The March 1865 Review of the Union’s Black Soldiers: “President Lincoln was deeply moved at the sight of these Negro troops”

Union Troops enter Richmond VA Leslie's Illustrated
“The Union Army Entering Richmond, VA., April 3,” from Frank Leslie’s Illustrated Newspaper, April 25, 1865.
As depicted in the illustration, African American soldiers led the way into Richmond when it was captured near the end of the Civil War. Just a week earlier, these soldiers had marched in review for President Abraham Lincoln.
This is a colorized versions of an image from Frank Leslie’s Illustrated News by the postcard publisher Southern Bargain House of Richmond, VA.

Image Source: From MetroPostcard.com

For Confederates, it was time to do the unthinkable: enlist slaves in their war to create a slaveholders’ nation. For the Union, it was a time for black soldiers to strut their stuff in front of the president of the United States.

Such was the state of the American Civil War in March 1865. These two very different stories are discussed in the book HISTORY OF THE NEGRO TROOPS IN THE WAR OF THE REBELLION 1861-1865, by George Washington Williams. The historian Williams was a veteran of the Union army, having served in the United States Colored Troops, or USCT. His book shows how the contrasting policies of the Union and Confederacy toward black enlistment played out in the closing months of the war.

By March 1865, the Confederate States of America (CSA) was on the verge of military defeat, and desperate times dictated desperate measures. After several months of intense debate, the Confederate Congress approved a measure that allowed slaves to enlist in the Confederate army. The administration of Confederate president Jefferson Davis added rules which required that slaves be conferred the status of freemen by their owners prior to enlisting; although I have seen some debate as to whether the slaves were to be temporarily free during their enlistment, versus being permanently free both during and after their time as soldiers. In any case, it was a way to add new soldiers when the Confederate army was critically short of men.

As it turned out, the new policy was too little too late. In April of 1865, CSA General in chief Robert E. Lee surrendered his Army of Northern Virginia at Appomattox, and the remaining Confederate forces followed his example over the next few months. But for a moment, African American soldiers were the great black hope of the white men in grey.

For the Union, meanwhile, their black hopes had been realized. In July of 1862, legislation passed by the Union Congress allowed African Americans to enlist in the military, and gave freedom to slaves who did so. Eventually, some 200,000 black men would join the Union army and navy and become a vital part of the Union war effort.

By March 1865, Union forces that included black soldiers were on the brink of capturing Richmond, Virgina, the capital of the Confederacy. Indeed, on April 3, 1865, members of the USCT would take the lead in capturing the fallen city. With the end of the war so close, president Abraham Lincoln came to the Richmond area from Washington, DC, to see the events unfold.

Lincoln’s itinerary included a military review of the black troops. (A review is basically a military parade in which soldiers march in formation.) As noted by George Washington Williams in HISTORY OF THE NEGRO TROOPS, some 25,000 black soldiers, “well drilled, well armed, and well officered, passed in review before the President, General (Ulysses) Grant, and the general officers of the Army of the James and the Army of the Potomac.” While noting the irony that Lincoln had initially “protested” against the use of black soldiers early in the war, Williams said that now, “Lincoln was deeply moved at the sight of these Negro troops.”

This was the last review of black troops that Lincoln would see; an assassin’s bullet cut his life short on April 15. But for that one bright moment, the president was presented with “one of the most magnificent military spectacles of the civil war.” Continue reading

Remembering Willis Howcott: a Civil War monument to a Mississippi slave

Howcott-memorial copy
Monument in Memory of Colored Servants of Harvey Scouts. Canton Miss. Erected by W. H. Howcott Click here for a larger image.
Per here: Monument erected by William H. Howcott, a veteran of Harvey’s Scouts, a Confederate cavalry unit. The base reads “To the memory of the good and loyal servants who followed the fortunes of Harvey’s Scouts during the civil War.”
Image Source: Howcott Memorial, from the blog Finding Josephine; photo courtesy Joel Brink.

The blog Confederate Digest – which claims to provide “historically accurate” commentary about the Confederate States – has a blog entry about a rare type of monument in Canton, Mississippi: it was erected in honor of a Confederate slave.

The monument honors Willis Howcott, who was the slave of William Howcott. William Howcott was a member of Harvey’s Scouts, a Confederate cavalry unit from Mississippi made up of around 128 soldiers. A history of Harvey’s Scouts, written by John Claiborne and published in 1885, is here. While the names of the Scout’s soldiers are listed, neither the names of the slaves who were with the soldiers, nor a count of those slaves, are indicated in Claiborne’s history.

The Confederate Digest blog entry says that “William was 15 years old when he joined Harvey’s Scouts in 1864. Willis, his childhood playmate was only 13 but would not be dissuaded from going off to war with his friend. Willis was, tragically, killed in combat sometime in 1865 at the age of 14.” This is based on family memoirs and memories.

This same blog entry makes the claim, which is largely discredited, that an “estimated 65,000 or more African American men, both free and slave, were Confederate soldiers.” Was Willis Howcott one of these black Confederate soldiers?

First, some quick background. During the Civil War, many masters took their slaves with them as they went off to war. These slaves performed a number of tasks: they cooked, foraged for food, washed laundry, cut hair, cared for animals, etc. These slaves were not enlisted in the army; slave enlistment was prohibited by the Confederate government until March 1865. (One month later, Confederate general-in-chief Robert E. Lee surrendered at Appomattox, Virginia.)

I read through Claiborne’s history of the Scouts, and found no mention of Willis Howcott. Claiborne’s list of the unit’s dead (12 men in all) does not include Willis Howcott’s name. If Willis Howcott did die in battle, it is not recorded in this history, which was developed “out of a considerable amount of material furnished by different persons, and placed at his (Claiborne’s) disposal.”

In fact, Claiborne’s history of Harvey’s Scouts makes no mention of the unit’s slaves at all. Interestingly, Claiborne does document an encounter the Scouts had with a group of US Colored Troops, black men who enlisted in the Union army. Claiborne writes that the “Scouts fell in with a long wagon train from Natchez, guarded by a colored regiment. A desperate fight ensued. The negroes had been taught that we would show them no quarter, and fought like devils.” But there is no mention of the negroes who were with the Scouts. In Claiborne’s history, the slaves are not soldiers, but rather, invisible men.

Regardless of Willis Howcott’s role in his master’s army unit, there is no doubt that his death was heartfelt by William Howcott: in the 1890s, William paid for a 20-foot high granite obelisk monument to the memory of Willis in Canton, MS. While there are hundreds of monuments to Confederate soldiers, monuments recognizing slaves who accompanied Confederate military units are quite rare. (Consider the monuments here and here.) The inscription on the monument William Howcott dedicated to Willis Howcott poignantly reads, “A tribute to my faithful servant and friend, Willis Howcott, a colored boy of rare loyalty and faithfulness, whose memory I cherish with deep gratitude.” Of note is that Willis Howcott is identified as a servant who was loyal to his master, not as a soldier who was loyal to his country. And there is no mention of how Willis died. In any event, William Howcott was clearly hurt by the loss.

Did William Howcott ultimately blame himself for the loss of his slave and friend? Should he have?

The monument raises the question: how should we, today, look at the death of Willis Howcott? When soldiers fight and die for a great cause – such as the independence of their country, or liberation from bondage – we thank the soldier and honor his sacrifice. But Willis Howcott died a slave. He died because his master chose to bring him into a war zone, for the master’s convenience. In death, Willis Howcott paid the highest price that could be paid by a slave in his service to his master. Is it honorable or right that a slave master should put his slave in that position? Beyond his master’s respect and gratitude, what did the slave stand to gain by being placed in such hazardous conditions… is what the slave stood to gain “worth” the loss of his life? Is the death of this exploited laborer much more tragic than it was possibly heroic (assuming that the 14 year old Willis did die in battle)?

(The Confederate Digest post says “Willis, his childhood playmate was only 13 but would not be dissuaded from going off to war with his friend.” Really?… a 13 year old slave boy had the authority to dictate that he would join his young master in a military unit? Willis Howcott’s presence in the unit was surely not his decision to make, and probably not solely William Howcott’s decision; William’s parents or guardians at least would have approved it. The parents/guardians of William no doubt felt better about William’s military service with servant Willis at his side to help out with the rigors of camp life. And it’s not unlikely that young Willis wanted to accompany his master. The idea of going off to war might have been a thrill for both these young teenagers. It is unknown if Willis’s parents approved, or had veto power over, the taking of their son.)

The black man in the above picture is unidentified. He stands almost like a sentinel, as if he was guarding the memory of Willis Howcott itself. Was he a relative of Willis?  African Americans, in Mississippi and elsewhere, typically lacked the resources to erect their own such monuments. So the family’s feelings about Willis’s death were not etched in stone, for us to see. This possible relative might well have been thankful that Willis received due recognition for his sacrifice, no matter what the circumstances of his death. This, as opposed to so many unnamed and unnoticed black men and women, who did the very best they could do under trying times, and yet have nothing in the commemorative landscape to show for the lives they lived. Willis Howcott’s death is worth remembering. As to how that death should be remembered… that is another question.

EDIT: As noted in a response from Francis Howcutt (see comments below), the Willis Howcott monument was moved a few years ago from the site shown in the picture to a burial ground near the Old Jail at Canton, Mississippi.

“If slaves will make good soldiers our whole theory of slavery is wrong”: Confederate Howell Cobb on black enlistment

Howell_Cobb-crop
Howell Cobb, southern politician and brigadier general in the Confederate States of America army: “The day you make soldiers of (slaves) is the beginning of the end of the revolution.”
Source: Image by Matthew Brady; from the Library of Congress, reproduction numbers LC-USZ62-110081, LC-USZ62-28297

By January 1865, “gloom and despondency rule(d) the hour,” according to Howell Cobb, an army general of the Confederate States of America. The Confederacy was losing the American Civil War. Recent Union military successes and a shortage of manpower forced Confederates to seek ways to bolster their forces and stave off the destruction of their nation.

One potential source of soldiers was the enslaved population. At the start of the war, some 3,500,000 slaves resided in the Confederate States; they amounted to 38% of the Confederacy’s population. As a matter of law, regulation, and custom, slaves could not enlist in the Confederate army. Slave enlistment would mean legal, philosophical, and cultural change that was both profound and enormous. The idea became the subject of heated debate throughout the Confederacy. Robert E. Lee, the top general of the Confederate army, and arguably the most popular military or governmental figure in the Confederacy, endorsed using slaves as soldiers in January 1865.

One of the most stinging critiques of black enlistment came from Howell Cobb. Prior to the Civil War, Cobb served in the US Congress and was the Speaker of the House of Representatives from 1849 to 1851. He was also the 40th Governor of Georgia (1851–1853) and Secretary of Treasury under President James Buchanan (1857–1860). After Lincoln’s election, he championed the slave states’ secession from the Union. After the shooting war began in April 1861 at Fort Sumter, Cobb joined the Confederate army. He became a brigadier general in early 1862.

In January 1865, Cobb wrote a letter to Confederate Secretary of War James Seddon and offered his views on the use of slaves as soldiers. Cobb did not merely criticize the idea; he condemned it. Using slaves as soldiers was “the most pernicious idea that has been suggested since the war began,” he claimed. And he lamented that Robert E. Lee – who was Cobb’s military commander – was being used to promote this policy.

As Alexander Stephens, a fellow Georgian and Vice President of the Confederacy put it in March 1861, the cornerstone of their new nation rested “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.” Black enlistment fundamentally challenged that belief, and by extension, challenged the reason for the Confederacy’s very existence. As Cobb saw it, “If slaves will make good soldiers our whole theory of slavery is wrong… The day you make soldiers of them is the beginning of the end of the revolution.”

But slaves would not make good soldiers, he said; “as a class (slaves) are wanting in every qualification of a soldier.” He warned that “you can’t keep white and black troops together, and you can’t trust negroes by themselves.”

Howell was also fearful that slave enlistment would drive off the Confederacy’s white soldiers. And not just because whites would not fight alongside black troops; he was afraid that white troops would use the influx of black soldiers as an excuse to “retire” from the army and relieve themselves of the duties and dangers of wartime service.

Cobb went on to say that, if given a choice, he would rather take the extreme measure of freeing the slaves to get the support of England and France, than resort to black enlistment. (Many believed that anti-slavery sentiment in England and France prevented them from recognizing the Confederacy as an independent nation.) Although one wonders if that statement was merely a rhetorical flourish; it’s hard to imagine Cobb stomaching either black emancipation or black enlistment.

Cobb’s hope was to find other means to recruit white men into the army. Whatever those means were, they either weren’t implemented or weren’t enough: in March of 1865 the Confederate government passed a law enabling slave enlistment. But it was too little too late: General Robert E. Lee surrendered in Virginia in April 1865, and that began the end of the Confederacy. Continue reading

Confederate General Robert E. Lee, near the end of the Civil War: Enlist and emancipate the slaves; we can manage the ‘evil consequences’

608px-Robert_Edward_Lee
Confederate general Robert E. Lee: “I think, therefore, we must decide whether slavery shall be extinguished by our enemies and the slaves be used against us, or use them ourselves.”
Source: Image of Robert E. Lee; Julian Vannerson, photographer; from Wikipedia Commons; from an image at the Library of Congress, reproduction numbers LC-DIG-cwpb-04402, LC-B8172-0001

Desperate times require desperate measures. And in January of 1865, Robert E. Lee, the general in chief of the Confederate States of America, was desperate.

The Confederates were losing the bloody American Civil War against the United States, AKA the Union. By January 1865, the Union controlled the Mississippi River and large swaths of land to the river’s east and west; the December 1864 Battle of Nashville had beaten the largest remaining Confederate forces west of the Appalachian Mountains; Union General William Sherman had completed his almost unimpeded march through Georgia, and was heading for South Carolina; and the Confederacy’s position in Virginia was being made tenuous by pressure from the forces of Union general Ulysses Grant and a lack of manpower.

Given their circumstances, Confederates began to debate a fundamental shift in political and military policy: the use of slaves as soldiers in the Confederate army, along with emancipation for those who served. Andrew Hunter, a Virginia politician, wrote to General Robert E. Lee to get his opinion on the controversy. Lee responded: slaves should be employed as soldiers “without delay.”

It’s not like Lee preferred to make this radical shift in policy. He maintained that the “relation of master and slave” was “the best that can exist between the white and black races.” But he argued that the use of slaves as soldiers would “increase our military strength and enable us to relieve our white population to some extent.” And even more, it might counteract the horrifying prospect that slaves, having been promised freedom by the Emancipation Proclamation, would continue to take arms for the Union, and destroy slavery on the Union’s terms and/or the slaves’ terms in the event of Confederate defeat.

Lee went even further in his policy proposal: he recommended a plan of “gradual and general emancipation” that would eventually free all the slaves, not just soldiers and their families. After all, the Emancipation Proclamation offered to immediately free all the slaves; Confederates needed to come close to that offer, he reasoned, to ensure the “efficiency and fidelity” of the slaves in their new roles as soldiers. Yes, freedom for the slaves might mean hardship for whites, but Union victory would be even worse. Better to give freedom to the slaves and defeat the Union, than to have the Union give the slaves freedom and defeat the Confederacy in the process. Lee believed that if employing slaves as soldiers “ends in subverting slavery it will be accomplished by ourselves, and we can devise the means of alleviating the evil consequences to both races.” Lee did not detail what “means” would be devised to manage the “evil consequences” of freedom for the bondsmen.

This is an excerpt from General Lee’s January 11, 1865, letter to Andrew Hunter (from The War of the Rebellion: a Compilation of the Official Records of the Union and Confederate Armies; Series 4 – Volume 3, page 1012-13):

Dear Sir:

Considering the relation of master and slave, controlled by humane laws and influenced by Christianity and an enlightened public sentiment, as the best that can exist between the white and black races while intermingled as at present in this country, I would deprecate any sudden disturbance of that relation unless it be necessary to avert a greater calamity to both. I should therefore prefer to rely upon our white population to preserve the ratio between our forces and those of the enemy, which experience has shown to be safe. But in view of the preparations of our enemies, it is our duty to provide for continued war and not for a battle or a campaign, and I fear that we cannot accomplish this without overtaxing the capacity of our white population.

Should the war continue under the existing circumstances, the enemy may in course of time penetrate our country and get access to a large part of our negro population. It is his avowed policy to convert the able-bodied men among them into soldiers, and to emancipate all… Many have already been obtained in Virginia, and should the fortune of war expose more of her territory, the enemy would gain a large accession to his strength. His progress will thus add to his numbers, and at the same time destroy slavery in a manner most pernicious to the welfare of our people. Their negroes will be used to hold them in subjection, leaving the remaining force of the enemy free to extend his conquest. Whatever may be the effect of our employing negro troops, it cannot be as mischievous as this. If it end in subverting slavery it will be accomplished by ourselves, and we can devise the means of alleviating the evil consequences to both races. Continue reading

Poll: Was the slave John Parker a “Black Confederate?”


Confederates use slaves to mount a cannon during the Civil War: an example of “Black Confederates?”
Source: National Park Service

Question: was the slave John Parker a “Black Confederate?” This is a poll question, and you can give your answer below. Any comments regarding this question are welcome.

So, who was John Parker? John Parker was a southern African American who lived during the American Civil War. This New York Times article describes Parker’s role in the Battle of Bull Run, one of the War’s earliest major battles, and a decisive win for the Confederate army over the Union army:

On the morning of Sunday, July 21, 1861, John Parker and three other men opened fire on Union forces. In the chaos of the Civil War’s first major battle, the group, which was operating a cannon, “couldn’t see the Yankees at all and only fired at random.”​

Like so many men on both sides who experienced war for the first time that day, Parker was terrified. “The balls from the Yankee guns fell thick all around,” he later told a reporter. “In one battery a shell burst and killed 20, the rest ran. Thank the Lord! none were killed in our battery. I felt bad all the time, and thought every minute my time would come; I felt so excited that I hardly knew what I was about, and felt worse than dead.”​

Parker and his comrades’ lives depended on their competence with the gun — but not in the usual way. All four men were slaves, ordered by their owners to fight for the Confederate cause. “We wish[ed] to our hearts that the Yankees would whip,” Parker recalled, “and we would have run over to their side but our officers would have shot us if we had made the attempt.”​

Was John Parker a “Black Confederate?” Historian John Stauffer says yes in his article for The Root, “Yes, There Were Black Confederates. Here’s why.” In his discussion of Black Confederates – men or women who “supported the Confederacy” – Stauffer writes:

A few thousand blacks did indeed fight for the Confederacy. Significantly, African-American scholars from Ervin Jordan and Joseph Reidy to Juliet Walker and Henry Louis Gates Jr., editor-in-chief of The Root, have stood outside this impasse, acknowledging that a few blacks, slave and free, supported the Confederacy.

How many supported it? No one knows precisely. But by drawing on these scholars and focusing on sources written or published during the war, I estimate that between 3,000 and 6,000 served as Confederate soldiers. Another 100,000 or so blacks, mostly slaves, supported the Confederacy as laborers, servants and teamsters. They built roads, batteries and fortifications; manned munitions factories—essentially did the Confederacy’s dirty work.

Meet John Parker, Black Confederate

Douglass corroborated Johnson’s story. He published in the March 1862 issue of Douglass’ Monthly a brief autobiography of John Parker, one of the black Confederates at Manassas. A Virginia slave, Parker was sent to Richmond to build batteries and breastworks. After completing this job, he and his fellow slaves were ordered to Manassas “to fight,” as he said. He was put in an artillery unit with three other black men. On Sunday, July 21, “we opened fire about 10:00 in the morning; couldn’t see the Yankees at all and only fired at random.”

During the battle, Parker said, he worried about dying, hoped for a Union victory and thought of fleeing to the Union side. “We wished to our hearts that the Yankees would whip us. … We would have run over to the other side but our officers would have shot us if we had made the attempt.” He and his fellow slaves had been promised their freedom “and money besides” if they fought. “None of us believed them; we only fought because we had to.”​

Parker is a “Black Confederate” according to Stauffer. But does that properly describe Parker? Let’s think about it.

Before the 13th Amendment abolished slavery, we know that millions of enslaved persons picked cotton, cut sugarcane, thrashed rice, or otherwise served their masters. In the process of being enslaved, these persons were subjected to physical, emotional, and sometimes sexual abuse. We know that perhaps hundreds of thousands of slaves saw family members sold away during the course of colonial and antebellum slavery. We know that slavemasters got rich off the exploited labor of the bondsmen.

Question: would anybody say that the fact that slaves picked cotton or cut cane or thrashed rice means that they “supported” the institution of slavery? Today, probably not too many. Today most us reckon that slaves did not “support” the institution of slavery, but rather, were forced to be subjected to its degradation.

So, why would anyone say that the use of coerced labor by members of the Confederate military means that slaves “supported” the Confederacy?

Of course the key thing is the definition of “support.” If “support” means that slaves were used as a resource by Confederates, then in that case, yes, slaves “supported” the Confederacy. And by the exact same logic, we can say that slaves supported the institution of slavery. Although it’s odd to hear it that way.

But if support means giving approval or encouragement, then we need to look at things differently. In the case of John Parker we have an example of an enslaved man who did not approve of, or willfully encourage, the Confederate regime. In fact, as Stauffer notes, Parker escaped bondage, provided military intelligence to the Union, and went North to become an anti-Confederate propagandist. Parker wanted Confederates to lose. But because he was a slave, he could not act on his volition.

The fact is, Parker was no more a Black Confederate than a cotton picking slave on the Mississippi River or a rice thrashing slave on the South Carolina coast. The only thing that was different was the site of his coerced labor. Stauffer never really explains how it is that locating enslavement near the site of a battlefield elevates or otherwise transforms a slave to the condition of a “Confederate.”

Instead of straining credulity by calling these slaves “Black Confederates,” why not call them what we all know they actually are – slaves? Why is that so hard?

Ultimately, this issue comes down to, what is the definition of a Confederate? Stauffer seems to think that the performance of slave labor on a battlefield makes a slave into a Confederate. I do not agree. As I see it – and more importantly, as actual (white) Confederates saw it – Confederate-ness was a political and social construct, not a military one. To white southerners, a Confederate was a citizen or prospective citizen of the Confederacy, or one of the several Confederate states. Citizenship entailed duty and loyalty to the Confederate state. Thus, Confederate citizens could be compelled to serve in the Confederate army, and defend against threats posed by, for example, the Union army.

Do you see? White men were not transformed into Confederates as a result of their military service. Rather, they were already Confederates as a result of being citizens of a Confederate state. Their military service made them Confederate soldiers, but they were Confederates before they signed their enlistment papers.

Meanwhile, slaves were not, and could not, be Confederate citizens. Slaves were property, like livestock. Slaves used as resources in the way that horses and oxen were used as resources. This is not to deny the existence of genuine affection and even love between some slave owners and their slaves; or to say that whites in general did not recognize the humanity of the bondsmen. But legally and politically, slaves were a class of property. Slaves were non-citizens and non-Confederates. They resided in the Confederate states, but residency did not make them Confederates. The fact that a slave served a master in an army camp did not transform the slave politically, socially, or legally into a Confederate.

The problem with the term “Black Confederate” as I see it is two-fold. First, it can give the mistaken impression that these African Americans, like actual (i.e., white) Confederates, served out of duty and obligation as citizens of the Confederate state.

Second, it can give the impression that these African Americans “supported” (i.e., served out of approval for) the goals and objectives of the Confederate regime.

Actual (white) Confederates did not operate under such false impressions. The use of the term “Black Confederates” was rare during the Civil War itself. Meanwhile, the terms “loyal slave”  or “faithful servant” were used quite often. Actual Confederates understood that slaves operated out of obedience to their owners. The fact that these slaves performed so loyally in the presence of a battlefield proved and reinforced the notion of slaves as being devoted to the service of their masters.

[​IMG]
This is a Confederate and his horse.
The man in the photo is a citizen of his state, and by extension, a Confederate citizen. He has duties and obligations to his state and nation, which he fulfills in part by his military service.
The animal under him is NOT a Confederate. That is, the horse is not a Confederate citizen. It is not an “equine Confederate.” The Confederacy did have its own horses, which could be considered “Confederate horses.” The horses were owned by the Confederacy, they were not “Confederates” themselves.

[​IMG]
This is a Confederate and his slave.
The white man in the photo is a citizen of his state, and by extension, a Confederate citizen. He has duties and obligations to his state and nation, which he fulfills in part by his military service.
The slave is NOT a “Confederate.” That is, the slave is not a Confederate citizen. He is not an “slave Confederate” or a “Black Confederate.” The slave is owned by a Confederate, but is not himself a “Confederate.” The black man is appropriately called a “Confederate slave,” which indicates that he is the possession of a Confederate. Calling the slave a “Black Confederate” implies that he had the same status, rights, and obligations as a actual (white) Confederate, which is not true.

What do I call John Parker? Simply put, he was an enslaved person, or if you prefer, a Confederate slave. There is no ambiguity in that, no chance for false impressions. And that describes exactly what he was. Why is it so hard to call him exactly what he was?

See also: Bravery, Not Slavery: Why Some Black Folks Want to Believe in Black Confederate Soldiers Continue reading

The Many Facets of the Remarkable Robert Webster

image
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.

image
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

image
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.

image
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