17 April 2009

Revisting My Response To Peter Carmichael

The debate over black Confederate soldiers and servants has been reignited on Kevin Levin's blog. Since he also posted some earlier comments by Professor Carmichael, I thought it would be appropriate to provide some balance and my response (last year), which came by way of invitation from Pete. I also follow up here with a post I wrote in response to Kevin's (as well as others) earlier suggestion that anyone who thought there could be "familial" relations between slaveowners and slaves, was "dangerous." Please don't waste time composing comments that rehash the same old worn-out, cliched arguments or those which parse words, split hairs, or simply serve an agenda. They won't be posted. But if you have something new to add, go ahead.

25 July 2008

In Response to Professor Peter S. Carmichael

The following comments are in response to an invitation by Professor Peter S. Carmichael, who teaches history at West Virginia University. The invitation originated from this post. Pete suggested I comment on this post which he wrote for the Civil War Memory blog regarding African-Americans who served in the Confederate Army. Kevin Levin, host at CWM, also encouraged me to comment. My comments to Professor Carmichael's post are below:

First, full disclosure: I am here by invitation of Messrs Carmichael and Levin. I sincerely appreciate their courtesy in asking for my comments and thoughts on Professor Carmichael’s post regarding African-Americans who served in the Confederate Army. I must admit, however, that I feel like a lamb who’s been invited over for supper at the local lion’s den. I want to point out that my comments are only in response to what Pete originally wrote (with one exception), and not to the various comments that have since followed that post. None of my comments, though at times pointed, are intended to be insulting or disrespectful in any way to either Pete or Kevin.

The invitation to comment came, in part, due to a rather testy post on my blog in which I took certain Civil War historians and academics to task for their attitude toward non-academics (like me) who also study and write about the (May I be so bold?), War Between the States, a.k.a. the Civil War.

It is both Pete’s and Kevin’s stated desire to open a dialogue, as Kevin noted, “between various camps within the Civil War community.” Though I am in no way an expert on African-Americans who served in the Confederate Army and while I am less than optimistic about the outcome of any exchange, I am willing to try to bring something constructive to the discussion at hand. If nothing else, perhaps my comments will allow some of my academic friends to release some long pent up endorphins.

Regarding your piece Pete, I found some in it with which I agreed and some with which I did not agree, or did not completely understand the point you were trying to make. It was certainly well written and raises some valid questions. But some of the things you stated are so obvious I’m not quite sure why you wrote them. I think many academics feel the need to constantly remind Southerners and Civil War “buffs” that slavery was evil and that 19th century Americans held prejudiced views on race. Moreover, I believe many academics (not necessarily you) often assume that just because someone belongs to the SCV, or writes admiringly of Lee or Jackson, or reenacts, or points out that African-Americans did serve in the Confederate Army—in various capacities and for various reasons—that they believe slavery really wasn’t “all that bad” or that “slavery had nothing to do with the war” or that they are a “neo-Confederate” (codespeak for slavery apologist). I actually read one blogger who has accused everyone from George Bush, to Bill Clinton, to the Boy Scouts of being “neo-Confederates.” Of course, you could also throw in Dr. Walter Williams, who recently served as chair of the economics department at George Mason University, as well as Virginia Democratic Senator James Webb; who have both written positive comments regarding the Confederacy, Confederate soldiers, and the Confederate Battle flag. Quite an eclectic group, would you not agree?

That particular line of discussion is based on false assumptions and stereotypes and leads to much of the disconnect and mistrust among the various “camps.” I, too, would like to move beyond that if we can. I don’t need convincing that slavery was evil. I don’t need convincing that 19th century Americans, North as well as South, held views that by 21st century standards were racist. (At the same time, let’s remember that 19th century Americans were just that, 19th century Americans.)

And one more item before I get into the meat of some of your comments Pete; in one of your follow up posts, you mention “they” and then follow with a comment that the “psychological” perspectives of “they” (in regards to the subject at hand) need to be looked into. That is “s-o-o-o academia” (if not condescending) and sounds like something that would come from Dr. Phil. You probably lost a lot of folks with that one comment. I’m sure it makes those to whom you are referring feel like you believe they have some type of mental disorder and that you want to psychoanalyze their every syllable. I should warn you: if you start probing into the minds of Southern Civil War enthusiasts you will most assuredly find some nuts—if that’s what you’re looking for—but you will also most assuredly end up one yourself. I can promise you that. I would suggest historians leave that line of work to the psychiatric professionals who have less to risk.

I will not attempt to address every single point of your original post, but I’ll try to hit the highlights. First, I do believe that there were both Confederate slaves and black Confederates. I am certainly one who agrees there were far more of the former than the latter, but there were both. Those who have wildly exaggerated the numbers of black Confederates have done nothing but call into question the whole notion. But I do not accept the premise of your blanket definition of “black Confederates.” This is complicated and while some would fit your definition, others would not. Regarding your comment about patriotism and the slaves, I believe that, too, needs to be explored a little more. I, as well as many Americans, would define patriotism as a love of a country and its people. Nationalism would be a love for the government, in this case, the Confederate government and what it stood for in the minds of the slaves. The slaves certainly did not love “their” government, but I have no doubt many loved their country and, yes, in many cases its white inhabitants. In that sense, they were patriotic. I think it is important to make a distinction between the two and acknowledge that they were patriotic in that context. Admittedly, the lines become blurred and further complicate the issue.

I would also strongly disagree with your conclusion that, “The presence of coercion in slavery, moreover, creates an insurmountable challenge for those who want to describe slaves as Confederate heroes.” A hero is defined, simply, as “a man distinguished by exceptional courage, nobility, and strength.” Neptune certainly fits that description. His heroism should not be diminished simply because he was a slave and his heroic deed (putting his life at great risk) involved retrieving the body of his dead, white master. If anything, in my mind, that makes his heroism all the more “exceptional.” He is but one example. I do not see that as an “insurmountable challenge.”

Furthermore I think your suggestion that, “Fearing punishment for failing to bring home his master might have motivated Neptune”, defies logic. Certainly Neptune would not have preferred being shot to being “punished”—even if that punishment involved physical abuse.

I agree with the anecdotal evidence you present regarding the “Ebony Idols” article and that it reveals that many of the white Confederates viewed the blacks within their ranks as “pets” and that the intent of the article was mocking, demeaning, and meant to keep these men “in their place.” I could, of course, present anecdotal evidence of my own regarding the bravery and honorable service of black Confederates (or Confederate slaves) that garnered the admiration and respect of the white Confederate soldiers with whom they served. Neptune serves as one of those examples, as does Stonewall Jackson’s body servant, Jim Lewis, who I’ve written about. There are others.

In reference to Sam describing “bullets as ‘singing’ around [his] head ‘like mosquitoes in a big cypress swamp’” I don’t find anything of relevance there. Many white soldiers made very similar analogies when describing battlefield experiences. I don’t think that advances your argument in any way. Perhaps I’m missing something?

You write: “While Confederate slaves successfully challenged popular conceptions of what it meant to be a black man, these ‘victories’ did not earn them the public recognition they sought…” I wholeheartedly agree. As Ervin Jordan has noted: “Only in the reminiscences of ex-Confederates are body servants given any sort of appreciation.” Virginia did not even pass legislation awarding pensions to blacks who had served in the Confederate Army until 1924. Which is a good reason, I believe, to honor them now in ways that does not demean their service, i.e. placing a simple headstone where they are buried noting that service, writing of their bravery and service in honest terms for the fact that many of these men faced the dangers of battle and risked death. Regardless of all the reasons they were there, I find it difficult to believe most would not want some recognition of their service.

While it is an inadequate analogy, the African-Americans who served during WWII were subjected to segregation, racism, and prejudices by the very country they were fighting for, yet they deserved and eventually got the recognition they earned, though some only very recently.

You wrote in referring to the slave who was able to purchase fine clothes that, “The slave’s fine clothing signified to Pender that he was losing control, and that his slave was challenging the established order, for plantation slaves were always issued the coarsest dress. The sight of a slave wearing French shirts constituted an insubordinate act to Pender.” There must be more to that story than what you write. If not, I think it’s quite a leap to the conclusion you draw. At best, conjecture.

You wrote: “Lost Cause writers and neo-Confederates today have emphasized companionship between white and black as proof of slaveholder benevolence and slave fidelity. While professional historians have successfully demolished this ridiculous interpretation . . .”

I’m really confused on that point. Are you disavowing what you wrote in your review of "Within the Plantation Household" by Elizabeth Fox-Genovese which appeared in the October 2007 edition of Civil War Times when you noted:

“No one can ignore the overwhelming historical evidence of mutual closeness between blacks and whites within the Slave South . . .” You continue that sentence with the fact that Ms. Fox-Genovese “reminds us that such feelings were expressed in a system that bought and sold African-Americans.” I understand that, but the closeness did, despite the evils of slavery, exist. You seem to be denying this in the quote from your post, after affirming it in the CWT piece.

You have further laudatory remarks about her book which seem to contradict what you wrote in the blog post: “Contextualizing these expressions of animosity as well as love and respect are essential if we want to understand the broader patterns of thought and action in the old South. [I agree.] Fox-Genovese provides a rich analysis of these fascinating confrontations between slave and master without losing her critical eye or her amazing capacity for empathy. Like no other historian before or since, she has explained how white and black Southerners could retain their own sense of humanity while living in the inhumane world of chattel slavery.”

Again, these comments appear to me to affirm what you dismiss in the post. What have I missed here or have you now come to a different conclusion? This is an honest question.

And then some final thoughts on your last paragraph:

“But for those who can put politics aside, who do not need to invent a mythical Confederate army of black and white brothers, and who do not need to demonize the white South for slavery, Neptune’s account might bring an end to this tiresome morality play. The combatants over this issue today, I might add, love to perform this play because it keeps the focus on them and not on the historical actors. If we put the spotlight on Neptune, however, his story reveals how little we know about the many and varied moments of emotional and physical intimacy that existed between males slave and their male owners. We must explore these complex encounters, which promise to reveal new insights into the master-slave relationship, African American manliness, and class divisions within the slave community as well as Confederate society as a whole.”

I could not agree with you more here, though the reference to “insights” into “manliness and class divisions” sounds too much like trendy fads in historiography which bore me to death (more Dr. Phil). Your main points in this paragraph are, nonetheless, right on; especially your remarks about the two extreme points of view and the need to keep the focus on the “historical actors.”

One final question to those interested in this topic. Have any of you actually had any contact or conversations with any descendants of African-Americans who served in the Confederacy and who believe their ancestors served honorably and deserve recognition?

Thanks again for the opportunity to comment. Normal programming will now resume. :)

(End of post.)

20 October 2007

Is Peter Carmichael "Dangerous"?

I just read Peter S. Carmichael’s comments about Elizabeth Fox-Genovese’s book, Within the Plantation Household – Black and White Women of the Old South in the October issue of Civil War Times. I found this comment of Carmichael's particularly interesting:

“No one can ignore the overwhelming historical evidence of mutual closeness between blacks and whites within the Slave South . . .”

No one except those who have an agenda or who cannot grow beyond their own preconceptions.

Would it be unreasonable to suggest that “mutual closeness” is synonymous with “friend” and “friendship”? No, it would not. As a matter of fact, MS Word lists “closeness” as one of the synonyms for the word “friend.” So does www.synonym.com and further includes the word intimacy. And my electronic version of Meriam-Webster includes this in its definition of “closeness”: intimate, <close friends>

Some ill-considered, ill-informed, and reactionary comments on various blogs, as well as other places, have suggested anyone believing that slaves and slave-masters could be friends is “dangerous.”(?!) Thus implying those who hold such views should be discredited or silenced (Typical of those who say they believe “tolerance” of diverse views is so important.) and charging them unfairly with perpetuating stereotypes that are inaccurate and over-simplified when, in actuality, the exact opposite is true.

Would “dangerous” include Dr. Camichael? Would it include the late Ms. Fox-Genovese? Would it include Professor James I. Robertson, Jr.?

As Professor Robertson wrote in the foreword to my book:

He became [Stonewall Jackson] a spiritual teacher for scores of slaves and freedmen as well as the best friend many of them ever had.- Page 12

The following quote is taken from my book, Stonewall Jackson – The Black Man’s Friend:

“There is ample evidence that he [Jackson’s slave, Jim Lewis] was intimate with Jackson and familiar with many of his personal habits, including prayer.” Page 139

and . . .

“Such thoughts [of Jackson’s] reveal again the complicated relationship in which master and slave found themselves. Drawn together by what became familial connections over time, black and white Southerners in nineteenth century America were captive to a strange dichotomy. Many slaves discreetly resented being owned by another and longed for their freedom. At the same time, they could not help growing emotionally close to their masters and even loving them and their families. Whites, on the other hand, though prejudiced and discriminatory in their practical interactions with blacks, often grew to respect and love their slaves. Sharing the day-to-day burdens, the toils of life, sicknesses, and the deaths of children and loved ones along with the joys of a shared existence constrained slave and master in mutual attachment. The injustice of slavery coexisted peacefully with feelings of affection and compassion in many Southern homes. This was especially true in regard to the Jackson household.” - Page 77

Carmichael further notes similar thoughts in the late Fox-Genovese’s book:

“Fox-Genovese reminds us that such feelings were expressed in a system that bought and sold African-Americans. Rather than proclaim the universal loyalty of the slave and applaud the tireless benevolence of the master, or condemn all owners as cruel beasts and celebrate every slave as a rebel, the author asks us to put aside simple generalizations and explore the complicated world that masters and slaves built together on their terms, not ours.” I agree. As with so many issues, the truth lies somewhere between the extremes of two views.

These simple generalizations would include, in Carmichael’s words, Gone With the Wind’s portrayal of plantation life as an “idyllic haven for blacks and whites. . .” Again, I agree.

But, as Carmichael further acknowledges, Fox-Genovese’s “agrees that the plantations facilitated physical and emotional intimacy between slave and master . . .” (These are Carmichael’s words, not a direct quote from the book.)

Another quote from my book . . .

“Amy was also purchased before Jackson’s second marriage. She was an elderly woman, and he purchased her because she ‘was about to be sold for debt . . . who sought from him a deliverance from her troubles.’ Anna [Jackson] wrote that his heart ‘was moved by her situation, and he yielded to her entreaties, and gave her a home in a good Christian family. Jackson became especially attached to Amy; Professor Robertson noted that she ‘was closest to Jackson’s heart.’ Anna was particularly fond of her culinary abilities. And Amy received religious instruction from Jackson and, after he left Lexington when the war began, from Margaret Junkin Preston. Jackson was grateful for his former sister-in law’s attention to Amy and expressed his appreciation in a letter to her in October 1861: ‘I am under special obligations for the religious instruction that you have given Amy, and hope that it may be in your power to continue it.’ Such sentiment reveals that he was motivated by more than mere duty or facade; he had a genuine concern for the spiritual welfare of those in his charge.” - Page 75-76

Of course, as I also point out in my book, not all slave-owners were “benevolent.” Many were cruel, not only in their abusive physical treatment of slaves, but also in a way that I would consider even crueler: the separation and break-up of families. As inhumane as physical abuse is, most physical wounds heal over time, but the emotional wound of unjustly being separated from a child, parent, spouse or other close loved one lingers throughout life. No one outside of that experience can comprehend it.

Carmichael concludes in the final paragraph of his piece:

“Contextualizing these expressions of animosity as well as love and respect are essential if we want to understand the broader patters [sic] of thought and actions in the Old South.”

Once again, I agree wholeheartedly. Interestingly, my book is dedicated, in part, to “all who wish to understand.” Sadly, some prefer their agenda to understanding.



Anonymous said...

"...if you have something new to add, go ahead."======================

Here's something I would count as 'new' though it's been around for near 120 years.

Strangely, none of the expert researcher/academically-trained historians were able to find it-

1890 Census Report
CS Soldiers and Sailors (Survivors)




Applying some basic math-

1,000,000/x (CSA 1861-65)
432,020/3,273 (Survivors 1890)


7500 is not a lot but it sure isn't zero.

See page 3-


The URL appears to be cut off on the preview. Here is the whole address-


marc Ferguson said...

out of curiosity, did you choose not to publish my comment, or was it not received?


Richard G. Williams, Jr. said...


Yes, it was rejected. I sent you a private email as to why.


Border Ruffian said...

In regard to the comments on the Kevin Levin blog...isn't the hyprocrisy of the Left amazing?

If someone were to write similar things about the United States Colored Troops the shouts of "racism! racism!" would be heard high and low.

I guess this area of study will always be subject to race-baiting by the liberal/left academics.

Richard G. Williams, Jr. said...

Certainly, some of what you say is true. I don't know about "always" as things do change, albeit slowly. We shall see.

I am somewhat amazed how they lump everyone together and create straw men to knock down. KL seems to have a rather unhealthy obsession with criticizing the SCV and now, the little old ladies of the UDC. But, bashing these groups is chic among the elite.

Though I don't agree with all of Carmichael's views, (and I think he misunderstands much) at least he took KL to task for his constant poking fun at the SCV and others. But that won't change, KL and his followers love that aspect of his blog and seems to, at least in their mind, confirm their own misinformed prejudices.

20 April, 2009 09:24

Border Ruffian said...

"In all the debate that the Confederate slave subject generates on this blog and elsewhere, I am still mystified by the failure of some to appreciate a fundamental fact that applies to every African American who existed in a Southern army—he was a slave and thus denied the ability to have free will in exercising his political loyalty."-Kevin Levin, Civil War Memory Blog

What an utterly false statement.
Levin hasn't got a clue.

There were many free blacks in the Confederate army.
Some were actually enlisted in the army (volunteers) while others were hired on as personal servants, company cooks or teamsters.

Many servants (slaves) had ample opportunity to "exercise their political loyalty" by simply walking away from camp or while on the march but instead remained with the army to the bitter end.
There were even slaves present with the army who were there without their master's permission.

(I post this here since I am banned at the other site)

Richard G. Williams, Jr. said...


I agree and many did "exercise their political loyalty" by escaping to Union lines. Others, like Jim Lewis, who had ample chances to escape, stayed loyal to the Confederate Army for a whole host of reasons: fear, family (white and black), love of home, hope of eventual freedom if they remained loyal, dislike of yankees, etc, etc.

KL accuses others of what he himself is guilty - stereotyping and lumping everyone into one experience and failing to acknowledge African-American Confederates, and their views regarding their homes and the South, were not all the same. I also believe KL is pushing a particular agenda and perspective, despite his claims of objectivity and "sophistication" regarding *his* interpretation.

I think Ervin Jordan's book is one of the best studies regarding this issue.

Richard G. Williams, Jr. said...

PS: Notice how dismissive and condescending the comments were toward Edgerton.