US Colored Troops as Veterans; Happy Veterans Day, 11/11/2018


Negro members of the Grand Army of the Republic, a Civil War veterans organization, parading, New York City, May 30, 1912
Image Source: Library of Congress; Reproduction Number: LC-USZ62-132913; see more information about the photo here.

Happy Veterans Day! In this post I am showing images of African American Civil War veterans. These are wonderful images of the men who helped to save the Union and destroy slavery. The photograph above features African American Civil War veterans, and family and friends, marching in a Grand Army of the Republic parade in New York in the early twentieth century. The Grand Army of the Republic (GAR) was an organization of United States (Union) veterans of the Civil War, including men from the Army, Navy, Marines and Revenue Cutter Service. Wikipedia discusses the GAR:

After the end of American Civil War, organizations were formed for veterans to network and maintain connections with each other. Many of the veterans used their shared experiences as a basis for fellowship. Groups of men began joining together, first for camaraderie and later for political power. Emerging as most influential among the various organizations was the Grand Army of the Republic, founded on April 6, 1866, on the principles of “Fraternity, Charity and Loyalty,” in Decatur, Illinois, by Benjamin F. Stephenson.

The GAR initially grew and prospered as a de facto political arm of the Republican Party during the heated political contests of the Reconstruction era. The commemoration of Union veterans, black and white, immediately became entwined with partisan politics. The GAR promoted voting rights for black veterans, as many veterans recognized their demonstrated patriotism. Black veterans, who enthusiastically embraced the message of equality, shunned black veterans’ organizations in preference for racially inclusive groups. But when the Republican Party’s commitment to reform in the South gradually decreased, the GAR’s mission became ill-defined and the organization floundered. The GAR almost disappeared in the early 1870s, and many divisions ceased to exist.

In the 1880s, the organization revived under new leadership that provided a platform for renewed growth, by advocating federal pensions for veterans. As the organization revived, black veterans joined in significant numbers and organized local posts.

image
Grand Army of the Republic, New York Post 160, Cazenovia, New York (near Syracuse), circa 1900
Image Source: blog.syracuse.com; collection of Angelo Scarlato

This is a wonderful photograph of an integrated GAR post. The post, New York post number 160, was located in Cazenovia, New York, which is near Syracuse. The picture was taken around 1900, roughly 35 years after the end of the war. The image of these black and white soldiers, with its staging of a black man holding the American flag in the center of the shot, has a poignancy which reaches over a hundred years of time, and touches me today.

These men might not have known each other during the war, because Union regiments were segregated. Although, during the course of the war, different soldiers from different regiments often fought alongside each other at particular sites. But GAR units like this one might have been the first opportunity for black and white soldiers to meet, greet, and perhaps, become friends.

The Public Broadcasting Service (PBS) show “History Detectives” devoted a program segment to a discussion of the photo, the GAR, and race in the Civil War. A transcript of the segment, which aired in July 2007, is here. Thanks to the blog Syracuse.com for providing the link and the photograph, and additional information.


Image Description: G.A.R. Post (Civil War veterans. Photoprint) 1935; perhaps in the Washington, DC or southern Maryland area; Addison Scurlock, photographer
Image and Description Source: Smithsonian Institution, National Museum of American History, Local Number: 618ps0229581-01pg.tif (AC scan no.), Box 68

Norfolk-USCT-GAR-v2.jpg

GAR Norfolk USCT 2.jpg
Image Description: Photograph of a reunion of Grand Army of the Republic (G.A.R) members, ca. 1910 in Norfolk, Virginia; the first image is a close-up of the second image. This is believed to have been taken at the West Point Cemetery. This was a cemetery for African Americans and was the resting place for many black soldiers from the Civil War the Spanish American War. It is also the home of a monument to those soldiers.
Image Source: from a LocalWiki entry for Hampton Roads, West Point Cemetery. Original source was the University of Virginia Library, Special Collections.

Image Description: “August 28, 1949 – Joseph Clovese, G.A.R. Veteran, 105 Years Old At The 83rd And Final G.A.R. Encampment In Indianapolis, Indiana.”
Image Source: from War History Online via Pinterest

civil20war2010
Image Description: “Members from the Grand Army of the Republic, Samuel Walker Post No. 365, at Lawrence, Kansas. The Grand Army of the Republic was organized at the end of the Civil War by veterans of the Union Army. Six African-American GAR posts were established throughout Kansas and were located in the cities of Lawrence, Fort Scott, Topeka, Atchison, Kansas City, and Leavenworth.”
Image and Description Source: The Wichita Eagle, content courtesy of Kansas State Historical Society

Continue reading

Advertisements

Contraband Art: the White View of the Black Exodus

Contraband, Changing Quarters copy
Figure 1: “Contraband, Changing Quarters” In this image, a determined-looking slave exercises his agency and escapes from his master in the Confederate army to seek freedom with the Union army. Presumably, the fine white stallion belongs to his master; so the Union has gotten two properties for the price of one. The cap, I guess, is a fashion statement.
Image Source: The Philadelphia Print Shop, section on Civil War images of Blacks / “Contraband”

First and foremost, you must understand this: Civil War era northerners were intrigued, perhaps even fascinated, by the very idea of “contrabands”: human property that was “confiscated” from Confederates, and given asylum from bondage, in return for supporting the Union war effort. That intrigue and fascination played out in the art of the era, as shown in this post.

Some background is in order. The official Union policy at the start of the war was to do nothing to slavery where it stood. The goal of the Union was to end secession, not to end slavery. Men like Abraham Lincoln were uncompromising that slavery not spread into the territories west of the Mississippi River, but they believed that free persons in the slave states had the right to keep chattel property.

image.png
Figure 2: An enslaved person caricature with an impish grin says “I’se de INNOCENT CAUSE Ob All Dis War Trouble”
Image Description: This Civil War era envelope image shows an African American enslaved person slyly casting himself as the “innocent cause of all this war trouble.” Many African Americans no doubt agreed with this, but most likely, this reflects the sentiment of the illustrator and many white northerners. But the exigencies of war would transform the Negro from a mere trickster into a freedom seeker that the Union would embrace as “contraband.”
Image Source: Indiana State Library, Civil War Envelope Exhibit

Enslaved people had a different idea. They immediately saw the conflict between Union and Confederacy as an opportunity for freedom. In March 1861 – several weeks before the attack on Fort Sumter ignited the Civil War – two groups of slaves fled bondage and sought refuge at Fort Pickens, a Union occupied ports in northwest Florida. Their hopes for freedom were dashed. First Lieutenant A. J. Slemmer, a commander at the fort, reported to his superiors that “(o)n the morning of the 12th… four negroes (runaways) came to the fort entertaining the idea that we were placed here to protect them and grant them their freedom. I did what I could to teach them the contrary. In the afternoon I took them to Pensacola and delivered them to the city marshal to be returned to their owners. That same night four more made their appearance. They were also turned over to the authorities next morning.”

But just two months later, another group of runaway slaves got a different reception. On May 23, 1861, Frank Baker, James Townsend and Sheppard Mallory fled bondage and sought asylum at a Union occupied fort outside of Hampton, Virginia, named Fort Monroe. Per Union policy, the fort’s commander, General Benjamin Franklin Butler, should have returned them to their master. But he reasoned that because the slaves were property that was used by Confederate insurrectionists, it was within his rights to confiscate that property and use it for the Union’s purposes. This was the beginning of the Union’s contraband policy. The Lincoln administration, and then legislation passed by the Congress and signed by Lincoln, gave official sanction to the contraband policy. Soon, all across the Confederate States, the Union was enabling the freedom of former slaves.


Figure 3: The Fort Monroe Three: Runaway slaves Frank Baker, James Townsend and Sheppard Mallory meet with Union General Benjamin Butler at Fort Monroe, Virginia, May 1861, seeking freedom from bondage. Butler will decide that this “contraband property” should be confiscated from the Confederates, and re-purposed for Union use.
Image Source: From The New York Public Library Digital Collections

This new policy created a sensation among northerners. Recollect that less than 2% of people living in the free states were of African descent. Millions of northern white Americans went their entire lives without ever seeing a real live African-American, much less a slave. What they did know of slaves was through a popular culture that commonly depicted slaves in a negative way, by, for example, using caricatures that exaggerated and “animalized” their appearance.

What were northerners thinking and feeling about this contraband policy? They might have thought about their Yankee ingenuity, in making what Southerners thought to be a strength – the unencumbered use of slave labor – into a weakness; and also, in finding a way to legally use enslaved peoples for the Union’s war aims. They might have thought about the irony, and the justice, of slaves gaining freedom just at the time when their masters needed them the most. Meanwhile, some northerners – such as Frederick Douglass – wondered why African Americans were called by a name that reinforced the idea of human beings as property.

Many white northerners no doubt wondered, just who were these people, anyway? Who were these people with dark skin, whom very few northerners had ever seen, but were at the crux of the divisions that caused the war, and were now being seen as being as a important to the Union’s success? They might also have wondered how the slaves felt about all of this… what did the slaves feel about their masters, the Union, and “freedom?”

And then there was the ultimate question: what did it mean for the Union to ask the support of, and give their support to, a class of people who were seen as ignorant, inferior, docile (when under control of their enslavers) yet savage (when uncontrolled), perhaps sub-human, but surely degraded?

These types of questions informed the popular art of the Civil War and post-war eras, the vast majority of which was produced by white men. Let’s take a look at some of those works:

Butler and slave contraband
Figure 4: Front of a Civil War era envelope, titled “One of the F. F. V’s after his Contraband. General Butler “can’t see it.” Image Reference is to General Benjamin Butler; see text in the blog entry. F.F.V is short for ‘First Families of Virginia,’ a name given to the state’s elite class
Image Source: Encyclopedia Virginia; entry titled “Escaped Slaves at Fort Monroe”; image courtesy of the Virginia Historical Society

During the Civil War era, illustrated envelopes were a kind of social media. People used the mails to send printed envelopes which had artistic, political, or social content. During 1861 and 1862 – that is, after the contraband policy started, but before the final Emancipation Proclamation was issued in 1863 – several printers made envelopes which addressed the “contraband” Issue.

The image above portrays a Virginia enslaver, bloodhound in hand, going after his runaway. The groveling bondsman is protected at the point of a sword by Union General Benjamin Butler. Butler, as mentioned above, originated the contraband policy at Fort Monroe. The image is based on an actual event: a Confederate officer, under flag of truce, met with Butler at the fort to retrieve a runaway slave. Butler responded that the slave would be returned, if the Confederate officer would take an oath of loyalty to the Union. Which, of course, the officer did not do.

Fort Monroe Doctrine cartoon
Figure 5: The (Fort) Monroe Doctrine, 1861. From the Library of Congress description: On May 27, 1861, Benjamin Butler, commander of the Union army in Virginia and North Carolina, decreed that slaves who fled to Union lines were legitimate “contraband of war,” and were not subject to return to their Confederate owners. The declaration precipitated scores of escapes to Union lines around Fortress Monroe, Butler’s headquarters in Virginia. In this crudely drawn caricature, a slave stands before the Union fort taunting his plantation master. The planter (right) waves his whip and cries, “Come back you black rascal.” The slave replies, “Can’t come back nohow massa Dis chile’s contraban”
Image Source:  Library of Congress Prints and Photographs Online Catalog, Reproduction Number: LC-USZ62-36161; above image is from the Virginia Memory website.
Continue reading

Portraits of African American Civil War Veterans from the Library of Congress

56449u
Unidentified African American Civil War veteran in Grand Army of the Republic uniform with two children, probably his grandchildren.
Created / Published: Goodman and Springer, photographer, Mt. Pleasant, Pa., ca. 1900
SOURCE: Library of Congress; https://www.loc.gov/item/2018652209/

The Library of Congress has a great archive of photographs which includes these wonderful portraits of African American Civil War veterans. These men are shown wearing clothing and accoutrements of the Grand Army of the Republic, or G. A. R. The G. A. R. was a nation-wide organization for Union veterans of the Civil War. Continue reading

Paul Laurence Dunbar’s “When Dey Listed Colored Soldiers”

When Dey Listed Colored Soldiers 1
From the 1901 book Candle-Lightin’ Time by poet Paul Laurence Dunbar, photographer Leigh Richmond Miner, and illustrator Margaret Armstrong. The book is available at Archive.org.

Paul Laurence Dunbar was an African-American poet who gained national prominence in the late 19th/early 20th centuries. Born in 1872, he was raised in Dayton, Ohio, where he was the lone black student in his high school. His father was an escaped slave from Kentucky who served in the 55th Massachusetts Infantry Regiment and the 5th Massachusetts Colored Cavalry Regiment during the Civil War.

In 1901, Dunbar published Candle-Lightin’ Time. The book was an artistic calloboration, featuring poems by Dunbar, photographs by Leigh Richmond Miner of the Hampton Institute Camera Club, and illustrated decorations by Margaret Armstrong. The work includes an ode to African American Civil War soldiers titled When Dey Listed Colored Soldiers, which is presented further below along with photographs from the book. The poem was no doubt inspired by his father.

The poem is interesting in that, while centering on the suffering and loss of a black mother for her son, it also speaks to the suffering of a white Confederate family. The poem’s narrator is the mother of a black Union soldier, but also, has a slave master who served in the Confederacy, along with the master’s son. Both master and son would feel the pain and anguish of war. In this, the slave mother and her mistress would share a bond that transcended race, section, and politics.

Candle-Lightin’ Time features other, non-Civil War content and makes for a fine read not only for its poetry but for its photographs.

Dunbar died in Dayton, Ohio at the age of 33 from tuberculosis.

When Dey Listed Colored Soldiers

Dey was talkin’ in de cabin, dey was talkin’ in de hall;
But I listened kin’ o’ keerless, not a-t’inkin’ ’bout it all;
An’ on Sunday, too, I noticed, dey was whisp’rin’ mighty much,
Stan’in’ all erroun’ de roadside w’en dey let us out o’ chu’ch.
But I did n’t t’ink erbout it ‘twell de middle of de week,
An’ my ‘Lias come to see me, an’ somehow he couldn’t speak.
Den I seed all in a minute whut he’d come to see me for; –
Dey had ‘listed colo’ed sojers, an’ my ‘Lias gwine to wah.

When Dey Listed Colored Soldiers 2

Oh, I hugged him, an’ I kissed him, an’ I baiged him not to go;
But he tol’ me dat his conscience, hit was callin’ to him so,
An’ he could n’t baih to lingah w’en he had a chanst to fight
For de freedom dey had gin him an’ de glory of de right.
So he kissed me, an’ he lef’ me, w’en I’d p’omised to be true;
An’ dey put a knapsack on him, an’ a coat all colo’ed blue.
So I gin him pap’s ol’ Bible, f’om de bottom of de draw’, –
W’en dey ‘listed colo’ed sojers an’ my ‘Lias went to wah.

When Dey Listed Colored Soldiers 3
But I t’ought of all de weary miles dat he would have to tramp,
An’ I could n’t be contented w’en dey tuk him to de camp.
W’y, my hea’t nigh broke wid grievin’ twell I seed him on de street;
Den I felt lak I could go an’ th’ow my body at his feet.
For his buttons was a-shinin’, an’ his face was shinin’, too,
An’ he looked so strong an’ mighty in his coat o’ sojer blue,
Dat I hollahed, “Step up, manny,” dough my th’oat was so’ an’ raw,-
W’en dey ‘listed colo’ed sojers an’ my ‘Lias went to wah.

Ol’ Mis’ cried w’en mastah lef’ huh, young Miss mou’ned huh brothah Ned,
An’ I did n’t know dey feelin’s is de ve’y wo’ds dey said
W’en I tol’ ’em I was so’y. Dey had done gin up dey all;
But dey only seem mo’ proudah dat dey men had hyeahd de call.
Bofe my mastahs went in gray suits, an’ I loved de Yankee blue,
But I t’ought dat I could sorrer for de losin’ of ’em too;
But I could n’t, for I did n’t know de ha’f o’ whut I saw,
‘Twell dey ‘listed colo’ed sojers an’ my ‘Lias went to wah.

Mastah Jack come home all sickly; he was broke for life, dey said;
An’ dey lef’ my po’ young mastah some’r’s on de roadside, – dead.
W’en de women cried an’ mou’ned ’em, I could feel it thoo an’ thoo,
For I had a loved un fightin’ in de way o’ dangah, too.
Den dey tol’ me dey had laid him some’r’s way down souf to res’,
Wid de flag dat he had fit for shinin’ daih acrost his breas’.
Well, I cried, but den I reckon dat’s what Gawd had called him for
W’en dey ‘listed colo’ed sojers an’ my ‘Lias went to wah.

When Dey Listed Colored Soldiers 4

 



This video excerpt, from the 1990 video “The Eyes of the Poet,” features Herbert Woodward Martin performing the poetry of Paul Laurence Dunbar. Dr. Martin, University of Dayton professor emeritus, is an acclaimed scholar and interpreter of Dunbar’s works.
University of Dayton; Published on Oct 14, 2014

Richard Brown gets 40 acres… for a while, at least.

40 Acres to Richard Borwn
Land Order for Richard Brown, April 1, 1865: “permission is hereby granted to Richard Brown to take possession of and occupy forty acres of land,” situated in St. Andrews Parish, Island of James, South Carolina, Berkley District.
Image Source: National Archives, Labor Contracts M1910, roll 62; from the Archive’s Freedmen’s Bureau records.

In 1865, US General William Tecumseh Sherman issued Field Order 15. As discussed in the New Georgia Encyclopedia,

On January 16, 1865, during the Civil War (1861-65), Union general William T. Sherman issued Field Order No. 15, calling for the redistribution of confiscated Southern land to freedmen in forty-acre plots. The order was rescinded later that same year, and much of the land was returned to the original white owners.

William T. Sherman issued his Special Field Order No. 15, which confiscated as Union property a strip of coastline stretching from Charleston, South Carolina, to the St. John’s River in Florida, including Georgia’s Sea Islands and the mainland thirty miles in from the coast. The order redistributed the roughly 400,000 acres of land to newly freed black families in forty-acre segments.

Sherman’s order came on the heels of his successful March to the Sea from Atlanta to Savannah and just prior to his march northward into South Carolina. Radical Republicans in the U.S. Congress, like Charles Sumner and Thaddeus Stevens, for some time had pushed for land redistribution in order to break the back of Southern slaveholders’ power. Feeling pressure from within his own party, U.S. president Abraham Lincoln sent his secretary of war, Edwin M. Stanton, to Savannah in order to facilitate a conversation with Sherman over what to do with Southern planters’ lands.

On January 12 Sherman and Stanton met with twenty black leaders of the Savannah community, mostly Baptist and Methodist ministers, to discuss the question of emancipation. Lincoln approved Field Order No. 15 before Sherman issued it just four days after meeting with the black leaders. From Sherman’s perspective the most important priority in issuing the directive was military expediency. It served as a means of providing for the thousands of black refugees who had been following his army since its invasion of Georgia. He could not afford to support or protect these refugees while on campaign.

Details from Sherman’s meeting with the African American leaders of the Savannah are here. In that meeting, the leaders are asked to “State in what manner you think you can take care of yourselves, and how can you best assist the Government in maintaining your freedom.” The leaders respond that the “way we can best take care of ourselves is to have land, and turn it and till it by our own labor–that is, by the labor of the women and children and old men; and we can soon maintain ourselves and have something to spare.”

Richard Brown was one of those fortunate freedmen who received 40 acres, as shown by the above certificate. The land was in St. Andrew’s Parish, SC.  (Until the late 19th century, the South Carolina Lowcountry was divided into parishes which in turn were subdivided several “districts”; the Berkley and Charleston Districts were in St. Andrew.) The land was on James Island, which is south of Charleston on the other side of Charleston Harbor, from one of the Heyward plantations. The owner, whom I believe to be Charles Heyward, had several plantations. This website identifies several of the 491 enslaved people who were freed from his plantations in July 1865.

Brown’s certificate from the Office of the Superintendent of Freedmen. It is numbered as  No. 118, indicating that a good number of persons had already gotten land before him.

Brown’s claim to the land did not last. As noted by Libby Coleman in her article Flashback: When the U.S. Promised Former Slaves 40 Acres and a Mule: Continue reading

An Ode to the Color (Flag) Bearer at Port Hudson: “The Reason Why,” by George Clinton Rowe


A 1/6 figurine depicting a Civil Ware era African American color/flag bearer.
Source: This is from the Spanish language site Acción Uno Seis: foro español di figuras de acción a escala 1/6 (Action One Six: A Spanish Forum for 1/6 scale action figures). It shows a Union sergeant who holds the tattered, but surviving, United States flag in the wake of a battle.
Created by: “egonzinc.” His full name is not indicated, although he is shown as being from Puerto Rico.


In Civil War armies, no duty was more honorable, or more dangerous, than that of the color, or flag, bearer. As noted here at About.com,

The regimental flags were critical in Civil War battles as they marked the position of the regiment on the battlefield, which could often be a very confused place. In the noise and smoke of battle, regiments could become scattered, and vocal commands, or even bugle calls, could not be heard. So a visual rallying point was essential, and soldiers were trained to follow the flag.

Because the regimental flags had genuine strategic importance in battle, designated teams of soldiers, known as the color guard, carried them. A typical regimental color guard would consist of two color bearers, one carrying the national flag (the U.S. flag or a Confederate flag) and one carrying the regimental flag. Often two other soldiers were assigned to guard the color bearers.

Being a color bearer was considered a mark of great distinction and it required a soldier of extraordinary bravery. The job was to carry the flag where the regimental officers directed, while unarmed and under fire. Most importantly, color bearers had to face the enemy and never break and run in retreat, or the entire regiment might follow. As the regimental flags were so conspicuous in battle, they were often used as a target for rifle and artillery fire. And, of course, the mortality rate of color bearers was high.


“Assault on the Rebel Works at Port Hudson, May 27,” Frank Leslie’s Illustrated Newspaper, June 27, 1863, p. 216-217. (Courtesy of the House Divided Project); romanticized illustration of the Battle at Port Hudson, which included African-descent troops from the Louisiana Native Guards.
Source: Courtesy of the House Divided Project

George Clinton Rowe (1853-1903) was an African American minister, newspaper publisher (in Charleston, SC), and poet. In his poem “The Reason Why,” he writes an ode to a flag bearer for the African descent regiments that fought at the Battle of Port Hudson:

The Reason Why
by George Clinton Rowe

It is the eve of battle;
The soldiers are in line;
The roll of drum and bugle blast
Marshal that army fine. Continue reading

Update to the List of Monuments to United States Colored Troops: Memorial to the Forgotten Soldiers, Key West, Florida

One of the most popular entries on this blog is the list of monuments to African American soldiers who served in the Civil War. FYI, I have made an update to that entry. The list now includes:

Memorial to the Forgotten Soldiers
Key West, Florida

Monument Key West Civil War Black Soldier copyCivil War historical re-enactor David Flemming, right, stands by a bronze sculpture honoring black soldiers who served in Key West, FL. The dedication ceremony took pace on February 16, 2016.
Source: Rob O’Neal/Florida Keys News Bureau via AP via The Washington Post

This monument, in Key West’s Bayview Park, commemorates African American troops who served in this southern-most outpost of the United States during the Civil War. Key West remained in Union hands throughout the Civil War and was headquarters for the Navy Gulf Blockading Squadron.

This article from CBS 4 Miami notes:

According to historians, Col. James Montgomery of Kansas came to Key West in February 1863 to recruit after being authorized to raise a regiment of troops consisting entirely of free blacks and former refugee slaves.

Called “The Forgotten Soldier” and standing in Key West’s Bayview Park, the large-scale bronze sculpture depicts a uniformed soldier holding a rifle, with one arm upraised. Its unveiling and dedication marked the 153rd anniversary of the date in 1863 when more than 120 African-American soldiers from Key West were instructed to report for duty.

A Civil War reenactor gave a “roll call” of the recently rediscovered names of the African-Americans from Key West, who served in the 2nd South Carolina Volunteer Infantry. Attendees placed yellow carnations at the base of the sculpture as the soldiers’ names were read.

“They were never recognized before — the fact that they came from a city that was in the far south but yet a Union outpost, and that they joined the Union army,” said Lopez.

“The Forgotten Soldier” sculpture was commissioned and donated by the late Edward Knight, a Key West businessman who did much in the way of historic preservation. There are several other veterans’ memorials in Key West, including one to Confederate soldiers and sailors.

A video of the February 16, 2016  dedication ceremony is here. 

********************

If anyone knows of monuments to Civil War era black soldiers or sailors which I have not identified, please respond to this post, and I will update the list as time allows. I appreciate those of you who have helped me make what I believe is the definitive list of monuments to these men.

Portrait of Woman and Man with Bayonet

Woman-and-Man-with-Boyonet-2a
Portrait of a woman and a man with a bayonet
Description: Portrait of a woman in a bonnet standing beside a man in Civil War era uniform with a bayonet and hand-colored buttons. In an ornamental case.
Source: From the Loewentheil Collection of African-American Photographs, Cornell Universisity
Date: Late-19th century

The Joy of Being a Black Confederate

A young slave is brought to a Confederate army camp during the Civil War. He meets an older slave who’s been there a while.

Young Person: “How you doin’ old timer?”

Older Person: “Just trying to stay alive, son.”

YP: “What you mean, old man? We’re Black Confederates. I’m excited! Can’t wait to whip them Yankees!”

OP: “What you mean, boy? You’re a cook. Fighting Yankees, that’s what white Confederates do.”

YP: “Well, at least I don’t have to worry about my family being sold down the river, right?”

OP: “No no no, that’s white Confederates that got family rights, not you. You’re a Black Confederate. You can still go to the auction block if you don’t act right.”

YP: “Well maybe I can vote? Serve on a jury? I’m a Confederate citizen, right?”

OP: “Are you crazy? White Confederates are Confederate citizens. You’re a Black Confederate.”

YP: “Well, I’m gonna be free right? They gonna free all of us right?”

OP: “I’m gonna stop talking to you, you ain’t listening. Freedom is for white Confederates. You’re black. Instead of doing n****** work on massa’s plantation, you’re doing it for his army. And being a Black Confederate, they calls that your reward. Don’t seem like much of a prize to me, though.”

YP: “Darn, is that it? What good is that?”

OP: “Look here, son. My advice is, treat your massa good. Talk about how great the Confederacy is. Do whatever you’re told, and then some. When you get older, massa will remember. Might treat you better for your loyalty. Maybe they even make a statue for you. You know, them people can be very sentimental.”

YP: “Well… I guess that’s better than nothing.”

OP: “And watch out for them damn Yankees. Yankee bullet don’t care what color you are. Some of them even think we’re soldiers and shoot at us. Watch your back, son.”

YP: “You know, all of sudden, I don’t think I like this Black Confederate stuff.”

OP: “Don’t be down, son. I got this camp song for you. Ah ah ah ah, staying alive, staying alive. Ah ah ah ah…”

YP: “Oh my, that’s catchy. Ah ah ah ah…”

OP: “Oh yeah, you’re finally starting to get it. Sing boy!”

YP: “Oh yeah! Ah ah ah ah…”