Al Arnold’s Black Confederate Journey

The controversy over Black Confederates is one hot mess. A recent addition to the messiness in one Dr Al Arnold of Jackson, MS. Dr Arnold seems to be a relative newcomer to the topic: at one point his Facebook page or Twitter page featured an image of black Union soldiers that was used in a black Confederate soldier’s hoax… that’s not a good way to establish one’s Black Confederate bona fides. I want to discuss what he’s recently brought to the Black Confederate table.

Dr Arnold – whose degree is in physical therapy – has a Civil War era ancestor named Turner Hall, Jr. Hall’s claim to fame is that he was owned by, and was an acquaintance of, prominent Civil War/Reconstruction figure Nathan Bedford Forrest; and that he was a servant of the most preeminent of Confederates, general Robert E. Lee. Hall is said to have cared for Lee’s famous steed, Traveller. Dr Arnold has cited his ancestor’s history in his book titled Robert E. Lee’s Orderly: A Modern Black Man’s Confederate Journey. On the face of it, it looks like this could be an interesting and even provocative read.

But then I saw this interview with Dr Arnold on Memphis, TN, TV station WREG. That six-minute talk raised more issues and red flags than I could count. I will talk about just a few of them in this post.

My first issue is with Dr Arnold’s statement near the end of the interview that “our (black) people… because northern writers and the Southern Lost Cause writers refuse to write about the roles of African-Americans… many don’t know that their ancestors had prominent roles in the Civil War whether on the Union side or the southern side.” His claim – that “northern writers… refuse to write about the roles of African-Americans in the Civil War” is simply not true.

How do I know that claim is untrue? By simply looking at my bookshelf. On the subject of African American Union soldiers alone, I have almost three dozen books. The set begins with works from two black Union veterans: George Washington Williams’ A History of the Negro Troops in the War of the Rebellion, 1861-1865 which was published in 1887; and Joseph T. Wilson’s The Black Phalanx: A History of the Negro Soldiers of the United States in the wars 1775-1812, 1861-1865, also published in 1887. These books are in the public domain and available on the Internet; I highly recommend them as a introduction to black Union soldiery.

But there’s a lot more on my shelf, including:
•  Freedom by the Sword: The U.S. Colored Troops, 1862-1867, William Dobak’s comprehensive military history of Civil War era African American soldiers
• The Black Military Experience, ed. Ira Berlin, Joseph P. Reidy, and Leslie S. Rowland, which is a documentary history of African Americans in the Union army
•  Like Men of War: Black Troops in the Civil War 1862-1865, by Noah Andre Trudeau, which focuses on the many battles that involved black soldiers
• Milliken’s Bend: A Civil War Battle in History and Memory, by Linda Barnickel, which discusses the role of black soldiers in one of their earliest battles
• A Grand Army of Black Men: Letters from African-American Soldiers in the Union Army 1861-1865, by Edwin S. Redkey
• Forged in Battle: The Civil War Alliance of Black Soldiers and White Officers, by Joseph T. Glatthaar
• Campfires of Freedom: The Camp Life of Black Soldiers During the Civil War, by Keith P. Wilson
• After the Glory: The Struggles of Black Civil War Veterans, by Donald R. Shaffer
• African American Faces of the Civil War: An Album, by Ronald S. Coddington, which features photographs and brief biographical sketches of over 70 Civil War era African American men
• Separate histories of African American Union soldiers and regiments from Illinois; Kansas; Louisiana; Pennsylvania; North Carolina (two of them), South Carolina, Tennessee, and Washington, DC
• Tell It With Pride: The 54th Massachusetts Regiment and Augustus Saint-Gaudens’ Shaw Memorial, a beautiful coffee-table by Sarah Greenough and Nancy K. Anderson.

This is only a portion of the books that I own on the general subject of Civil War African Americans; there are many, many others I don’t own.
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Remembering Fort Pillow: 150th Anniversary Activities at Fort Pillow State Park


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

The American Civil War Museum in Richmond, Virginia bills itself as “the nation’s first museum to interpret the Civil War from Union, Confederate, and African American perspectives.” In doing so, it recognizes that there were indeed three very different vantage-points from which the Civil War was viewed and interpreted at the time. None of these perspectives is “better than” or “superior to” the others; they’re different, but all valid. Perhaps implied by the Museum, but not stated, is that throughout the post-war era, the African American Civil War experience has often been overlooked and even ignored. But it’s never too late to catch up with the past.

In that light, I am heartened to see the list of events and activities planned for the commemoration of the 150th anniversary of the so-called Fort Pillow Massacre, to be held at Fort Pillow State Park on April 12 and 13. The list of events is at the bottom of this blog entry.

As many people who study the Civil War know, the Fort Pillow Massacre is one of the most infamous and controversial events of the American Civil War. Fort Pillow was a Union-held fort located 40 miles northeast of Memphis, Tennessee. The garrison at the Fort included a number of men from the US Colored Troops, perhaps half of the men there. The Fort was attacked on April 12, 1864, by Confederate forces under the command of Major General Nathan Bedford Forrest. The Confederates overran the fort, suffering moderate casualties. In the wake of the attack, around 300 Union soldiers were killed, most of them Colored Troops. The Union – the US military, members of the US government, the US press, and very important, many African Americans – considered Fort Pillow a race-based massacre, during which black soldiers were killed even after they surrendered. Confederates, most notably General Forrest himself, denied that a massacre occurred; they would call it the Battle of Fort Pillow.

The Massacre was a cause célèbre at the time, and remains controversial to this very day. Fort Pillow State Park, the preserved site of the Fort, is holding a series of activities and lectures to commemorate the 150th anniversary of Fort Pillow which, on the face of it at least, focus on the African American experience during this time of war and change, and, which highlight the issues of war, race, and slavery that have inflamed passions about the event to this very day. This focus will be seen especially in lectures scheduled on April 12, which will complement other activities such as living history programs and Union and Confederate encampments.

I say that I am heartened because, from a perusal of internet sources, there are many who feel that the more controversial issues surrounding Fort Pillow have been ignored in earlier commemorative events. Some might add that a single week-end of such focus is not enough; it’s catch-up ball, and more needs to be done in the long run. But clearly, events like this are a good way to start, and one hopes that there will be more to come.

So, for those in the vicinity of Fort Pillow State Park outside of Memphis, I recommend giving the place a visit to view the activities, which will take place during the coming week-end (April 12-13). Cost and distance will keep me from attending… sigh.

Note: I have an earlier blog entry related to Fort Pillow here.
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Fort Pillow – 150th Anniversary and Memorial Service
Fort Pillow State Park

Schedule of Activities:

Saturday Schedule (April 12, 1984)

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