A PLACE FOR THE CONFEDERACY?
MICHAEL FRAZIER, Ph.D. and REX ELLIS, Ed.D.
For many, including these writers, the Confederacy is one of the most important markers of the black experience in the United States. The exclusion of African Americans as equal citizens in every aspect of American life, especially during the antebellum period of the 19th century, directly relates to the origins and activities surrounding the evolution of the Confederate States of America. The purpose of this essay is to discuss (1) the rationale for the Confederacy as articulated in its Constitution, (2) The Nature of the Black Confederates, and (3) the work of Paul Lawrence Dunbar an important social critic and literary artist of the period. In the essay terms, African America, black, Negro, and colored are used interchangeably and are referencing people of the Negro race and considered as decedents of Africa who were enslaved in the United States.
Following the Civil War and subsequent emancipation and freedom for enslaved black Americans, the model of southern identity espoused by the Confederate’s example, continued to push true freedom away from the grasp of African Americans. When one thinks of the white supremacy mentality that led to the Confederacy, it is difficult to think of it in terms other than its mission to preserve as much as possible, ancient southern life and culture through the continued oppression and subjugation of African Americans. Alexander Hamilton Stephens, Vice President of the Confederacy argued in 1881:
The founding fathers at Philadelphia in 1787, had erred in establishing the United States on the assumption of the equality of the races. The South’s new government is founded upon exactly the opposite ideas; its foundations are laid, its cornerstone rests upon the great truth that the Negro is not equal to the white man; subordination to the superior race is his natural and moral condition.”1
The supporters of the Confederate Constitution of 1861 as well as the ideology of white supremacy in America, has led to the formation of political movements and organizations such as the Ku Klux Klan, the White Citizens Councils formed after the Supreme Court’s Brown vs. Board of Education decision in 1954, as well as the rise of legal segregation, Jim Crow, lynching, disenfranchisement, and poll taxes. All of these mechanisms were designed to support the Confederacy’s idea of African American subordination and white supremacy. The Confederacy collapsed with the end of the Civil War in 1865 but its philosophy set a precedent that gave rise to a mentality of oppression that continues to exist today.
The nature of black life during the years of the Confederacy is best illustrated in the 1859 ordinances of its first capital, Richmond, Virginia. These ordinances were legal restrictions and modes of discrimination to control the behavior of blacks, free and enslaved. Sever punishments were imposed for violation of these ordinances and the word “Negro” was constructed to mean mulatto as well as Negro. For example, slaves absence from home without a pass may be punished by stripes; other offense which could lead to similar punishment or fines include:
1. riding in hack or carriage;
2. carrying canes at night; and
3. are not permitted to have slaves to remain on their lots, and if any Negro shall organize, or attempt to organize, or form any secret society, for any purpose whatsoever, or shall attend or be present at any such society, he shall be punished by stripes, not to exceeding thirty- nine at any one time.2
These examples of the legal ordinances enacted by the Confederacy to manage Black people demonstrate that they wanted to erect the first complete slave society in North America.
In order to achieve a total slave society, the Confederacy would have had to recruit and arm slaves and free Negroes to fight against the Union forces. For Confederate leaders like Jefferson Davis as well as military officers, arming slaves and free Negroes was extremely controversial and considered dangerous. Just thirty days before the Confederate surrender at Appomattox, the Confederate Congress handed down legislation that allowed black troops to fight for their cause. The paradox of black men fighting on the side defending the institution of slavery and fighting alongside white soldiers, whose sole purpose was denying them their freedom, to this day, raises many questions relating to black motivation for putting themselves in such a position. Was it slavery that they were fighting to support? Did they believe in separation of the races and felt the only way to fight for it was alongside their white oppressors? Were they persuaded through promises of freedom or some type of reward once the battle was won? Were they being faithful to their masters? What separated them, for instance, from the eighteen thousand blacks who joined the Union standard of General William T. Sherman as he marched from Atlanta to Savannah? Alexander Stevens, vice president of the Confederacy, was very clear about the objectives of the Confederate cause: “Our new government’s foundations are laid; it’s cornerstone rests upon the great truth that the Negro is not equal to the white man; that slavery—subordination to the superior race—is his natural and normal condition.”3 Nevertheless, the evidence is clear. There were African American Confederates who fought alongside their masters and other white Confederates. The majority of slaves and free Negroes were assigned as servants, laborers, cooks, teamsters, musicians, and nurses. Many of these assignments were not voluntary but forced into the service of the Confederacy by their masters or Confederate forces.4 Apologists often boast of the loyalty of the slaves and their faithfulness to their masters. For instance, Thomas Nelson Page, Irvin Russell, and Joel Chandler Harris wrote in black dialect verses that were an apology for slavery. These works pictured the black man as docile and happy in servitude. Most white dialect writers presented the image of black people as objects of ridicule and served to document social notions about inferior and superior races.5
Regardless of what spurred their displays of loyalty, slaves may have had for their masters, it was also clear that the vast majority desired to be free. For slaves and free Negroes alike, the Civil War (1861-1865) was a fulfillment of the Old Testament prophecy of the Israelites that were being held in bondage by Pharaoh. For white Confederates, meanwhile, the Civil War was fought to preserve chattel slavery and Negro subordination in the name of a constitution whose central government and territories were required to recognize and protect slavery. As a consequence, the rationale for black Confederates participation in the Civil War is open to numerous interpretations, the above, included. Further, it is clear that slaves and free blacks in the Confederacy had no input into the political decisions that shaped their behavior and aspirations during the antebellum and Civil War period because they had no legal rights, economic influence, or political power. Further, there was no commitment from Confederate authorities that blacks fighting against the Union army would be given their freedom after the war.
SOCIAL CRITIC AND WRITER: PAUL LAURENCE DUNBAR
The slaves and the free Negroes in the Confederacy expressed their hopes, dreams and fears in the oral tradition because the written word was illegal for so many years. Music, oratory, informal education and religion became the channels through which African American leaders and their followers in various communities rebelled, debated and sermonized on every aspect of their lives. The poetry of Paul Lawrence Dunbar (1872-1906) represents an excellent example of this oral tradition. Born in Dayton, Ohio, to former slaves Dunbar got his rich background of Southern life from his mother, Matilda, and it would figure prominently in his works. A gifted poet, Dunbar wrote at a time when the country was but thirty years from the Civil War, a time in which many were looking back with much regret to that period. Not only was there general emphasis on the sentiment in American literature when Dunbar began his work, but there was also special emphasis on what were supposed to be the good times in the South before the war.6
Dunbar avoided direct attacks on American racism in his writing and from his knowledge of many dialects he was able to produce poems that could be read with ease and pleasure by northern whites. Though he wrote most of his poems in standard English, using conventional symbols, rhythms, and rhyming patterns, the popularity of his dialect poetry overwhelmed the appreciation of his skill with mainstream language and forms. Dunbar would become the first African American poet and writer to be able to earn a living with his writings. Presented below are three poems which illustrate the hopes, dreams, and fears of slaves and colored soldiers and offered a blunt critique of the Confederacy. The pieces speak to the power of the spoken word, the humanity of the speakers and their simple but palpable understanding of their perceived place in America.
Battery A, 2d U.s. Colored Light Artillery, Department of the Cumberland, Published in Free at Last, p. 429; Freedom solders, p.63.
An Ante-Bellum Sermon7 Paul Laurence Dunbar
We is gathahed hyeah, my brothahs, In dis howlin’ wildaness,
Fu’ to speak some words of comfo’t to each othah in distress.
An’ we chooses fu’ ouah subjic’ Dis—we’ll ‘splain it by an’ by; “An’ de Lawd said, ‘Moses, Moses,’ An’ de man said, ‘Hyeah am I.’
Now old Pher’oh, down in Egypt,
Was de wuss man evah bo’n,
An’ he had de Hebrew chillun
Down dah wukin’ in his co’n8
“Twell de Lawn got tiahed o’ his foolin’, An’ sez he: “I’ll let him know—
Look hyeah, Moses, go tell Pher’oh Fu’ to let dem chillun go.”
An’ ef he refuse to do it,
I will make him rue do houah,9
Fu’ I’ll empty down on Egypt All de vials of my powah.” Yes, he did–an’ Pher’oh’s ahmy Wasn’t wuth a ha’f a dime;
Fu’ de Lawd will he’p his chillun, You kin trust him evah time.
An’ yo’ enemies may ‘sail you
In do back an’ in de front;
But de Lawd is all aroun’ you,
Fu’to ba’ de battle’s grunt.
Dey kin fo’ge yo’ chains an’ shackles Fom do mountians to de sea;
But de Lawd will sen’ some Moses Fu’ to set his chillun free.
An’ de lan’ shall hyeah his thundah, Lak a blas’ f’om Gab’el’s10 ho’n, Fu’ do Lawd of hosts is mighty When he girds11 his ahmor on.
But fu’ feah some one mistakes me, I will pause right hyeah to say,
Dat I’m still a-preachin’ ancient,
I ain’t talkin’ ‘bout to-day.
But I tell you, fellah christuns, Things’ll happen mighty strange; Now, de Lawd done dis fu’ Isrul, An’ his ways don’t nevah change, An’ de love he showed to Isrul Wasn’t all on Isrul spent;
Painting by Rick Reeves, pg. 18 Black soldiers, published by Eastern National Park and Monument Association,
Now don’t run an’ tell yo’ mastahs Dat I’s preachin’ discontent.
‘Cause I isn’t; I’se a-judgin’
Bible people by deir ac’s;
I’se a-givin’ you de Scriptuah,
I’se a-handin’ you de fac’s.
Cose old Pher’oh b’lieved in slav’ry, But de Lawd he let him see,
Dat de people he put bref in,—
Evah mothah’s son was free.
An’ dahs othahs thinks lak Pher’oh, But dey calls de Scriptuah liar,
Fu’ de Bible says “a servant
Is a-worthy of his hire.”
An’ you cain’t git roun’ nor thoo dat, An’ you cain’t git ovah it,
Fu’ whatevah place you git in,
Dis hyeah Bible too’ll fit.
So you see do Lawd’s intention, Evah sence de worl’ began, Was dat His almighty freedom Should belong to evah man, But I think it would be bettah, Ef I’d pause agin to say,
Dat I’m talkin’ ‘bout ouah freedom In a Bibleistic way.
But de Moses is a-comin’,
An’ he’s comin’, suah and fas’
We kin hyeah his feet a–trompin’, We kin hyeah his trumpit blas’. But I want to wa’n you people, Don’t you git to Brigity;12
An’ don’t you git to braggin’
‘Bout dese things, you wait an’ see.
But when Moses wif his powah Comes an’ sets us chillun free,
We will praise de gracious Mastah13 Dat has gin us liberty;
An’ we’ll shout ouah halleluyahs, On dat mighty reck’nin’ day,
When we’se reco’nised ez citiz14 Huh uh! Chillun, let us pray!
Painting by Rick Reeves, pg. 18 Black soldiers, published by Eastern National Park and Monument Association,
COMPANY E, 4th UNITED STATES COLORED INFANTRY. Over 186,00 blacks fought under the Union Flag during the Civil war. Company E was one of the detachments assigned to guard the nation’s capital. (Library of Congress)
Aunt Janes’s Prayer
Paul Lawrence Dunbar15
Der Maussuh Jesus, we all uns beg Ooner (you) come make us a call dis yere day. We is nuttin’ but poor Etiopian women and people ain’t t’ink much ‘bout we.
We ain’t trust ask any of dem great high people for come to we church, but do’ you is de one great Maussuh, great too much dan Maussuh Linkum, you ain’t shame to care for we African people.
Come to we, dear Maussuh Jesus. De sun, he hot too much, de road am dat long and boggy (sandy) and we ain’t got no buggy, for send and fetch Ooner. But Maussuh, yo’ ‘member how yo’ walked dat hard walk up Calvary and ain’t weary but tink bout we all dat way. We know you ain’t weary for to come to we. We pick out de torns, de prickles, de brier, de backliding’ and de quarrel and de sin out of yo’ path so dey shan’t hur Ooner pierce feet no mo’.
Come to we, dear Maussuh Jesus. We all luns ain’t got no good cool water for give yo’ when yo’ t’irsty. You know, Maussuh, de drought so long, and
de well so low, ain’t nuttin’ but mud to drink. But we gine to take de ‘munion cup and fill it wid de tear ob repentance and love clean out ob we heart.
Dat all we hab to gib yo’, good Maussuh.
An’ Maussuh Jesus, you say you gwine stand to de door and knock. But
you ain’t gwine stand at we door, Maussuh, and knock. We sets do door plum open for yo’ and watch up de road for see you.
Sisters (turning to the other women in the church), what for you’all ain’t open de door so Maussuh know He welcome? (One woman rose quietly from her knees and set the church door wide.)
Come Maussuh Jesus come! We know you is near, we heart is all just tremble, tremble, we so glad for hab yo’ here. And Maussuh, we church ain’t good ‘nuff for yo’ to sit down in, but
stop by de door jes’ one minute, dear Maussuh Jesus, and whisper
one word to we heart—one good word—we do listen——Maussuh
The Colored Soldiers
Paul Lawrence Dunbar16
If the muse were mine to tempt it
And my feeble voice were strong If my tongue were trained to measure I would sing a stirring song
I would sing a song heroic
Of those noble sons of Ham17
Of the gallant colored soldiers Ho fought for Uncle Sam!
In the early days you scorned them And with many a flip and flout Said “These battles are the white man’s And the whites will fight them out.” Up the hills you fought and faltered’ In the vales you strove and bled. While your ears still heard the thunder Of the foes’ advancing tread.
The distress fell on the nation, And the flag was drooping low; Should the dust polute the banner? No! the nation shouted, No!
So when War, in savage triumph, Spread abroad his funeral pall – Then you called the colored soldiers, And they answered to your call.
And like hounds unleashed and eager For the life blood o
Ah, the rallied f the prey,
Spung they forth and bore them bravely In the thickest f the fray.
And where’er the fight was hottest, Where bullets faster fell,
There they pressed unblanched and fearless At the very mouth of hell.
Ah, they rallied to the standard To uphold it by their might: None were stronger in the labors, None Were braver in the fight.
Although Dunbar was not a Southerner by birth, poems are a reflection of slave life in the Civil War era. The first two, “An Ante-Bellum Sermon” and “Aunt Jane’s Prayer” are written in the black dialect of the period, a form of what would be called “Ebonics” today. These are civilian poems and implicitly talk about the Confederacy in biblical terms. The poems are religious in nature with the slaves mostly praying to God to deliver them from “Pharaoh.” The slaves obviously believed that God answers prayers because he had delivered the Israelites from bondage and he would do the same for them.
Both the sermon and the prayer reflect the oral tradition of transmitting values to black communities because the slaves were a bookless people. The dialect used in the poems is a reflection of how the slaves spoke during the ante-bellum period and therefore there is no shame for people denied opportunities to get an education. The Richmond and other Black Codes made sure that slaves would not become enlightened. Stated differently, there was a respect for the dialect used by the slaves. Dunbar’s poems reflect an understanding of the plantation and rural life and compassion for the people and their predicament as they tried to rear their families in an oppressive environment.
In contrast to the first two poems, the “Colored Solider,” reflect a transition from dialect to standard English in the discourse. When the former slave or freeman put on the military uniform of the United States, they became defacto citizens. The uniform meant these men were no longer slaves because it represented freedom and they now belong to a greater effort. In the words of the poem “…the colored soldiers answered your call…And like hounds unleashed and eager for the life blood of the prey.”
Clearly, the poems represent two distinctly different but interrelated communities: civilian and military. Both communities recognized that the common obstacle preventing them from being free was the Confederacy. The military poem represents the transition in language from the civilian dialect of the black community, which was common to all blacks in the Confederacy. After all, the orders of the white officers commanding color troops were not given in dialect but in Standard English.
When Dunbar wrote these poems, he was honoring the entire black community. Unfortunately, he was never applauded for his use of Standard English. Rather, the dialect poems allowed him to earn a living as the first African American to write in that form. It is important to point out that Dunbar’s poems were written at a time when a black person was being lynched every other day. The year 1892, was the high point in such atrocities with a black person murdered by lynching every 48 hours in the name of Confederate ideology.
The last decade of the 19th Century was a period of accommodation, apology and a desire to prove to whites that the black man was “somebody.” Booker T. Washington the founder of Tuskgee Institute (now Tuskgee University) grew up in this climate and so did Dunbar. Washington advised blacks to learn those occupational and social skills which would make them acceptable to white society. Diligence and acceptance of white guidance were prerequisites to this end. Washington’s approach was an effort to achieve social peace in an attempt to change the objective situation of the Negro in the North and the South. He believed that black progress economically would eventually lead to the death of racism. He was wrong.
In conclusion, there is no honorable place for a dishonorable Confederacy. Its leaders and supporters tried to destroy the United States based upon an ideology premised on protecting slavery from legislative enactment to end it. However, if slavery had not existed to begin with, there would have been no need to resort to arms to abolish the evil institution.20 Dunbar’s poems are written in both dialect and Standard English and served as answers and retorts to the mentality of the Confederacy, a mentality that helped to define the struggle for equality that African Americans continue to mount. An understanding of the history of the Confederacy therefore, is central to an understanding of the journey of African Americans in the United States and the world. Whereas the American flag represents hope for the future for us and most others, the Confederate flag simply serve as a reminder of evil and treachery and, ultimately, the deaths of over 620,000 Americans.
Michael Frazier, Ph.D. is Associate Professor of Political Science at Howard University.
Rex M. Ellis, Ed.D is Vice President of the Historic Area at the Colonial Williamsburg Foundation.
1. Benjamin Quarles, The Negro in the Civil War. New York: Da Capo Press, Inc., 1989.
2. Maurice Duke and Daniel P. Jordan, A Richmond Reader 17331983, (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina
Press, 1983), pp. 108-112.
3. James W. Loewen, Lies My Teacher Told Me: Everything Your History Textbook Got Wrong, (NY: Touchstone,
1995), p. 190.
4. Philip Thomas Tucker, From Auction Block to Glory (New York: Michael Friedman Publishing Group, 1998) pp
5. Grossie Harold Tucker, “A Biography of Paul Laurence Dunbar” (Ph.D. Dissertation, Ohio State University,
1970), p. 200.
6. Ibid., p. 199.
7. Before the Civil War.
8. Henry Louis Gates, Jr. and Nellie Y. McKay, Eds. The Norton Anthology of African American Literature (New
York: W.W. Norton and Company, 1997) pp. 891-893.
11. In the Bible, Gabriel is the archangel of good news.
12. Prepare for the battle.
13. Biggety, self-important
14. Jesus Christ
16. Margaret Washington Creel, A Peculiar People: Slavery, Religion and Community – Culture Among the Gullahs
(New York: New York University Press, 1988) pp. 342-343.
17. Gates and McKay, The Norton Anthology of African Literature, p. 889.
18. In the Old Testament, the second of Noah’s three sons, traditionally labeled the father of the black race.
19. Margaret Washington Creel, A Peculiar People: Slavery, Religion and Community – Culture Among the Gullahs
(New York: New York University Press, 1988) pp. 342-343.
20. Benjamin Quarles, The Negro in the Civil War, pp. xii-xiii.