In another forum recently, there was a lively discussion going on about the historical basis for present-day claims about black Confederates. One of the topics, naturally, was the pensions that some states awarded to African American men who had served as body servants, cooks, and in other roles as personal attendants to white soldiers. One person asked why it was that the former states of the Confederacy were so late in authorizing pensions for these men, or (in some cases) did not authorize them at all. It’s a good question, that I’m sure defies a single, simple answer.
But in the process of looking for something else, I came across this editorial in the October 1913 issue of the Confederate Veteran, calling on the states to provide pensions for a “a particular class of old slaves.” I’m putting it after the jump, because it’s peppered with racial slurs and stereotypes that are hurtful to modern ears, but were wholly unremarkable for that time, place and publication. So let me apologize in advance for the language, and hope that my readers will appreciate the necessity of repeating it here, in full and in proper context, in order to be crystal clear about the author’s meaning and intent. There are times when polite paraphrasing just doesn’t do the job.
As you read this editorial, keep in mind that the Confederate Veteran, by its own masthead, officially represented (1) the United Confederate Veterans, (2) the United Daughters of the Confederacy, (3) the Sons of Veterans (i.e., the SCV), and other groups. The magazine was mostly written by Confederate veterans and their families, to be read by Confederate veterans and their families. While the editorial may not reflect formal UCV/UDC/SCV policy, its appearance in the magazine does indicate that its perspective is one that would be shared by the magazine’s readership, and its call for action would reach a willing and receptive audience.
In short, if you want to know how real Confederate veterans viewed the purpose and necessity of pensions for former slaves, start here:
It would be a shame to let April slip by without a mention of Texas State Senate Resolution No. 526, which designates this month as Texas Confederate History and Heritage Month. The resolution uses a lot of boilerplate language (including an obligatory mention of “politically correct revisionists”), and also makes the assertion that “ninety-eight percent of Texas Confederate soldiers never owned a slave.” This is a common argument among Confederate apologists, part of a larger effort to minimize or eliminate the institution of slavery as a factor in secession and the coming of the war, and thus make it possible to maintain the notion that Southern soldiers, like the Confederacy itself, were driven by the purest and noblest values to defend home and hearth. Slavery played no role it the coming of the war, they say; how could it, when less than two percent (four percent, five percent) actually owned slaves? In fact, they’d say, their ancestors had nothing at all to do with slavery.
But it’s wrong.
It’s true that in an extremely narrow sense, only a very small proportion of Confederate soldiers owned slaves in their own right. That, of course, is to be expected; soldiering is a young man’s game, and most young men, then and now, have little in the way of personal wealth. As a crude analogy, how many PFCs and corporals in Iraq and Afghanistan today own their own homes? Not many.
But even if it is narrowly true, it’s a deeply misleading statistic, cited religiously to distract from the much more relevant number, the proportion of soldiers who came from slaveholding households. The majority of the young men who marched off to war in the spring of 1861 were fully vested in the “peculiar institution.” Joseph T. Glatthaar, in his magnificent study of the force that eventually became the Army of Northern Virginia, lays out the evidence.
Even more revealing was their attachment to slavery. Among the enlistees in 1861, slightly more than one in ten owned slaves personally. This compared favorably to the Confederacy as a whole, in which one in every twenty white persons owned slaves. Yet more than one in every four volunteers that first year lived with parents who were slaveholders. Combining those soldiers who owned slaves with those soldiers who lived with slaveholding family members, the proportion rose to 36 percent. That contrasted starkly with the 24.9 percent, or one in every four households, that owned slaves in the South, based on the 1860 census. Thus, volunteers in 1861 were 42 percent more likely to own slaves themselves or to live with family members who owned slaves than the general population.
The attachment to slavery, though, was even more powerful. One in every ten volunteers in 1861 did not own slaves themselves but lived in households headed by non family members who did. This figure, combined with the 36 percent who owned or whose family members owned slaves, indicated that almost one of every two 1861 recruits lived with slaveholders. Nor did the direct exposure stop there. Untold numbers of enlistees rented land from, sold crops to, or worked for slaveholders. In the final tabulation, the vast majority of the volunteers of 1861 had a direct connection to slavery. For slaveholder and nonslaveholder alike, slavery lay at the heart of the Confederate nation. The fact that their paper notes frequently depicted scenes of slaves demonstrated the institution’s central role and symbolic value to the Confederacy.
More than half the officers in 1861 owned slaves, and none of them lived with family members who were slaveholders. Their substantial median combined wealth ($5,600) and average combined wealth ($8,979) mirrored that high proportion of slave ownership. By comparison, only one in twelve enlisted men owned slaves, but when those who lived with family slave owners were included, the ratio exceeded one in three. That was 40 percent above the tally for all households in the Old South. With the inclusion of those who resided in nonfamily slaveholding households, the direct exposure to bondage among enlisted personnel was four of every nine. Enlisted men owned less wealth, with combined levels of $1,125 for the median and $7,079 for the average, but those numbers indicated a fairly comfortable standard of living. Proportionately, far more officers were likely to be professionals in civil life, and their age difference, about four years older than enlisted men, reflected their greater accumulated wealth.
The prevalence of slaveholding was so pervasive among Southerners who heeded the call to arms in 1861 that it became something of a joke; Glatthaar tells of an Irish-born private in a Georgia regiment who quipped to his messmates that “he bought a negro, he says, to have something to fight for.”
While Joe Glatthaar undoubtedly had a small regiment of graduate assistants to help with cross-indexing Confederate muster rolls and the 1860 U.S. Census, there are some basic tools now available online that will allow anyone to at least get a general sense of the validity of his numbers. The Historical Census Browser from the University of Virginia Library allows users to compile, sort and visualize data from U.S. Censuses from 1790 to 1960. For Glatthaar’s purposes and ours, the 1860 census, taken a few months before the outbreak of the war, is crucial. It records basic data about the free population, including names, sex, approximate age, occupation and value of real and personal property of each person in a household. A second, separate schedule records the name of each slaveholder and lists the slave he or she owns. Each slave is listed by sex and age; names were not recorded. The data in the UofV online system can be broken down either by state or counties within a state, and make it possible to compare one data element (e.g., households) with another (slaveholders) and calculate the proportions between them.
In the vast majority of cases, each household (termed a “family” in the 1860 document, even when the group consisted of unrelated people living in the same residence) that owned slaves had only one slaveholder listed, the head of the household. It is thus possible to compare the number of slaveholders in a given state to the numbers of families/households, and get a rough estimation of the proportion of free households that owned at least one slave. The numbers varies considerably, ranging from (roughly) 1 in 5 in Arkansas to nearly 1 in 2 in Mississippi and South Carolina. In the eleven states that formed the Confederacy, there were in aggregate just over 1 million free households, which between them represented 316,632 slaveholders—meaning that somewhere between one-quarter and one-third of households in the Confederate States counted among its assets at least one human being.
The UofV system also makes it possible to generate maps that show graphically the proportion of slaveholding households in a given county. This is particularly useful in revealing political divisions or disputes within a state, although it takes some practice with the online query system to generate maps properly. Here are county maps for all eleven Confederate states, with the estimated proportion of slaveholding families indicated in green — a darker color indicates a higher density: Alabama, Arkansas, Florida, Georgia, Louisiana, Mississippi, North Carolina, South Carolina, Tennessee, Texas, Virginia, All States.
Observers will note that the incidence of slaveholding was highest in agricultural lowlands, where rivers provided both transportation for bulk commodities and periodic floods that replenished the soil, and lowest in mountainous regions like Appalachia. The map of Virginia, in particular, goes a long way to explaining the breakup of that state during the war.
Obviously this calculation is not perfect. There are a couple of burbles in the data where populations are very low, for example Mississippi, where the census recorded two very sparsely-populated counties having more slaveholders than families (possible, but unlikely), or on the Texas frontier, where the data maps the finding that almost every family probably included a slaveholder. But in spite of its imperfections, it nonetheless presents a picture that more accurately describes the presence of slaveholding in the everyday lives – indeed, under the same roof – of citizens of the Confederate States than the much smaller number of slave owners does.
Aaron Perry, whose seven slaves are enumerated above in an excerpt from the 1860 U.S. Census Slave Schedule, illustrates the point. Perry, a Texas State Representative who raised hogs and corn in Limestone County (east of present-day Waco) had two sons, William and Mark (or Marcus), living with him at the farm at the time of the census. The elder Perry owned $3,000 worth of land, and nearly four times that in personal property, most of which must have been represented in those seven slaves. When the war came, both sons joined the Eighth Texas Cavalry, the famed Terry’s Rangers. Because neither of the sons – aged 21 and 17 respectively at the time of the census – held formal, legal title to a bondsman, Confederate apologists would claim that they are among the “ninety-eight percent of Texas Confederate soldiers [that] never owned a slave,” and, by implication, therefore had no interest or motivation to protect the “peculiar institution.” Nonetheless, it was slave labor that made their father’s farm (and their inheritance) a going concern. It was slave labor that, in one way or another, provided the food they ate, the shelter over their heads, the money in their pockets, the clothes they wore, and formed the basis of wealth they would inherit someday. And when they went to war, it was slave labor that made it possible for them to bring with them the mounts and sidearms that Texas cavalrymen were expected to provide for themselves. While the Perry boys left no record of their personal thoughts or motivations upon enlisting, the notion that these two young men must have had no interest, no personal stake, in the preservation of slavery as an institution is simply asinine on its face.
You don’t have to talk to a Confederate apologist long before you’ll be told that only a tiny fraction of butternuts owned slaves. (This is usually followed immediately by an assertion that the speaker’s own Confederate ancestors never owned slaves, either.) The number ascribed to Confederate soldiers as a whole varies—two percent, five percent—but the message is always the same, that those men 150 years had nothing to do with the peculiar institution, they had no stake in it, and that it certainly played no role whatever in their personal motivations or in the Confederacy’s goals in the war. But such a blanket disassociation between Confederate soldiers and the “peculiar institution” is simply not true in any meaningful way. Slave labor was as much a part of life in the antebellum South as heat in the summer and hog-killing time in the late fall. Southerners who didn’t own slaves could not but avoid coming in regular, frequent contact with the institution. They hired out others’ slaves for temporary work. They did business with slaveholders, bought from or sold to them. They utilized the products of others’ slaves’ labor. They traveled roads and lived behind levees built by slaves. Southerners across the Confederacy, from Texas to Florida to Virginia, civilian and soldier alike, were awash in the institution of slavery. They were up to their necks in it. They swam in it, and no amount of willful denial can change that.
Coming up: Did non-slaveholding Southerners have a stake in fighting to defend the “peculiar institution?”
Images: Top, list of seven slaves belonging to Texas State Representative Aaron Perry of Limestone County, Texas, from the 1860 U.S. Census slave schedules, via Ancestry. Below, central image on the face of a Confederate States of America $100 note,issued at Richmond in 1862, featuring African Americans working in the field, via The Daily Omnivore Blog.
Recently I came across a passage in General John B. Gordon’s Reminiscences of the Civil War (1903, pp. 382-84) that, while discussing the eleventh-hour decision of the Confederate government to enlist slaves as soldiers in the final weeks of the conflict, reveals a great deal about the nature of slaves’ other service in the Confederate army, and how they themselves sometimes presented themselves both during the war and decades later.
John Brown Gordon (1832-1904) was an attorney with no military experience when the war began, but he was elected captain of a company he raised, and by late 1862 had been promoted to the rank of brigadier general. He quickly became famous for his bravery under fire, and was wounded numerous times. He served throughout the war with the Army of Northern Virginia, eventually rising to the rank of major general (he claimed lieutenant general), and commanding the Second Corps of that army. Gordon saw action at most of the Army of Northern Virginia’s major engagements, including First Manassas, Malvern Hill, Sharpsburg, Gettysburg, the Wilderness, Spotsylvania Court House and the Siege of Petersburg. Gordon surrendered his command to another famous civilian-turned-general, Joshua Lawrence Chamberlain, in April 1865. After the war, he fought against Reconstruction policies — allegedly as a leader of the Klan — and later served as a U.S. senator and as governor of Georgia. In 1890 he was elected first Commander-in-Chief of the United Confederate Veterans, a post he held until his death.
In his memoir, Gordon describes the debate surrounding the proposed enlistment of slaves in the Confederate army in the closing weeks of the war:
Again, it was argued in favor of the proposition that the loyalty and proven devotion of the Southern negroes [sic.] to their owners would make them serviceable and reliable as fighters, while their inherited habits of obedience would make it easy to drill and discipline them. The fidelity of the race during the past years of the war, their refusal to strike for their freedom in any organized movement that would involve the peace and safety of the communities where they largely outnumbered the whites, and the innumerable instances of individual devotion to masters and their families, which have never been equaled in any servile race, were all considered as arguments for the enlistment of slaves as Confederate soldiers. Indeed, many of them who were with the army as body-servants repeatedly risked their lives in following their young masters and bringing them off the battlefield when wounded or dead. These faithful servants at that time boasted of being Confederates, and many of them meet now with the veterans in their reunions, and, pointing to their Confederate badges, relate with great satisfaction and pride their experiences and services during the war. One of them, who attends nearly all the reunions, can, after a lapse of nearly forty years, repeat from memory the roll call of the company to which his master belonged.
My emphasis. Like another dyed-in-the-wool, senior and well-connected Confederate general, Howell Cobb, Gordon discusses the proposal to enroll slaves as soldiers without making any mention of the supposedly-widespread practice of African Americans serving in exactly that capacity.
Far more important, though, is what he does say. Gordon’s description of enslaved body servants, and their ongoing attachment to the Confederacy, is essential. He notes that they “boasted of being Confederates, and many of them meet now with the veterans in their reunions, and, pointing to their Confederate badges, relate with great satisfaction and pride their experiences and services during the war.” This is a critical observation, and explains much of what is now taken as “evidence” of African American men serving as soldiers during the war. Advocates for the notion that large numbers of black men served as soldiers in the Confederate army routinely point to images of elderly African American men at veterans’ reunions and argue that those men wouldn’t have been present had they not been seen as co-equal soldiers themselves. As we’ve seen, the historical record, when available, can disprove that assumption. And now we have General John B. Gordon, Commander-in-Chief of the United Confederate Veterans, writing exactly the same thing about what he saw around him, as the popularity of veterans’ reunions reached its peak. Gordon clearly takes pride in the former slaves’ commitment to the memory of the Confederacy — again, “faithful servants” — but he never credits any greater wartime service to them. Indeed, Gordon continues with an anecdote mocking the idea of such men being considered soldiers:
General Lee used to tell with decided relish of the old negro (a cook of one of his officers) who called to see him at his headquarters. He was shown into the general’s presence, and, pulling off his hat, he said, “General Lee, I been wanting to see you a long time. I ‘m a soldier.”
“Ah? To what army do you belong—to the Union army or to the Southern army ?”
“Oh, general, I belong to your army.”
“Well, have you been shot ?”
“No, sir; I ain’t been shot yet.”
“How is that? Nearly all of our men get shot.”
“Why, general, I ain’t been shot ’cause I stays back whar de generals stay.”
This anecdote reinforces Gordon’s (and Lee’s) dismissal of the idea that the service of black men like the cook should be considered soldiers; what made the story amusing to both generals is that the man’s claim to status as a soldier was, to their thinking, preposterous on its face. To be sure, Gordon shows real affection for these old African American men who, in his view, remain loyal to the cause. Nonetheless, he can’t help but make gentle mockery of their pretensions to be soldiers. He never considered them to be soldiers in their own right, which is the point of heaping praise on them as “faithful servants.” Lee understood that, Gordon understood that, and Gordon counted on his readers in 1903 to understand that.
So why is that so hard to understand now?
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.