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.”
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.”
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;
March 10, 2010 Wednesday at 5:43 pm