28 July 2008

A Primary Source

At the end of my response to Professor Carmichael’s post on Civil War Memory regarding Confederate slaves, I asked if anyone interested in this discussion had actually ever spoken to, or corresponded with, the descendants of black Confederates or Confederate slaves (in the context of our discussion). Since perspective and interpretation is a big concern (and rightfully so) to many who are skeptical about how some approach the issue, you would think that would be a priority. Apparently not. Certainly, that perspective is unique and one worth considering. Why not go to a "primary source"?

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.)


Kevin M. Levin said...

Richard, -- Thanks for following up your comment at Civil War Memory with this post. First, I agree that oral history is one avenue to better understanding the past. That said, I am not quite sure how we are supposed to consider it as a primary source. Primary sources are accounts such as documents or recordings that were created at roughly the time being studied, by an authoritative source, usually one with direct personal knowledge of the events being described.

I would consider Nelson Winbush's account to be a secondary source, the validity of which would depend on how it relates to the available primary source material - records from the war. This is not to diminish NW's account as I think it is a wonderful testimony to how stories get passed down and retold. But as a historian it is my responsibility to take a skeptical stance towards oral histories of any kind. We must always be wary of motivation and bias. Much has been written on slave testimonies given for the WPA project in the 1930s and there are a number of examples of former slaves offering very different stories depending on whether the interviewer was white or black or whether the interviewee believed there would be certain consequences based on the story presented.

In the case of Louis N. Winbush (a slave) you say that he was a "private" in the 7th Tennessee. Is this information derived from a muster roll which indicates specifically that Winbush was a slave or is this information from the pension record? If it is the latter than we need to ask additional questions about pension records in TN.

I would be interested to know if Mr. Winbush speaks of his father as a slave who served with the Confederate army or as a soldier. I agree entirely that Mr. Winbush is sophisticated enough to discuss his own heritage, but that does not imply that his heritage ought to be considered as rooted in a history that can be justified by available primary sources. That is not meant as an insult in any way, but a reminder that our personal and family stories sometimes deviate from what can be demonstrated to be historically justified.

Again, I believe that Mr. Winbush's beliefs tell us a great deal about memory, but it is not clear to me that the historical record supports claims of enlistment as a soldier. Of course, I could be wrong about that. Whatever the case may be, it is clear that NW's stories should not be seen as a primary source.

Kevin at Civil War Memory

Richard G. Williams, Jr. said...


The "primary source" remark was a tongue in cheek play on words. That's why I put it in quotes. I would consider Mr. Winbush an authoritative source, loosely defined, as he received the story discussed directly from his grandfather and his mother's written account of these same stories.

I agree, oral histories should be approached with a certain degree of skepticism, but one should remain open-minded as well. If I'm not mistaken, I believe Mr. Winbush has the original pension information in his collection. I will be corresponding with him further, so I'll hopefully get more details.

You write: "I would be interested to know if Mr. Winbush speaks of his father as a slave who served with the Confederate army or as a soldier."

Both, which is accurate.

Thanks for writing Kevin.

Kevin M. Levin said...

Sorry about that. I need to read more carefully early in the morning. I look forward to the additional information, but at this point I find it hard to reconcile labeling someone as both a slave and soldier. If Winbush did indeed become officially recognized during the war as a soldier I assume there must be a record of being freed by his owner.

Thanks again.

Anonymous said...


There are many books and articles (some written by professional historians) who refer to slaves that served in the American Revolution as soldiers...but there is no controversy about it at all.

Wonder why?

Richard G. Williams, Jr. said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Richard G. Williams, Jr. said...

Yes, a point I was going to make as well. To wit:

“It is reasonable to believe that they desired to have the same opportunities as their Euro-American neighbors to acquire personal property, raise their families, and travel freely. It is conceivable that, for reasons of personal freedom and the future freedom of their progeny, many African Americans willingly enlisted in the Continental and British Armies. These personal reasons certainly made it possible for them to justify their active defense of a new nation that demonstrated no signs of eliminating the institution which continued to enslave their fellow African Americans.” ~ Noel B Poirier, Colonial Williamsburg Foundation

I believe Kevin’s inability “to reconcile labeling someone as both a slave and soldier” is based on emotion, not fact. (No offense to Kevin intended.)

The concept of using slaves as soldiers was not new at the time of the Civil War. The Greeks and Romans did it and Muslim armies have a long history of doing so. Other examples could be cited. Not a perfect analogy obviously, but, again it’s not a unique concept.

Yale Professor David Brion Davis, noted for his research and writing about slavery, has written:

“For slaves, military duty offered a welcome escape from the misery of plantation labor. The allure of a promise of freedom also entailed upward mobility, dignity, prestige, and the chance to prove one's manhood and even to receive awards that would impress one's peers as well as white authorities. For blacks who had already spent significant time in the New World, there were also motives to defend one's homes, families, and even paternalistic whites.”

I’ve argued these very same points on numerous times. As Dr. Davis points out, the anticipated rewards and reasons for military service for black Confederates and/or Confederate slaves was, in many cases, very similar to what soldiers have fought for since the beginning of time.

Another salient point, these “body servants”, “black Confederates” and “Confederate slaves” who “served” in the Confederate Army can qualify for a Veterans Administration issued headstone. The Feds don’t issue those unless “military service” can be documented and “verified.” Military service = soldier.

Slave, yes. Soldier, yes. Historical fact.

Robert Moore said...

Actually, there was something promised in the Rev War that wasn't promised in the Civil War - freedom for said service (the British promised it first and I think Washington issued something later).

As for verification of service and the headstone deal, the VA does not perform hardcore verification of facts for a headstone. The requirement is that the applicant submit proof of service, and that proof can be pathetically light. They don't conduct further research to verify the proof submitted. Therefore, a headstone issued does not necessarily mean verification of service and should not be misconstrued as a validation of honorable or willfull service. I've posted about headstones issued that should not have been. Such stones leave people in the future under the illusion of "honorable and willfull service," unless they do the hardcore research themselves.

Richard G. Williams, Jr. said...

The point is, Robert, that the VA recognizes their military service - willful or not. I think that is undeniably significant.

The slaves who fought in the Continental Army were promised freedom in all cases?

If not, would you also deny that they were "soldiers"?

Robert Moore said...


I think you are missing the point. If you say that "emotion" is blurring "our vision" and logical capacities... I'll stick to the guidelines that you choose... those of ordering headstones from the V.A.

Was Louis Napoleon Wimbush a soldier? Pension records show that he was, and served in the 7th Tennessee. Under the guidelines for ordering headstones, he qualifies.

Was Charles Brown a soldier? Military records show that he enlisted in the 10th Virginia Infantry. Under the guidelines for ordering headstones, he qualifies.

Were "Thornton" and "Jim" (who were accompanying the Charlottesville Artillery on the march to Gettysburg as body servants) soldiers?... No. They were body servants and, had they not been mentioned by the sergeant major of the company, their "service" as body servants would likely remain unknown. That one citation would not be enough for ordering a headstone. Even if they were cooks, there is still no provision for providing headstones for them under the V.A. guidelines, unless there was a record of enlistment or a pension.

You are clustering ALL blacks in the "service" of the Confederacy under the idea that, in any capacity (cooks, wagoners, body servants, etc.) they were ALL "soldiers."

Let's detach ourselves from the Civil War. Would civilians, as hired cooks, or in any other capacity, even in a time of war, working with a military unit, count as soldiers? I know a professor who was hired by the Navy, did a year off the coast of Vietnam on an aircraft carrier, in the "service" of the Navy while that particular aircraft carrier on which he was riding received combat citations. Would he, therefore, be considered a sailor and qualified under the V.A. system for a headstone? How about a "Donut Dolly" that I know - she was in the "service" of the Army on the land in Vietnam for over a year (and under fire), but will she get a headstone from the V.A.?

My point... "service" in a war and/or with a military unit does not necessarily mean that the person was a member of the military and most certainly does not mean an entitlement to the title of "soldier."

Richard G. Williams, Jr. said...


No, not necessarily every black Confederate/Confederate slave would qualify.

You write:

"I know a professor who was hired by the Navy, did a year off the coast of Vietnam on an aircraft carrier, in the "service" of the Navy while that particular aircraft carrier on which he was riding received combat citations. Would he, therefore, be considered a sailor and qualified under the V.A. system for a headstone?"

If we're going to use modern analogies, the Vietnam vet one I used previously works better: The vet who was "coerced" (drafted) and who may have disagreed with the political reasons for the war, but yet served honorably in various capacities, is still a soldier.

As I stated on Kevin's blog, I believe everyone has played out their arguments and no one is budging.

I think the discussion has run its course. Thanks for your input Robert.


Anonymous said...

Here is an example of what I was talking about:

"...Another black soldier served in close proximity to Washington....so close, in fact, that he appears in many of the paintings of the prebattle preparations and as a rower in the general's boat during the actual crossing of the Delaware. This African American was Prince Whipple...

Prince accompanied his owner, William Whipple, a signer of the Declaration of Independence, into the army at the beginning of the Revolution and served as the general's bodyguard and personal servant. At Trenton, General Whipple acted as a member of Washington's staff, and Prince fought alongside both officers for the entire campaign...."

African Americans in the Revolutionary War by Michael Lee Lanning

Lanning: Lt.Col., U.S. Army, retired/more than 20 years service, and author of several books on military history-


Whipple was a slave before, during and after the war.

He did eventually gain his freedom (seven years later) but this was a decision by the Whipple family and had nothing to do with a promise from government.


Why no controversy about this?

Shouldn't Mr. Lanning be reprimanded by the Kevin Levins of the world?

Richard G. Williams, Jr. said...

I would certainly say that Prince Whipple was a soldier - and should be honored as such. Of course, he was a slave and that should be noted as well. I am certainly not in favor of trying to hide or downplay that fact in any way.

As in my previous examples, he was both. I'm a little perplexed at why some can't accept that fact.

Richard G. Williams, Jr. said...


A salient point: Mr. Winbush believes his grandfather should be honored as a "soldier" but he certainly does not ignore the fact that he was also a slave.


Kevin M. Levin said...


I appreciate all of the references to other moments in world history along with how Virginia 50 years after the fact chose to remember the Civil War, but I would like to know what evidence you have that the Confederate government, at the time of the war itself, viewed its slaves as soldiers. How we choose to remember the past often tells more about own values and I think this is a perfect example.

What I value in P's article is his ability to analyze a wide range of experiences under the umbrella of 'slave'. They could exhibit all of the characteristics of a soldier, but still be understood as part of the master-slave relationship during war.


Richard G. Williams, Jr. said...


I never said or suggested there was any such evidence. I've not researched that aspect (official, original records) of the discussion to any depth. Others have: Krick, Jordan, Rollins, etc. The evidence is, from what I have been able to read thus far, not totally conclusive. That does not, however, mean that these men should not now be honored.

The Unites States military often did not fully recognize the bravery and contributions of African-Americans during WWI and WWII, at least not to the same degree as whites. Does that prohibit us from doing so now? Of course not.

I see your argument lacking consistency.

You write:

"They [slaves] could exhibit all of the characteristics of a soldier, but still be understood as part of the master-slave relationship during war."

I agree with you on that point Kevin. But since you readily admit here that these African-Americans "could exhibit all of the characteristics of a soldier" - then why wouldn't you also acknowledge they should receive all of the honors of a soldier (while at the same time acknowledging their status as slaves)?

Slave AND soldier? Yes. Ironic? Yes. Complicated? Yes. Nuanced? Yes. In many cases, more one than the other? Yes. But true nonetheless.


Anonymous said...

One side of this debate claims to be unbiased and disassociated from politics...

...but it does not go unnoticed that the buzz-words and catch phrases they seem to enjoy using- 'neo-confederate,' 'lost causer,' 'lost cause mythology,' &etc -are also used by some well known political organizations.

Anonymous said...

Here is an even better example of what I was referring to earlier-



Bill S.1051/H.R.1693:

"National Liberty Memorial Act - Authorizes the National Mall Liberty Fund D.C. (previously, the Black Revolutionary War Patriots Foundation) to establish a memorial on specified federal land in the District of Columbia to honor the >slaves< and free persons who served as soldiers and sailors or provided civilian assistance during the American Revolution and to honor the men, women, and children who ran away from slavery or filed petitions with courts and legislatures seeking their freedom. Requires the National Mall Liberty Fund D.C. (previously the Black Revolutionary War Patriots Foundation) to establish the memorial."