Dead Confederates, A Civil War Era Blog

General Stephen D. Lee Disses Black Confederates

Posted in African Americans, Leadership, Memory by Andy Hall on November 4, 2011

One area that the advocates of black Confederate soldiers (BCS) are mostly silent on is the stated attitudes and opinions of actual Confederate leaders who lived and fought through the war of 1861-65. Those views comprise a hard, bitter lump of historical reality that must surely cause indigestion for BCS advocates, given that the “Confed cred” of those men is unassailable. We’ve seen, for example, how both Howell Cobb and his fellow Georgian, Governor Joseph Brown, viewed the prospect of arming slaves with revulsion, and saw it as a betrayal of everything the Confederacy stood for. We’ve seen how Kirby Smith asserted that the Confederacy should “go to the grave before we enlist the negro [sic.].” And we’ve seen how, according to John Brown Gordon, even the venerable Robert E. Lee himself liked to humor his colleagues with an anecdote mocking the pretensions of an African American cook to being a soldier. It’s ugly, unpleasant stuff, but it’s right there, and ignoring it won’t make it go away.

Stephen Dill Lee (right, 1833-1908) was a Confederate general — the youngest of the South’s lieutenant generals, in fact — who after the war went on to a varied career as an author, a legislator, and educator. He was very active in Confederate veterans’ organizations, and succeeded Gordon as Commander-in-Chief of the United Confederate Veterans. In many ways, S. D. Lee was the public face of Confederate veterans, both in the North and the South. S. D. Lee is remembered today particularly for his charge to the Sons of Confederate veterans, given as part of a speech in New Orleans in 1906. Lee’s charge has been used ever since as the guiding principle of the organization, and features prominently in SCV publications, both in print and online. (Read it here, at the bottom of the page.) Indeed, the quasi-academic arm of the SCV, the Stephen Dill Lee Institute, is named in his honor.

The SCV has, of course, spent a great deal of time and effort in recent years pushing the BCS meme. While lots of folks endorse or promote the idea that there were large numbers of African Americans formally enlisted and armed in the Confederate ranks, the SCV is (through its state divisions and local camps) by far the largest single proponent of the idea. Much of this is simply based on careless research or misunderstood documents, but it also results in cases of over-reach that should be genuinely embarrassing to the group, including retroactive assignment of name and rank to men who never claimed such, or the creation of an entire faux cemetery of black Confederates, without a single actual interment there.

So it comes with considerable irony to learn that around the same time the SCV was founded, S. D. Lee was telling reporters at a Confederate reunion what he thought of as a funny anecdote, complete with cartoonish African American “dialect,” that relies on ugly racial stereotypes about African Americans’ courage under fire and instinct for self-preservation for its “humor.” From the Idaho Statesman, January 25, 1896 (warning: offensive language and themes follow):