Sign up for our free newsletter
Free D.C. news, delivered to your inbox daily.
George Hardy was not one to get alarmed during battle. A rugged soldier with piercing green eyes, he had a reputation as a cool, calm leader. He didn’t need to raise his whispering rasp to make a point with his men.
Here in the tangled, Godforsaken woods in Pennsylvania, though, Hardy was taken aback. This wasn’t a battle re-enactment, not even one of those living-history events where tourists point cameras and pepper questions. It was a picket post, a military maneuver conducted out in the middle of nowhere. No spectators or interlopers, just some hard-core re-enactors trying to imitate what much of the Civil War resembled: a cat-and-mouse match of guerrilla tactics amid the general confusion of the larger battles.
It was agreed that the Federals would establish a point on a high bluff overlooking a creek. As the two groups met before heading to their respective posts, Hardy was struck by the appearance of the day’s opponents. It was the rawest, raggediest band of Rebels he’d ever seen. In his day, he’d encountered plenty of Confederate re-enactors, who far outnumber their Northern counterparts. It’s always been more chic to play the Rebs. As one of the first blacks in a field long dominated by whites, he had seen his share of pot-bellied yahoos, more keen on shooting off their guns and mouths than trying to re-create history.
But these Rebs were something altogether different: thin and tattered and wild-eyed. They were driven by something deeper than plain old hate. Not just mean and lean, but filthy and proud of it, as if they stepped right out of a Matthew Brady tintype.
By comparison, Hardy’s Feds, in their spiffy regulation blues, resembled a troop of oversized Boy Scouts on an ill-fated camping trip. It was just their rotten luck that they were the first to wade in. To avoid mussing up their duds, they ceremoniously removed their boots and wool socks. Only then did they begin to venture across, only to find that the creek bedlined by jagged stones and debrismade for some rough going. “We were fording the creek very gingerly because the rocks were sharp,” Hardy recalls. “And we were slipping and really taking our time.”
Both sides needed to cross the river to begin the picket post, but they did so in remarkably different fashions. While the Feds pussyfooted across, the Confederatessome of whom wore no shoes whatsoeverplunged into the task with masochistic relish. “They walked right through the creek just like they were walking on plush carpet,” says Hardy. “I’m standing there amazed, thinking, ‘Here we are a bunch of city boys and Northern guys who aren’t used to the harshness of life, and these guys were not only used to it but not even paying any attention to it.’ They never flinched, and I thought that was so authentic, because that is what you would have expected to see in those days.”
Later that afternoon, Hardy and his men probed the woods for signs of the enemy. They captured two stray Rebs and marched them back to the post. Up close, the Confederates impressed Hardy even more. Stoic and proud even as prisoners, they remained stubbornly in character. “The first-person exchanges we had were incredible,” he says. “Their dialogue, their whole daring, their sort of defiant attitude of the Southern soldier, their physical toughnessall of that came out. I thought it was greatthat sort of authenticity was really what I had been looking for.”
It wasn’t long before Hardy crossed a river himself, deciding to go over to the other side and join the unit he so admired, known as the Southern Guard. It was a band of fanatical re-enactors who’d split from regiments they deemed “farbs,” re-enactor lingo for inauthentic wannabes. He was welcomed into the fold, the matter of his race secondary to his passion for historical accuracy. After all, he’d been sewing his own uniforms for years, mail-order sutlers be damned: What else did they need to know?
Likewise, Hardy kept an open mind. “From a black perspective, I probably had some preconceived notions about the majority of Confederate re-enactors, and that’s understandable,” says Hardy of his days playing a Fed. “The reception wasn’t always sweet when we hit the field. We were on the bad end of some racial slurs, some real bad situations on a number of occasions, but we made it a point to always take the high ground and never throw it back.”
In truth, Hardy’s race didn’t jeopardize the Southern Guards’ quest for ultra-authenticity, it advanced it. It was a little-known fact that blacksboth slaves and freedmenserved as soldiers for the Confederate army. For the Southern Guard, obsessed sticklers known to soak buttons in urine for a more realistic look, Hardy was a godsend as well as a new “pard,” as re-enactors call each other, an anomaly who managed to mirror one of the countless ironies of the conflict. “It was a very warm reception, like I had known them for years,” he says. “They told me, ‘This is something that needs to be portrayed,’ so I put together a Confederate impression and started going out with them.”
That was five years ago, and Hardy remains one of the most respected, dedicated re-enactors around, whether he is with the Southern Guard or, ever more infrequently, a Northern regiment. Depending on the event, he has done “impressions,” or first-person portrayals, of every sort of historical role that blacks served in the Confederacy, from mule driver to cook to camp musician, and yes, soldier.
For Hardy, his enlistment in the Southern Guard was less a defection to the Rebels than simply a deeper immersion into his chosen obsession. For sure, he was a late bloomer. Growing up in Tidewater Virginia in the early ’60s, he was as far from being a Civil War buff as is possible, not from indifference but simply because of the times. Amid the feast of stories about Southern valor, there wasn’t a scrap for a black student concerning his own people. “Fourth-grade history in Virginia is Virginia history,” he says. “And for a great portion of that you hear about the Civil War, and you hear about Lee and Jackson and Jeb Stuart, and I grew up just thinking that blacks didn’t participate in the war at all. I had never been told differently. I just thought all blacks were slaves during that period.”
His college years, including a stint at Howard University, did little to change that perception. After graduation, Hardy settled in suburban Maryland, where he lives with his wife and two children today. An electrical engineer for a high-tech firm, he would often pop out to a mall during his lunch break. About a decade ago, he was in a bookstore when he chanced upon a photo of a black Union sergeant in a Civil War history book; he bought it and immersed himself in a world he realized held an important place for black Americans after all.
A month later, Hardy was another fresh recruit training with the troops who would appear in Glory, the Hollywood saga about black Union soldiers martyred during the assault on Fort Wagner. Though he didn’t appear in the movie, Hardy got his start with the Washington-area men who continued to portray Company B of the Massachusetts 54th Regiment after the film finished its popular run. But Hardy got bored with the limited roles available. There were only so many parades he could stand, so he began to participate with other groups as well, including the 1st Pennsylvania Reserves, until he found the Southern Guard.
“I always thought it was really neat whenever you saw somebody who looked really, really authentic, like all the pictures you’d see in books,” he says. “I set as a goal for myself to do that. Part of why we re-enact is so that, as much as possible, we can re-create some of the things that they did in the war and how they lived. And one of the first things you work on is your outward appearance. Then you get to a point where you’re really refined, and you want to take on the mannerisms, and that requires a lot of study. The guys in the Southern Guard were able to have a vision and were able to follow through on it.”
Hardy is one of a growing number of blacks re-enacting with Confederate units. For a lot of people, both black and white, this is akin to suiting up for the wrong side in the big game. But, as Hardy has come to discover through the years, he’s under fire whether he’s in Union blue or Confederate gray. In the re-enactors’ never-ending Civil War, a black can never be an invisible man.
“Arouse you rebel sons of liberty, and answer John Hunt Morgan’s clarion call!” blares an ad from the Camp Chase Gazette, a national monthly newsletter for re-enactors. “And for African-Americans who’d like to re-enact, did you know that John Hunt Morgan recruited loyal Black Mississippi Confederates to join his Raiders? Enlist now with the 2nd Kentucky Cavalry, and help bring to life this little known and for too long hidden page of history! We also seek a capable bugle player. If you’d like to join one of the most feared and colorful units in the Confederacy then contact ‘Capt. Champ Ferguson’ for more information…”
Across the land, the South is rising again, but this time with a twist of color. Scads of Confederate units are seeking black volunteers, and a surprising number have heeded the call. It is an unprecedented muster to arms that didn’t happen in real lifeofficially, at leastuntil a month before war’s end.
“Men of Honor! Men of Color!” beckons another Camp Chase classified. “Join the ranks of Terrell’s Texas Cavalry (Reorganized), in the fight for historical accuracy and recognition of the participation and contribution of Confederates of Color in the War for Southern Independence!” Billing itself as the first multiracial Confederate re-enactment unit, the 34th Texas Regiment is an attempt to replicate Terrell’s Cavalry, a renowned band of rough riders that boasted blacks, Hispanics, and Indians in its ranks. The renegade regiment is led by Mississippian Michael Kelley, a self-described “seventh-generation Virginian of Irish/French/Seminole ancestry” who signs his e-mail dispatches “Your Obedient Servant.” Kelley and his men revel in their stubborn Southern patriotismeven if most of them hail from the North.
Curtis Price enlisted in the 34th after being rejected by several Union troops in New Jersey. After reading Michael Shaara’s The Killer Angels, the classic novel about the battle of Gettysburg, he’d caught the Civil War bug and wanted to get into reenacting. But he found himself in the odd predicament of being discriminated against for historical reasons. “They told me they were not recruiting people of color,” says Price, an academic counselor. “So when I found out about the 34th Texas, I contacted them, and they welcomed me with open arms. Captain Kelley is a great commanding officer, and we feel like a family, not just a bunch of guys. I’m very happy to be associated with these gentlemen.”
For Price and his fellow nonwhite soldiers in the 34th, it’s an opportunity simply too good to pass up. For $25 in annual membership dues, they get a chance to don the gray wool uniform of rebellion. After all, U.S. Colored Troop regiments are a dime a dozen in the re-enacting world, but these so-called Confederates of color still stand out in the crowd, and that can make a man feel special.
“I consider myself a born-again Rebel,” says Trooper Bob Harrison, a black librarian from York, Pa., who joined the 34th Texas nearly a year ago. “I can’t stress how proud I am of this heritage I knew so little about. Until the day I go to my grave, I will make sure that their story gets told.”
Recently, Harrison and some other black members of the 34th Texas waved their freak flag high in a living history event near Colonial Williamsburg. They set up an encampment in Carter’s Grove, a restored plantation along the James River. For the program, called “Brothers in Arms,” participants also included members of the 54th Massachusetts, as well as re-enactors from other American wars in which blacks have fought and died.
Anthony Searles, an orthopedics assistant from Philadelphia, made the trip south to portray Sgt. James Robertson, a composite character based on a black slaveholder in whose best interest it was to fight for the Confederates. Dressed in gray, he told onlookers his story, affecting his best Southern drawl to explain himself to skeptics who couldn’t believe that a black would fight for the Rebels. “One guy from New York asked me, ‘Why would you do like that?’ and I said, ‘Well, suh, it’s strictly business. I own 1,200 acres of land and 44 slaves’…and he said, ‘Well, I guess you’ve got a point there.’”
According to Searles, the most receptive spectators were elderly, longtime locals who were no strangers to this little-known history. “The people who play the role of slaves at Carter’s Grove and live in the area, they came up and said, ‘We can remember our granddaddy telling us about that but nobody believed them.’ Some blacks from the North who were visiting, they were in awe, asking how they could find out more. But the blacks from the South weren’t surprised at allthey heard about this stuff growing up.”
Despite the overall success of the event, Searles says there was negative reaction from the nearby encampment of the 54th Massachusetts; several onlookers denounced the mission of the 34th Texas. Searles simply forged on, he says, because unbelievers need some strong medicine: “Even though it may be unpleasant for some people and unpleasant for myself at times, I still think we have to portray history properly.”
Searles isn’t only a black Rebel, though. He also re-enacts as a Union soldier, and he will participate in Saturday’s dedication of the African-American Civil War Memorial in D.C.’s Shaw neighborhood. Honoring the 185,000 blacks who served with the Union, the memorial features the names of all officers and men of the 166 regiments of the U.S. Colored Troops. It is the first official recognition of blacks’ vital role in the Northern war effort; the famous monument in Boston is more a tribute to the regiment’s commander, Robert Gould Shaw, than to his men, who remain anonymous. And there is no acknowledgement that at least some of the men they faced in battle were black as well.
Historian Brian Pohanka and others say the new monument is long overdue, and they denounce the black Confederate movement as a harmful distraction. “I think that one unfortunate aspect of this is a neglect of the considerable contribution in blood by black Union soldiers who were fighting for their freedom, literally,” says Pohanka, an Alexandria historian and organizer of the 54th Massachusetts company that appeared in Glory. “In the last year of the war, something like one out of every 10 Union soldiers was black, and that contribution still has not gotten its due.”
The memorial in Shaw is a start of that official recognition, says Pohanka, but more needs to be done besides a monument and a movie or two. According to him, the black Confederate movement represents the sort of skewed history that distorts anything related to the topic, thus making the story of the black Yankee soldiers all the more hazy in the public eye.
But the black Rebs aren’t giving up. Unlike the reserved, apolitical Hardy, the new breed doesn’t shun controversy. They are hellbent on demonstrating that Ken Burns left out some crucial information in his 1990 Civil War documentary, which made no mention of the fact that some of the Grays were black. There are all sorts of black Confederate re-enactors hitting the circuit, not just those wanting to shoot guns and raise hell. “It’s still fairly rare, but it’s more common now than it was a few years ago,” says Tony Horwitz, author of the recent Confederates in the Attic, a rigorous, lively account of contemporary torch-bearers of the Lost Cause. “I was just at the Battle of Vicksburg in May, and I saw not only a black Rebel soldier but also a black mammy.”
The new black Confederates aren’t just Buppies out for weekend kicks; they span the generations, from kids to grandpas. Down in rural Dinwiddie County, Va., an 11-year-old has already become a veteran Rebel drummer boy. He is scheduled to appear with his cohorts in the upcoming Angel of Marye’s Heights, which begins filming in Virginia this fall; it’s being touted as a Glory for black Confederates, the first movie to accurately depict a racially mixed Southern army. In Florida, the elderly Nelson Winbush, whose great-grandfather served as a body servant under legendary Rebel Gen. Nathan Bedford Forrest, is a member of the Sons of Confederate Veterans and gives lectures about his Yankee-fighting forebear.
Black intellectuals see the phenomenon as less a reclaiming of lost history than as a regrettable symptom of the times. For them, black Rebel re-enactors are mostly a handful of poseurs trying to ruffle feathers for the hell of it. “Some of these guys are just saying, ‘Hey, I’m different from all the other brothers,’” says Asa Gordon, of the Douglass Institute of Government, a D.C.-based think tank. “They’re just being contrarythat’s their motivation. It just shows you that a little knowledge can be a dangerous thing.”
The legions of blacks in gray have stoked an old controversy that gets rekindled periodically through the years. It centers on the question of how many black Southerners actually took up arms for the Confederates. What has been quietly acknowledged for years as a mere handful, maybe a few hundred or so, has in recent years mushroomed into claims of tens of thousands of black soldiers who willingly fought the Yankees. Some historians declaim the attempt as myth, if not outright propaganda.
“It’s mostly moonshine,” says James McPherson, Princeton professor emeritus and author of the Pulitzer Prize-winning Civil War history Battle Cry of Freedom. “They’ve taken a core of true information and ballooned it all out of proportion.”
Others regard the trend as an inevitable backlash, a defensive maneuver after recent attacks on Confederate symbolsas well as such tributes to black Union soldiers as the new African-American Civil War Memorial. Their heritage under fire, these embattled Southerners feel as if they’re losing the war once again. “It seemed only to be after Glory came out that there was this upsurge in interest in putting blacks in gray,” says Bill Gwaltney, a black sergeant for Company B of the 54th Massachusetts. “And the perspective seemed to be political more so than historical. They are interested in deradicalizing and deracializing the Civil War, which is something I don’t think you can do.”
Capt. Kelley of the 34th Texas regards these denouncements as fighting words. Like Terrell’s Calvary, which ignored Lee’s surrender and raged on, he refuses to give in, no matter what the critics say. According to him, the “real” history has been suppressed to maintain a simplistic, lopsided view that neatly divides the war into a contest between Northern heroes and Southern villains: “By maintaining this false image of the Confederate Army as this sea of lily-white faces, the South can be demonized, and therefore it becomes very clear-cut,” he says. “That way, they can say…that Southerners were fighting for slavery and racism, and Yankees were fighting to free the slaves. Which is false.”
Only now, says Kelley, thanks to groups such as the 34th Texas, can the real story of the Confederacy finally be told. And not just in some obscure book, but out on the field for all to see: proud blacks in gray, not as fawning servants but as fighting men. It’s a hell of a story. Its truth will never be settled.
“How long have you been in Washington?”
“Since 1870, suh.”
“Where did you come from?”
I could see his chest swelling, and I knew the answer before it was spoken.
“From Ferginny, suh.”
“Were your people in the war?”
“Yes, suh,” with a smile of enthusiasm and a bow that bespoke reverence for the memories of the olden days.
“They tell me you people ‘fit’ some.”
I could almost see the lightning dart from his eyes as he straightened himself up.
“Fit? Why, dey outfit the world; never did whup us, suh. If dey hadn’t starved us out, we’d been fightin’ yit.”
a conversation between a Rebel vet
and a former slave and body servant,
in Washington, D.C., as rendered in
The Confederate Veteran magazine
In a stately brick house in the tree-lined Penn Branch neighborhood of southeastern Washington, 66-year-old Bobbie Chandler keeps a scrapbook that tells the story of his great-grandfather, Silas Chandler. Among the clippings and aged documents is a striking photo: It shows Silas and his master, Andrew Chandler, before the pair went off to the Civil War. Really more boys than men (Andrew 15, Silas barely 17), both share the stoic expression typical of the era’s formal portraits. More important, both wear Confederate uniforms and are armed to the teeth: Each holds a Bowie knife; Andrew has a revolver in his belt and a pistol in his hand; Silas has a pepperbox pistol tucked in his shell jacket and grips a double-barreled shotgun that rests upon both men’s knees.
On the surface, at least, the pair resemble brothers-in-armsexcept that one man happens to be the property of the other.
First published in a Mississippi newspaper in 1909, the photo has become one of the most popular images of the black Confederate movement. It graces the cover of a 1994 book, Black Southerners in Gray, a collection of anecdotes and essays that presents the case of black Southern combatants during the war. For people pushing the message that blacks fought on behalf of those who enslaved them, it provides another anecdotal bit of evidence. (After all, it’s not often one sees documentation of an armed black in gray, body servant or no.) For skeptics, it simply shows how the line between soldier and body servant can become easily blurred, if not manipulated for political purposes.
The relic, or, rather, the story that it symbolizes, has sundered the family of Bobbie Chandler even as it has reunited him with the family of his ancestor’s former master.
The facts of Silas and Andrew’s wartime saga are sparse. In 1861, Andrew Chandler left his family’s West Point, Miss., plantation to join the 44th Mississippi Volunteer Regiment in the Army of Tennessee. Like many Southerners who owned slaves, he brought along Silas as a body servant; they had been friends since infancy. Andrew was captured at the battle of Shiloh and later released in a prisoner exchange. Apparently, Silas spent much of his time shuttling between the family home and the army; it is not known whether he saw any action in battle.
As close as they may have been, the pair were by no means some sort of Confederate Don Quixote and Sancho Panza. They may have been boyhood buddies back on the plantation, but out in the field there was no question as to who was master: The daily routine of most body servants was nonstop manual labor of the most grueling and tedious sort, from washing clothes and preparing meals to hauling equipment and dancing a jig for entertainment.
Nevertheless, a few surviving letters from Andrew to his family reveal a concern for Silas that certainly sounds genuine. “If they do make a raid while Silas is at home, hurry him off to the army,” he wrote on Aug. 31, 1862. “If the Feds were to capture him, they might take him along with them.” “I greatly fear another raid,” he wrote in another letter. “Do not let them catch Silas. Be sure to write as soon as Silas gets home.” Then again, his worrying may have been spurred not only by a friend’s affection but by the fact that Silas was valuable property, worth several thousand dollars.
In September 1863, Andrew was severely wounded at the battle of Chickamauga. Army surgeons prepared to amputate his leg, but, according to family oral history, Silas refused to let the doctors perform the life-threatening operation. Instead, he used a piece of gold to buy whiskey, which he then used to bribe the surgeons for Andrew’s release. Then, he carried his ailing master on his back for miles before loading him on a boxcar to Atlanta and better medical care. Andrew survived as a cripple, and it became part of family lore that Silas had saved his life.
After the war, the two returned to West Point, where they raised families and remained close friends for the rest of their lives. Both received pensions, as was usually the case for body servants who served the South. His pension application states that Silas served with Andrew in the Mississippi Regular Infantry and the 9th Mississippi Cavalry.
But the story took nearly 50 years to be publicly noted in the local newspaper, in an article whose headline, “Master, Slave Fight Side By Side,” speaks volumes about the nature of such a relationship, however mutually respectful it may have been. For years after, it remained a taboo subject, at least in Bobbie Chandler’s household. The anecdotes he heard focused strictly on his great-grandfather’s postwar career: his successful carpentry business, how he built the family house and the town’s first black church, and how he once nearly cut off his foot chopping wood. “My dad talked about Silas, but not really pertaining to the Civil War,” recalls Bobbie, a short, soft-spoken man. “The family just didn’t talk about it.”
After all, this was the Jim Crow South, and any ballyhoo about black Rebs was a topic reserved for such choreographed public rituals as Confederate reunions: Trot out the faithful darkies for some photo ops. It certainly wasn’t the stuff of small talk and bragging and such, especially by blacks.
By 1951, Bobbie Chandler had moved to Washington, where he eventually started a printing company he still runs today with his twin brother, Jimmie. There wasn’t any more digging into the Civil War, especially in the era of the civil rights movement. But a 1992 Washington Times article recounted the story of Andrew and Silas, and it got Bobbie interested in his great-grandfather. What had long been a buried family secret struck him as something to be proud, not ashamed, of. Soon after, he presented the family saga at a meeting of the United Daughters of the Confederacy (UDC) in Alexandria. The group contacted its sister UDC chapter in Mississippi, which arranged for a war hero’s memorial service for Silas, the first time in Mississippi for a black to receive the Iron Cross, the most prestigious military award in the Confederate States of America.
The ceremony was held on a warm rainy day in 1994 at the West Point grave of Silas; it was attended by Bobbie Chandler and some relatives, including his brother Jimmie, along with members of the white Chandler clan. A local camp of the Sons of Confederate Veterans (SCV) organized and ran the service, held at a black cemeteryseveral miles from the Andrew Chandler family graveyard. A troop of local Rebel re-enactors dressed in gray fired a 21-gun salute and played “Taps.” Bobbie says he had no qualms saluting the Confederate battle flag, but when the local SCV asked him if he wanted to join, he politely declined. He didn’t need to belong to any more groups or clubs; he was already a 32nd-degree Prince Hall Freemason.
Silas’ story, though, remains an essential, and even cherished, part of Bobbie’s heritage. He has a copy of Silas’ pension application (co-signed by Andrew), but there’s no way to know for sure if his great-grandfather ever saw combat: Scores of body servants received full pensions. There is some conjecturebased on the testimony of a relative who interviewed Andrew in 1912that Silas was freed, or “got his papers,” before the war and enlisted along with Andrew as a volunteer.
“He insisted on going off to war with Andrew, partially because of their friendship, and partially because since Silas was a little older, he felt that he needed to protect Andrew,” wrote the relative in a typed note. “Andrew told me that even though Silas was considered a servant by the other men and blacks in the unit, he was very much an equal, displaying just as much hatred for the Yankees as anyone in the whole unit!”
Bobbie doesn’t spend a lot of time talking about the battlefield glories of his ancestorthere isn’t much to go onbut says that what’s important is the example of the pair’s abiding friendship, which long outlasted the war. Whenever he tells the story, as he has often at schools and other gatherings, Bobbie doesn’t harp on whether or not his great-grandpa Silas hated Yankees; certainly, growing up, Bobbie never heard of any animosity by Silas toward Northerners. He lectures on only what he knows is beyond doubt. “I put the emphasis on their friendship,” he says. “They didn’t care whether they were white or black or whateverthere was a true friendship there.”
Ever since the ceremony, Bobbie has maintained long-distance contact with Andrew’s great-grandson, a silver-haired Mississippian, Andrew Chandler Battaile.
Several relatives can’t abide Bobbie’s interest in the past. They’d rather not get involved with descendants of slaveholders, the family who once owned their ancestors. Most have lived in the North for years, and they refused to attend the ceremony down in Mississippi. They’ve expressed their distaste for Bobbie’s efforts to bring posthumous honor and recognition to their ancestor. “I have members of the family, and to this day they don’t believe that Silas actually fought in the Confederacy,” says Bobbie. “They say it’s not possible, and they won’t accept it.”
Every so often, American University Professor Edward Smith goes on a pilgrimage south. Accompanied by his history students, or by visitors to Washington, or anyone else he can drag along, he crosses the Potomac to Arlington National Cemetery. They bypass the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier and Kennedy’s grave and instead head for a little-known site on the far edge of the cemetery that few tourists ever see.
The cemetery’s largest monument, the Confederate Memorial towers over a small section of the cemetery reserved for the graves of Rebel soldiers. It is an allegorical work called “New South,” the bulk of which is a circular frieze of 32 life-size figures, featuring classical gods along with Rebel martyrs, meant to depict the Southern experience of the war. The soldiers march off to battleone hands his newborn babe to a black mammy. On the opposite side of the monument, a defeated but still proud Reb beats his sword into a plowshare. Amid this motley throng, which includes Minerva, the goddess of war, is a black soldier. Not some slave-in-chains kneeling helpless before the statue of Lincoln the Emancipator in Washington. Not the Glory-inspired bronze troops of the African-American Civil War Memorial, a revisionist monument whose name and design owes more to the 1990s than the 1860s.
Carved in stoneplain as dayis a black Confederate in uniform marching alongside his comrades-in-arms. According to Smith, it is a clue to a secret history. “When you look at that statue, and you see this black guy in uniform, that’s undeniable,” he says. “And the sculptor, Moses Ezekiel, a Confederate veteran, he knew what those units looked like, and therefore, to not include that black soldier in that statue, he would have created a lie.”
A native Virginian and graduate of Virginia Military Institute, Ezekiel fought at the Battle of New Market, where several black Confederate soldiers saw action. (A recent re-enactment at the Shenandoah Valley battlefield featured one black man in gray.) Smith says it’s often difficult to convince people that blacks fought for the South; and it’s even harder explaining that the creator of a graven image of a black Rebel was himself a Jewish Rebel. “[American University] is a very Jewish campus,” he says. “I tell my Jewish colleagues that there were over 10,000 Jews in the Confederacy. I say, ‘Who the hell do you think put the monument over there in Arlington Cemetery? His name was Moses Ezekielyou can’t get any more goddam Jewish than that. You think I’m making this stuff up?’”
Smith remains supportive of the African-American Civil War Memorial, even as he says it tells only part of the story of the black experience in the war. “It’s implied that blacks solely served in the Union, and that there weren’t blacks who served in the Confederacy,” he says. “[The memorial’s promoters] are not prepared to make that leap, to give those guys the recognition they deserve.”
Topped by a mane of unruly white hair, Smith is a boisterous, outspoken black man who takes no guff and gets a visceral pleasure from confrontation. There is nothing tweedy about him; he looks more like a painter or an artist than a rumpled professor. Chairman of the Department of American Studies at AU, he has lectured for years on black Confederates and has penned numerous articles on the subject. His critics contend that he uses his race to advance his argument, a decidedly un-PC message that attracts publicity only because its messenger is black.
“If you are a black scholar and you are not being recognized, you can leapfrog to prominence by saying what you know the Man wants to hear,” says Asa Gordon, a black scholar and head of the D.C.-based Douglass Institute of Government, who denounces the black Confederate movement in lectures. “Ed knows that a lot of what he’s saying is garbage, but he is able to separate himself from the pack of true black scholars.”
According to Smith, vehement opposition has been steady ever since he penned an 1989 piece in Civil War: The Magazine of the Civil War Society, “Calico, Black and Gray: Women and Blacks in the Confederacy.” The subject had been written about before, but mostly in the form of such refutations as a 1979 Smithsonian article, “The Unlikely Story of Blacks Who Were Loyal to Dixie.” Smith lent a scholar’s credibility to a much maligned subject. “It was a sort of unbelievable topic to bring up,” he recalls. “Let’s face itbefore Glory came out, most Americans had no idea that 200,000 blacks served in the Union army, and the idea that blacks served in the Confederate armywell, that was just insane. They thought I was crazy.”
Smith’s main thesis has never wavered. According to him, slaves and free blacks were as conflicted as the rest of Dixie was on the volatile issues of secession and rebellion. Certainly, many slaves fled to the North, and some fought for the Union. But for Smith, the big question remains why so many stayed in the South, either protecting the manless plantations or loyally following their masters into battle as body servants. Even more important, why did some actually fight for the South?
The numbers aren’t as nebulous as his detractors maintain, to hear Smith tell it. He estimates that as many as 50,000 blacksmaybe many more, he emphasizesfought as combatants for the Lost Cause, nearly all on an unofficial basis. The Confederacy did not enlist blacks until March 1865, but Smith claims that throughout the war they were serving on a local level. In such states as Tennessee and Alabama, local militias were allowing blacks to serve as early as 1861; according to Smith, the fact that these soldiers aren’t included in official war records doesn’t mean they didn’t fight. “The Confederate government was as screwed up as God knows what, and so the commanders in the field did what they always dothey take advantage of the resources that are available,” he says. “The Confederate army was basically a bunch of state militias that put themselves at the service of the Confederacy, and you’re not going to tell these people what the hell to do.”
Since black soldiers were almost never officially recognized by the Confederacy, figuring out how many served seems a risky, even foolhardy, proposition. Smith says the lack of records is lamentable but nothing to whine about. There are plenty of other sorts of “evidence,” according to him. His favorite citation is a report made by Union Sanitation Commission inspector Dr. Louis Steiner, who noted in his diary the large number of armed blacks in Stonewall Jackson’s troops as they marched through Frederick, Md., shortly before the battle of Sharpsburg in 1862. It remains a hotly disputed passage:
Wednesday, September 10: At 4 o’clock this morning the Rebel army began to move from our town, Jackson’s forces taking the advance. The movement continued until 8 o’clock p.m., occupying 16 hours. The most liberal calculation could not give them more than 64,000 men. Over 3,000 Negroes must be included in the number.These were clad in all kinds of uniforms, not only in cast-off or captured United States uniforms, but in coats with Southern buttons, State buttons, etc. These were shabby, but not shabbier or seedier than those worn by white men in the rebel ranks. Most of the negroes had arms, rifles, muskets, sabers, bowie-knives, dirks, etc. They were supplied, in many instances, with knapsacks, haversacks, canteens, etc. and they were manifestly an integral portion of the Southern Confederacy army. They were seen riding on horses and mules, driving wagons, riding on caissons, in ambulances, with the staff of generals and promiscuously mixing it up with all the Rebel horde.
Smith says that if you take this figure and extrapolate it to the rest of the Southern army, his estimate of 50,000 is conservative. Leading Civil War historians don’t deny the report itself, but they reject Smith’s interpretation. Blacks were indeed employed on marches, says Princeton’s James McPherson, but that doesn’t mean they also headed straight into battle. “Many of these soldiers had body servants when they came into the army,” he says. “They did the cooking and the washing, and I’m sure on a long march they had these guys carry their guns for them, too, sort of like a human mule. You walk 20 miles a day in hot weather, blisters on your feet, carrying 30 to 40 pounds of equipment. If you’ve got a slave, you’re going to get him to carry some of that for you.”
McPherson has read thousands of letters by soldiers from both sides and found no accounts of armed black Rebels in the heat of combat. “A lot of them do mention their black servants, but never did I see a reference that Tuffy took up a rifle dropped by so and so and started fighting,” he says. “I expect that kind of thing did happen, but I’ve seen no reference to it.”
According to McPherson, Smith has simply wielded a few anecdotes and some crazy math for weapons, all the while citing little solid documentation. “There were a few black Confederate [combatants]nobody knows how many,” he admits. “There may have even been several hundred, but it was entirely unofficial, unsanctioned, irregular, and sporadic. And there were not anything like 50,000.”
Smith says McPherson and other scholars are in denial because the subject compromises their hallowed works. “They know they missed something,” he says. Never one to back down, he once even invited McPherson to see the Confederate Memorial at Arlington, which Smith considers hard evidence. At a late ’80s symposium at Tyson’s Corner, he says he offered to take the newly crowned Pulitzer winner to visit his pet memorial. According to Smith, McPherson said he’d never heard of Moses Ezekiel’s monument and declined; McPherson says he can’t recall the invitation.
The most respected scholarly account of the issue remains a little-known 1995 study by Ervin Jordan Jr., a black archivist and assistant professor from the University of Virginia. Black Confederates and Afro-Yankees in Civil War Virginia offers the best documentation to date that there were black Confederate soldiers as well as body servants and other lowly wartime laborers. Jordan scoured hundreds of small-town Virginia newspapers, postwar pension files, memoirs, diaries, and other newly discovered records. The book reveals a black populace as divided about the war as the whites. For the first time, in a rigorous, meticulously footnoted manner, it gives names and motives to a people denied a voice in every major Civil War historical account to date.
Even so, Jordan readily admits that he hasn’t uncovered tens of thousands of black Confederates in wartime Virginiain fact, he’s found barely a fraction of that. And many of those weren’t the black-power Rebs making the rounds at re-enactments today; they had to hide their race to get their horse and pistol. Often, they were light-skinned blacks who passedusually with a knowing winkas whites to gain their place in a regiment. (In one unit, a black volunteer was even mockingly mustered as an “honorary white” soldier.)
Still, the historical figures in Black Confederates and Afro-Yankees shatter the stereotypical depiction of blacks as exploited, blindly obedient slaves in Civil War Dixie. One is Levi Miller, a former slave who became a Confederate hero. In a few paragraphs, Jordan outlines Miller’s battle exploits and postwar career, an extraordinary saga that would have been perhaps lost to history if it had not been detailed in a series of articles in the Winchester Evening Star in the ’20s. Reading the full text of these articles, one gets a sense that, even as the newspaper heralded Miller, its patronizing tone reveals its ultimate purpose: to glorify a black who remained loyal to the South.
Born in Rockbridge County, Va., Miller was one of thousands of slaves who accompanied their owners to the war as a body servant. After nursing his master back to death from a near-fatal wounding at the Wilderness campaign, Miller was voted by the regiment to be a full-fledged soldier. He served during the remainder of the war, exhibiting bravery in battles in Virginia, Tennessee, Georgia, Maryland, and Pennsylvania.
His former commander spoke highly of Miller’s combat record, giving a riveting account of his performance at Spotsylvania Courthouse, which saw some of the most desperate and fierce hand-to-hand combat of the war. “About 4 p.m., the enemy made a rushing charge,” wrote Captain J.E. Anderson. “Levi Miller stood by my side and man never fought harder and better than he did and when the enemy tried to cross our little breastworks and we clubbed and bayonetted them off, no one used his bayonet with more skill and effect than Levi Miller. During the fight the shout of my men was ‘Give ’em hell, Lee!’”
In his letter of recommendation, Anderson also tried to dispel any doubts that Miller had fought for the South of his own free will. “He was in the Pennsylvania campaign and at New Castle and Chambersburg he met several negroes whom he knew (I think some of them were related to him) and who had run away from Virginia,” wrote Anderson. “They tried to get Levi to desert but he would not.”
After the war, Miller received a full pension from Virginia as a Confederate veteran. According to the Winchester Evening Star, “The pension was granted without trouble and he had the distinction of drawing one of the largest amounts of any person in the state.” On his application, it shows that he owned a horse and pistol, among other soldierly accoutrements.
Upon his death on Feb. 25, 1921, the Evening Star published a front-page obituary under the headline “Levi Miller, Colored War Veteran, Dead.” It was the sort of stirring tribute fit for a local hero: “He was affectionately known among the white as well as the colored people of this section as the grand old man of his race. He always had a deep love for everything southern, and although born a slave, it was his loyalty to his state that led him to enter the southern army and fight through the four entire years of the war.”
Yet the obituary goes on to reveal that the respected Confederate vet had to toil in his postwar years in a job that was all too typical for blacks in the generations following Emancipation. The war hero worked as a water dipper at Rock Enon Springs, a popular tourist attraction for Washington luminaries. “He dipped the cold, sparkling spring water from the springs and handed it to the guests all day long, a service which was perhaps somewhat primitive, but a ceremony in those days which obtained at all first class summer resorts in the old south.” During his last years, Miller lived in Frederick Country, outside Winchester; he eventually saved enough money to buy a piece of land and left an estate worth more than $5,000.
But even though his coffin was draped in the Stars and Bars at a hero’s funeral service in Lexington, “nearby the spot where his leader in battle and his personal friend, General Lee, lies buried,” Miller was interned in a black cemetery. Equal in war, perhaps, but still separate in death.
Miller was no doubt a rare case, but Jordan has also found numerous examples that demonstrate how and why black Virginians decided to take their chances on the side of their oppressor. Some free blacks volunteered only after Yankee raids destroyed their farms, spurred more by revenge than any support of the Confederacy. “Several free black Virginians were slave and property owners who deemed their way of life threatened by the Northern invasion and yearned to prove to their white neighbors that they, too, were Southern patriots,” writes Jordan.
As for the slaves, many were loyal to Dixie far beyond the call of duty, according to Jordan. While some of this patriotism can be explained by the insidious paternalism of the South’s peculiar institution, a great deal cannot. As with many other Southerners, their allegiance was something to be marveled at, however misguided it may seem now. In his book, Jordan cites a diary that tells of an “Afro-Confederate [who] became a local hero after being thrown into jail with nothing but bread and water for three days because of his support of the South and refusal to work for the Union side….The old man was made to chop wood with iron ball and chains attached to his arms and legs, but the curses of his jailers were unavailing: he stubbornly vowed to support the South until death.”
Jordan doesn’t ignore the other side of the coin. Many blacksJordan calls them Afro-Yankeesremained staunch Northern sympathizers, as did many Southern whites. (“Thank God for those Southern whites who were loyal to the Union,” says Asa Gordon of the Douglass Institute of Government. “How come there’s no statue for them?”) Some slaves ran off to eventually fight for the Union, risking their lives to overthrow their masters; others found more stealthy means to sabotage those who deemed them chattel.
For McPherson, Black Confederates and Afro-Yankees represents a real breakthrough, at least in the rarefied realm of academia. “Though I think [Jordan] overinterpreted somewhat, he has some concrete evidence,” he says. “I think we do need to recognize the kind of thing Jordan has convinced me of, and if I were rewriting Battle Cry of Freedom, I would mention that [the participation of black Rebel soldiers] happened on an unofficial and limited basis, but it was not a regular, sizable component of the Confederate army.”
A native Virginian, Jordan has been obsessed with the Civil War since boyhood. In his office in the bowels of Alderman Library, he keeps a gag photo of himself in a general’s uniform, but he has no interest in re-enacting. His work has been embracedand manipulatedby both sides of the debate, even as his six-year labor of love has brought him derision from liberals and fellow blacks alike. “I’ve been called an Uncle Tom and everything else you can think of,” he says. “As a scholar, I am only interested in getting the truth out. And that’s what I did.”
On a grassy slope outside Frederick, Md., George Hardy squats next to a smoldering campfire, where a battered tin pot of coffee brews. He arrived here in darkness at 4 a.m., to join the Southern Guard for another living-history event. That morning he and his pards breakfasted on their usual fare, hardtack and salt pork.
This afternoon, there are no Rebs in sight. Hardy and the other men are playing a Vermont regiment that helped delay Confederate Gen. Jubal Early’s 1864 march on Washington. Known as the Battle of Monocacy after the nearby creek, the skirmish was a loss for Union troops but ultimately saved the nation’s capital from a Southern invasion.
The Guard often portray different sides, known as “galvanizing” in the parlance, and there is always a shortage of Feds in re-enactments (as there is of blacks in general, whether as participants or spectators). Everybody, it seems, wants to be one of those beautiful losers of the Lost Cause. Dressed in his hand-sewn Union blues, Hardy looks haggard. His graying whiskers haven’t seen a razor: This late in the war, the Vermont unit was a scraggly, tired bunch far from home, he explains in his trademark whisper. You’d think he’d arrived here after an all-night forced march instead of whizzing up Interstate 70 from his home in Glendale, Md.
In fact, Hardy’s general exhaustion is partly due to a recent march made by the Southern Guard down in Virginia. It’s the sort of hard-core activity as utterly unlike such media carnivals as the recent Gettysburg re-enactment as possible. Without a tourist or TV crew in sight, they trudged a 14-mile stretch at full pace in a 135th anniversary re-enactment of Stonewall Jackson’s famous flank move that clinched the Battle of Chancellorsville, often considered Lee’s greatest victory. To be as historically accurate as possible, they marched on the same day and hour as Jackson’s troops for the grueling excursion, which doubled as a benefit to help preserve the sprawling, wooded battlefield, now endangered by encroaching development.
It was pouring down rain for most of the march. During the overnight campout, the tired Rebels shivered in their soaked uniforms, and some nursed bleeding feet: That just made them feel even more like the Army of Northern Virginia. For Hardy, it was one of the most rewarding re-enactment experiences he’s ever had. “We were going at a good clip, retracing the same path that they were on,” he says. “It was pretty incredible. I was so glad I had decided to come, because the amount of development down there is just madnessthey’re gonna plow through everything.”
As the only black in the Guard, Hardy has the freedom to portray a wide variety of impressions, as varied as the black Southerners who toiled as laborers and body servants or fought as soldiers. “The Southern Guard’s real good about inspecting everyone’s impression,” he says. They told me, ‘You’re an expert on what blacks were doing, so any role you want to portray, let us know, and we’ll defer to you.’ Some events, I’ve said, ‘I’ll be a teamster’ or ‘I’ll be one of the company cooks or a musician or whatever.’ Or a I’ll be a combatant, depending on the situation. There’s a range of how blacks did serve in the Confederacy, but these guys have always told me, ‘Look, it’s whatever your comfort level iswe’re not going to force you into something you’re not comfortable with. Just let us know what would have been appropriate at that time and place, given an event, late war, early war, that whole thing.’”
In his time with the Guard, Hardy has actually incurred more curiosity than hostility, in an experience different from his days with the famed Glory boys. He hasn’t worked with his old regiment for several years. No hard feelings, except for the fact that they’d often break out cans of SpaghettiOs at eventsbehavior that he simply couldn’t tolerate. “The 54th doesn’t do a whole lot of re-enactments; they do a lot of ceremonies,” he says. “In terms of authenticity, they’re not at the same level as a Southern Guard, and I’m seeking a greater level.”
Hardy’s quest for authenticity has always made him something of a legend, even back to his days with the 54th, for whom he penned a short manual for new recruits still used today. One of his former Union cohorts (and a former dorm mate at Howard), George Rawlins, remembers when he first realized that Hardy had joined the South. “Years ago, I was at an event, and I didn’t even know he was doing Confederate, and there he was going about as a body servant,” recalls Rawlins. “I said, ‘George?!’ and we got into it. But he explained that he wanted to keep stressing the authenticity, and I accepted that. He really gets into it, very meticulous. I’m quite sure he wears period underwear. I’m as die-hard as anybody, but gimme a breakno one’s gonna see your underwear.”
Hardy has met some of the other black re-enactors and judges them individually: Black or white, Rebel or Yank, as long as historical accuracy is the ultimate goal. The only sin out on the field is to be a farb, a wannabe wimp, the scourge of the hobby. And then, of course, there are the posturing yahoos of both races; Hardy says he he’s taken as much guff from self-righteous Union re-enactors as he has from drunken Rebels.
“Some folks may have an ax to grind,” says Hardy. “Some folks can’t let go of what happened during the war, but we’re not going to re-fight the war and change the results of it. From my whole standpoint, it’s all about education, and we can learn more about each other if we have guys out here accurately portraying what was going on.”
Whether it’s the Chancellorsville excursion or at a more public event, Hardy has no qualms about marching under a flag that many consider a symbol of racism, if not of slavery itself. For him, the Stars and Bars and the Stars and Stripes remain complicated, even elusive, images. After all, blacks have fought and died under each banner while living as second-class citizens. “I understand that there were men back in that time who marched under the Confederate flag for various reasonswhites as well as blacks. Some didn’t even know the reason, but they were out there giving their blood.” That simple sacrifice, whatever the motive, is good enough for Hardy.
Nonetheless, Hardy does not participate in any parades as a Confederate, because he says such displays of pageantry could be easily misinterpreted. Robbed of historical context, he feels exposed and vulnerable, like an easy target instead of an educator. “I’d rather not give people the wrong impression,” he says. “At a re-enactment or a living history event, you can explain to people what you’re doing, and they can understand.”
For Hardy, as for many hard-core re-enactors, the hobby has little to do with race or politics or even military history. It’s about a strange, almost mystical experience that comes and goes of its own accord. You just have to be ready for it: Part time-travel, part reverie, it hits as strong as a whiff of fresh brew from their battered tin pots. “There’s no better cup of coffee on this earth than thisStarbucks can’t do it. And sometimes there’s no better sleep than to have the perfect night, the perfect breeze, with no bugs, to sleep out under the stars with no sounds other than natural sounds. There’s nothing better. There’s nothing like just being out in the woods and seeing only natural things, or just hanging out with your pards. You all have a common interest, you’ve all put a lot of research into what you’re doing and what you’re saying, and you just have that moment when everything’s clicking…”
It is such epiphanies that make re-enacting much more than a bunch of grown men dressing up in itchy uniforms. Even so, there’s more than a little old-fashioned male bonding involved.
“There’s nothing like after a hard campaign, and everybody reaches into their haversacks and they start cutting up whatever rations they have,” says Hardy. “Some may have a lot and some may have none, and you put it in a common pool and share it. You have to look at the amount of camaraderie that was built up during a campaign. There’s something to be said about being somebody’s pard, ’cause you’ve got to share the same blanket, you’ve got to share the same food, you’ve got to share the same soreness in your feet, the same wetness in the pouring rain, and the same chill.”
Hardy’s devotion to his craft appeals to his fellow pards in the Southern Guard. At 41, he’s a relative old-timer in a young man’s hobby that boasts a notoriously high burnout rate. One of his biggest supporters and friends is Robert Lee Hodge (named for the Confederate hero), a renowned re-enactor profiled in Tony Horwitz’s Confederates in the Attic. An intense and obsessed 31-year-old who sports an archaic chin beard, Hodge resembles a Rebel not only in appearance but in his courtliness, which is less an affectation than simply the way he is. Hodge has dedicated half of his life to re-enacting, and he’s an expert at bloating, imitating the battlefield dead. He spends most of his time in a pursuit of the authentic, from the proper clothing material to the type of nails used on a contraband beer crate.
Hodge often spends entire Saturdays over at Hardy’s suburban Maryland home, where there’s a whole closetful of uniforms and accouterments. Here Hodge learns how to sew and make his own items. “He’s like my role model,” says Hodge. “I look up to him. Everybody has opinions, but it’s hard to get one from him, he’s so subtle. He really is a natural leader, and when I think of George, I think of my parents and Robert E. Lee. I think the world of him.” (For his part, Hardy returns the compliment: “Nobody but Hodge could have pulled off that Chancellorsville march,” he says, as if praising the victory of some seasoned general.)
At the Monocacy event, Hodge is absent, and Hardy seems to be taking it easy himself. He won’t be spending the night this evening with the rest of the Guard. He has a 9-year-old son and a 14-year-old daughter: He just doesn’t have the time to spare that he used to.
Hardy reaches into a hand-knit tobacco sack that he made himself, modeling it after one he saw in a period photograph. He solemnly prepares a meerschaum pipe. The only time he smokes is out here on the field, to help capture the smell and taste of the past. He also treasures his sundries kit, a battered leather pouch that looks as if it’s been through a mess of hard fighting. He shows off the rusty utensils inside, including authentic miniature beard clippers, combs, and forks and spoons. There’s also a faded clipping of the poem “John Brown’s Body,” the sort of inspirational reading material that many a Fed would have had handy.
Later, after some afternoon artillery firing, the crowd of white faces disperses in the smoke, heading back to the nearby parking lot. From across the field a black couplethe only blacks present today other than Hardyapproach the quiet, serious Vermont soldier.
They chat for a while, and it’s clear that they are kindred spirits, not because of race but because of their passion for history. It turns out the man, a rotund bear in NBA sweats, is a member of a Civil War roundtable discussion group in Baltimore. He knows whereof he speaks, from the first use of balloons in warfare to the way a cannon fires. Likewise, Hardy approaches his interpretive role with the utmost attention, carefully answering each and every question from the man’s wife, obviously a latecomer to all this Civil War lore. But she’s anything but bored, and they discuss all sorts of topics: weaponry, the economics of the conflict, how the Civil War was the first really modern war.
The subject turns to something a little closer to home: the ways that history has tried to explain how the South managed to prolong the war as much as it did, against such massive odds.
Everyone talks about all that Southern valor, says Hardy, but that much-vaunted quality is somewhat overrated. “There wouldn’t have been much Southern valor without all that slave labor,” he says in his quiet, understated way. The group shares a hearty chuckle that is less bitter than a balm. Finally, they bid each other goodbye, and Hardy heads back to camp.
There, he joins the boys in the Southern Guard, resting under a shade tree. As the spectators pull away in their cars, Hardy and his pards talk about their never-ending war, munching shelled peanuts and watching the evening sun go down. CP