Dead Confederates, A Civil War Era Blog

Ambrose Bierce “On Black Soldiering”

Posted in African Americans, Leadership, Memory by Andy Hall on October 29, 2010

A skeptical correspondent asks me for an opinion of the fighting qualities of our colored regiments. Really I had thought the question settled long ago. The Negro will fight and fight well. From the time when we began to use him in civil war, through all his service against Indians on the frontier, to this day he has not failed to acquit himself acceptably to his White officers. I the more cheerfully testify to this because I was at one time a doubter. Under a general order from the headquarters of the Army, or possibly from the War Department, I once in a burst of ambition applied for rank as a field officer of colored troops, being then a line officer of white troops. Before my application was acted on I had repented and persuaded myself that the darkies would not fight; so when ordered to report to the proper board of officers, with a view to gratification of my wish, I “backed out” and secured “influence” which enabled me to remain in my humbler station.

But at the battle of Nashville it was borne in upon me that I had made a fool of myself. During the two days of that memorable engagement the only reverse sustained by our arms was in an assault upon Overton Hill, a fortified salient of the Confederate line on the second day. The troops repulsed were a brigade of Beatty’s division and a colored brigade of raw troops which had been brought up from a camp of instruction at Chattanooga. I was serving on Gen. Beatty’s staff, but was not doing duty that day, being disabled by a wound — just sitting in the saddle and looking on. Seeing the darkies going in on our left I was naturally interested and observed them closely. Better fighting was never done. The front of the enemy’s earthworks was protected by an intricate abatis of felled trees denuded of their foliage and twigs. Through this obstacle a cat would have made slow progress; its passage by troops under fire was hopeless from the first — even the inexperienced black chaps must have known that. They did not hesitate a moment: their long lines swept into that fatal obstruction in perfect order and remained there as long as those of the white veterans on their right. And as many of them in proportion remained until borne away and buried after the action. It was as pretty an example of courage and discipline as one could wish to see. In order that my discomfiture and humiliation might lack nothing of completeness I was told afterward that one of their field officers succeeded in forcing his horse through a break in the abatis and was shot to rags on the slope on the parapet. But for my abjuration of faith in the Negroes’ fighting qualities I might perhaps have been so fortunate as to be that man!

San Fransisco Examiner, June 5, 1898. From Russell Duncan and David Klooster, Phantoms of a Blood-Stained Period: The Complete Civil War Writings of Ambrose Bierce. Image: “Battle of Nashville,” Kutz & Allison Lithograph, Library of Congress.

How to Make a Black Confederate from Nothing at All

Posted in African Americans, Memory by Andy Hall on July 27, 2010

Mary Johnson, granddaughter of Pvt. Samuel Brown, holds an American flag presented to her at the event. Paul Chinn/SF Chronicle

Over the weekend, David Woodbury of Battlefields and Bibliophiles and Kevin Levin at Civil War Memory highlighted a story in the San Fransisco Chronicle, about Samuel Brown, an African American Civil War veteran whose grave in Vallejo, California, was recently marked with a stone commemorating his service with the 137th United States Colored Troops. The event came about because the original stone, which had been on Brown’s gravesite since shortly after his death, designated him as a Confederate veteran. Via the CBS teevee affiliate in San Fransisco, Brown’s grave had originally been marked with a stone that read, contradictorily,

So it was a fnckup at the engravers, simple as that. Someone assumed that a Civil War soldier from Georgia must’ve been a Confederate. Nothing nefarious or conspiratorial. Mistakes like this are unfortunate, but certainly not unheard of. Read the full article here.

What’s most remarkable about this story, though, is not the story itself, but the reaction to it. Corey Meyer, posting at Blood of My Kindred, asks, “is this how Black Confederates are created?

Why yes, Corey. Yes it is.

As Corey points out, the comments section of the original story is already filling with posters who, based on nothing at all, are accusing the ceremony’s organizers with changing Pvt. Brown’s history to conform to modern-day political correctness, and to cover up the fact that Brown was really a Confederate soldier. Commenter levesque writes, “my uninformed guess is that Mr. Brown was a black Confederate soldier who surrendered to occupying Union Army forces in Georgia.” He continues, “As anyone who has seen Gone With the Wind knows. . . .”

An “uninformed guess,” based on watching Gone with the Wind. There’s some scholarship. Watch out, Blight, you effete liberal hack, levesque is gunnin’ for your endowed chair.

Someone calling him- or herself whiteheat uses Brown as a jumping-off point for a Beckian rant about Lincoln and how he started the long, slow destruction of Real America™:

What this article does not mention is that many African slaves did indeed fight for the Confederacy. Lincoln’s ‘Emancipation Proclamation’ was issued two years into the civil war, and was mostly for propaganda purposes, since Lincoln said repeatedly that he would be willing to retain slavery if it would preserve the Union. Lincoln was all about Federal power and Big government. He also believed that whites and “negros” could not live together as equals.

After presiding over America’s most destructive war (quite a feat) Lincoln’s additional legacy is that he got us lurching towards Empire. America’s decline can (in part) be attributed to this magnificent war-maker.

Yet another commenter, blogorama, brings the snark:

How is this a positive story? For almost 100 years this man was laid to rest under a head stone that identified him as an ignorant buffoon instead of a hero. And his family never noticed. Gee, that’s heart warming.

Enfield53 — get it? — also jumps to the defense of the idea of Black Confederates, saying

Thousands of slaves and free blacks did serve with honor in the Confederate Army. Indeed, twenty percent of the Confederate Navy was black as well. There are hundreds of photographs taken of black Confederates taken with their white mess-mates at reunions held decades after the war. . . .

Dead Confederates regulars are already familiar with the pitfalls of relying on Confederate reunion photographs.

It doesn’t look like Private Brown has been credited as a Black Confederate up to now, but I wouldn’t be surprised if that changes. The claims made for Black Confederates are often based on the flimsiest of evidence, and a headstone reading “CONFEDERATE STATES ARMY” is undoubtedly sufficient in this case, especially if one overlooks that the original stone correctly identified Brown’s regiment. That last part is a detail that, I suspect, will get overlooked in the clamor about “political correctness” and denial of Brown’s “true” Confederate heritage. After all, it is the Bay Area. I’m sure somehow this whole thing is Nancy Pelosi’s fault.

Update: The Sacramento Bee has nice coverage of the story with additional details, and the Long Beach Press-Telegram has a story from last March on Brown’s family in the Vallejo area.  Below: One of Private Brown’s pension application index cards, dated January 6, 1894, via Footnote.

Update: Here’s a link to the blog post at Cenantua’s that Craig refers to in his comment.