Dead Confederates, A Civil War Era Blog

In Search of the Black Confederate Unicorn

Posted in Memory by Andy Hall on January 2, 2018

Many of you will have heard of the proposal by two State Representatives in South Carolina to put up a monument at the State House in Columbia honoring African-American Confederate war veterans. They have apparently been surprised to discover that serious historians who’ve actually examined the primary source records are telling them that there essentially were none, at least the way the bill’s sponsors seem to think there were. I suppose that’s what happens when you get your understanding of history from Facebook.

I don’t have much else to say about this, except to point to this short comment by Josh Marshall over at Talking Points Memo, wherein one finds this gem of a line:

The specifics of this story challenge my ability to pry apart pure bad faith… from its second cousin, willful self-delusion.

I think I’m going to have a lot of opportunity to quote that line in the future.

Y’all have a great 2018, now!

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Kerosene Billy in Fact and Fiction

Posted in Memory by Andy Hall on April 4, 2013
Great Falls Mill

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This image, posted recently at SHPG, caught my eye, particularly given its description:

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Cotton Mill burnt out shell… the work of Sherman’s troops moving through Richmond County NC, in March 1865.

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It’s a dramatic and potent symbol of the ravages of the war on the South. Or it would be, if it were true.

The ruins in question are those of the Great Falls Cotton Mill in Rockingham, built in 1869, that were destroyed in a fire in October 1972. It’s a well-known local landmark, and is even included in the Historic American Buildings Survey. As near as I can tell, Uncle Billy’s bummers were not suspected in the 1972 conflagration.

Now, there was a large mill on (or near) this site that was reportedly burned by Sherman’s troops, but this one ain’t it, and ninety seconds with “teh Google” would have made that clear. This misattribution is not a huge, hairy deal, but is it too much to ask for folks to expend a little effort — just a little — in getting this stuff right?

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GeneralStarsGray

South Carolina Flag Dispute: Heritage vs. Heritage

Posted in African Americans, Genealogy, Memory by Andy Hall on September 28, 2011

In putting together my recent post on the rancorous neighborhood dispute over a resident’s display of a Confederate Battle Flag in an historically African American neighborhood, I made a passing reference to the fact that the community itself had been founded by former USCTs. In retrospect, I “buried the lede,” as they say, and gave that aspect of the story short shrift — it likely plays a much bigger role in how that community identifies itself, and in its reaction to Ms. Caddell’s display:

Among [Brownsville’s] founding families were at least 10 soldiers stationed to guard the Summerville railroad station at the close of the Civil War. They were members of the 1st Regiment, United States Colored Troops, part of a force of freedmen and runaway slaves who made history with their service and paved the way for African Americans in the military.

At least some of the men were from North Carolina plantations. When the war ended they stayed where they were, living within hailing distance of each other along the tracks. Some of them lived on the “old back road” out of town where outrage has erupted recently over a resident flying a Confederate battle flag. Their ancestors [sic., descendants] still live there.

It’s a striking note in a controversy over heritage that has raised hackles across the Lowcountry and the state.

The community’s past is an obscure bit of the rich history in Summerville, maybe partly because for years the families kept it to themselves. They were the veterans and descendants of Union troops, living through Jim Crow and segregated times in a region that vaunted its rebel past.

The great-great-grandfather of Jordan Simmons III was among them. But growing up in Brownsville a century later, all Simmons remembers hearing about Jordan Swindel, his ancestor, is that he was a runaway slave who joined the Army. The rest, he says simply, “was not talked about.” He didn’t find out about it until he was an adult doing research on the Civil War and the troops and came across Swindel’s name.

Now he’s at work on a book about his family and the Brownsville heritage. Other 1st Regiment surnames in the community include Jacox, Berry, Campbell, Edney and Fedley.

Simmons, 64, has lived through some history of his own. He was one of the South Carolina State University students injured in the infamous 1968 Orangeburg Massacre. He too served in the U.S. Army, a 29-year veteran who fought in Vietnam with the 101st Airborne infantry and retired as a lieutenant colonel. He now lives in Virginia.

It overwhelmed him to see his great-great-grandfather’s name on the wall of honor three years ago when he visited the African-American Civil War Memorial in Washington, D.C. Pvt. Swindel fought in four battles in nine months in 1864, from Florida — where he was wounded — to Honey Hill, S.C. Simmons wishes he would have sought out that history when he was younger.

As I said previously, neither side in this dispute seems much interested in letting go of this game of one-upsmanship. The historical circumstances surrounding the town’s founding don’t change the core legal issues at hand, but given that the Southron Heritage folks routinely dismiss criticism of the Confederate Flag as “political correctness” or as unfairly tarnishing an honored symbol of the Confederacy with its use by hate groups, it’s interesting to see a case where the protestor’s case against the flag is so explicitly based in the very same “heritage” argument that the flag’s proponents righteously embrace.  For at least some local residents, pushback against the CBF is every bit as grounded in the history of the American Civil War, and honoring one’s ancestors, as Ms. Caddell’s display of it. For them, it’s personal, and for exactly the same reasons.

I don’t know what the answer here is. What is clear, though, is that there’s an historical dimension to this case — very real and very valid, by the same “heritage” standard that the folks in (say) the South Carolina League of the South embrace for themselves — that needs much wider dissemination, and it plays a big role in how that community thinks and feels and reacts.
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Image: Soldiers of the 1st USCT on parade. Library of Congress.

Do (Ever-Higher) Fences Make Good Neighbors?

Posted in African Americans, Leadership, Memory by Andy Hall on September 26, 2011

Some folks may recall the case last year in South Carolina where Annie Chambers Caddell moved into a historically African American neighborhood, and put a Confederate flag on the front of her house. Her neighborhood’s origins go back to the close of the Civil War, when the area was settled by several former members of the 1st USCT, who’d been stationed there at the end of their military service. Caddell, who is white, argued she was honoring her Confederate ancestors; her neighbors, not surprisingly, see the flag as a symbol of something else entirely.

Inevitably there were protests against Caddell, and counter-protests in response (above). It got worse; someone reportedly threw a rock through Caddell’s front window. There has been inflammatory, over-the-top rhetoric on both sides. Not surprisingly, both sides have chosen to escalate the dispute.

Earlier this year, two solid 8-foot high wooden fences were built on either side of Annie Chambers Caddell’s modest brick house to shield the Southern banner from view.

Late this summer, Caddell raised a flagpole higher than the fences to display the flag. Then a similar pole with an American flag was placed across the fence in the yard of neighbor Patterson James, who is black. . . .

“I’m here to stay. I didn’t back down and because I didn’t cower the neighbors say I’m the lady who loves her flag and loves her heritage,” said the 51-year old Caddell who moved into the historically black Brownsville neighborhood in the summer of 2010. Her ancestors fought for the Confederacy.

Last October, about 70 people marched in the street and sang civil rights songs to protest the flag, while about 30 others stood in Caddell’s yard waving the Confederate flag.

Opponents of the flag earlier gathered 200 names on a protest petition and took their case to a town council meeting where Caddell tearfully testified that she’s not a racist. Local officials have said she has the right to fly the flag, while her neighbors have the right to protest. And build fences.

“Things seemed to quiet down and then the fences started,” Caddell said. “I didn’t know anything about it until they were putting down the postholes and threw it together in less than a day.”

Aaron Brown, the town councilman whose district includes Brownsville, said neighbors raised money for the fences.

“The community met and talked about the situation,” he said. “Somebody suggested that what we should do is just go ahead and put the fences up and that way somebody would have to stand directly in front of the house to see the flag and that would mediate the flag’s influence.”

Caddell isn’t bothered by the fences and said they even seem to draw more attention to her house.

“People driving by here because of the privacy fences, they tend to slow down,” she said. “If the objective was to block my house from view, they didn’t succeed very well.”

You can see where this is going; by this time next year, one side or the other will have put up a big-ass flag.

More seriously, this is just headache-inducing. The only people benefiting from this rancorous business are flagpole installers and the local lumber yard.

I don’t know what the answer here is. Caddell has a right to display her flag; her neighbors have a right to make their objection to it clear. But neither benefits from continually upping the ante, nor does it help to bring in outside groups and activists to use this case to fight a larger proxy battle for historical memory, as recently happened in Lexington. That only serves to harden the resolve of all concerned, by raising the purported stakes beyond what they actually are. I hope Caddell and her neighbors eventually come to some sort of resolution in this business. But that doesn’t seem likely anytime soon, so long as all parties insist on following the tired script of action and reaction, and insist on having others fight their rhetorical battles instead of talking to each other like responsible grown-ups.

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Image (Original Caption): Brownsville Community resident Tim Hudson (right) tells H.K. Edgerton of Ridgeville he looks “ridiculous” in his Confederate uniform as he stands with outside the home of Annie Chambers Caddell Saturday, October 16, 2010. Brownsville community members marched past Caddell’s home to protest her flying of the confederate flag outside her home in the predominantly black neighborhood. Hudson was not a marcher in the protest group. Photo by Alan Hawes, postandcourier.com.

“The color of the white man is now, in the South, a title of nobility.”

Posted in African Americans, Memory by Andy Hall on May 7, 2011

A few days ago we posted on the writings of James D. B. DeBow, a publisher and essayist who brought his considerable talents to the denunciation of abolitionism, and the defense of slavery, in the years leading up to the war. In his December 1860 booklet The Interest in Slavery of the Southern Non-Slaveholder, DeBow argued that slavery was not only an economic necessity, but absolutely essential to maintaining an aristocracy of white men that must — always — be above those of African descent, regardless of their economic standing:

The non-slaveholder of the South preserves the status of the white man, and is not regarded as an inferior or a dependant. He is not told that the Declaration of Independence, when it says that all men are born free and equal, refers to the negro equally with himself. It is not proposed to him that the free negro’s vote shall weigh equally with bis own at the ballot-box, and that the little children of both colors shall be mixed in the classes and benches of the school-house, and embrace each other filially in its outside sports. . . . No white man at the South serves another as a body servant, to clean his boots, wait on his table, and perform the menial services of his household. His blood revolts against this, and his necessities never drive him to it. He is a companion and an equal. When in the employ of the slaveholder, or in intercourse with him, he enters his hall, and has a seat at his table. If a distinction exists, it is only that which education and refinement may give, and this is so courteously exhibited as scarcely to strike attention. The poor white laborer at the North is at the bottom of the social ladder, whilst his brother here has ascended several steps and can look down upon those who are beneath him, at an infinite remove.

DeBow was not the only Southern writer to make this argument. At the end of October 1860, South Carolina State Senator John Townsend (1799-1881, right) published a pamphlet, The Doom of Slavery in the Union – Its Safety Out of It. Along with DeBow’s booklet, The Doom of Slavery was one of the most popular secessionist tracts of the day. A few weeks after his pamphlet appeared, Townsend went on to sign of the South Carolina’s Ordinance of Secession. Here, Townsend makes explicit that slavery is not just central to the perpetuation of social order in the South, but the maintenance of a uniquely Southern system of caste:

The Effects to the Non-Slaveh0lder.

We forbear to notice the effect of the abolition of slavery upon the Banks, Insurance Companies, Railroads, and all other corporations, depending upon a rich a and flourishing country for their own prosperity. But in noticing its effects upon the different classes and: interests in the South, we should not omit to notice its effects upon the non-slaveholding portion of our citizens.

Accompanied as that measure is to be, by reducing the two races to an equality—or, in other words, in elevating the negro slave to an equality with the white man—it will be to the non-slaveholder, equally with the largest slaveholder, the obliteration of caste and the deprivation of important privileges. The color of the white man is now, in the South, a title of nobility in his relations as to the negro; and although Cuffy or Sambo may be immensely his superior in wealth, may have his thousands deposited in bank, as some of them have, and may be the owner of many slaves, as some of them are, yet the poorest non-slaveholder, being a white man, is his superior in the eye of the law; may serve and command in the militia; may sit upon juries, to decide upon the rights of the wealthiest in the land ; may give his testimony in Court, and may cast his vote, equally with the largest slaveholder, in the choice of his rulers. In no country in the world does—the poor white man, whether slaveholder or non-slaveholder, occupy so enviable a position as in the slaveholding States of the South. His color here admits him to social and civil privileges, which the white man enjoys nowhere else. In countries where negro slavery does not exist, (as in the Northern States of this Union and in Europe,) the most menial and degrading employments in society are filled by the white poor, who are hourly seen drudging in them. Poverty, then, in those countries, becomes the badge of inferiority, and wealth, ordistinction. Hence the arrogant airs which wealth there puts on, in its intercourse with the poor man. But in the Southern slaveholding States, where these menial and degrading offices are turned over to be per formed exclusively by the negro slave, the status and color of the black race becomes the badge of inferiority, and the poorest non-slaveholder may rejoice with the richest of his brethren of the white race, in the distinction of his color. The poorest non-slaveholder, too, except as I have before said, he be debased by his vices or his crimes, thinks and feels and acts as if he was, and always intended to be, superior to the negro. He may be poor, it is true; but there is no point upon which he is so justly proud and sensitive as his privilege of caste; and there is nothing which he would resent with more fierce indignation than the attempt of the Abolitionist to emancipate the slaves and elevate the negros to an equality with himself and his family. The abolitionists have sent their emissaries among that class of our citizens, trying to debauch their minds by persuading them that they have no interest in preventing the abolition of slavery, But they cannot deceive any, except the most ignorant and worthless, the intelligent among them are too well aware of the degrading consequences of abolition upon themselves and their families (such as I have described them), to be entrapped by their arts. They know that, at the North and in Europe, where no slavery exists, where poverty is the mark of inferiority; where the negros have been put upon equality with the whites, and “money makes the man,” although, —that man may be a negro;—they know, I say, that there the white man is seen waiting upon the negro;—there he is seen obeying the negro as his ostler, his coachman, his servant and his bootblack. Knowing, then, these things, and that the abolition of slavery, and the reign of negro equality here, may degrade the white man in the same way as it has done in those countries, there is no non-slaveholder with the spirit of the white race in his bosom, who would not spurn with contempt this scheme of Yankee cunning and malice.

It’s always hard to know whether, and to what extent, essays like DeBow’s and Townsend’s shaped the beliefs and motivations of bot the general public in the South and Confederate soldiers, specifically. They are, in may respects, like highly-politically-partisan cable channels and websites today, in that they (or the ideas they express) form part of the larger rhetorical environment that influences individuals’ views. We can get a better, if imperfect, handle on this today through polling (“Where do you mostly get your news?”), but the exact dynamics of the phenomenon 150 years ago are harder to discern.

Another aspect that bears on this, as well, is that essays like these, or excerpts from them, were picked up and carried in other publications across the South, so they got far more circulation than the actual print run of the original pamphlet would suggest. I came across the Townsend quote, for example, in the Trinity Advocate, published in Palestine in East Texas. Arguments like DeBow’s and Townsend’s went far and wide.

I haven’t worked with large assemblies of contemporary sources, but McPherson addresses the differences in stated motivations between slaveholders and non-slaveholders in Cause & Comrades, and gives a number of examples of non-slaveholders who expressed very much the same ideas Townsend and DeBow both argue, that they saw themselves as defending not an economic institution, but a social order, explicitly based on white supremacy, of which the institution of African slavery was central. “Herrenvolk democracy,” he summarizes (p. 109), “– the equality of all who belonged to the master race — was a powerful motivator for many Confederate soldiers.”

McPherson also touches on something that Chandra Manning is much more explicit about, which is the concept of “liberty,” which was an idea shared widely between slaveholders and non-slaveholders alike. When they spoke of principles like liberty and property rights, there is an implicit belief that those are things that apply to white men (and to a much lesser extent, white women), and to no one else (pp. 29-30):

When Confederate soldiers spoke of liberty, they referred not to a universally applicable ideal, but to a carefully circumscribed possession available to white Southerners. No mere abstraction, liberty had to do with the unobstructed pursuit of material prosperity for white men and their families. As one Virginian put it, liberty consisted of the “good many comforts and privileges” that his family could enjoy without outside interference. While exclusive in terms of race, liberty was inclusive in terms of class. In other words, while liberty applied strictly to whites, it applied to all whites, regardless of present social class or economic condition, because all whites, by virtue of being white, enjoyed the right to individual ambition and aspirations of material betterment through means of their own choosing.

The institution of slavery was so central to daily life across much of the South that it is part of the “home and hearth” that so many Confederate soldiers saw themselves as defending.

So while it’s usually impossible to demonstrate that this Debow essay influenced that Confederate soldier, it seems clear that the ideas they expressed were very much a part of political discourse, and found a receptive audience in the Confederate ranks, both among slaveholders and non-slaveholders. Certainly this line of thinking wasn’t the only one out there — individuals’ motivations to do anything are rarely so simple as that — but scholarship like McPherson’s and Manning’s shows that these arguments were absolutely part of the mix, and the common rationalization that non-slaveholders must, Q.E.D., not have seen any interest in defending the institution is just that — a self-serving rationalization that papers over the cognitive dissonance that inevitably goes with Confederate hagiography.

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The latter part of this post, beginning, “it’s always hard to know. . ,” was originally a comment in response to Marc Ferguson. In retrospect, it seems more appropriate as part of the text. Image: “Southern Ass-Stock-Crazy (Southern Aristocracy),” 1861, Library of Congress.


The Lege Thinks About Secession

Posted in Leadership by Andy Hall on January 25, 2011

The secession crisis of the winter of 1860-61 didn’t pop up overnight; it was a long time a-building, and it moved forward with what, to many at the time, must have seemed a slow, inexorable process. But there were many points along that way where the key issues at hand, including the right of secession and the validity of nullification, were discussed, dissected, and debated.

During the Eighth Texas Legislature (1859-61), increasing tensions between the states and the federal government were becoming increasingly distracting. Inevitably, the Texas House of Representatives dealt with this in the way every legislative body does, by forming a committee. The House Committee on Federal Relations ended up with a stack of motions, reports and correspondence to deal with. One of these was a letter to Texas Governor Sam Houston from his counterpart in South Carolina, William Henry Gist, accompanied by resolutions from that state’s House of Representatives and Senate, reasserting South Carolina’s “right to secede whenever she may think it expedient to do so” and calling on other Southern states to reciprocate with similar resolutions of their own.

Governor Gist’s message was handed off to the House Committee on Federal Relations, which reviewed it for several weeks. Finally, in an evening session on February 8, 1860, in the closing days of the legislative session, the committee returned to the House membership two reports (34MB PDF, beginning p. 634), one expressing the views of the majority of the committee, and other a “minority report,” prepared by committee members who dissented from the majority view. The majority report called for emphatic support for South Carolina, and embraced secession as an option:

The “preamble and resolutions” passed by the Legislature of the State of South Carolina, and submitted for our consideration, have been deliberated upon by the committee on Federal Relations, and your committee respectfully submit to the House for its action the following resolutions:

1st. Resolved, That the State of Texas declare, that “whenever one section of the Union presumes upon its strength for the oppression of the other then will our Constitution be a mockery, and it would not matter how soon the Union was severed into a thousand atoms, and scattered to the four winds.”

2d. Resolved, “If the principles” of confederation upon which the American Union “was consummated, are disregarded,” there will be for Texas neither honor nor interest in the Union; if the mighty, in the face of written law, can place with impunity an iron yoke upon the neck of the weak, Texas will be at no loss how to act or where to go before the blow aimed at her vitals is inflicted. “In a spirit of good faith” Texas “entered the Federal fold. By that spirit she will continue to be influenced to make her the victim of Federal wrong. As she will violate no Federal right, so will she submit to no violation of her rights by Federal authority.”

3rd. Resolved, That the Legislature of Texas assure South Carolina and all her sister States, that “she will not submit to the degradation threatened by the Black Republican party, for sooner than subject herself to “ignominy ensuing from sectional dictation, she would prefer restoration to that independence which she once enjoyed. Sorrowing for the mistake which she has committed in sacrificing her independence upon the altar of her patriotism, she would,” if there were none others to act with her, “unfurl again the banner of the lone star [sic.], and re-enter upon a national career, where if no glory awaited her, she would at least be free from a subjection by might, to wrong and to shame.”

4th. Resolved, That we pledge ourselves to any one or more of the States to co-operate with them, should it become necessary, to resist Federal wrong, and claim that it is not only our right, but imperative duty, at all times to aid any member of this confederacy, in protection of property, in preserving the lives of women and children, and in resisting fanaticism and treason.

Sec.__. And that the Governor is hereby requested to transmit a copy of the above preamble and resolutions to the Governor of South Carolina, and to the Executive of various States of the Union, and to our Representatives and Senators in Congress.

M. S. Munson, One of the Committee

The minority report, naturally, rejected both secession and nullification:

1st. That the Constitution of the United States is the fundamental basis of our Federal Union; that the laws and treaties made in pursuance thereof, are with the Constitution itself, the supreme law of the land, by which the Judges in every State are bound; anything in the Constitution or laws of our State to the contrary notwithstanding; that the decisions of the Supreme Court of the United States are conclusive and binding upon every citizen. And obedience to the Constitution, Laws and authorities of the Federal Government, is the only condition upon which the Union can be maintained.

2d. That none of the alleged evils which have ever, or are now disturbing the harmony of the confederacy are ascribable to the legitimate operations of the Federal Government, but are justly chargeable to the disloyalty of those, who in obstructing the laws and authorities are themselves designedly or undesignedly enemies of the Union, and so far from considering these troubles a pretext for unfriendly demonstrations against it, we regard them as a fit occasion for summoning every patriot to its defence against all assaults, front whatever quarter, or on whatever pretence.

3rd. That a dissolution of the Union would cure no evil — repel no aggression — right no wrong — diminish no alarm — indemnify no damage; but on the contrary, would be the source of unnumbered evils. If wrongs are inflicted they can better be righted in the Union than out of it. And it behooves those who have been faithful to the Constitution to maintain the government, and not surrender to the enemies of the Constitution.

4th. That we dissent from the doctrine that a State has a right to secede from the Union at its pleasure.

5th. That we in like manner dissent from the doctrine of Nullification.

6th. That we deem it inexpedient to send deputies to a convention of the shareholding States, as invited to do by South Carolina.

7th. That in our opinion there is no sufficient cause to justify us in taking the incipient steps for a dissolution of the Union

8th. That the Governor be requested to cause a copy of these resolutions, under the seal of the State, to be transmitted to the Governor of South Carolina, and to each of the Governors of the other States.

John H. Manly, One of the Committee

The House ordered 200 copies of the two resolutions printed, and placed consideration of them on the schedule twice more. Both times consideration of the two resolutions was set aside in favor of more immediate legislation, and they died with the adjournment of the Legislature on February 13, 1860.

There’s nothing really new in either of these reports; the rhetoric, particularly in the pro-secession majority report, is familiar to anyone who’s looked at the secession crisis. What’s striking to me — but again, not really surprising — is the difference in tone. The majority report frames its argument on language that’s both grandiose and inflammatory: “severed into a thousand atoms, and scattered to the four winds,” “fanaticism and treason,” “an iron yoke upon the neck of the weak,” “unfurl again the banner of the lone star,” and so on. Its appeal is almost purely emotional and impulsive, heavily skewed toward the listener’s affective domain.

The minority report, by comparison, is almost wholly cognitive; it appeals to a much more deliberative and (in my view) rational way of thinking. It rejects the validity of secession or nullification, and argues against rash and irrevocable action: “a dissolution of the Union would cure no evil — repel no aggression — right no wrong — diminish no alarm — indemnify no damage; but on the contrary, would be the source of unnumbered evils. If wrongs are inflicted they can better be righted in the Union than out of it.” The tone is measured, almost quiet: “no sufficient cause” and so forth. Rhetorically it’s weak — very weak. Phrases like “we deem it expedient” just don’t raise the ire of the listener.

In the end, of course, secession won out and Texas herself would leave the Union almost exactly a year later. But it’s interesting to see how, in the runup to that momentus act, each side framed its argument.

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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.

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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.

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To Remember is Not to Celebrate

Posted in Memory by Andy Hall on December 21, 2010

Gettysburg Ranger and Civil War blogger John David Hoptak’s thoughts on Monday’s anniversary of South Carolina’s secession are right on the money:

The secession of South Carolina was the culmination of decades’ long sectional strife and tension, at the root of which was slavery. I have no patience for those who deny slavery as the principal cause of secession, since one need only examine all the national debates and tensions in the years leading up to South Carolina’s departure from the Union. From the debate in the Philadelphia’s Carpenter’s Hall in the Summer of 1787 over the three-fifth clause, to the Missouri Compromise of 1820, the annexation of Texas, the Mexican War & Wilmot Proviso, the admission of California into statehood in 1850, the Fugitive Slave Act, the Kansas-Nebraska Act, Bleeding Kansas, the Ostend Manifesto, Dred Scott, John Brown’s Raid on Harpers Ferry, and finally the presidential election of 1860, it is clear the nation faced serious challenges in its first eighty years. And those challenges and all the national crises listed above had one thing in common. . . at the root of them all was the issue of slavery and its expansion. Neither do I have patience for those who claim slavery was a dying instituion; quite the contrary: in the 1840, there was just over two million enslaved persons in the United States; twenty years later, there was four million.

Considering all that transpired before the secession of South Carolina and claiming it had nothing to do with slavery is just plain wrong and essentially ignores the first eighty years of America’s history.

Now, this is not to be confused over why a particular soldier–whether North or South–fought. Motivations behind an individual’s enlistment should not be lumped into a discussion of why a state decided to leave the United States.

While the secession of South Carolina was the culmination of decades’ long tensions over the issue of slavery and its expansion into new lands and territories, it was also the spark that lit the powder keg of the Civil War, a devastating war and one of the most tragic episodes in American history. For this reason, today we should by no means celebrate the secession of South Carolina. We should simply reflect upon what it meant to a nation and its peoples.

Well put. (h/t Eric Wittenberg)

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” . . . the complete absence of any other causes.”

Posted in Memory by Andy Hall on December 16, 2010

Via Michael Rodgers, the South Carolina State achieves clarity on the issue — one issue, singular — behind that state’s secession, 150 years ago next Monday:

The language of the S.C. Declaration is so straightforward, so unambiguous that it is difficult to comprehend that there ever could have been any disagreement over what drove South Carolina to secede. So before any more breath is wasted in arguing about just what our state will be commemorating on Monday, we are reprinting the Declaration on this page. We would urge anyone who doubts that our state seceded in order to preserve slavery — or, for that matter, anyone who has come to accept the fiction that slavery was merely one of several cumulative causes — to read this document.

What we found most striking in rereading the Declaration was the complete absence of any other causes. After laying out the argument that the states retained a right to secede if the Union did not fulfill its constitutional and contractual obligations, the document cited the one failing of the United States: its refusal to enforce the constitutional provision requiring states to return escaped slaves to their owners. “This stipulation was so material to the compact,” the document declares, “that without it that compact would not have been made.”

There is room for disagreement over whether we can fairly judge the morality of the secessionists by the standards of 2010. There is room to debate whether the men who fought for the Confederacy believed they were simply fighting to defend their state, without regard to why their state needed defending, or to what role slavery played in the social order. There might even be room to debate what motivated other states to leave the Union.

But those are debates that need to be had honestly, based on what really happened 150 years ago. Pretending that anything other than slavery played a significant role in South Carolina’s secession is not honest, as the secessionists themselves made a point of telling the world with such abundant clarity.

Too small for a republic. . . .

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Image: Library of Congress.