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.
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
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…
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.
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.”
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.
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.
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?
The American Civil War made for new and unexpected encounters between North and South. One of those is captured in Winslow Homer’s poignant 1875 watercolor painting Contraband, which features a Union soldier in a Zouave uniform and a runaway slave boy.
What did these two see in each other’s faces? This might be the first time that the white soldier sees a slave in the flesh. Understand that in 1860, less than 2% of the North’s population was of African descent; millions of northerners went their entire lives without ever seeing a negro. Slaves had been much talked about, but hardly seen except for press illustrations which typically represented them as big-lipped, dark-skinned caricatures. But as this soldier gazed upon the boy, he may have seen, not a cartoon image, but rather, the face of humanity. And so he was moved to this act of kindness, of sharing his water with the boy.
And what did the child, whose enslaved family had sought refuge behind Union lines, make of this man with the garish uniform and the funny accent? During the war, thousands of slaves heeded the advice of the grapevine telegraph that the United States army offered them freedom, if they could escape to Union lines. Having survived his family’s sojourn from bondage, the thirsty and exhausted boy with the curious and almost trepidatious look may have tasted not just water, but also, liberation and hope. Perhaps the boy thought that he might be a soldier himself one day. (Many black men who escaped bondage did become soldiers, and maybe even some boys.) Continue reading →
“Would You Marry Your Daughter to a Nigger?” Harper’s Weekly, July 1, 1868.
Supreme Court Justice Salmon Chase joins a negro man and an Irish woman in miscegenation marital bliss while Democratic Party politicos look on.
This is how they rolled in 1868.
The political cartoon above is taboo in today’s polite political society. But in 1868, racial and ethnic prejudice was out front and in your face. And the message here is a little more complicated than you might think at first.
Harper’s Weekly, which supported the Republican Party, decided to have a little fun at the expense of Chase, the Democrats, and also, Irish Americans, who were part of the Democratic Party’s electoral coalition. Irish Americans in New York City had gained some infamy in the wake of the Draft/race riot of 1863.
This particular image is made even more lurid by its simian-like depiction of an Irish woman with the “Democratic Party” veil. Even whites from the British Isles could be subjected to nativist caricature and ridicule. Interestingly, the African-American in the picture is not caricatured.
Because of the acrimonious partisanship of US politics today, some people have expressed a desire to return to the good old days of American civics. But as the above cartoon shows, the old days were not necessarily all that good.
The other figures in the cartoon are leading Democratic politicians. On the left side (l-r): John Hoffman, New York gubernatorial candidate; John Morrissey, Tammany Hall associate and former prize-fighter; Fernando Wood (background), former New York City mayor; Manton Marble, New York World editor; Senator Thomas Hendricks of Indiana, a presidential candidate; and, James Gordon Bennett Sr., former New York Herald editor.
On the right side (l-r): Horatio Seymour, former New York governor and eventual 1868 presidential nominee; Representative James Brooks of New York; Clement Vallandingham, former leader of the Peace Democrats; Senator James Doolittle of Wisconsin (background), a presidential candidate; George Pendleton, 1864 vice presidential nominee and the leading 1868 presidential candidate; Raphael Semmes (background), famed Confederate admiral; and Nathan Bedford Forrest, former Confederate general of Fort Pillow infamy.
The 1868 presidential election was won by Republicans Ulysses S. Grant, President, and Schuyler Colfax, Vice President.
Robert Webster: Confederate Slave, Union Supporter, Business Man, and the Allleged Son of “Black Dan” Webster
Source: Julie Rowlands Collection, from the October 2014 issue of Smithsonian magazine
The October issue of Smithsonian magazine features an article about a man who is rightly described as remarkable. Writer Marc Wortman tells the story of Robert Webster, who “risked his life to undermine the Confederacy yet remained close to his former owner after the Civil War.”
The article, titled Why Was Robert Webster, a Slave, Wearing What Looks Like a Confederate Uniform?, introduces us to Webster, a slave who gained minor prominence during the Civil War. From the start of the piece:
As Confederate troops abandoned Atlanta during the night between September 1 and 2, 1864, they blew up a stranded 81-car train packed with munitions. A series of explosions, audible 80 miles away, leveled nearly everything within a quarter-mile and set the cotton warehouses aflame. The perplexed Union commander, Gen. William Tecumseh Sherman, said that from his position almost 20 miles distant, the sound of the fire was “like that of musketry.”
Yet when a few hundred stunned people clustered downtown on the morning after, one of them remarked, “I have never seen the city more quiet.” After living under siege for nearly six weeks, they watched nine of Atlanta’s leading citizens saddle up to ride out to surrender the city to Sherman’s 100,000 men. “Language falls short,” one of those on hand wrote, “in expressing the suspense and anxiety experienced by everyone.”
Perhaps the clearest signal that life in Atlanta would never be the same could be seen among the men who rode out under the white flag: One of them was black. And while technically still a slave, he was as rich as the white men riding beside him. “[He] was better off than any of us,” a white businessman would testify. Bob Yancey, as he was known at the time, was 44 years old. Over the course of his life he was also called Bob, Bob Gadsby, Bob Cunningham, Yancey and, finally, Robert Webster. After the war, he would insist that Webster was his rightful surname—a legacy from the famed Senator Daniel Webster, whom he claimed as his father.
The article title focuses on the uniform Webster is wearing in the above photograph. But Webster was not enlisted in the Confederate army, and there is no evidence he did any combat duty. I dislike the article title, as it seems to me that the uniform is almost a minor part of Webster’s story. Having said that, it does seem that an African American in (what might or might not be) a Confederate uniform draws a lot of attention in some places.
This is not to say Webster was a “house negro” in any derogatory sense. Rather, it’s clear that being a house servant gave him privileges and opportunities which he keenly maximized, and used to aid his master’s enemy – the Union – at some financial benefit to himself. It also seems he had some ability at working with diverse groups of people.
Second, I was intrigued by Webster’s alleged lineage from the Massachusetts Senator Daniel Webster, who was sometimes called “Black Dan” Webster due to relatively dark skin color.
Daniel Webster, of Massachusetts, who served in the US House and Senate, and was twice US Secretary of State; was he Robert Webster’s father?
Source: Wikipedia Commons
If I could go back in time and meet Robert Webster, my first question would be, “how did your… belief that Dan Webster was your father affect you, and make you what you are?” The stories of mulattos and the impact of white parents on their lives is not something that I have seen discussed in extensive form, outside of individual biographies. That story is a part of my own family history, a story which my family has, in general, avoided discussion of (and this is not at all uncommon).
Martin Jackson at age 90: Texan, house slave, Confederate servant, freedman, and WWI veteran
Source: Gelatin-silver photographic print of Martin Jackson, San Antonio, Texas, 1937. Prints and Photographs Division and Manuscript Division, Library of Congress. Photo was taken by or for the Federal Writers’ Project, which was part of the Works Progress Administration.
Martin Jackson had a long and interesting life. As a slave during the Civil War, he rescued Confederate wounded from the battlefield – he was an “official lugger-in of men,” he called himself. Much later, during World War I, he enlisted as a cook! This is not a story you will hear much.
Jackson was a long time resident of Texas. At the age of 90, he was interviewed about his life as a slave for the Federal Writers’ Project of the Depression-era Works Progress Administration. He recalled his early life, mentioned the “good treatment” he enjoyed as a house slave, spoke about the difficulty of telling the true story of slavery to strangers (such as, perhaps, those who conducted these slave interviews for the WPA), and his experiences during the Civil War.
Some have applied the label “black Confederate” to men like Jackson, saying that they “served” the Confederacy. But Jackson’s comments provide a much more complex understanding of his “service.” Rather than characterize his statements in any way, I will let Jackson’s words speak for themselves.
This is an abridged and edited version of the WPA interview. Mainly, I have moved paragraphs around so that they follow a linear timeline; the original interview kind of skipped all over the place in time. Here it is:
“My earliest recollection is the day my old boss presented me to his son, Joe, as his property. I was about five years old and my new master was only two.
“Lots of old slaves closes the door before they tell the truth about their days of slavery. When the door is open, they tell how kind their masters was and how rosy it all was. You can’t blame them for this, because they had plenty of early discipline, making them cautious about saying anything uncomplimentary about their masters. I, myself, was in a little different position than most slaves and, as a consequence, have no grudges or resentment. However, I can tell you the life of the average slave was not rosy. They were dealt out plenty of cruel suffering. Continue reading →