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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Meet John Parker, Black Confederate

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The Kings, Queens, and Martyrs of the Civil Rights Movement

MLK-Memorial
Martin Luther King, Jr. Memorial, Washington, DC
Source: National Park Service

The Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. is my hero. His leadership, intellect, courage, and ambassadorship to white America and the world at large make him deserving of all the recognitions and honors that he’s received.

Yet, I am filled with ambivalence every time we come to another MLK Jr Day. Yes, Dr. King was a great man. But he was not an army of one.

The Civil Rights Movement had numerous heroes and martyrs. All of them deserve recognition. Rather than a day to celebrate the memory of King, I would have preferred a Nation Civil Rights Movement Day to celebrate all of those who were a part of the Movement.

For example, my other “favorite” super-hero from the Movement is Mississippi’s Fannie Lou Hamer. She started

working in the fields when she was six, and was only educated through the sixth grade. She married in 1942, and adopted two children. She went to work on the plantation where her husband drove a tractor, first as a field worker and then as the plantation’s timekeeper. She also attended meetings of the Regional Council of Negro Leadership, where speakers addressed self-help, civil rights, and voting rights.

In 1962, Fannie Lou Hamer volunteered to work with the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC) registering black voters in the South. She and the rest of her family lost their jobs for her involvement, and SNCC hired her as a field secretary. She was able to register to vote for the first time in her life in 1963, and then taught others what they’d need to know to pass the then-required literacy test. In her organizing work, she often led the activists in singing Christian hymns about freedom: “This Little Light of Mine” and others.

She helped organize the 1964 “Freedom Summer” in Mississippi, a campaign sponsored by SNCC, Southern Christian Leadership Conference (SCLC), the Congress of Racial Equality (CORE), and the NAACP.

In 1963, after being charged with disorderly conduct for refusing to go along with a restaurant’s “whites only” policy, Hamer was beaten so badly in jail, and refused medical treatment, that she was permanently disabled.

Hamer is most famous for her work as Vice-Chair of the Mississippi Freedom Democratic Party, sometimes called the “Freedom Democrats,” in 1964. The Freedom Democrats challenged the seating of Mississippi’s all-white and anti-civil rights delegation to the Democratic National Convention of that year as not representative of all Mississippians. The Freedom Democrats brought national attention to the plight of black people in the state, and led to reforms in the way persons are seated at the Democratic Convention.

In 1972 the Mississippi House of Representatives passed a resolution honoring her national and state activism, by a vote of 116 to 0. This was an extraordinary recognition, given the state’s resistance to integration. Hamer died in Mississippi in 1977.


Fannie Lou Hamer, Freedom Democrat (Library of Congress photo)

To me, no understanding of the Movement can be complete without knowing her story. But as I talk to people about Civil Rights history, especially young people, I am saddened that they have little or no idea of who she was or what she accomplished.

Continue reading

North meets South, Zouave meets boy: Winslow Homer’s Contraband

Contraband Winslow Homer
Contraband, by Winslow Homer. Watercolor, 1875
Source: Wikipedia Commons. Click here for larger size.

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

Missouri abolishes slavery, January 11, 1865; later, black Missouri soldiers found Lincoln University


An Ordinance Abolishing Slavery in Missouri, 1865
From here: “This ink on vellum document signed by the members of Missouri’s 1865 Constitutional Convention enacted the immediate emancipation of all enslaved people in Missouri. It was signed on January 11, 1865, three weeks before the 13th Amendment to the U.S. Constitution, which ended slavery, was even proposed.”
Image source: Missouri History Museum Archives, via the website “The Civil War in Missouri”

On January 1, 1863, Abraham Lincoln issued the Emancipation Proclamation. It stated that “all persons held as slaves within any State or designated part of a State, the people whereof shall then be in rebellion against the United States, shall be then, thenceforward, and forever free…” Of note was that the proclamation would only be effective for states in “rebellion against the United States,” namely, the Confederate States that had seceded from, and were fighting against, the Union during the American Civil War.

Not covered by the proclamation were several slave states – the so-called ‘Border States’ of Missouri, Maryland, Delaware, and Kentucky – which stayed loyal to the Union and had had not seceded. In those states, bondage remained unabated.

This was not for lack of effort by Abraham Lincoln to end slavery in the Border States. Lincoln believed that Border State slavery posed a risk for the Union. His fear was that their slaveholders might agitate for secession and alliance with the Confederacy, in order to protect their slave property. Lincoln hoped to eliminate this threat by having the Border States end slavery voluntarily. In March 1862, Lincoln asked Congress to pass a resolution to provide “pecuniary aid” to any Border State that would “adopt gradual abolishment of slavery.”

In July, 1862, President Lincoln met with congressman and senators from the Border States and personally asked them to implement a plan of gradual, compensated emancipation. He said at the meeting:

The incidents of the war can not be avoided. If the war continue long, as it must, if the object be not sooner attained, the institution (slavery) in your states will be extinguished by mere friction and abrasion–by the mere incidents of the war. It will be gone, and you will have nothing valuable in lieu of it. Much of its value is gone already.

How much better for you, and for your people, to take the step which, at once, shortens the war, and secures substantial compensation for that which is sure to be wholly lost in any other event. How much better to thus save the money which else we sink forever in the war. How much better to do it while we can, lest the war ere long render us pecuniarily unable to do it. How much better for you, as seller, and the nation as buyer, to sell out, and buy out, that without which the war could never have been, than to sink both the thing to be sold, and the price of it, in cutting one another’s throats.

Lincoln’s message to the Border States was clear: the Civil War was going to put pressure on the institution of slavery, and perhaps even lead to its demise. Why not end slavery in your states now, and get compensated for it, while the government still has the money to afford such a plan? If this plan is not accepted now, and the war does end slavery, you’ll lose everything and get noting in return.

Lincoln was right in his prediction. The “friction of war” did indeed destabilize bondage throughout all of the slave states, Union and Confederate. In Missouri, for example, thousands of slaves escaped their master as fighting raged throughout the state. At least 8,300, black Missourians – mostly former slaves – joined the Union army, gaining freedom for themselves in the process. (Slaves who joined the US army were given the status of freemen.)

The issue of gradual, compensated emancipation became a subject of discussion and debate within Missouri. In 1863, a state convention was held, and an ordinance for gradual emancipation, to begin in 1870, was passed. But for some Missourians, emancipation starting in 1870 wasn’t soon enough. The so-called “Radical Republicans” of the state – members of Lincoln’s political who party were ardent anti-slavery men – agitated for a policy of immediate emancipation.

As the war wore on, the Radicals gained increasing political power in Missouri, and they used it to finally end bondage in their state. In January 1865, another state convention was called to order. As noted here: “Led by Charles Drake, the Radical Republicans who made up the majority of the state convention’s delegates passed the vote for emancipation almost unanimously.” Although the convention abolished slavery effective January 11, 1865, it “did not give the right to vote to any of the more than 100,000 slaves freed in Missouri. Although the state convention’s delegates believed strongly in emancipation, they did not necessarily believe in equality.”

With freedom in hand, and despite efforts to limit their progress, African Americans pressed forward to take advantage of whatever opportunities they could. They recalled that in 1847 the Missouri General Assembly passed a law forbidding blacks, slave or free, to be taught to read or write. As noted in the book Missouri’s Black Heritage, the law “was a reflection of a slaveholder’s fear that literacy might lead to (a slave) rebellion.” This so-called “Black Code” prohibition taught Missouri blacks a lesson they would not forget: education was a force for their liberation and uplift.

Black soldiers and veterans were at the forefront of efforts to ensure that freedmen and freedwomen would receive the education and learning that were denied to the under slavery. Men from two regiments of black Union soldiers – the 62nd and 65th infantry regiments of United States Colored Troops – took an unprecedented action: in 1866, they pooled their money to fund the first and only school established by soldiers of African descent.

Located in Jefferson City, Missouri, that school stands as a legacy of African Americans’ efforts for improvement, progress, and full citizenship. Its name: Lincoln University of Missouri.


Main statue for the Soldiers’ Memorial at Lincoln University, Missouri
Source: Lincoln University, Missouri

Reenactor/living historian Ludger Balan discusses the Civil War’s US Colored Troops

Ludger Balan is with New York-based CHE Nautical & Enviro Edutainment, a non-profit group that researches and interprets African Heritage History in Colonial America and World History. The organization facilitates the work of reenactors and living historians who provide education about historical figures and events from the 17th, 18th, 19th centuries.

The video is a brief interview with Balan at the commemoration/celebration of the 150th Anniversary of Camp William Penn, AKA Camp Penn, in September 2013. Camp Penn, located just outside of northwest Philadelphia, was a federal site that was dedicated to training African Americans who enlisted in the United States Army during the American Civil War. Just under 11,000 men of African descent were trained at the site. Camp Penn took in men from Pennsylvania, and also nearby Delaware, Maryland, and New Jersey. These men were part of the United States Colored Troops (USCT).

Balan, who was a reenactor/living historian at the event (he does living history for other periods as well, such as the War of 1812), spoke for a few minutes about the importance of telling the story of the US Colored Troops, his passion for the subject, and his hopes for getting the story to the mass of African Americans who might not be aware of this vital part of their history.

The video above is also from the commemoration of the 150th anniversary of Camp William Penn, September 2013. Balan and fellow reenactor/living historian Derrick James are showing visitors how soldiers trained and used their weapons. The event was attended by several dozen USCT living historians who discussed several aspects of camp life and military service. See also this previous blog post.

The North is Too Cold for the Negro… Just Don’t Tell Matthew Henson

Matthew_Henson_1910 copy
Matthew Henson, arctic explorer, circa 1910;
A member of the Emancipation Generation (born just as the Civil War had ended) who was not afraid of the great White North
Photo from Wikipedia Commons, via the Library of Congress, Reproduction number LC-USZC4-7503.

It’s early January 2015 as I write this, and a large portion of the Midwest and Northeast are caught in a major polar air mass from the Arctic. For us, the cold weather is just something we have to deal with, and and we deal with it as best we can. But 150 years ago, cold northern weather was a part of a biological/social/political notion which presumed that northern whites need not fear a mass “stampede” of post-Civil War emancipated blacks to their region because, well, everybody knows that black folks can’t stand cold weather.

Chalk it up to another tale from the “what were they thinking?” annals.

With the Civil War raging in earnest, the Republican Party – Abraham Lincoln’s party – faced a vexing question that wouldn’t go away: what shall we do with the negro? In September 1862, the Lincoln administration announced a plan to emancipate the slaves as a means of de-stabilizing the Confederacy. This caused some fear and trepidation among northern whites. There were concerns that the freedmen would flee to the North, overrunning the section with negroes who would take jobs from whites, lower the wage scale, and otherwise make whites uncomfortable with their presence. It was a political issue that had to be addressed in some way.

One way was to promote colonization, a plan to relocate blacks to Africa or the West Indies or South America. Practical considerations aside, many people wondered if, and doubted that, negroes were willing to leave their homes in the United States and take a risk on a place he had never seen. (The international slave trade was {legally} ended in the Unites States in 1808. By 1860, almost all slaves of African descent were truly American.)

Have no fear, said some Republicans. Echoing an argument made earlier by Democrats, they explained that northerners had nothing to worry about because coloreds don’t like the cold. Historian Mark Neely, in his essay Colonization, from the book Lincoln’s Proclamation, explains:

Emphasis on colonization has obscured a real argument used by Republicans to anticipate or meet criticism of the Emancipation Proclamation: they embraced isothermalism. That is, Republicans insisted that because of climate, African Americans were suited only to tropical climes and would never come north. In fact, Republicans argued, the only reason African Americans came north now was to escape slavery. Abolish slavery and no more (blacks) would leave the South, and those in the North would depart for the South.

Even the radical Republican nominee for governor in New York, Gen James Wadsworth, stated the typical Republican position: “The emancipation, once affected, the Northern States would be forever relieved, as it is right that they should be, from the fears of a great influx of African laborers… This done, and the whole African population will drift to the South, where it will find a congenial climate, and vast tracts of land never cultivated.” Commenting on Wadsworth’s idea, the newspaper in Oneida, New York, observed: “This is truth and common sense… Were the institutions of the South rendered tolerant to the black man, not a person of African blood would remain in our northern climate… The way to clear the North of blacks is to guarantee freedom to them at the South.”

President Lincoln eventually embraced the isothermal argument himself, but he did not lead in devising it. In his annual message to Congress of December 1, 1862, Lincoln (hopped on the isothermalism bandwagon while blending it with a policy that had been his favorite,) colonization. “It is dreaded,” he said, “that the freed people will swarm forth, and cover the land. Are they not already in the land? Will liberation make them any more numerous?” He went on to offer an important caveat:

“But why should emancipation south, send the free people north? People of any color seldom run, unless there is something to run from. Heretofore colored people, to some extent, have fled north from bondage; and now perhaps from both bondage and destitution. But if gradual emancipation and deportation be adopted, they will have nothing to flee from. Their old masters will give them wages at least until new laborers can be procured; and the freed men, in turn, will gladly give their labor for the wages, till new homes can be found for them, in congenial climes, and with people of their own blood and race…”

The embrace of isothermalism constituted the greatest reverse of principle in the history of the Republican Party to date. It had been founded back in the mid-1850s on the premise that only Congressional law could keep slavery out of unsettled territories. The northern Democrats had argued that isothermalism would keep slavery and, with it, African Americans, out of the territories, and there was therefore no need to pass laws obnoxious to proud white southerners; the climate did not suit.

Lincoln himself had once strained to answer that argument. In his Peoria speech of October 16, 1854, Lincoln had laid the ground carefully for the rejection of isothermalism: “It is argued that slavery will not go to Knasas and Nebraska, in any event. This is a palliation-a lullaby… As to climate, a glance at the map shows that there are five slave states – Delaware, Maryland, Virginia, Kentucky, and Missouri-and also the District of Columbia, all north of the Missouri compromise line… It is not climate, then, that will keep slavery out of these territories.” “It takes the law to keep it out,” he insisted in his famous debates with Douglas in 1858.

I wonder what Matthew Henson, born August 8, 1866 in Maryland, just after the Civil War ended, thought of all that isothermalism stuff? As noted in Wikipedia, Henson

was an associate of Arctic explorer Robert Peary on seven voyages over a period of nearly 23 years. They made six voyages and spent a total of 18 years in expeditions. Henson served as a navigator and craftsman, traded with Inuit and learned their language, and was known as Peary’s “first man” for these arduous travels. Continue reading

Remembering the Emancipation Proclamation

Viewing the Emancipation Proclamation
Former slave Sally Fickland views the Emancipation Proclamation
The Proclamation was issued on January 1, 1863.

Photo Source: National Archives

From the National Archives:

This photograph shows 88-year-old Mrs. Sally Fickland, a former slave, looking at the Emancipation Proclamation in 1947.

She would have been 3 years old when Lincoln signed the proclamation in 1862.

The document was in Philadelphia that day on the first stop on the Freedom Train tour. The Freedom Train carried the Emancipation Proclamation and the Bill of Rights across America. During the 413-day tour, 3.5 million people in 322 cities in 48 states.

Due to its fragile condition—it was printed on both sides of poor-quality 19th-century paper, unlike the Constitution, which is written on more durable parchment—the Emancipation Proclamation can only be displayed for 30 hours each year.