When researching my book about Stonewall Jackson and his black Sunday school, I contacted an army Major who was an African-American and member of the Sons of Confederates, as well as a reenactor. His Confederate ancestor was actually white. That gentleman had an undergraduate degree in history and, given his unique background, I asked him to review the manuscript and give me his thoughts, suggestions, and criticisms. He was more than willing so I sent the ms to him prior to publication. Unfortunately, I lost contact with him and believe he may have been deployed to Iraq. I have since been unable to make contact. I’ve also corresponded with two other African-Americans who are SCV members. Since my post on Civil War Memory, I’ve had the opportunity to speak with Nelson Winbush. Mr. Winbush is one of the better known and more outspoken African-Americans who had an ancestor that served in the Confederacy. He is 78 years old, holds a masters degree, and is a retired school principal. I did not want to rely on internet versions of Mr. Winbush's perspective. I did not want to accept the opinion of some who don't believe Mr. Winbush is "sophisticated" enough (According to Kevin Levin) to discuss his own heritage. I did not want to make any assumptions, positive or negative, about how he felt about his heritage. So I took the novel approach of speaking directly with him. I spoke at length with Mr. Winbush about his ancestor and his memories. Louis Napolean Nelson served as a private in Company M, 7th Tennessee Cavalry of the Confederate Army. Private Nelson was a slave. He began his military service as a cook, a soldier, and ended his service as a chaplain. Mr. Winbush has vivid memories of his grandfather. He still has the flag that draped his grandfather’s coffin when he was buried in 1934. Mr. Winbush was 5 at the time of his grandfather’s death and recalls the funeral. He told me that his grandfather once told him that on one occasion, while he was conducting a worship service for his unit, the Confederates were joined by yankee soldiers. After the service, "all shook hands and went back to fighting." Mr. Winbush is extremely proud of his grandfather’s service in the Confederate Army and has spoken across the country about his ancestor. I had already planned on contacting Mr. Winbush prior to the Carmichael post due to his grandfather’s position as a CSA chaplain and my work with the National Civil War Chaplains Museum. The museum plans an exhibit and section dedicated to black Chaplains—North as well as South. I also learned something that I did not know about Louis Napolean Winbush. He is the same “Uncle Lewis” whom I refer to in my book about Stonewall Jackson:
In fact, “Uncle Lewis,” as he was known to a particular Tennessee regiment, may have been the first black chaplain in America. His reputation was that of a “devout servant,” and due to the shortage of white chaplains, he was asked to conduct religious services. Records indicate that the army credited his efforts with bringing about several “seasons of revival” and a newspaper correspondent wrote, “He is heard with respectful attention, and for earnestness, zeal and sincerity, can be surpassed by none.”
Mr. Winbush stated that his grandfather’s name was often misspelled, depending on who was writing--"Lewis" or "Louis". This is credible, as one of my own ancestor's name is often misspelled in official records (“Morris” vs. “Maurice” Coffey).
Mr. Winbush's opinions may not sit well with some readers, but they are his opinions. You can read some of them here. His comments pretty much confirm what he told me in our phone conversation. I offer no analysis here other than to say that, obviously, Mr. Winbush's feelings are not universal regarding the service of his African-American ancestor, but I believe they are honest and revealing. If you want to respond to this post, please do so. If you disagree with Mr. Winbush, that's fine. I'll post civil challenges to Mr. Winbush's opinions. Please note, however, that I will not post any remarks which are demeaning, insulting, or condescending toward Mr. Winbush. Whether or not you agree with him, he's likely much older than anyone reading this blog. Respect your elders.
(The older gentleman pictured here is Louis Napolean Nelson. The lad is, of course, Nelson Winbush. Mr. Winbush still has the coat and kepi being worn by his grandfather in this photo.)