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

List of Slave-holding Presidents

Founders-Presidents-Slaveowners
Founders, Presidents, Slaveholders: First US President George Washington; third President Thomas Jefferson; and fourth President James Madison

The website “Which U.S. Presidents Owned Slaves” provides a list of slave-holding Chief Executives:

1) George Washington, 1st President, Virginia
2) Thomas Jefferson, 3rd, Virginia
3) James Madison, 4th, Virginia
4) James Monroe, 5th, Virginia
5) Andrew Jackson, 7th, South Carolina/Tennessee
6) Martin Van Buren, 8th, New York
7) William Henry Harrison, 9th, Virginia
8) John Tyler, 10th, Virginia
9) James K. Polk, 11th, North Carolina
10) Zachary Taylor, 12th, Virginia
*) James Buchanan, 15th, Pennsylvania
11) Andrew Johnson, 17th, North Carolina
12) Ulysses S. Grant, 18th, Ohio

Not all of these men owned slaves while they were president. Also, not all of them purchased slaves; they may have inherited them, or obtained them via marriage or gift. See the website “Which U.S. Presidents Owned Slaves” for more details.

President James Buchanan is on the list with an asterisk. According to one account, some time before becoming president, Buchanan purchased two slaves in Virginia from a brother-in-law, and immediately converted them to “indentured servants.” One slave served under indenture for seven years; the other — who was five years old when assumed by Buchanan – was indentured for 23 years. Both servants were female.

Of note is that seven of the persons on the list were from Virginia. Virginia was the most populous, and arguably the most powerful state when George Washington became the first president in 1789. According to the 1790 Census, Virginia had over 747,000 residents, of whom 292,000 were enslaved; the second most populous state was Pennsylvania, with over 434,000 residents. But by 1860, Virginia was only the seventh most populous state, behind New York, Pennsylvania, Ohio, Illinois, Indiana, and Massachusetts.

The power of the slave states, as reflected in the number of slaveholding presidents as well as the number of congressmen from slave states in the House of Representatives, led to some resentment among people in the free states. The U.S. Constitution allots representation in the House based on population, and states that 3/5ths of a state’s slaves count in the population total. Because electoral college rules for electing presidents are based on Congressional representation, the slave population was a factor in determining the outcome of presidential elections. Some northerners felt that the slave states gained an unfair level of representation due to the use of non-citizens (slaves) in setting the count of House seats; they believed that representation should be based solely on the population of free citizens.

Some in the free states also complained about presidents and other politicians who were “Northern men with Southern principles.” These were men who were from the free states but championed the interestes and policies of southern slaveholders. This included men like president Pennsylvanian James Buchanan, who were derisively called “doughfaces.”

 

Trivia: Sumter’s Law and the “Black Currency”

Most of us know from American history class that the shooting war between the United States and the Confederate States started at Ft. Sumter outside of Charleston, South Carolina. Here’s some trivia about the man who gave Ft. Sumter its name.

Thomas Sumter (1734–1832), nicknamed the “Carolina Gamecock,” was a Revolutionary War hero and a member of the US Congress. As noted in wikipedia:

Portrait of American Revolutionary War militia...

Thomas Sumter by Rembrandt Peale, via Wikipedia

In February 1776, Sumter was elected Lieutenant Colonel of the Second Regiment of the South Carolina Line of which he was later appointed Colonel. He subsequently was appointed Brigadier General of the South Carolina militia, a post he held until the end of the war. He participated in several battles in the early months of the war, including the campaign to prevent an invasion of Georgia. Perhaps his greatest military achievement was his partisan campaigning that contributed to the decision by Lord Cornwallis to leave the Carolinas for Virginia, where Cornwallis met his fate at Yorktown in October 1781.

He acquired the nickname “The Carolina Gamecock” for his fierce fighting tactics, regardless of his size. A British General commented that Sumter “fought like a gamecock,” and Cornwallis paid him the finest tribute when he described the Gamecock as his greatest plague.

After the Revolution, Sumter served South Carolina as a member of the U. S. House of Representatives… (and) was elected a U. S. Senator…

“Gamecock” is one of the several traditional nicknames for a native of South Carolina. The University of South Carolina’s official nickname is the “Fighting Gamecocks,” though since 1903 the teams have been simply known as the “Gamecocks.”

Fort Sumter in Charleston harbor was named for Sumter after the War of 1812.

What I’ve found interesting is the enlistment bonus policy that Sumter used to attract men in South Carolina to fight for the Patriot cause. As Michael Lee Lanning notes in his book African Americans in the Revolutionary War,

Although neither South Carolina nor Georgia permitted black enlistment, both states did allow slaves to be used as bounties to induce white volunteers. In April 1781, Gen Thomas Sumter of South Carolina offered slaves to any white man volunteering for ten months of service. New recruits were to receive one grown, healthy slave, while those with prior service could receive up to four blacks for reenlisting.

In February 1782 the South Carolina legislature formalized “Sumter’s Law.” In addition to promising a healthy slave between the ages of ten and forty to any white who enlisted, the legislature ruled that recruiters were to receive a bonus of one slave for every twenty-five whites enlisted during a two-month period.Since neither Sumter nor the South Carolina legislature had any slaves of their own to barter for enlistments, they honored the bounty with slaves captured or confiscated from Loyalists (to the British).

Georgia broadened the scale of the use of slaves as enlistment bonuses. The state rewarded white soldiers with slaves for their part in successful battles, paid public officials with slaves, and used slaves as tender in exchange for military provisions and supplies. Again, the source of this “black currency” was the plantations of the Loyalists.

How ironic that the “black currency” used to wage the Revolutionary War would be the spark that led to the Civil War.

FYI, Virginia also used slaves as an enlistment bonus – see here.

Confederate President and Vice-President: Secession was Due to Slavery


Confederate States President Jefferson Davis and Vice-President Alexander Stephens: Founding Fathers for a nation that “rests upon the great truth that the negro is not equal to the white man.”

What are children being taught about the causes of the Civil War? I ask because in a recent Pew Research Center poll, 48% of respondents said that the war “was mainly about states’ rights,” while 38% said it “was mainly about slavery.”

I have issues with the way the question concerning the causes of the war was worded, but even so, it is perplexing that almost 50% of those polled thought that states’ rights was the cause of the war.

That runs counter to the thinking of modern historians. Consider the comments of historian Elizabeth Varon, author of the book Disunion!: The Coming of the American Civil War, 1789-1859, in a lecture two years ago: “there’s emerged in recent years a strong consensus, which scholars call the fundamentalist school, that slavery was the root fundamental cause of the civil war and that the political antagonisms between the North and South flowed from the fact that the North was a free labor society while the South was a slave labor society which remained committed to slavery and indeed to extending its domain.”

That view – that slavery was the “root cause” of the war – is not shared by many folks today, and I wonder why there is a disconnect between what scholars understand and what non-scholars understand. It makes me wonder: what are children being taught about the war in school? And specifically, what are they being taught about the views of the Confederate Founding Fathers, such as Confederate President Jefferson Davis, and Vice-President Alexander Stephens?

Just before Davis became President of the Confederate States, he was a United States senator for the state of Mississippi. When Mississippi seceded, it issued A Declaration of the Immediate Causes which Induce and Justify the Secession of the State of Mississippi from the Federal Union. This document was basically Mississippi’s declaration of independence from the United States government. This is how the declaration begins:

In the momentous step which our State [Mississippi] has taken of dissolving its connection with the government of which we so long formed a part, it is but just that we should declare the prominent reasons which have induced our course.

Our position is thoroughly identified with the institution of slavery– the greatest material interest of the world. Its labor supplies the product which constitutes by far the largest and most important portions of commerce of the earth. These products are peculiar to the climate verging on the tropical regions, and by an imperious law of nature, none but the black race can bear exposure to the tropical sun. These products have become necessities of the world, and a blow at slavery is a blow at commerce and civilization. That blow has been long aimed at the institution, and was at the point of reaching its consummation. There was no choice left us but submission to the mandates of abolition, or a dissolution of the Union, whose principles had been subverted to work out our ruin.

Following that declaration, Davis made a farewell speech to the Senate on January 21, 1861, to announce that he was leaving the Congress to join with his disunionist state, and to give some reasons for the state’s actions:

..if I had not believed there was justifiable cause; if I had thought that Mississippi was acting without sufficient provocation, or without an existing necessity, I should still… because of my allegiance to the State… have been bound by her action. I, however, may be permitted to say that I do think she has justifiable cause, and I approve of her act.

I conferred with her people before that act was taken, counseled them then that if the state of things which they apprehended should exist when the convention met, they should take the action which they have now adopted…

It has been a conviction of pressing necessity, it has been a belief that we are to be deprived in the Union of the rights which our fathers bequeathed to us, which has brought Mississippi into her present decision. She has heard proclaimed the theory that all men are created free and equal, and this made the basis of an attack upon her social institutions [i.e., slavery]; and the sacred Declaration of Independence has been invoked to maintain the position of the equality of the races.

On March 21, 1861, Confederate States Vice-President Alexander H. Stephens, gave what is now called the “Cornerstone Speech” which, among other things, talked about the reasons for secession:

But not to be tedious in enumerating the numerous changes for the better, allow me to allude to one other though last, not least. The new constitution has put at rest, forever, all the agitating questions relating to our peculiar institution African slavery as it exists amongst us the proper status of the negro in our form of civilization. This was the immediate cause of the late rupture and present revolution.
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The Confederate soldier’s view of the colored soldier, Part 1: “the war will not be conducted in a civilized way hereafter.”


Depiction of the Fort Pillow Massacre, Harper’s Weekly, 1864

“The colored population is the great available, yet unavailed of, force for restoring the Union. The bare sight of fifty thousand armed, and drilled black soldiers on the banks of the Mississippi, would end the rebellion at once.”
President Abraham Lincoln in a letter to Tennessee Governor Andrew Johnson in March, 1863

The sight of black Union soldiers did indeed draw an intense reaction from Confederates. But it was nowhere near the kind of response that Lincoln predicted. Far from fear, the sight of black men in Union dress fostered a rage in the Confederate soldier that led to merciless – and often unapologetic – acts of violence against African Americans on the battlefield. White Confederates and black Union men became engaged in a war within a war that was constrained only by the smaller numbers of black soldiers and their combat role during the Civil War. (In the first half of the war, colored troops were less likely to do combat duty than white soldiers. This changed as the war lasted into 1865.)

As some readers may be aware, there is some debate among scholars and non-scholars about what the Confederate soldier “fought for.” The historical record provides very clear evidence that the politicians who drove the secession decision in the Deep South – the seven states that left the Union before the firing of guns at Fort Sumter – did so to protect the institution of slavery. Historian Gordon Rhea, in his essay Why Non-Slaveholding Southerners Fought, describes not so much why non-slaveholders fought, but rather, the reasons that were given by politicians, preachers, the prominent, and the press for a separate Confederate nation and the need to fight for it. All of those reasons, Rhea shows, were related to the defense of slavery, and appealed to white fears of a society overrun with free black should the Confederacy lose. We can say that the propaganda machine in the Deep South played the race/slavery card: “secession was necessary to preserve white supremacy, to avoid a race war, and to prevent racial amalgamation,” Rhea says of the arguments for the creation and defense of the Confederacy.

Did the “average” Confederate soldier accept these reasons, or have them as his own? Or was he motivated by Southern nationalism, or the basic and pressing need to protect his home from the invading Northern horde? The individual soldiers’ reasons were no doubt diverse and complex. But regardless of his own reasons, the soldier understood from his leaders that defeat would mean black freedom and equality.

But it’s one thing to talk about black freedom in the abstract; it’s another thing to see it on the battlefield. Before the war, or even in its early phases, the idea of emancipation as a consequence of defeat was just that – an idea, a concept, something that people talked about. But then the Emancipation Proclamation was issued. And now, the theoretical was the actual. In her book What This Cruel War Was Over: Soldiers, Slavery, and the Civil War, Chandra Manning writes “Confederates began to meet black Union soldiers in combat more frequently in 1864, which further aggravated white southern men’s sense of racial aversion. By bearing arms and mostly holding the same rank (private) as most of the Confederate Army, black troops literally presumed equal status with white southern enlisted men. ‘Damn you, you are fighting against your masters,’ howled one confederate as he faced black troops in Tennessee.”

When Confederate soldiers saw colored troops, they didn’t see black; they saw red. Historian Jason Phillips, in his book Diehard Rebels: The Confederate Culture of Invincibility, writes

The emancipation and Federal enlistment of thousands of slaves further enraged Confederates and confirmed their perception of Yankees… Emancipation and black Union soldiers verified Confederate fears that Yankees were racial fanatics…

…Rebels ridiculed Federals’ involvement with blacks. One Confederate denigrated the enemy with remarks such as, “The Yankees marched a line of battle, composed of white negroes and black negroes.” In his eyes, white northerners had descended to blacks’ racial status because of their association in a biracial army. A South Carolina soldier laughed at a dream he had in which Henry Ward Beecher and other abolitionists were “married to the blackest, dirtiest, stinkiest… negro wench[es] that can be found.” A Virginia officer wished that “all the Yanks and all the negroes were in Africa.”

Rebels’ pity and ridicule ended, however, when African Americans entered the fray. Facing black opponents implied a parity between former slaves and Confederate soldiers that many Rebels could not stomach. When Confederate soldier Nugent learned that “Lincoln demands that we treat negro soldiers upon an equality with whites,” he predicted that “the war will not be conducted in a civilized way hereafter.”

Black federal troops meant race war. Armed blacks roaming the countryside, murdering and raping whites-the nightmare that had terrified white southerners for centuries-seemed to be coming true. A soldier manning Lee’s trenches confessed that the men in his unit abruptly ended cease-fire when they realized that black Union troops had replaced white ones.

Other Rebels showed no remorse over the murdering of black prisoners at Fort Pillow. A South Carolina soldier was “glad that Forrest had it in his power to execute such swift & summary vengeance upon the negroes, & I trust it will have a good influence in deterring others from similar acts.” By killing black prisoners, Rebels revealed not only racist rage but also a chilling psychological distance from their victims. A Confederate song that celebrated Fort Pillow expressed the dehumanizing effects of war:

The dabbled clots of brain and gore
Across the swirling sabers ran;
To me each brutal visage bore,
The front of one accursed man

The reference to the Fort Pillow massacre is telling. There has been some debate as to whether there was a massacre at Fort Pillow (most believe it was), and if so, who was responsible for it (it seems to have resulted from the actions of the soldiers, and not direct orders from Confederate Major General Bedford Forrest). But at the time, many Confederates believed it was a massacre – and they celebrated it.
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