The Many Facets of the Remarkable Robert Webster

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Robert Webster: Confederate Slave, Union Supporter, Business Man, and the Allleged Son of “Black Dan” Webster
Source: Julie Rowlands Collection, from the October 2014 issue of Smithsonian magazine

The October issue of Smithsonian magazine features an article about a man who is rightly described as remarkable. Writer Marc Wortman tells the story of Robert Webster, who “risked his life to undermine the Confederacy yet remained close to his former owner after the Civil War.”

The article, titled Why Was Robert Webster, a Slave, Wearing What Looks Like a Confederate Uniform?, introduces us to Webster, a slave who gained minor prominence during the Civil War. From the start of the piece:

As Confederate troops abandoned Atlanta during the night between September 1 and 2, 1864, they blew up a stranded 81-car train packed with munitions. A series of explosions, audible 80 miles away, leveled nearly everything within a quarter-mile and set the cotton warehouses aflame. The perplexed Union commander, Gen. William Tecumseh Sherman, said that from his position almost 20 miles distant, the sound of the fire was “like that of musketry.”

Yet when a few hundred stunned people clustered downtown on the morning after, one of them remarked, “I have never seen the city more quiet.” After living under siege for nearly six weeks, they watched nine of Atlanta’s leading citizens saddle up to ride out to surrender the city to Sherman’s 100,000 men. “Language falls short,” one of those on hand wrote, “in expressing the suspense and anxiety experienced by everyone.”

Perhaps the clearest signal that life in Atlanta would never be the same could be seen among the men who rode out under the white flag: One of them was black. And while technically still a slave, he was as rich as the white men riding beside him. “[He] was better off than any of us,” a white businessman would testify. Bob Yancey, as he was known at the time, was 44 years old. Over the course of his life he was also called Bob, Bob Gadsby, Bob Cunningham, Yancey and, finally, Robert Webster. After the war, he would insist that Webster was his rightful surname—a legacy from the famed Senator Daniel Webster, whom he claimed as his father.

The article title focuses on the uniform Webster is wearing in the above photograph. But Webster was not enlisted in the Confederate army, and there is no evidence he did any combat duty. I dislike the article title, as it seems to me that the uniform is almost a minor part of Webster’s story. Having said that, it does seem that an African American in (what might or might not be) a Confederate uniform draws a lot of attention in some places.

I found the story poignant in two ways. First, it illustrates the divide, which could be a wide divide, between the lives of plantation or so-called “field slaves” and “servants” or “body servants” or so-called “house slaves.” The black leader Malcolm X gave a speech which is famous to students of him and his era called “the field negro and the house negro” which explores this divide, albeit, in a very pointed way.

This is not to say Webster was a “house negro” in any derogatory sense. Rather, it’s clear that being a house servant gave him privileges and opportunities which he keenly maximized, and used to aid his master’s enemy – the Union – at some financial benefit to himself. It also seems he had some ability at working with diverse groups of people.

Second, I was intrigued by Webster’s alleged lineage from the Massachusetts Senator Daniel Webster, who was sometimes called “Black Dan” Webster due to relatively dark skin color.

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Daniel Webster, of Massachusetts, who served in the US House and Senate, and was twice US Secretary of State; was he Robert Webster’s father?
Source: Wikipedia Commons

If I could go back in time and meet Robert Webster, my first question would be, “how did your… belief that Dan Webster was your father affect you, and make you what you are?” The stories of mulattos and the impact of white parents on their lives is not something that I have seen discussed in extensive form, outside of individual biographies. That story is a part of my own family history, a story which my family has, in general, avoided discussion of (and this is not at all uncommon).

He died for his master’s country

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Claim receipt for compensation to a slave owner, Peter Gaillard Stoney of South Carolina, for the loss of his slave Toby. Toby died while building military fortifications in the Charleston area.
Source: railsplitter.com, a site for the sale of Civil War era collectibles. See here, item number 894. This document had an estimated value of $200-300.

When the Civil War began, some Confederates opined that slavery would be a source of strength for their putative nation. Slaves would perform the drudgery type work that every country at war must have done; and white men could be dedicated to combat and garrison duty. Thus, even if negroes could not take arms for the Confederacy, they could be useful by providing valuable labor.

Slaves were used in various capacities. Many were employed building fortifications to protect positions within the CSA from attack by the Union. Working on these fortifications could be hazardous, due to heat, exhaustion, disease, accidents, or other perils. Some owners resisted this use of their slaves precisely because the work conditions could be so dangerous to their slave property.

In 1864, a slave known as Toby paid the ultimate price for his duty to his master and his master’s cause. He died while building fortifications in South Carolina. The monetary compensation for the loss – $1900 – indicates that Toby was considered a valuable slave. The payment went to the owner, who might have felt the loss of a slave – perhaps someone considered a loyal slave – on different levels. It is unclear if Toby’s family received a share of the monies.

Toby, of course, could not have died for his country… he had no country. As a slave, he was no more a citizen of the Confederacy than a horse or a mule. It was his role as a human beast of burden that would position him for his deadly enterprise, such as it was.

Toby’s death underscores the fact that many more people died during the war, directly because of the war, than are counted on military death rolls. And no doubt other men, black or white, Confederate or Union, died under similar conditions. These are the uncounted casualties of the Civil War.

Andy Hall of the website Dead Confederates has identified the slave owner as Peter Gaillard Stoney (1809-1884) of St. James, Goose Creek Parish, Charleston District of South Carolina. Stoney had 120 slaves according to the 1860 U.S. Census. The Stoneys’ home was Medway Plantation, that still stands.

This is a photo from the Medway Plantation. The date is unknown, but this was probably taken sometime after the end of the Civil War. The structure in the photo appears to be one of the former slave quarters. Perhaps Toby’s friends and family, or Toby himself, resided here.

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Former slave quarters(?), Medway Plantation, South Carolina; probably post Civil War.
Source: South Carolina Library, Digital Collections, Berkeley County Photograph Collection, Accession no. 1001.15, Folder 1001 Berkeley (1-22), housed at South Caroliniana Library

Martin Jackson: Recollections of a Confederate Servant

Martin Jackson
Martin Jackson at age 90: Texan, house slave, Confederate servant, freedman, and WWI veteran
Source: Gelatin-silver photographic print of Martin Jackson, San Antonio, Texas, 1937. Prints and Photographs Division and Manuscript Division, Library of Congress. Photo was taken by or for the Federal Writers’ Project, which was part of the Works Progress Administration.

Martin Jackson had a long and interesting life. As a slave during the Civil War, he rescued Confederate wounded from the battlefield – he was an “official lugger-in of men,” he called himself. Much later, during World War I, he enlisted as a cook! This is not a story you will hear much.

Jackson was a long time resident of Texas. At the age of 90, he was interviewed about his life as a slave for the Federal Writers’ Project of the Depression-era Works Progress Administration. He recalled his early life, mentioned the “good treatment” he enjoyed as a house slave, spoke about the difficulty of telling the true story of slavery to strangers (such as, perhaps, those who conducted these slave interviews for the WPA), and his experiences during the Civil War.

Some have applied the label “black Confederate” to men like Jackson, saying that they “served” the Confederacy. But Jackson’s comments provide a much more complex understanding of his “service.” Rather than characterize his statements in any way, I will let Jackson’s words speak for themselves.

This is an abridged and edited version of the WPA interview. Mainly, I have moved paragraphs around so that they follow a linear timeline; the original interview kind of skipped all over the place in time. Here it is:

“My earliest recollection is the day my old boss presented me to his son, Joe, as his property. I was about five years old and my new master was only two.

“Lots of old slaves closes the door before they tell the truth about their days of slavery. When the door is open, they tell how kind their masters was and how rosy it all was. You can’t blame them for this, because they had plenty of early discipline, making them cautious about saying anything uncomplimentary about their masters. I, myself, was in a little different position than most slaves and, as a consequence, have no grudges or resentment. However, I can tell you the life of the average slave was not rosy. They were dealt out plenty of cruel suffering. Continue reading

Scenes from the 2011 Gettysburg Remembrance Day Parade


USCT Reenactors at the 2011 Gettysburg Remembrance Day Parade. Several of the female reenactors are from FREED (Female Re-Enactors of Distinction), a reenactors group based in Washington, DC.

Gettysburg, Pennsylvania, is the site of the bloodiest battle of the American Civil War. As a result of the three day battle, lasting from July 1 to July 3, 1863, almost 8,000 men are estimated to have died, and another 38,000 were wounded, captured, or missing. (Some estimates put total casualties – men killed, wounded, captured, and missing – as high as 51,000.) On November 19, 1863, President Abraham Lincoln gave this speech at the dedication of the Soldiers’ National Cemetery in Gettysburg, which has famously become known as the Gettysburg Address:

Four score and seven years ago our fathers brought forth on this continent a new nation, conceived in liberty, and dedicated to the proposition that all men are created equal.

Now we are engaged in a great civil war, testing whether that nation, or any nation, so conceived and so dedicated, can long endure. We are met on a great battle-field of that war. We have come to dedicate a portion of that field, as a final resting place for those who here gave their lives that that nation might live. It is altogether fitting and proper that we should do this.

But, in a larger sense, we can not dedicate, we can not consecrate, we can not hallow this ground. The brave men, living and dead, who struggled here, have consecrated it, far above our poor power to add or detract. The world will little note, nor long remember what we say here, but it can never forget what they did here. It is for us the living, rather, to be dedicated here to the unfinished work which they who fought here have thus far so nobly advanced. It is rather for us to be here dedicated to the great task remaining before us—that from these honored dead we take increased devotion to that cause for which they gave the last full measure of devotion—that we here highly resolve that these dead shall not have died in vain—that this nation, under God, shall have a new birth of freedom—and that government of the people, by the people, for the people, shall not perish from the earth.

The dedication event is commemorated annually on Remembrance Day. The official date of Remembrance Day is November 19, during which a ceremony is held at the National Cemetery. On the Saturday of Remembrance Day week, a parade of Union and Confederate soldiers is held in the city of Gettysburg. Thousands of Civil War reenactors participate, and this is considered one of the largest reenactor events in the northeast.

These are some pictures from the 2011 Gettysburg Remembrance Day Parade. This year, the parade date was the same date as Remembrance Day – November 19. It was sunny and cool, and a great day for holding the parade.


The person on the left is Dr. Franklin Smith, who heads the African American Civil War Museum in Washington, DC.


I believe the man to the far left is James Price, who publishes The Sable Arm, a blog about the United States Colored Troops.

Scenes from the US Colored Troops Symposium at Kinston, NC


USCT Reenactors Joseph Becton and Mel Reid. This was taken at the CSS Neuse / Gov. Richard Caswell Memorial Museum State Historic Site in Kinston, NC.

I just got back from the Seventh Annual US Colored Troops Symposium in Kinston, NC. It was held in conjunction with Kinston’s Blue-Gray Civil War Living History Weekend in commemoration of the 150th Anniversary of the Civil War. The event included several lectures, storytelling, a dedication to Kinston/Lenoir County US Colored Troopers, and a (very loud) live weapons demonstration.

I brought a camera, but due to a battery problem, I couldn’t get it to work. I was able to use my iPhone to take a few photos, which I’ve posted here. It’s a previous generation iPhone that doesn’t take the best of pictures, but I think these came out well.

The most interesting part of the event for me was the spirited exchange that followed a presentation given by Earl Ijames, the curator of African American and Community History at the North Carolina Museum of History, on “The Myth of Black Confederates.” Ijames’ spoke about the role of NC slaves and freemen during the Civil War, including some who acted like soldiers – although Ijames noted that he didn’t use the term “black Confederate soldier” in his talk. Ijames was immediately followed by Asa Gordon, the Secretary General of the Sons and Daughters of United States Colored Troops, who challenged the notion of the widespread existence of willing and loyal black Confederates. This is clearly a very controversial subject, and I expect we’ll see more discussions like this as the War’s sesquicentennial observance continues.

Although there wasn’t a huge turnout, I was heartened to see this much participation in a Civil War related event from what was largely a black audience. I am not yet sure that African Americans are taking an interest – great or small – in the War or its 150th anniversary, notwithstanding academics, professional historians and archivists, and War hobbyists who will always follow this subject. This was a good way to garner more attention and enthusiasm for what is an essential part of American history in general, and African American history in particular. The symposium was produced by Kinston’s Cultural Heritage Museum, which is dedicated to the commemoration of the role of blacks in the military, especially colored troops (and white Union soldiers) during the Civil War; and to other aspects of African American history.


Cannon at the Kinston-Lenoir County Visitors and Information Center


Colored Soldier Figurines. The figure at the rear is the ever-elusive Black Confederate Soldier.


The Littlest Trooper
Continue reading

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.

Do a Google Search on “confederacy confederate blog”… what do you get?

The Google search engine works, in part, by determining the most popular web sites for searches on certain words; and then using popularity to determine which search results will be listed first.

For example, if people doing a search on “dog” most often go the site “Dog.com,” then Google will list that site first, and less popular sites thereafter.

(In addition to that, businesses pay Google to have their sites listed first when particular search terms are used; that’s one way that Google makes money.)

OK: do a Google search on “confederacy confederate blog.” Check out what leads the list… which is the most popular thing that people look at when they search the net using those words.

Who would have guessed it?