The controversy over Black Confederates is one hot mess. A recent addition to the messiness in one Dr Al Arnold of Jackson, MS. Dr Arnold seems to be a relative newcomer to the topic: at one point his Facebook page or Twitter page featured an image of black Union soldiers that was used in a black Confederate soldier’s hoax… that’s not a good way to establish one’s Black Confederate bona fides. I want to discuss what he’s recently brought to the Black Confederate table.
Dr Arnold – whose degree is in physical therapy – has a Civil War era ancestor named Turner Hall, Jr. Hall’s claim to fame is that he was owned by, and was an acquaintance of, prominent Civil War/Reconstruction figure Nathan Bedford Forrest; and that he was a servant of the most preeminent of Confederates, general Robert E. Lee. Hall is said to have cared for Lee’s famous steed, Traveller. Dr Arnold has cited his ancestor’s history in his book titled Robert E. Lee’s Orderly: A Modern Black Man’s Confederate Journey. On the face of it, it looks like this could be an interesting and even provocative read.
But then I saw this interview with Dr Arnold on Memphis, TN, TV station WREG. That six-minute talk raised more issues and red flags than I could count. I will talk about just a few of them in this post.
My first issue is with Dr Arnold’s statement near the end of the interview that “our (black) people… because northern writers and the Southern Lost Cause writers refuse to write about the roles of African-Americans… many don’t know that their ancestors had prominent roles in the Civil War whether on the Union side or the southern side.” His claim – that “northern writers… refuse to write about the roles of African-Americans in the Civil War” is simply not true.
How do I know that claim is untrue? By simply looking at my bookshelf. On the subject of African American Union soldiers alone, I have almost three dozen books. The set begins with works from two black Union veterans: George Washington Williams’ A History of the Negro Troops in the War of the Rebellion, 1861-1865 which was published in 1887; and Joseph T. Wilson’s The Black Phalanx: A History of the Negro Soldiers of the United States in the wars 1775-1812, 1861-1865, also published in 1887. These books are in the public domain and available on the Internet; I highly recommend them as a introduction to black Union soldiery.
But there’s a lot more on my shelf, including:
• Freedom by the Sword: The U.S. Colored Troops, 1862-1867, William Dobak’s comprehensive military history of Civil War era African American soldiers
• The Black Military Experience, ed. Ira Berlin, Joseph P. Reidy, and Leslie S. Rowland, which is a documentary history of African Americans in the Union army
• Like Men of War: Black Troops in the Civil War 1862-1865, by Noah Andre Trudeau, which focuses on the many battles that involved black soldiers
• Milliken’s Bend: A Civil War Battle in History and Memory, by Linda Barnickel, which discusses the role of black soldiers in one of their earliest battles
• A Grand Army of Black Men: Letters from African-American Soldiers in the Union Army 1861-1865, by Edwin S. Redkey
• Forged in Battle: The Civil War Alliance of Black Soldiers and White Officers, by Joseph T. Glatthaar
• Campfires of Freedom: The Camp Life of Black Soldiers During the Civil War, by Keith P. Wilson
• After the Glory: The Struggles of Black Civil War Veterans, by Donald R. Shaffer
• African American Faces of the Civil War: An Album, by Ronald S. Coddington, which features photographs and brief biographical sketches of over 70 Civil War era African American men
• Separate histories of African American Union soldiers and regiments from Illinois; Kansas; Louisiana; Pennsylvania; North Carolina (two of them), South Carolina, Tennessee, and Washington, DC
• Tell It With Pride: The 54th Massachusetts Regiment and Augustus Saint-Gaudens’ Shaw Memorial, a beautiful coffee-table by Sarah Greenough and Nancy K. Anderson.
This is only a portion of the books that I own on the general subject of Civil War African Americans; there are many, many others I don’t own.
I go out of my way to make this list to show that the notion of “northern writers” (and frankly, I don’t know what region the above writers hail from) “refusing” to write about the roles of Civil War African-Americans is demonstrably false. Indeed, my problem is that there is so much material, it’s almost impossible to get through it all. This is NOT to say that there is an absolute consensus about the interpretations made by various historians; or that there is nothing left to be researched and studied in this area. There is always room for more scholarship.
But the statement that northern writers have “refused” to write about Civil War era African Americans is just plain wrong, and even more, it’s irresponsible. A simple Internet search would have discovered these many sources. Meanwhile, an unknown number of people who heard Dr Arnold’s false statement might believe it’s true. I hope the television station which aired the interview will bring in another guest who will set the story straight.
It might be the case that Dr Arnold misspoke. Perhaps he meant to say that northerners have written on the subject, but he disagrees with what they say; or that not enough has been written to suit his tastes. If that’s the case, then he should say that. Saying that northern writers simply refuse to write about Civil War era African Americans is too serious and outrageous a claim to go unchallenged and uncorrected.
Meanwhile, I wonder what Dr Arnold means when he says that the story of the “prominent” roles of Civil War era African Americans has not being told? What exactly does it mean for an African American to have “prominence” in the context of the antebellum and Civil War era South?
The word prominent can mean different things, depending on context. It can mean “important;” it can also mean “well-known, celebrated, famous;” and it can “mean leading, eminent, and influential.” What did black prominence look like back then?
Looking at the history of the Civil War, there is no question that African American labor was of vital importance to Confederates. Consider this:
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 is an image of a claim certificate that was given to a slaveholder whose bondsman, named Toby, lost his life while working on Confederate fortifications. Toby’s master received the sum of $1,900 for the loss of his property; I don’t know how much of the proceeds were shared with Toby’s family. Toby paid the ultimate price for his servitude to his owner. But to make it clear, I’m not saying that such duty was done willingly and voluntarily; given the nature of the slavery system, it’s most likely that the opposite was true.
I don’t know if we can say that Toby played a “prominent” role in the Confederacy. I can say this for sure: his labor, and that of many others was valuable, even invaluable, to the Confederacy. Many wartime Confederates saw enslaved people as a source of strength: bondsmen would provide the labor needed to maintain the homefront, and also give civilian aid to the Confederate military, thus allowing white men to be dedicated to fighting.
Did this make Toby a “Black Confederate?” The definition of the term is contested and debated. If the definition includes all African Americans who resided within the Confederacy, then all the 3.5 million African Americans within the borders of the Confederate States of America (CSA) were Black Confederates. If the definition includes only people who were citizens of the CSA, then no African Americans were Confederates. Citizenship in the CSA was limited to men who had less than a drop of black blood. All kinds of other definitions are being bandied about on the Internet and other venues.
Regardless of whether he was “prominent” or a “Black Confederate,” Toby’s life matters. But sadly, he toiled in obscurity. He was caught in what an African American Union soldier called the “system that oppresses us.” Characterize them as you will, African Americans in the Confederacy were all subject to the “great truth” as stated by CSA Vice-President Alexander Stephens: his was “the first (government) in the history of the world” whose “foundations are laid, (whose) corner-stone rests, upon the great truth that the negro is not equal to the white man; that slavery subordination to the superior race is his natural and normal condition.” This dictated there would be no grand monument to Toby in the public square. Confederates and former Confederates made such objects for lives that actually mattered to them.
Under these circumstances, the eminence that an enslaved Confederate could achieve was nowhere near comparable to that of a free white man. So, for example, Nathan Bedford Forrest and Robert E. Lee gained prominence for their leadership roles and military successes in the Confederate army; while Dr Arnold’s ancestor, Turner Hall, gained prominence for being a servant who cared for Robert E. Lee’s horse.
Please don’t get me wrong. I am not trying to belittle Turner Hall in the least bit. Quite different: I am saddened and troubled at what that system of oppression meant for him. Hall’s renown derives solely from the fact that he was the slave of a famous white person, as opposed to, for example, from what he did for himself and his family. Who knows what Hall might have achieved if white Confederates had given him the same privileges that they enjoyed.
Even more, I am disturbed by the way the notoriety of men like Turner Hall was used by white southerners. These men were given special merit by white southerners after the war for reasons beyond the labor they performed. They were hailed as “loyal servants” and “faithful slaves,” terms which assigned admiration to blacks who were willingly subservient to their white superiors. I am reminded of an article in Confederate Veteran magazine, which praised wartime faithful servants (slaves) in the post-war era by remarking that “modern negroes” should emulate the “old time darkies” by putting aside “aspirations for social equality.” These “old time darkies” were respected and valued by white southerners for their continued loyalty, and for modeling appropriate behavior for younger African Americans. In that environment, being a servant of R. E. Lee certainly had a useful cachet.
Confederate Veteran magazine, September 1905, Volume #13 No 9, p 421: How did former white Confederates feel about former black Confederates? From the above: “the ‘old-time darkies’ ought to be a lesson… for young negroes. Their aspirations for social equality will ever be their calamity… The only solution of this matter is for negroes to accept the situation, treat the whites with deference, and they, will soon realize the best they need ever hope to exist between the races.” See also here.
Turner Hall might well have been, and probably was, appreciative of the recognition he received for his servitude. (For those who didn’t watch the interview with Dr Arnold, he mentions that his ancestor received a kind of celebrity status for his association with Lee.) Many enslaved people took pride in being loyal and dutiful to the people they served, and sometimes, they took pride in the particular people they served. For some former servants, the recognition meant additional privileges or even financial renumeration; see James G. Hollandsworth’s essay on servants who received pensions from former Confederate states. We should not begrudge Turner Hall for this in any way; any one of us might have done the same, with no feelings of guilt or shame, in those times.
But the fact is, this peculiar institution of white Confederates was designed to keep the lives of black Confederates mundane and unremarkable. And if the CSA had won that war, African American lives would have remained mundane and unremarkable. It may well be that men like Turner Hall had true bonds of affection with men like Forrest and Lee. But in the end, Forrest and Lee’s support for slavery helps to explain why they were able to gain prominence as generals in the Confederate army, while Turner Hall was limited to achieving prominence for taking care of their animals, while Toby achieved no prominence at all.
Mr Arnold might argue that his ancestor does deserve some recognition for his particular role during the war. R. E. Lee could have chosen anybody to be his horse’s caretaker, but Turner made the cut. I have no problem with that thinking. I am sure Turner Hall was good at what he did, and deserves kudos for that.
Again, I don’t begrudge Turner Hall in any way, or mean to imply he should suffer any shame for actions. But at the same time that we should not belittle Turner Hall, we should not go to extremes on the other side of the scale. Turner Hall did no more as a servant for Lee during the war, than he would have done as a servant for any legal owner before the war – but Hall would have been invisible to history in that case. The fact that Hall gains fame as a person who supplied slave labor to R. E. Lee should make us ponder the dubious nature of celebrity for an African American during these times… if we are going to have a discussion about the “prominent” roles of African Americans in the Confederacy.
If I was writing about Turner Hall, these are questions I would raise: what did it mean, that white southerners gave celebrity to former faithful slaves, while assigning invisibility and even ignominy to those who fought for their freedom? What did it mean to be a “prominent” member of a degraded race? Should we be skeptical when something is deemed valuable or important, simply because it was seen as such by white enslavers, and regardless of what (negative) impact it might have on enslaved African Americans?
And exactly how did white Confederates view so-called black Confederates? Did white Confederates see black Confederates, in the words of CSA VP Alexander Stephens, as a people whose “subordination to the superior race is (their) natural and normal condition?” If so, then is the notion of black Confederates something that should be celebrated by Americans today, given that we now reject notions of human bondage and racial supremacy? And how did so-called black Confederates feel about black southerners who supported the Union, such as the 18,000 or so Mississippians who enlisted in the US army?
Finally: how did families like Toby’s family feel about this notion of black Confederates? Would they have included themselves in that number?
“The War in Mississippi—The 1st Mississippi Negro Cavalry Bringing into Vicksburg Rebel Prisoners Captured at Haines Bluff. –From a Sketch by our Special Artist, Fred B. Schell”
From Frank Leslie’s Illustrated News, December 19, 1863; see here and here
I don’t see that Dr Arnold is raising those questions. Appearances can be deceiving, though, and maybe he does address those issues in his book. But based on this interview and other things I’ve seen on the Internet, the appearances are not too promising.
In his interview with TV station WREG, Dr Arnold was asked a question that I would have thought he’d be ready to answer: how did his ancestor reconcile the work he did for particular Confederates with the Confederacy’s proslavery stance… could his ancestor have been in favor of slavery? But Dr Arnold seemed to stumble for an answer.
He could have simply said, “I don’t know,” which wouldn’t have been a bad or wrong answer. He could have said that many enslaved people took their duties to their masters seriously, even though the thought of that might make some of us feel uncomfortable today. But instead, he said “it’s complicated,” without going into any details of the complexity. He says that the focus on slavery has “suppressed the fact that these men were human beings,” with “relationships.” But that is not an answer to the question. It only raises more questions: is Dr Arnold saying that positive relationships with slaveowners meant that slaves were reconciled with slavery, or even found slavery acceptable?
His concluding response was that he “thinks” his ancestor must have reconciled it the same way that he (Arnold) reconciles it, which is “through my Christian faith.” Yet again, there is no explanation of how that “worked.” It’s an open-ended type statement that explains nothing, beyond affirming Dr Arnold’s belief in God. And it only raises more questions: is he saying that Christian faith leads people to be “OK” with slavery? Meanwhile, history tells us that white southerners used Christian faith and the Bible to justify slavery, and inculcate men like Turner Hall with the idea that they must be obedient and faithful slaves. In the 19th century slaveholding South, Christianity was not necessarily the benign entity that is implied by Dr Arnold’s comment. This complexity is not discussed.
As I said, I would have thought that Dr Arnold would be prepared to discuss this key issue, but that didn’t seem to be the case. In fairness, a six minute discussion places serious limits on what a person can say on such a weighty issue. But it seems to me that Dr Arnold could have had a more ready, brief answer to a question which surely many people are asking.
Or, maybe the people he sees are not asking this kind of question. As I look at Dr Arnold’s Facebook page for his book, it seems he has gained some popularity with Confederate heritage groups. It’s not hard to conceive that he would be welcomed by them. Trivia about R. E. Lee is always interesting to them, and such pursuits are all the more enjoyable when troubling issues such as the Confederacy’s desire to keep men like Turner Hall and Toby in a life-long state of labor exploitation, degradation, and human commodification are not a focus of the discussion.
At the end of the day, each of us deals with the past in our own way. I would have gone about this exploration of Turner Hall’s life and times in a different way than Dr Arnold, but of course he owes me nothing. It just seems to me that this is a lost opportunity for some insights into our past.
> In his Dead Confederates blog, Andy Hall offers a quick review of Al Arnold’s book Robert E. Lee’s Orderly:A Modern Black Man’s Confederate Journey.