A dispossessed slave master: “I have always treated my negroes kindly. I supposed they loved me.”


From the Library of Congress:Title: The (Fort) Monroe Doctrine, 1861. 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 con
Source: Library of Congress Prints and Photographs Online Catalog, Reproduction Number: LC-USZ62-36161; above image is from the Virginia Memory website.

The shooting war between the Union and the Confederacy – what we call the American Civil War – began in April 1861. The Union government made it clear at the beginning that abolition – freedom for the slaves – was not its goal; the goal was to preserve the Union. But almost immediately, the Union took acts which imperiled the institution, and ultimately destroyed it.

In May 1861, Union General Benjamin Franklin Butler, who was then commanding Fort Monroe in Hampton, VA, initiated the so-called “contraband policy.” This called for the confiscation of slaves who were used as laborers for the Confederate military. Eventually hundreds of slaves from the Hampton Roads area and even beyond would flee bondage to gain freedom in and around what would be called the “Freedom Fort.”

In 1864, James Parton wrote “General Butler in New Orleans,” a “History of the Administration of the Department of the Gulf in Year 1862, with an Account of the Capture of New Orleans, and a Sketch of the General, Civil and Military.” In this bio-text of Butler, a story is told of an unnamed slave master who lost all of his slaves after their escape to Fort Monroe. The dispossessed slave master goes to the Fort to see if he can get just one of those slaves – one particular slave – back in his possession.

The account of this slave master has a touch of schadenfreude to it. (“Schadenfreude” is pleasure derived from the misfortunes of others. The word is taken from German and literally means “harm-joy”. It is the feeling of joy or pleasure when one sees another fail or suffer misfortune.) The Union men who receive the master are clearly no fans of slavery or enslavers, and seem to find his situation more pathetic than sympathetic. They find an ironic humor in his situation that, understandably, he does not.

Meanwhile, it is clear that the owner is hurt, shaken, perhaps devastated by the departure and loss of his slaves. The slave patriarch says “I have always treated my negroes kindly. I supposed they loved me.” But just when the war “came home” to him in earnest, just when he needed his slaves the most, they abandoned him. Clearly, the master had feelings for at least some of his slaves that went beyond mere property ownership. He lost people that he cared for, and that he presumed cared for him. At the end of the story, the feelings of the master are written true: “He had fallen upon evil times.” Continue reading

Frederick Douglass on the late Abraham Lincoln


Frederick Douglass Appealing to President Lincoln by William Edouard Scott 
This mural depicts Frederick Douglass asking President Abraham Lincoln to allow black soldiers to serve in the Union army during the Civil War. Gideon Welles, the Secretary of the Navy, and Salmon P. Chase, Secretary of the Treasury, are the two men standing in the back. The image surely depicts a fictional event: although Lincoln and Douglass met three times at the White House, those meetings took place after Congress approved the use of blacks as soldiers in the Union armed forces.

On April 14, 1865, president Abraham Lincoln was fatally shot by John Wilkes Booth in Washington, DC. On April 15, Lincoln passed away, becoming the first president to be assassinated in office.

On April 14, 1876, Frederick Douglass, perhaps the most prominent African American of his time, gave an “Oration in Memory of Abraham Lincoln.” This was done in Washington, DC, at the unveiling of The Freedmen’s Monument which had been commissioned by African Americans to honor the late president.

Douglass’s speech remains one of the most thoughtful, critical, and honorific summaries of Lincoln’s role in achieving racial progress during his time in office.

Douglass says that Lincoln was the black man’s “friend” and “liberator,” and that “the name of Abraham Lincoln was near and dear to our hearts in the darkest and most perilous hours of the Republic.” But he also says Lincoln was “preeminently the white man’s President, entirely devoted to the welfare of white men,” that “the race to which we belong were not the special objects of his consideration,” and that “truth compels me to admit, even here in the presence of the monument we have erected to his memory, Abraham Lincoln was not, in the fullest sense of the word, either our man or our model. In his interests, in his associations, in his habits of thought, and in his prejudices, he was a white man.”

Douglass eschewed simplicity in discussing Lincoln. Lincoln’s policies toward and relations with African American were complex, and in his long speech, Douglass laid out those complexities in detail.

But I think this one comment from that speech sums it up: “Viewed from the genuine abolition ground, Mr. Lincoln seemed tardy, cold, dull, and indifferent; but measuring him by the sentiment of his country, a sentiment he was bound as a statesman to consult, he was swift, zealous, radical, and determined.”

Douglass understood that Lincoln was a man, a white man, of his times. But that is why Douglass was ultimately thankful for Lincoln, enough to see Lincoln as a hero for African Americans. Because despite his own prejudices, and those of the nation, Lincoln found cause to condemn slavery as evil, and to use the Civil War as a means to destroy the institution. Lincoln was a man of his times who rose above his times, to do something revolutionary. Douglass, and African Americans, were “appreciators of his benefits.”

Of special interest to me is the portion of the speech where Douglass says “under his rule, Lincoln did this” or “Lincoln did that.” (See the italicized text below.) To those who might claim Lincoln did little or nothing for the cause of African American freedom and advancement, and that Lincoln’s supporters were moved by “a blind and unreasoning superstition,” Douglass lists a bill of particulars, to use a phrase, about Lincoln’s achievements, a list that withstands the scrutiny of time.

I also found it interesting that in speaking of Lincoln’s humble origins, Douglass said that as “a son of toil himself, he was linked in brotherly sympathy with the sons of toil in every loyal part of the Republic.” Douglass seemed to feel that being a “common man,” Lincoln was uniquely poised to represent all working people, of any background, as he executed his duties.

These are excerpts from Douglass’s speech, and there is a lot of text here. We bloggers are sometimes told to avoid making posts with such length, as it may be too tedious for readers. But it has a lot to offer about how Douglass, and perhaps many other African Americans of the era, viewed the president. Enjoy the read:

Friends and Fellow-citizens:

I warmly congratulate you upon the highly interesting object (The Freedmen’s Monument in Lincoln Park, Washington, DC,) which has caused you to assemble in such numbers and spirit as you have today. This occasion is in some respects remarkable. Wise and thoughtful men of our race, who shall come after us, and study the lesson of our history in the United States; who shall survey the long and dreary spaces over which we have traveled; who shall count the links in the great chain of events by which we have reached our present position, will make a note of this occasion; they will think of it and speak of it with a sense of manly pride and complacency.

We stand today at the national center to perform something like a national act — an act which is to go into history; and we are here where every pulsation of the national heart can be heard, felt, and reciprocated. A thousand wires, fed with thought and winged with lightning, put us in instantaneous communication with the loyal and true men all over the country.

Few facts could better illustrate the vast and wonderful change which has taken place in our condition as a people than the fact of our assembling here for the purpose we have today. Harmless, beautiful, proper, and praiseworthy as this demonstration is, I cannot forget that no such demonstration would have been tolerated here twenty years ago. The spirit of slavery and barbarism, which still lingers to blight and destroy in some dark and distant parts of our country, would have made our assembling here the signal and excuse for opening upon us all the flood-gates of wrath and violence… In view, then, of the past, the present, and the future, with the long and dark history of our bondage behind us, and with liberty, progress, and enlightenment before us, I again congratulate you upon this auspicious day and hour. Continue reading

“(T)he blood drawn with the lash shall be paid by another drawn with the sword”: Lincoln’s view of the war as the “Lord’s judgement” for slavery at his 2nd inauguration

Lincoln
A war weary Abraham Lincoln. Photograph was taken by Alexander Gardner on Sunday, February 5, 1865, a month before Lincoln’s second Inauguration Address
Image Source: Library of Congress, reproduction Number: LC-USZ61-1938 (b&w film copy neg. from Emily Tinker positive) LC-USZ62-3479 (b&w film copy neg. from carte de visite size print)

Was the American Civil War the result of God’s judgment for the “bondsman’s two hundred and fifty years of unrequited toil?” This was the extraordinary conclusion of president Abraham Lincoln in his second Inauguration Speech of March 4, 1865. Even more extraordinary is that most Americans today have no idea of this view which Lincoln expressed on that day. Why that is, we can only speculate.

Lincoln might well have used his second inauguration speech to gloat. By then the Union was on the brink of victory over  the Confederate States. Indeed, just one month later, on April 9, 1865, Confederate General Robert E. Lee surrendered his forces to Union General Ulysses S. Grant in Appomattox, Virginia. That was the beginning of the end of the Confederacy.

But Lincoln did not say much about the status the war, probably out of confidence for the Union’s position. He did state that “(t)he progress of our arms, upon which all else chiefly depends, is as well known to the public as to myself; and it is, I trust, reasonably satisfactory and encouraging to all.” And with that, Lincoln went into the main body of his oration.

Lincoln gave a speech whose tone was neither gloating nor celebratory, neither glorifying nor romantic about the Union’s winning war effort. Rather, his talk was somber, poignant, melancholy, and reflective. In fact, it was almost confessional. We have sinned, he said, and the wages therefrom have been enormous.

He noted that when the war began, “all knew” that the “peculiar and powerful interest” in slaves “was somehow the cause of the war.” But “neither (side) anticipated that the cause of the conflict might cease with or even before the conflict itself should cease. Each looked for an easier triumph, and a result less fundamental and astounding.” That is, no white person thought the war would result in the demise of slavery. Men on both sides thought the war would be brief and easy.

But God, said Lincoln, had “His own purposes.” God brings “woe unto the world because of offenses… (and) if we shall suppose that American slavery is one of those offenses,” then “He gives to both North and South this terrible war as the woe due to those by whom the offense came.”

Notably, Lincoln cites both the North and the South as the recipients of this horrible penance. Slavery was not simply the South’s sin; it was America’s sin. And the price America paid, said Lincoln, was just: “Fondly do we hope, fervently do we pray, that this mighty scourge of war may speedily pass away. Yet, if God wills that it continue until all the wealth piled by the bondsman’s two hundred and fifty years of unrequited toil shall be sunk, and until every drop of blood drawn with the lash shall be paid by another drawn with the sword, as was said three thousand years ago, so still it must be said ‘the judgments of the Lord are true and righteous altogether.'”

Interestingly, Lincoln’s view of the war as God’s judgement for the sins of slavery is not well known by most people outside of the academy. Or so it appears to me. Lincoln’s Gettysburg Address, and it’s talk of a “new birth of freedom,” has achieved a kind of iconic status. (In the past, some schools required students to memorize the Gettysburg Address.) Many people are aware of the second Inauguration Address’s call for “malice toward none” as the Union procured its victory over the Confederate enemy. But Lincoln’s somber reflection of slavery as sin, and war and its attendant suffering as God’s righteous judgement for that sin, has not achieved the same status or attention. This, despite the fact that our country has a strong Judeo-Christian tradition, in which Lincoln’s discussion of the role of God in man’s affairs should resonate (as opposed to a totally secular view of the war)

I do not have enough information or data to speculate about why this is so. But it does seem to me that many Americans are much more comfortable with delving into the glory and heroics and strategies of war, and celebrating the end of bondage, than they are with engaging in a somber reflection of human failing, commemorating these sins of the past, and (for believers) pondering the role of God in the events that befall man.

This is from Lincoln’s second Inauguration Address, given from the front of the White House:

On the occasion corresponding to this four years ago all thoughts were anxiously directed to an impending civil war. All dreaded it, all sought to avert it.

One-eighth of the whole population were colored slaves, not distributed generally over the Union, but localized in the southern part of it. These slaves constituted a peculiar and powerful interest. All knew that this interest was somehow the cause of the war. To strengthen, perpetuate, and extend this interest was the object for which the insurgents would rend the Union even by war, while the Government claimed no right to do more than to restrict the territorial enlargement of it. Neither party expected for the war the magnitude or the duration which it has already attained. Neither anticipated that the cause of the conflict might cease with or even before the conflict itself should cease. Each looked for an easier triumph, and a result less fundamental and astounding.

Both read the same Bible and pray to the same God, and each invokes His aid against the other. It may seem strange that any men should dare to ask a just God’s assistance in wringing their bread from the sweat of other men’s faces, but let us judge not, that we be not judged. The prayers of both could not be answered. That of neither has been answered fully. The Almighty has His own purposes.

“Woe unto the world because of offenses; for it must needs be that offenses come, but woe to that man by whom the offense cometh.” If we shall suppose that American slavery is one of those offenses which, in the providence of God, must needs come, but which, having continued through His appointed time, He now wills to remove, and that He gives to both North and South this terrible war as the woe due to those by whom the offense came, shall we discern therein any departure from those divine attributes which the believers in a living God always ascribe to Him?

Fondly do we hope, fervently do we pray, that this mighty scourge of war may speedily pass away. Yet, if God wills that it continue until all the wealth piled by the bondsman’s two hundred and fifty years of unrequited toil shall be sunk, and until every drop of blood drawn with the lash shall be paid by another drawn with the sword, as was said three thousand years ago, so still it must be said “the judgments of the Lord are true and righteous altogether.”

With malice toward none, with charity for all, with firmness in the right as God gives us to see the right, let us strive on to finish the work we are in, to bind up the nation’s wounds, to care for him who shall have borne the battle and for his widow and his orphan, to do all which may achieve and cherish a just and lasting peace among ourselves and with all nations.

The Confederate soldier’s view of the colored soldier, Part 2: Sketches from Prison (“De’ Bottom Rails on Top Now”)

lunchcountersitin:

John Jacob Omenhausser was a Confederate soldier who was captured by Union forces during the American Civil War. He was held at Point Lookout, a prisoner of war camp in southern Maryland. While there, Omenhausser produced over 100 watercolor paintings that tell a vivid story of life in a P.O.W. camp.

Co-authors Ross M. Kimmel and Michael P. Musick have recently produced a book of these paintings titled “I Am Busy Drawing Pictures”: The Civil War Art and Letters of Private John Jacob Omenhausser, CSA.” I have not seen the book, but the subject matter is of much interest.

One notable characteristic of Point Lookout was that many of the Union soldiers guarding the camp were African American. This situation, of black men keeping white men in captivity, made for an interesting dynamic at the camp. In an older blog post, I wrote about that dynamic, using several of Omenhausser’s pictures as a point of reference. I reblog that post below.

Originally posted on Jubilo! The Emancipation Century:


Drawing of a US Colored Troop prison guard and a Confederate prisoner at Point Lookout, Maryland. The guard tells the prisoner: “Git away from dat dar fence white man or I’ll make Old Abe’s Gun smoke at you I can hardly hold de ball back now. De bottom rails on top now.”
Source: “Guard challenging Prisoner,” from Point Lookout Sketches

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In antebellum America, and in the American South in particular, the black male slave had no honor or manhood. He was considered “degraded,” lacking any rights that a white man was bound to respect, and lacking any dignity that a white man was bound to recognize.

And then the Union decided to arm the slaves in its war against the Confederacy. And everything changed.

What a sight it must have been for Confederate soldiers to see: former slaves on the battlefield, armed, dangerous, and fighting for a different vision…

View original 843 more words

Fifty acres and a slave: One man’s not-so-new proposal to attract more recruits for the Confederate army

Slaves
An offer they couldn’t refuse?: “Lincoln has tempted thousands of men into his Army by offering reward. I now propose to outbid him… We can command thousands of men from Ireland, Germany, Poland, Austria, England, and France by offering them a home in the sunny South and a servant.” Refer to the letter from J. W. Ellis below.
Image Source: Unattributed photograph at the website “Dr. Sherrod’s Class -Advanced Placement & Dual Credit U. S. History – Slavery”

The best parting gift ever? How about 50 acres and a slave for every non-slaveholder and non-landowner who enlists in and musters out of the Confederate army to help win the Civil War? Yeah, that’s the ticket.

Or at least, that’s what J. W. Ellis, writing from Raleigh, North Carolina, seemed to think, when he suggested that extraordinary – and as it turns out, not unique – idea to Confederate States of America president Jefferson Davis. And Ellis was serious.

It was January 1865 when Ellis mailed his proposal to president Davis, a time when all was not well with the Confederate States. As mentioned in two previous posts (see here and here), the Confederacy was reeling from recent military losses to the Union army and a shortage of men for the Confederate army.

I don’t know anything about J. W. Ellis. But he was clearly a pro-slavery man, and concerned that ways be found to fill the ranks of the depleted Confederate army. So he came up with an interesting, but not novel idea: give every new enlistee in the Confederate army an enlistment bounty of 50 acres and a slave. This would only be given to men who were non-slaveholders or non-landowners.

Readers may be wondering, is this in any way related to the Union’s 40 acres and a mule plan, which would give land and an equine to former slaves in the southeast United States? The answer is… maybe. The 40 acres and a mule policy, promulgated as Special Field Orders No. 15, was issued by General William Sherman on January 16, 1865. Ellis’ letter to Jefferson Davis is dated January 29, 1865, a scant two weeks later. Depending on how well known Sherman’s plan was, Ellis might have been inspired to do suggest similar. But in his letter to Confederate president Davis, Sherman’s order is not mentioned. Maybe, possibly, perhaps, Ellis’ proposal was informed by Sherman’s plan, but I don’t know.

In any event, Ellis’ idea made good sense, at least to himself. This new recruitment policy would at once:
• incentivize un-enlisted and eligible white southerners to join the Confederate army
• attract (white) men from around the world to the Confederate cause
• eliminate the rich man’s war/poor man’s fight conundrum, in which many non-slaveholders were angry that they were fighting to protect the property of wealthy slaveowners
• cause Union soldiers to switch sides to grab this enlistment bounty
• strengthen support for slavery throughout the Confederacy
• eliminate the need for the drastic measure of enlisting slaves in the Confederate army.

Getting slaves wouldn’t be too difficult, Ellis believed. Slaveholders could contribute some of their slaves; taxes and donations could be used to raise money for slave purchases; state governments could provide some help; any captured black Union soldiers could be offered as slaves; and free blacks in the Confederacy could be thrown under the bus offered as slaves.

United States history would have been a lot more interesting if the Confederacy adopted this policy and it had half as much success as Ellis anticipated. But it was never implemented by the Davis administration. But it is a part of the historical record, and so we get to see it today. This is the text of Ellis’ letter:

His Excellency Jefferson Davis

SIR: It is not to be presumed that the press of public duty leaves you much time to read private letters, nevertheless I suppose that should you find a moment’s leisure you will not object to hearing the views of your countrymen, however humble, who are struggling with you for independence. How this war can be successfully managed, brought to a speedy and honorable end, bringing us independence, are questions that are upon every tongue.

I propose to give you my plan briefly: Declare by law that every soldier who, has or will enlist in our Army, and who at the time of such enlistment was not a slave-owner or land-holder, shall receive a bounty or pension at the end of the war, upon being honorably discharged, of one negro slave and fifty acres of land.

I will state it thus: We have 3,500,000 slaves. We have probably enrolled 1,000,000 of men. Half these men are slave-owners, leaving 500,000 who do not own them. I would give one slave to each such soldier and fifty acres of land, and if he died in the service, to his representatives.

Thus you spread the institution. You make every family in the Government interested in it. You do away with the doctrine that this is the rich man’s war and the poor man’s fight. And if the war is to continue you can make the slaves the very means of our defense – declare by law that all negroes captured from the enemy shall belong to the captors by general orders – declare to the enemy that all who will desert and enlist in our Army, take the oath of allegiance and fight in our cause, shall have a negro and fifty acres of land upon being honorably discharged, and shall further have all the negroes which they can capture from the enemy, to be their own property at the end of the war.

Lincoln has tempted thousands of men into his Army by offering reward. I now propose to outbid him, and as we have the most alluring means we shall get the most men. If we make it to the interest of the world to fight on our side, men from all quarters of the globe will take up arms in our defense. We can reduce Grant’s and Sherman’s armies one-half in numbers by desertions if we offer them the bait. We can enlist men from all quarters of the United States if we make it to their interest to come. In a word, we can buy out the armed forces of Lincoln, secure their service on our side.

We can command thousands of men from Ireland, Germany, Poland, Austria, England, and France by offering them a home in the sunny South and a servant. We will thus avoid the trouble of arming slaves. We will remove the prejudices against the institution and bring all the world up to its support from interested motives. The slave-owners can well afford to give up to the soldiers who have and will fight to maintain the institution 1,000,000 of slaves to secure forever the other 2,600,000. The mode of getting the land and negroes to pay these bounties with would be by taxation in kind, by general laws to purchase, by donations to the Government, by capture, by enslaving the free negroes in the South (emphasis added), by taxation and contribution by State Legislatures if needed.

With this system of laws wisely and properly regulated our people can be satisfied. Many of our farmers and mechanics can be released and sent home to attend to the industrial pursuits, and an army of 600,000 men can be put at General Lees disposal to march where he pleases, and feed them on the front instead of looking to his rear for supplies. Hoping, sir, that the wish of your heart, the independence of the South, may be speedily consummated,

I am, with great respect, your obedient servant,

J. W. ELLIS.

Interestingly, this proposal was not unique. The use of slaves as an enlistment bounty on American soil has been tried before, and goes back at least as far as the American Revolution.

Most of us know from history class that the shooting war between the United States and the Confederate States started at Ft. Sumter outside of Charleston, South Carolina. That fort was named for Thomas Sumter (1734–1832), AKA the “Carolina Gamecock.” Sumter was a Revolutionary War hero and a member of the US Congress. As noted in wikipedia: 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.

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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.

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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