The Black Confederate Myth: The Case of Norris White, Jr., and Primus Kelly

Andy Hall’s at it again.

Today he offers something most advocates of the black Confederate myth fail to present — research — to offer evidence that yet another in a long series of fanciful tales might not be what its proponents say it is.

The case involves the claims of Norris White, Jr., a graduate student at Stephen F. Austin University, who has made some very interesting assertions about the Confederate military service of blacks from Texas, including the statement that some 50,000 blacks from that state participated in the Confederate military effort, a number that outstrips the actual number of enslaved males in Texas between 15 and 50 years of age. I’m waiting for claims of enslaved women from Texas who served with the CSA (note we haven’t heard that theme advanced yet).

Mr. White has done a good deal to establish himself as an authority on this matter, drawing plaudits from some; elsewhere, however, his assertions have come under scrutiny. Andy Hall’s post today adds to that scrutiny, and I direct you to it. Most notable is the tired old tale of how a slave accompanied his master’s son (or, in this case, three “sweet southern boys”) to war as some sort of de facto brother and playmate. Hall’s research suggests that such an inference may not be warranted in the case of Primus Kelly; his post also illustrates how certain people embellish certain stories to advance their own agenda.

Readers of this blog know the drill by now. One could have bet and won easy money on the proposition that “Border Ruffian” would make an appearance in Andy’s comment’s section, where he would offer yet more unsubstantiated claims (and Andy reminds him that he’s still waiting for evidence to support another one of BR’s claims); I will hear from several indignant academics (including those who claim that they don’t read or talk about this blog) who will be furious that I gave such people as Mr. White the time of day, and thus it’s my fault that anyone is discussing black Confederates (which ignores the untidy fact that Mr. White is in training to become a professional historian); reasonable people will be impressed with Andy’s research; we’ll hear nothing from a certain Harvard professor who claims to be quite interested in this subject, although I’ve never seen any actual research from him; and the Confederate “heritage” crowd will go to ranting and raving on their Facebook groups, hit blogs, and so on, because to them it’s heritage, not history.

To all I say … carry on.

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11 thoughts on “The Black Confederate Myth: The Case of Norris White, Jr., and Primus Kelly

  1. “…Terry’s Texas Rangers…”

    That again. Sheesh.

    Last year, I was thankfully able to talk an associate out of doing his “this-essay-is-your-entire-grade-and-you-won’t-graduate-without-this-class” project on black Confederates. (Actually, the professor wouldn’t have let him do it anyway. I just talked him out of making a fool of himself by presenting this idea to the professor in class.)

    He had run across various Internet ramblings about Terry’s Rangers and was intrigued. So, I let him in on a little history …

  2. So Norris has found “reunion photos”. He apparently hasn;t found any photos taken while all that “serving” was actually going on. For good reason. Wonder if that question has penetrated Norris’s intricate thought process. The smart wager is “not hardly, Pilgrim”. Norris might be the same guy who saw Buck O’Neill at an old timers game with Ted Williams and figures that he’s got proof that they played together in the Majors.

  3. It doesn’t seem that Norris was much more successful in researching black Confederates than he was at researching his “Confederate” uniform. Neither vests (which were a civilian item) nor Federal trousers were at all common in the CS army, and he’s wearing his haversack on the wrong side. The only Confederate equipment he’s got on besides his canteen & haversack is a kepi. Despite what the SCV member wrote, he’s not really in Confederate uniform at all–at least not anything that would have been typical.

  4. Confederate uniforms were standardized by 1862, but only on paper. Raw materials were scarce. Indeed bits and pieces of Federal uniforms were common enough to the point where Forrest issued orders for those of his men wearing “yankee uniforms” to have them dyed within two weeks or turn them in to the quartermaster.

    • I think it might be more accurate to say that Confederate uniforms were somewhat standardized DURING 1862, when the CS government’s depot system was put into place, replacing the previous commutation system—by which widely varied homemade uniforms were provided by soldiers’ families. Even then, the depot-supplied uniforms were supplemented by various state and even foreign issues, such as the Irish-made Peter Tait shell jackets which appeared in the ANV near the end of the war.

      Federal uniforms, or parts of them, were occasionally worn by Confederates, but only in certain circumstances by certain troops—for example, the ANV captured so many Federal trousers at Second Bull Run that they were issued to the men. Likewise, AP Hill’s corps at Antietam showed up in Federal uniforms recently captured at Harper’s Ferry–they donned them because their own clothing was completely worn out. Forrest’s cavalry were probably a special situation, too–they had more access to Union uniforms because they did so much raiding behind the lines. I’d be willing to bet the Army of Tennessee to which they were often attached had practically none of them. Now Federal accoutrements (haversacks, canteens, cartridge boxes and belts, etc.) were a different story–they were much more widespread in the CS armies, again, especially in Lee’s army, to which they were the most available.

  5. While I’m definitely a Confederate apologist, I’ve tended to be dismissive of the “Black Confederate” claims, and confused as to what the point is supposed to be. Nevertheless, I was reading through some of the Library of Congress’ online slave narratives and came across one interview of a former slave named James Cape from East Texas who tells a story sort of just in passing about Confederate service that appears to be both voluntary, apparently unattached to his master, and in combat. He could just be telling tales, but the way in which he tells it without any particular emphasis makes it seem that to his mind it wasn’t in any way unusual.

    Source: http://memory.loc.gov/cgi-bin/ampage?collId=mesn&fileName=161/mesn161.db&recNum=199&itemLink=r%3Fammem%2Fmesnbib%3A%40field%28DOCID%2B%40lit%28mesn%2F161%2F200193%29%29

    Relevant Partial Excerpt:

    “One day Marster Bob comes to me and says, “Jim, how you like to jine de army?” You see, de war had started. I says to him, ‘What does I have to do?” And he says, “Tend hosses and ride ‘em.” I was young den and thought it would be lots of ffun, so I says I’d go. So de first think I knows, I’s in de army away off east from here, somewhar dis side of St. Louis and in Tennessee and Arkansas and other place. I goes in de army ‘stead of Dr. Carroll. After I gits in de amy, it wasn’ so much fun, ‘ause tendin’ hosses and ridin’ wasn’ all I does. No, sar, I has to do shootin’ and git shooted at! Dey gives me a rifle and sends me up front fightin’, when we wasn’ runnin! We does a heap of runnin’ and dat suits dis nigger.”

    • Actually, the excerpt’s rather revealing. Someone thought it would be fun to join the army. Nothing here about love of the South, that the CSA was not about protecting slavery, and so on. Seems he preferred to run than fight.

  6. Certainly, though of course both sides were probably comprised of a majority more motivated by testosterone than principle, regardless of race! I (mistakenly, perhaps) thought that the dispute was whether any blacks chose to serve and did so in a not-just-support role.

    • Well, here’s the question: was this person a soldier? Not according to the Confederacy. There’s nothing here to document enlistment.

      I know of a few people who say categorically that not a single black served in the Confederate army as a soldier, and I’d disagree with that. But I would also disagree with those who posit large numbers of African Americans serving as soldiers in the Confederate armed forces, let alone how some people use that claim to make broader assertions about the cause of the war or the role played by slavery.

      • One indicator that anything like that was not likely in Texas was that this was the state to which a number of slave owners from other rebel states sent their slaves to keep them “safe” (i.e., enslaved) from the influences of the approaching Union armies in the owners’ states.

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