It amuses me when people who claim to be familiar with my writings claim that I have asserted that there were no African Americans in Confederate service, and that none donned the uniform of a Confederate soldier. Such claims reflect poorly on their ability as researchers and call into question their own interpretations of historical evidence.
So let me complicate their lives still more. On May 27, 1862, James A. Garfield, an officer attached to the headquarters of the 20th Brigade, wrote home to his beloved wife Crete about Jim, an African American who had come into his lines the previous January 10 at the conclusion of the battle of Middle Creek, Kentucky. I’ll let Garfield tell the tale:
Note that Jim was the servant of an officer, but that when Garfield encountered him, he was in uniform and carrying a weapon. Would that make him a deserter? A prisoner? Or simply a fugitive slave?
You can find this letter on page 102 of Frederick D. Williams, ed., The Wild Life of the Army: Civil War Letters of James A. Garfield (East Lansing: Michigan State University Press, 1964).
And that’s not all. The following March Garfield told his wife that at the battle of Thompson’s Station, Tennessee, on March 5, 1863, it “appears that the rebels had two Negro regiments against us in that fight.” It would be interesting to see whether the Confederate generals at that engagement, including Earl Van Dorn and Nathan Bedford Forrest, made mention of those regiments, which would have been cavalry regiments.
Derek Boyd Hankerson is an African American university lecturer, filmmaker, author, and political operative. He’s also a Donald Trump supporter. Pledging his support for Trump last year, Hankerson served as Trump’s Northeast Florida Field Director….
He received his undergraduate degree in Political Science in 1991 from the University of Maryland College Park. In 2007 he earned his Masters in Business Administration from Webster University in St. Louis, Missouri.
But he has co-authored a history book, Belonging: The Civil War’s South We Never Knew. The book makes the astonishing claim that blacks in large numbers fought for the South during the Civil War, a myth advanced by white racist groups that long ago was debunked by historians.
Now, I’m sure some whiny Confederate heritage advocate will claim that this is a way to get at Donald Trump. That in the process they will be defending poor history is something to note. After all, opponents of “political correctness” embrace heritage correctness … and, it seems, they don’t mind what Trump supporters say, regardless of its historical accuracy, because they are invested in what I might call “partisan correctness.”
Actually, as the comments show, I’m just as tired of anyone citing John Stauffer as a reliable source on this subject. We know better.
There’s been some discussion here and elsewhere about Al Arnold’s tale about the tales of his ancestor, Turner Hall, Jr., and what exactly this all means for historians interested in the role played by enslaved blacks in the Confederate war effort. Andy Hall went to the trouble of reading the entire book, and he offered his reactions here. It’s a discerning response that looks carefully at the paucity of actual evidence to support Hall’s stories, which Arnold accepts at face value. Note that Arnold’s interpretation of Turner Hall’s story relies on a tremendous amount of speculation and inference that finds scant support in the historical record. As usual, plaudits to Andy for his usual skillful treatment of matters of evidence.
I also point readers to the very thoughtful post over at Alan Skerrett, Jr.’s Jubilo! The Emancipation Century. It’s a model of discerning reflection that balances respect and skepticism in a careful consideration of the evidence. Alan’s brought his usual high standards to this piece, and it shows.
Stories about African Americans’ willingness to serve the Confederate war effort serve many modern agendas. Arnold’s story, it turns out, is really about how Al Arnold dealt with a family story that he spent very little effort to verify. What we do know is that Turner Hall, Jr., told these stories about his past, and that white southerners embraced him for the telling, much as Confederate heritage advocates have embraced H. K. Edgerton, Karen Cooper, Anthony Hervey, Arlene Barnum, and now, it appears, Al Arnold, who seems more and more interested in telling the story of black support for the Confederacy. It’s interesting (and revealing) to research the life stories of Edgerton, Cooper, Hervey, and Barnum, all of who seems to have grown bitterly dissatisfied by black leaders and organizations such as the NAACP before veering right … and right into the arms of Confederate heritage advocates who welcome the chance to disassociate the Confederate cause slavery, racism, and white supremacy. Arnold’s personal quest seems to be just that: a personal quest. In the process, he’s become quite a popular speaker among certain people, as this list of events on his Facebook page suggests. He’s also become involved in the debate over the current Mississippi state flag, suggesting that this is no longer simply a matter of family history.
Truly, Al Arnold is following in the footsteps of Turner Hall, Jr.
Or course, Arnold’s rendering of Turner Hall’s life will be treated as fact in some reportsby the uncritical, the unqualified, the unwary, and others who just like a good story. People who question it will be dismissed as haters. Arnold himself struggles with criticism, as a recent Twitter exchange with Kevin Levin revealed. Kevin, pointing to the story behind the banner that adorns Arnold’s Twitter account, asked him if he knew the truth behind the tampered image:
Simply put, to interpret Union soldiers as servants is a slam against the military service of American soldiers: an unkind critic would say that such a remark shows just how little respect Arnold has for some African Americans. At best, it’s a display of gross ignorance.
The exchange continued:
Somehow I don’t think that citing the Lord in support of my methods is going to satisfy any critics of my work. Indeed, I know some very religious historians who would not dare to make such a claim.
Given the tenor of this exchange, I doubt Mr. Arnold’s willing to engage in the sort of discussions that historians have when discussing evidence. Then again, this was never really about evidence, was it?
For some time the discussion about the service of enslaved and free African Americans in the Confederate armed forces has been one about historical fact and the consequences of those findings for larger interpretations of the war. That tends to be what historians do. However, students of Civil War memory might be better advised to turn to the modern day advocates of a story that places such service at the center of their narratives, and ask why that is. We may better understand Turner Hall, Jr., if we seek to understand Al Arnold.
Last night I received the following e-mail from Al Arnold:
Men, thanks for the attention to my ancestor, Turner Hall Jr. I do appreciate the “grain” of truth that you claim I hold to. Yet, I have made no claim to having a full kernel of truth. You are so correct that my ancestor was NOT a SOLDIER. No where in my book do I make that claim. I do explain that use of the word in the context of his story but in no way seek to elevate him beyond his status of a flunkie, slave or orderly. I don’t even take the official term of an orderly and apply it to him. So, as long as you know that I am perfectly find with him being a slave and if there was a term lower than that it would satisfy me well. As I take way more pleasure in a humble disposition than one of high and lofty elevations. I do appreciate your attention to this matter but wanted to make sure that I at least give you my input as you deal with the grains of this story. Again, thank you very much for your attention and know that it is ok as I have made no claim of him being a soldier. That is totally not the point of my book.
Note that my original post said nothing about Turner Hall, Jr.’s actual status.
Thus, if Mr. Arnold did not use the term “orderly,” who did?
I suspect that Mr. Arnold learned of my interest in his book through one of the regular readers of this newsgroup, upon whom I can depend to share what appears here with his friends and associates:
I have no response to claims that Mr. Sanford is in fact a mole planted by me to humiliate Confederate heritage advocates.
The issue of proof remains unanswered. I am eager to see what documentation and other evidence Mr. Arnold has in his possession to support his rendering of the life of his ancestor, Turner Hall, Jr. I am especially interested in how a slave from Mississippi was owned by a Tennessean before making his way over to Virginia. That should be one astonishing tale.
Professor Walter Williams is an economist who teaches at George Mason University. He has frequently written on the subject of black Confederates, and he took the opportunity recently to do so yet again.
Dr. Williams is quite fond of the notion that large numbers of enslaved African Americans voluntarily and willingly served as soldiers in the Confederate army during the American Civil War. He is also quite fond of recycling the same material time and time again in support of that claim.
Click here to read a short piece from 2000. Then click here to read a piece from earlier this year. That piece just appeared again here.
You may notice that Dr. Williams claims that the death of Anthony Hervey, an African American who shared Dr. Williams’s views on black Confederate soldiers, “was in no small part caused by the gross level of ignorance, organized deceit and anger about the War of 1861. Much of the ignorance stems from the fact that most Americans believe the war was initiated to free slaves, when in truth, freeing slaves was little more than an afterthought. I want to lay out a few quotations and ask what you make of them.”
Well, since Dr. Williams thinks this is a matter of life or death, I think it fair to respond to his request that I say what I make of his quotations.
First, Dr. Williams quotes Frederick Douglass’s 1861 statement: “There are at the present moment many colored men in the Confederate army doing duty not only as cooks, servants and laborers, but as real soldiers, having muskets on their shoulders, and bullets in their pockets, ready to shoot down loyal troops, and do all that soldiers may to destroy the Federal Government and build up that of the traitors and rebels.”
Well, I believe several people have already said a great deal about that quote. Surely Andy Hall did, here and here. So have I. So what do I make of this quote? Not much. Douglass picked up on various rumors in the press to make the case that since blacks were in the Confederate army, the Union army ought to follow suit. The press reports and the research done on them suggest that reports of a significant presence of black Confederate soldiers on the battlefield was, to put it kindly, highly exaggerated.
Dr. Williams then quotes New York Tribune publisher Horace Greeley to the same effect in 1862. Of course, Greeley said a lot of things, and some of them were true. But I don’t know what we are to make of an assertion without any supporting evidence. What Ta-Nehisi Coates saidseems to me to be sufficient.
Dr Williams then cites Dr. Lewis Steiner’s comment about 3,000 blacks among the soldiers of the Army of Northern Virginia as it marched through Frederick, Maryland, in September 1862. We’ve discussed that document here.
Then we have a short report about blacks in Petersburg volunteering to help out. We’ve seen that recycled as well. What do we make of it? Good question. What happened to these men?
Finally, Dr. Williams reminds us that “Dr. Leonard Haynes, a black professor at Southern University, stated, ‘When you eliminate the black Confederate soldier, you’ve eliminated the history of the South.’” Unfortunately, we don’t know where he got that quote, or whether the professor said it at all.
At least the professor has dropped one of his claims. He once told us that “General Ulysses Grant’s slaves had to await for the Thirteenth Amendment for freedom. When asked why he didn’t free his slaves earlier, General Grant said, ‘Good help is so hard to come by these days.'” I wonder why he no longer cites this. Perhaps this is because the evidence against this is rather overwhelming?
Nevertheless, all this is rather important to Dr. Williams. As he declares, “Black civil rights activists, their white liberal supporters and historically ignorant Americans who attack the Confederate flag have committed a deep, despicable dishonor to our patriotic Southern black ancestors who marched, fought and died not to protect slavery but to protect their homeland from Northern aggression.”
Now, I understand that Dr. Williams is an economist, which may help explain why he finds evidence so challenging. That’s because he makes claims that are not supported by the very evidence he cites, and because he fails to take a critical look at the evidence he cites. But this does not deter him from repeating himself, as if that alone makes for a persuasive argument. Then again, he isn’t alone. Professor John Stauffer of Harvard University falls prey to the same shortcoming, and he claims to be a historian. You’ll recall that Stauffer and a colleague performed a scholarly hit-and-run last year, making claims and pointing fingers, only to slink away silently when challenged.
Perhaps Dr. Williams is different. Let’s see whether that’s the case. He freely shares his e-mail address at the end of his pieces. Here it is: firstname.lastname@example.org. Write him. Share this post with him. Ask him what he makes of it. Let’s see what he says. After all, he wanted to lay out a few questions and ask what readers made of them.
Remember, Dr. Williams says that someone lost his life in large part because of ignorance. We can’t have that, can we? Enlighten him.
We hear a great deal about the debate over the military service of African Americans, slave and free, in the Confederate army. Usually this debate focuses on identifying individuals and defining their service. Were they soldiers? Were they enrolled? Were they serving the Confederacy or simply their masters? Did they really have any choice? We have far less to go on when it comes to describing motivation, leaving people to rely on speculation that tends to reinforce their own prejudices and preferences.
That this discussion is marred by fabrication, distortion, and ignorance doesn’t help matters.
But most people acknowledge that near the end of the war that a handful of African Americans did make their way into Confederate service as soldiers under the terms of legislation passed in 1865 by the Confederate Congress and implemented by the Davis administration and Confederate military authorities. Reports exist of two companies of blacks forming part of a battalion that saw action at Petersburg. But that’s just about it. Information is scarce about these men. Who were they? Where did they come from? Under what terms did they enter Confederate service? What happened to them?