Black Confederates: Inconvenient Truth or Racist-inspired Revisionism?

A Long-Sought Photograph, Discovered, Stirs the Pot

The photograph of my second great-grandfather was in a book titled Black Confederates (Pelican Publishing 2001), which its editors and publisher  tout as a compilation of historical accounts, photographs and documents relating to blacks who served with rebel forces in the Civil War.  Lewis LeJay (1835-1921) is described in the book through an account given by Francis Chandler Furman, a Missouri geologist, who says he heard the story in 1970 from his father Greene Chandler Furman, who in turn heard it from his father, Francis Scrimzeuor Furman, who is the white man in military uniform standing next to Lewis LeJay in the photo.

According to the Furmans, Lewis had been born a slave on the plantation of Henry Marshall (1805-1864) in De Soto Parish, Louisiana. Marshall was perhaps the largest landowner in De Soto parish. His major holding was Land’s End plantation.  Marshall was a state senator and signed the Confederate Constitution as well as the Louisiana Ordinance of Secession. In 1858, Marshall’s daughter Mary was wed to Scrimzeour C. Furman, M.D., who was an officer in the first De Soto unit to enter the Civil War.  When Mary died, Dr. Furman married her younger sister, Mattie.  They had three children, a daughter and two sons, one of whom was Francis (“Frank”) Scrimzeour Furman. Frank became a physician like his father.

In 1917, the now-Capt Frank Furman was preparing to go to Camp Beauregard, LA, to become the chief of gas defense.  At Land’s End Plantation, Furman visited with the black servant he knew as “Daddy Lewis.”  Lewis gave the captain some advice about how to handle himself in combat.  Lewis’ knowledge in this area was derived form his experiences in the Civil War as a wagoneer with the Confederate artillery. He was supposedly shot in the shoulder and carried the bullet the rest of his life.  After having been shot and thought to be dead, he drove a wagon laden with gunpowder through Federal lines to supply a rebel company.

So Lewis LeJay was a black Confederate~or was he?  Were there black Confederate fighters or this a revisionist racist idea that’s right up there with Holocaust denial?

A researcher at a Finnish university says that “the role of African-Americans who fought for the Confederacy during  the American Civil War . . . [is] [p]erhaps one of the most silenced topics today in American history, and politically among the most delicate . . . .”  Indeed.

On the one side of the debate are those who categorically reject the notion that any black man fought willingly for the Confederacy.  These individuals generally acknowledge that there were some blacks with Confederate forces, but they contend that these were merely slaves dragged along by their masters.  Those on this side of the debate excoriate  as ignorant, racist, and dishonest anyone who dares to suggest that blacks may have been consensual actors on behalf of the Confederate  states. This group can brook no possibility other than the coercion of slavery as the reason for military action by southern blacks.

On the other side of the debate are those who claim thousands of blacks voluntarily served with Confederate forces; many motivated by affection for their masters and for the South itself.  Many in this camp also point to evidence of “happy slaves” who believed themselves better off with slavery than without it.

So were  there or were there not consensual black actors with Confederate forces? Is it racist to say “yes.”?

Let’s have a look at the evidence.  We will discover first that studies of the topic are sparse.  Some say that’s because there is no evidence worthy of academic study; others say that politics has squelched attempts to get at the truth of this matter.

Most historians agree that the Confederate states from the outset had no intention of recruiting black troops. In this respect, Abraham Lincoln and Jefferson Davis were in apparent agreement.  Many  historians also agree that a number of enslaved blacks were present in battle zones often as “body servants” to their white masters who had joined the rebel forces.  But things get murky when the matters of black Confederate “volunteers” or formally organized black Confederate units are considered.

The book in which the picture of Lewis LeJay was found was edited by Charles Kelly Barrow, J.H. Segars, and R.B. Rosenburg. Barrow in particular has sought to “set straight” historical accounts of the Civil War and has authored or edited several works about supposed black fighters with the Confederate Army.  In 2002, the Southern Poverty Law Center, regarded as a near-iconic institution among a certain segment of civil rights activists, identified Barrow as holding several positions in the Sons of Confederate Veterans.  SPLC claims that SCV is run by individuals who are members of  “hate groups.”  In Barrow’s case, SPLC cites his membership in an organization called “League of the South.”

But the June 2005 Statement on Racism adopted by  the League of the South states:

We believe that Christianity and social order require that all people, regardless of race, must be equal before the law. We do not believe that the law should be used to persecute, oppress, or favour any race or class.
We believe that the only harmony possible between the races, as between all natural differences among human
beings, begins in submitting to Jesus Christ’s commandment to “love our neighbours as ourselves.” That is the
world we envision and work for.

We believe that the politics of race — baiting whites against blacks and blacks against white has been profitable for
politicians but catastrophic for the South and Southerners.

We believe that all Southerners – black and white – want and need the same things: a safe country for their families,
liberty, and the Gospel of Jesus Christ.

Let’s suppose for a minute that SPLC is “correct” and that Barrow is a racist. Does  that impeach his research on the Civil War?   In other words, can one be simultaneously a serious scholar and a “racist”?  My answer is, “It depends.” One thing it does not depend upon is the content of the view taken by the supposed scholar. Are Palestinian or Israeli academics disqualifed from membership in the community of serious scholars because of their points of view?

But back to the main issue.  In the May 10, 1862 number of Harper’s Weekly, it is reported:

The correspondent of the New York Herald, in one of its late numbers, reports that the rebels had a regiment of mounted negroes, armed with sabres, at Manassas, and that some five hundred Union prisoners taken at Bull Run were escorted to their filthy prison by a regiment of black men.

The image below appeared in Harper’s on January 10, 1863, captioned “Rebel Negro Pickets Seen through a Field Glass.”

Negro Confederate pickets

A number of African-Americans actively promote the notion there were black Confederate soldiers who have gone unrecognized.  Prominent among them are Ervin L. Jordan, Jr., and Nelson Winbush.  Jordan is an archivist and scholar at the University of Virginia.  He’s written a book called Black Confederates and Afro-Yankees in Civil War Virginia (University Press of Virginia, 1995), which Publishers Weekly called an “exhaustively researched treatise.” Winbush is a member of the Sons of Confederate Veterans in Florida.  His grandfather, Louis Napolean Nelson, is said to have served with Company M, 7th Tennessee Cavalry, rising from cook to rifleman to chaplain.

Both Jordan and Winbush are outspoken about the need to tell the whole story about black Confederate troops.  Professor Jordan has been quoted as saying:

“Numerous Afro-Virginians, free blacks and slaves, were genuine Southern loyalists, not as a consequence of white pressure but due to their preferences. They are the Civil War’s forgotten people, yet their existence was more widespread than American history has recorded. Their bones rest in unhonored glory in Southern soil, shrouded by falsehoods, indifference and historians’ censorship.”

University of Virginia Professor Ervin L. Jordan, Jr.

Estimates of blacks who served in Confederate ranks range up to 80,000, although 65,000 seems to be a widely accepted number.

What would motivate a black man to serve the Confederate cause if he were not coerced into doing so?  Perhaps he might think he had a greater chance of survival if the agrarian South survived.  A Northern victory would mean uncertainty, ambiguity, more discomfort.  Or perhaps he might believe that there were rewards for himself and his family to be had from grateful Southern authorities if the Confederacy prevailed. present Or perhaps black Confederates represent an early manifestation of that psychology now described as “Stockholm Syndrome.”

I think there is little historical doubt that blacks served the Confederacy and that such service in many cases extended beyond that of personal valet.  I think there were a variety of motivations.  But two things should be clear: (1) the fact that the world may not have been as tidy as we now would wish it to have been is not an excuse for the exclusion, revision, or distortion of history; and (2) the fact that blacks may have served the Confederacy adds nothing to the emptiness of its moral and constitutional accounts.

What do you think?

Photograph of Prof. Jordan by LuAnn Williams from Spring 2004 Newsletter of the Carter Woodson Institute;

Craig

16 Responses to “Black Confederates: Inconvenient Truth or Racist-inspired Revisionism?”

  • Denise Olson says:

    Fascinating article. I have notes that several former slaves from one of my Confederate ancestors stayed with the family after the war – probably a matter of survival since this was an area decimated by Sherman’s troops. I don’t have any information yet on what this ancestor was doing during the war other than her fiancé died in a Union POW camp.

  • Tim Agazio says:

    Craig,

    Great article, and welcome back! I don’t think we should doubt the presence of “Black Confederate[s].” Both my father-in-law and an old Army buddy told me their ancestors weren’t slave owners and weren’t fighting for slavery. They were fighting to protect their homes and families from the invading North. Maybe that’s also revisionism in an attempt to feel better about their ancestors, but it could be true. I think it’s entirely possible some black people living in the South felt the same way.

    I always reject theories that are all or nothing…the human condition always guarantees those frustrating shades of gray and blurred lines.

  • John says:

    Good article. I agree with both of your final two statements.

    Tim – There is no doubt reading the secession statements by most of the legislatures – that the official reason was for slavery. However, the reason individuals took up arms is another matter. I can definitely see someone not understanding all the politics going on around them and just seeing the North attack their land. I also can see illiterate slaves not being told what was going on, and voluntarily helping out when they saw the land attacked.

    Per the League of the South quote, I definitely see arguments for and against racism, but there is no doubt in my mind that the SPLC is correct that it is a hate group. The League of the South feels everyone in the South should follow the gospel of Christ. That is hate. A different hate, but it still qualifies.

    Here’s the Southern Poverty Law Center’s page on The League of the South:

    http://www.splcenter.org/get-informed/intelligence-files/groups/league-of-the-south

  • Hi Craig ~
    What a wonderful, balanced article! I’m so glad you are back from your surgery and providing us such thoughtful, and thought-provoking, things to read :-)

    I agree with Tim that I am generally turned off when people present theories – especially regarding events that they did not witness – as either/or. I also agree that, while I believe that some blacks – regardless of whether we want to say “many” or “few” – served in the Confederacy of their own volition that does NOT serve to somehow justify either the Confederacy or even slavery itself. It reminds me of another argument I’ve heard thrown into conversation, “Black people owned slaves too you know.” Well yes, I do believe that to be true, but again, I fail to see why that somehow makes a difference in whether slavery was an inhuman institution.

    It sort of reminds me of people who want to dispute the number – 6 million Jews were killed in the Holocaust. They are quick to point out that they DO believe that some numbers of Jews were killed. THEY are not “Holocaust deniers.” It’s just not 6 million. I asked someone one time, “So, let’s just say it was a *mere* 600,000. So now what? Are the Nazis somehow not as bad?” No real clear answer to that was forthcoming, just more argument about numbers etc. I just had to walk away.

    History can be emotional. I have cried when I have read things about my family that aren’t nearly as horrific as being enslaved. I would never want to take emotion out of history. But surely there is a way to look at the history of what happened – to talk about something that isn’t “as tidy as we now would wish it to have been” – without slipping over into name-calling.

    Sorry for the long comment – when really all I’m trying to say is that I agree with you – and you did a much better job of saying it all!!!

    Thanks!

  • Mavis says:

    Great research on this subject. I’m 49 and had always been taught there were no blacks serving in the confederacy. My mom has even said maybe if the confederacy had let blacks serve they would have won.

    After all these years, when you first begin hearing that there actually were those that fought for the confederacy it’s a little tough to wrap your mind around the idea.

    I appreciate the balanced approach that you used in addressing the subject.

  • Styln says:

    Wow! What an interesting and a great(photo)find. It’s such a great feeling to find photos of your ancestors in books and old newspaper articles. This why I love Google Books and Google News.

    I’ve heard about the body slaves who were taken into war by their confederate masters. I’ve seen a couple of photos depicting that situation. I’d never heard of any volunteer Black or Mulatto confederates.

    Your article alerted me to the fact that some of my Virginia “Free Negro” ancestors could very well have been Black/Mulatto confederates. Thanks so very much for sharing.

  • Dorsey says:

    Welcome back Craig! Great article. A number of Black Confederates were actual slaveholders who were mostly likely fighting to protect their property which would be the case of of William Ellison (1790-1861) of Fairfield District, South Carolina. Ellison was a strong supporter of the Confederate cause. His eldest grandson, Buckner Ellison, fought in the 1st South Carolina Artillery in 1863, while his children invested their late father’s estate into the Confederate cause, buying bonds, treasury notes, certificates, and Confederacy currency in support of the war.

    There are a variety of reasons why African Americans fought on the side of Confederate.

    On a side note, it was interesting to see the name Henry Marshall from De Soto Parish, Louisiana. He served as the guardian for the children of Edward Means, the brother of William B. Means. Edward owned my great great grandfather.

  • A lady in my town is the daughter of a Confederate veteran (yes, daughter! She was born late in life to him and she is now old). She says she tells people he was a volunteer because she heard it from his own mouth. But she has been harassed by people who just can’t believe a black man would volunteer.

    All wars are bad. But everyone, no matter what race, has the right to honor their veteran ancestors.

  • Jim says:

    Black men were serving in the Southern Militias and Continental army during the Revolution. I believe that most of these men were free. Here is a link to their pensions.


    http://southerncampaign.org/pen/index.htm[Editor's note: use the site's search function]

  • This is Charles Kelly Barrow and the SPLC is wrong! I am NOT a member of the LOS so they are just telling lies again

  • g says:

    My mulatto 3rd great-grandfather served in the 25th Virginia Infantry. He moved to UNION, WV just after the war and named his son after an anti-confederate politician. I wonder if he did not serve fully by choice or if he switched sides after fully coming to terms with emancipation?

  • Craig says:

    Either is possible. The choices that individuals had to make in those days of adversity were deeply personal and extremely complex. It’s difficult judge a person’s motives nearly 150 years after the event.

  • Jim says:

    Here are pensions of Free black soldiers from the Revolutionary War serving in Southern Continental Regiments and Southern militias. Some of these men amazingly are officers!!

    Go to the website below and go down the page to the links. You will be amazed at what they did for the founding of this country and where they served. I could easily see the same happening for the War of 1812 and the Civil War.

    http://southerncampaign.org/cgi-bin/search.cgi?zoom_sort=0&zoom_xml=0&zoom_query=Free+Man+of+Color&zoom_per_page=10&zoom_and=0&zoom_cat=-1

  • Craig says:

    Jim, thanks so much for introducing us to this site!

  • John Mosko III says:

    It’s tragic that history must be rewritten by those that use the internet as a main research tool.

    Why let fact stand in the way of a good story?

  • dave c says:

    men of all backgrounds gathered together to repel the invader.


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