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INTERVIEW The Black and the Gray An Interview with Tony Horwitz Editors' note: Tony Horwit^ is a Virginia-based reporterforThe. Wall StreetJournal andthe author, most recently, «^Confederates in the Attic: Dispatches From the Unfinished Civil War, to bepublished by Pantheon in March of1998. While researching his book, whichfocuses on contemporary remembrance ofthe Civil War, he became interested in the topic ofAfricanAmericans who servedthe Confederacy, and wrote an article about it in The Wall StreetJournal. Southern Cultures "interviewed" Horwit% (by e-mail) on this contentious subject. southern cultures: So, how didyougetinterestedin this business ofblack Confederates? tony horwitz: I kept hearing about them wherever I went while researching my book. "Black Confederates" has become something ofa mantra in certain southern circles. At Sons of Confederate Veterans meetings, there would be talk of erecting a monument to black Confederates. During the debate over [black tennis player] Arthur Ashe's statue on Monument Avenue [in Richmond], southern heritage groups proposed honoring black Confederates instead. And every time the rebel flag came up, someone was sure to say, "Well, what about black Confederates ? Why don't we hear more about them?" After a while I became curious to know whether there was any substance to this, and why it had become such a fad. sc: Well, is there any substance to it? th: Pardy it depends how you define "black Confederate." There's no question that thousands of blacks filled support roles for the southern armies, as musicians , cooks, body servants, teamsters, and other laborers. During the last desperate days ofthe war, the Confederate Congress also approved the enlistment of blacks as soldiers. A few companies drilled in Virginia, although there's no solid evidence that they saw action in the field. But the debate really centers on whether blacks enlisted as combat soldiers before then, and if so, in what numbers, and why? A few academics (and scores of nonacademics) believe that 30,000 or more blacks served in the southern ranks, actually shooting at people. But leading Civil War historians—people like James McPherson at Princeton and Edwin Bearss with the National Park Service—put the number at a few dozen or a few hundred at most. So the two sides aren't even on the same planet, which is part ofwhy this debate is so intriguing. sc: That's quite a range ofestimates. How can there be such a difference ofopinion? th: We know about black Union soldiers because the documentation is clear: previous page: Surgeons, Lynchburg PIospital: (standing) Dr. Kidder Taylor, Ben Harris— body servant; (seated) Dr. Wilson Randolph, Dr. John Randolph Page. The Museum ofthe Confederacy, Richmond, Virginia. Copied by Katherine Wetzel. 6 TONY HORWITZ they served in all-black regiments, and we have photographs of black units, as well as specific information on lheve's nothing specific units in specific battles. But with black Confeder- , , ates, we have only anecdotal and often sketchy accounts-* describing what appeared to be blacks acting as soldiers, men WeVe actually If you're prepared to accept these accounts at face» /., value—particularly if you believe that there has been} some sort ofcover-up ofthe true historical record—then than loboreVS OT you can arrive at almost any number.IJ For example, the most commonly cited anecdote, from-J which many of the claims about black soldiers derive, ........................ comes from the diary of Dr. Lewis Steiner, a member of the U.S. Sanitary Commission who watched a rebel army he estimated at 64,000 march through Frederick, Maryland, en route to Sharpsburg . "Over 3,000 Negros must be included in that number," he wrote. "They had arms, rifles, muskets, sabers, bowie-knives, dirks, etc. They were supplied, in many instances, with knapsacks, haversacks, canteens, etc., and they were manifesdy an integral portion ofthe Southern Confederacy Army." If you accept Steiner's figures, almost five percent of the southern army was black, so given about 750,000 southern soldiers in total, you come up with a figure close to 30,000. But if you look closely at this and other, similar anecdotes, there's nothing that proves these men were actually soldiers, rather than laborers or body servants carrying their masters' weapons and gear. Joe...

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Additional Information

ISSN
1534-1488
Print ISSN
1068-8218
Pages
pp. 5-15
Launched on MUSE
2012-01-04
Open Access
No
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