrective to the narrative presented in Glory, and (3) it so fully expresses the modern talking points that define the push to relabel men who used to be called (as in Kelly’s case) “a faithful Negro slave,” into something far more palatable for modern audiences.

I understand why people want to believe this happy nonsense; it takes a raw, ugly edge off a time and place they have chosen to embrace tightly. What I don’t understand is how someone like Norris White would fall for it. Unlike most of the folks who peddle this stuff, White presumably has the academic background and the research skills to dig into the weeds of this stuff, and understand what the sources actually say. (A good place to start is acknowledging that an historical marker by the side of the highway is not a primary source.) He has the skills and resources to say something new, but instead repeats the same half-truths that have been circulating for decades.

Please, Mr. White, tell Randolph Vesey’s story, and Primus Kelly’s. But tell them fully and completely. Any damn fool can read off the text of a roadside marker and pretend that’s research. You’re better than that, Mr. White, so show us.

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Update:

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