Bravery, Not Slavery: Why Some Black Folks Want to Believe in Black Confederate Soldiers


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.

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9 thoughts on “Bravery, Not Slavery: Why Some Black Folks Want to Believe in Black Confederate Soldiers

  1. Pingback: Jubilo! on the Appeal of Black Confederates to African Americans « Dead Confederates

  2. I checked you out on Andy Hall’s recommendation. I’m deeply envious of Andy because he gets to do really interesting stuff and does it with style. Now I’ve got to add you to that list as well. Sigh.
    Truly, this is, y’know, all the usual stuff; vital, important, engaging. But above and beyond all of that, it’s bloody interesting! Good stuff. I’ll be a regular visitor.

  3. Very compelling piece – the whole idea of black confederate soldiers sort of baffles me – but I find it fascinating nonetheless. Thanks for linking me to your blogroll – natrually, I returned the favor. Your blog is very well done :)
    Keith

  4. I found your site because you bloged on Kevin Levin’s site, cwmemory, when I complemented my brother for attending the dedication to the African American Memorial in D.C. You memtioned that you met my brother at the dedication. Please watch the PBS History Detective episode on the Chandler Tintype and read more on cwmemory about the story of my Great grandfather who was a slave in Mississippi and was carried to the Civil War by his owner. The SCV and UDC claimed jhim as a Black Confederate soldier and placed an Iron Cross on his grave. It has been a long hard fight to set the record straight.

  5. I think you’re claim is as absurd as the neo confederates. Surely they (black Confederates) fought they had been lead to believe the union troops were the devil and worse. Not to mention the many military reports of black Confederates, unless any of us where there we cannot say, the so called historians you count on, rely on myths and opinions; many times claiming it was against the law for the Confederacy to allow black troops. Not too long ago it was against the law for gays to serve. Facts and they point to black Confederates fought though I agree not in the numbers claimed. Gary.

    • I don’t see where you’ve addressed any of the points I made in the post. You are making general comments that you’ve probably repeated in many discussions about so-called Black Confederate Soldiers, but I am making specific comments here, and you’re not speaking to what I’ve said. You’ve said nothing I can respond to.

  6. Though it is beyond anyone living now to believe that any person enslaved in the south would fight for the Confederacy, it is not out of the realm of possibility. True the Confederacy had laws against enlisting slaves to fight but, if a man picks up a gun and fires on the battlefield would that not make him a combatant? Would that act alone not make him a soldier? I think it would. Something I think you miss here is that that slave accompanying his master to war would be leaving his family on the plantation. More than likely his family would be taken “care of” because he had to go off with his master. The slave would more than likely fight not for the south or his master, but to protect his family back home. Not an unreasonable thing to have happened.

    One thing that you said that struck me as, forgive me, ridiculous was the statement asking “if these slaves were recognized for their manhood and worthiness, why were they slaves in the first place”. No one goes into a combat situation saying, today I going to be a hero. Doesn’t happen. If a person is in the wrong place at the right time and takes the only action he/she deems as necessary at the time, the circumstances of their being at that place at that time is of no consequence. They define themselves by the action they take at the time of their imperilment.

    • Rob,

      RE: Though it is beyond anyone living now to believe that any person enslaved in the south would fight for the Confederacy, it is not out of the realm of possibility… Something I think you miss here is that that slave accompanying his master to war would be leaving his family on the plantation. More than likely his family would be taken “care of” because he had to go off with his master. The slave would more than likely fight not for the south or his master, but to protect his family back home. Not an unreasonable thing to have happened.

      It’s certainly not out of the possibility that some enslaved person might have raised arms against the Union. I think it is entirely possible that somewhere between several hundred to several thousand (3,000 or so) black men might have done so. Furthermore, I think the idea that no slave would have ever picked up a gun to fire at the Union army is absurd. The question is, how much did it happen?

      I take some exception to the wording that such men “fought for the Confederacy.” If the slaves in question were given a promise that their families would be “taken care of,” I would say that they fought to protect their families, not to advance the cause of Confederate independence. If they were indeed fighting for the cause of Confederate independence, then I think the wording “the fought for the Confederacy” would be appropriate.

      Of course, if this did in fact happen, I would love to see the evidence that it was extensive, pervasive, and persuasive. The fact is, “taking care of a slave’s family” was a rule of the game – masters were supposed to “take care of their slaves.” What additional care did the masters in question offer to the families of the slaves taken to the front – more food?… less work?… less whippings?… freedom? Inquiring minds want to know.

      My own guess is that the bulk of these slave owners took their bondsmen with them with the idea that they didn’t need to promise anything for their “service”: a slave was supposed to do his master’s bidding, in peace and war. But I suspect that master and slave would have had a very interesting discussion about all of that.

      RE: True the Confederacy had laws against enlisting slaves to fight but, if a man picks up a gun and fires on the battlefield would that not make him a combatant? Would that act alone not make him a soldier?

      I define a soldier as someone who: enlisted in the Confederate armed forces as a soldier; was trained as a soldier; took the oaths of loyalty and service of a soldier; etc. Per the policy and laws of the Confederacy, the men in question were not soldiers. This was their reckoning.

      I describe them as combatants.

      RE: One thing that you said that struck me as, forgive me, ridiculous was the statement asking “if these slaves were recognized for their manhood and worthiness, why were they slaves in the first place”. No one goes into a combat situation saying, today I going to be a hero. Doesn’t happen. If a person is in the wrong place at the right time and takes the only action he/she deems as necessary at the time, the circumstances of their being at that place at that time is of no consequence. They define themselves by the action they take at the time of their imperilment.

      OK, here’s what I actually said:

      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.

      I was not referring to the specific recognition of heroic acts by these enslaved persons. I was referring to the supposition that these men, who were slaves, were actually soldiers from the git go. In one story I’ve read, the descendant of a slave made the comment that her ancestor “went off to war to fight.” Well, no – if the ancestor in question was a slave, he did not go to fight, he went to serve his master as a noncombatant. My point is that some people would rather believe their ancestors were sent off to fight, than accept the reality that their ancestors served out of obedience and submission to their owner in the capacity of servant noncombatants.

      • I am so glad I found this site, looking forward to learning and sharing opinions , thoughts and ideas.

        Rob

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