James A. Garfield’s Black Confederates

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.

Enjoy a happy new year.

The Confederate Flag … The Conquered Banner

Confederate Flag Rally

We’ve heard a great deal about the importance of the Confederate flag (in all of its variations and manifestations, but primarily the Confederate Battle Flag). We are told that Confederate heritage advocates are honoring their ancestors by battling to keep the flag flying, implying that such is exactly what those folks would have wanted to do.

Not so fast.

The Rev. Abram Joseph Ryan was a Catloic priest based in Knoxville, Tennessee. He was also a poet as well as passionate Confederate. Some people called him “Poet-Priest of the South,” while others dared proclaim him the “Poet Laureate of the Confederacy.” In any case no one could question his fidelity to the cause.

Father Ryan had a most interesting Civil War career. Despising Abraham Lincoln, he shorted his first name to Abram; he protested being stationed in the North by his order, and by 1863 we have rports of his being with the Army of Tennessee, without other accounts placing him at Franklin and Nashville near the end of 1864. In the immediate aftermath of Confederate surrender, he composed the following poem, which first appeared in of all places, a New York journal:

The Conquered Banner

Furl that Banner, for ’t is weary;
Round its staff ’t is drooping dreary:
Furl it, fold it,—it is best;
For there ’s not a man to wave it,
And there ’s not a sword to save it, 
And there ’s not one left to lave it
In the blood which heroes gave it,
And its foes now scorn and brave it:
Furl it, hide it,—let it rest!

Take that Banner down! ’t is tattered; 
Broken is its staff and shattered;
And the valiant hosts are scattered,
Over whom it floated high.
Oh, ’t is hard for us to fold it,
Hard to think there ’s none to hold it, 
Hard that those who once unrolled it
Now must furl it with a sigh!

Furl that Banner—furl it sadly!
Once ten thousands hailed it gladly,
And ten thousands wildly, madly, 
Swore it should forever wave;
Swore that foeman’s sword should never
Hearts like theirs entwined dissever,
Till that flag should float forever
O’er their freedom or their grave! 

Furl it! for the hands that grasped it,
And the hearts that fondly clasped it,
Cold and dead are lying low;
And that Banner—it is trailing,
While around it sounds the wailing 
Of its people in their woe.

For, though conquered, they adore it,—
Love the cold, dead hands that bore it,
Weep for those who fell before it,
Pardon those who trailed and tore it; 
And oh, wildly they deplore it,
Now to furl and fold it so!

Furl that Banner! True, ’t is gory,
Yet ’t is wreathed around with glory,
And ’t will live in song and story 
Though its folds are in the dust!
For its fame on brightest pages,
Penned by poets and by sages,
Shall go sounding down the ages—
Furl its folds though now we must. 

Furl that Banner, softly, slowly!
Treat it gently—it is holy,
For it droops above the dead.
Touch it not—unfold it never;
Let it droop there, furled forever,
For its people’s hopes are fled!

Just sayin’.

Stonewall at Gettysburg … Again?

Recently The Civil War Monitor asked several historians (including yours truly) their opinions about Thomas J. “Stonewall” Jackson. The answers appear in the current issue, but space restraints in the paper edition offered an opportunity for the journal to share on its website how people responded to that traditional counterfactual query, “What if Stonewall Jackson had been at Gettysburg?”

You can find the answers here.

It’s a question that is as problematic as it is popular. I’ve tired of it, largely because I’ve learned that people who don’t know nearly as much about the Civil War as they claim to know prefer to talk about what could have happened (where research and knowledge gives way to fantasy and imagination) than to discuss what really did happen and why (thus Civil War discussion groups thrive on such debates). Besides, there are other what-ifs I find more interesting.

Nevertheless, these discussions are just the thing for people who like that sort of thing, so enjoy.

Heritage Correctness: The Significance of What Happened at Vanderbilt

Historian Karen L. Cox has reminded us exactly why the United Daughters of the Confederacy invested in George Peabody College for Teachers (now part of Vanderbilt University) in the first place. Namely, the UDC hoped to train women teachers who would spread the Confederate gospel as the UDC saw it.

In short, one could call it a heritage indoctrination center.

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A President Thanks Soldiers for their Service: October 10, 1865

On October 10, 1865, Andrew Johnson greeted members of the First District of Columbia Colored Regiment on the grounds of the White House. He wanted to thank them for their service, and give them some advice now that the war was over and they would be leaving military service.

You do understand, no doubt, and it you do not, you cannot understand too soon, that simple liberty does not mean the privilege of going into the battle-field, or into the service of the country as a soldier. It means other things as well; and now, when you have laid down your arms, there are other objects of equal importance before you. Now that the government has triumphantly passed through this rebellion, after the most gigantic battles the world ever saw, the problem is before you, and it is best that you should understand it; and, therefore, I speak simply and plainly. Will you now, when you have returned from the army of the United States, and take the position of the citizen; when you have returned to the associations of peace, will you give evidence to the world that you are capable and competent to govern yourselves? That is what you will have to do.

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