At Civil War Memory.com, there is an interesting and “complicated” story about Richard Quarles, a Civil War era slave who is identified and honored as a “Confederate soldier.” As the tale is told, Quarles went with his master to join the Confederate army. In the course of engaging the Union army, Quarles’ master was hurt. This prompted Quarles to pick up a weapon, fire back at the enemy, and recover his master from the battlefield. For this, the slave was honored recently by the Sons of Confederate Veterans… and perhaps, way back in the day, by the KKK in its own unique manner (check the video at the link for details).
From the details provided, Quarles was, to use a term in historian James Hollandsworth’s study of black Confederate pensioners, a “black noncombatant.” That is, he was not enlisted as a soldier in the Confederacy, but rather, was part of a particular Confederate unit solely due to service to his master. Hollandsworth’s study indicates that 85% of these black noncombatant pensioners served as cooks, launders, teamsters, or did other types of menial labor.
Yet, we get no sense of that kind of service from this story of a so-called Confederate “soldier.” At one point, the great grand daughter of the slave says, “Well, he was forced into the army, and… you either fight or die.”
But here’s the thing: he was not forced into the army to fight and die. Rather, he followed his master who went into the army, to perform those menial – but nonetheless important – tasks that were mentioned earlier. Military service is a duty and obligation of citizenship; slaves were not citizens. The slave’s duty was to not to battle the enemy, but to serve his master. There is a huge difference between those two things.
We’ve seen this before: black families filled with honor at the recognition given to their enslaved ancestors, for the reason that those ancestors somehow fought for what was a pro-slavery regime. The sense of conflict inherent in that is hardly mentioned. I got to thinking: how is it that so many black families ignore these details of their ancestors’ lives, status, and circumstances? Why is it that they are not addressing a key part of the story? After a little bit of thought, one answer was obvious. Black folks are like everyone else: they want to feel that their ancestors were heroes.
Simply put, there is no honor or glory in acknowledging that a long deceased relative was near a battlefield solely to do menial work as act of submission and service to a slave master. People would much rather believe that their ancestors were called to fight – which would be a recognition of their manhood, of their worthiness to do battle, and of their willingness to make the ultimate sacrifice.
But here’s the rub: if these slaves were in fact recognized for their manhood and worthiness – then why were they slaves in the first place? The reality is, black men were seen as degraded, to use a common term of the era, and subservient. Loyalty, not the capacity for courage, was most valued in a slave. After all, a bondsman who was intrepid enough to flee for his freedom – and perhaps fight for the Union – was of no use to a slavemaster on the battlefield.
But people of today want to see their ancestors through their own eyes, and they want to see those ancestors as brave and courageous. This focus on “bravery not slavery” dovetails perfectly with the “heritage not hate” narrative of groups like the Sons of Confederates Veterans. By maintaining an unspoken rule to avoid the unspeakable – the horrors of slavery and the contradiction of a slave fighting for a slave nation – both sides get to honor their ancestors without pondering the issues this “service” raises.
None of this is to say that the slaves who performed acts of heroism should be denied the honor that is due them. Whether or not he was considered a “man” by the Confederate state, or anyone, Quarles’ bravery showed him to be a man, and it’s fair – it’s righteous – to acknowledge that.
Indeed, the fact that this man was a slave does not make his bravery less impressive; it is makes it all the more remarkable. Unfortunately, that nuance is totally lost in what is surely being described in many places as an example of another “black Confederate soldier.” I think the memory of Richard Quarles deserves better.