Black Confederates: Old argument surfaces

It did happen. Blacks served -- and well.

VIENNA, Va. — I promised myself that I would stay out of this discussion, on which there is little agreement and loads of strong feelings.  Then recent news and opinion pieces have come out because a school book commission in Virginia has approved a fourth grade history book, in which it is stated that “thousands of blacks fought for the Confederacy.”  

The writer admits that she took the facts primarily from a men’s heritage organization, and that perhaps it was not the best idea.

So, I find myself in a writer’s dilemma.  I’ve read two or three books on black Confederates, and have listened to and talked with Dr. Ervin Jordan of the University of Virginia, as well as attending a symposium on the subject a few years ago in Richmond. 

In addition I’ve been collecting written material on the subject for several years, all remarkably valid. So my toe is in the water.

First let’s set the basic story straight – not until very late in the civil war, around 1864, was it even legal for a black to enlist in the Confederate States Army. Up until that time, they were present in sufficiently large numbers to be readily identified as cooks, personal body servants, laborers, teamsters, and the like. And when the person to whom Jacob was assigned went into battle, it is altogether likely that Jacob picked up a gun and went too.

Andrew and Silas Chandler

If fighting ensued, and Jacob fired his gun, does that make hi a valid soldier?  Was the man he shot just as dead?  Probably so  on both counts.

I’ve met and talked with a delightful older gentleman who for many years was a press man for The Washington Times, Bobby Chandler.  I’ve heard Bobby give a talk on his ancestor Silas Chandler of Mississippi, who served beside his ‘master’ during the war; I have seen a photograph of  the two of them in the war period, both holding long knives, and a rifle lying across Silas’ lap, his hand at the ready..  And when young Andrew Chandler was badly wounded, and battlefield doctors wanted to amputate his leg,  it was his servant, Silas Chandler, who  picked him up and carried him all the way home to be cared for. 

Bobby Chandler tells the story with a high degree of pride and a sense of accomplishment. It happened.

I have looked through pension papers from Tennessee in particular, where in 1921  the state voted to provide black Confederates with pensions based on their service in the war.  The newspapers of that period tell about it;  contemporary publications dig up the information and reprint it.  It happened.

A  problem  in Tennessee records is that “free men of color” are listed in with regular troop listings! There is only a notation on their service that they are “free blacks.”  It was  not an easy process; one man applied in 1921 and it was 1923 before the pension was granted, since he had served in North Carolina.

In order to qualify, for the Tennessee Colored Confederate pension, an applicant had to be a resident of Tennessee for three years if they had served with that state’s units, and for ten years if they had served with any other state. They had to have remained with the Army until the end  of the war in 1865 unless legally relieved from service, and must be indigent at the time of making application.  It  happened.

Texas had a number of Black Confederates, and a good set of records documenting their service.  Markers have  been erected to their memory, and descendants are quick to tell personal stories about their ancestors.  Incidentally, one that I looked at indicated he had been wounded.   It happened.

I’m looking at the pension application of Peter Vertrees who served in the 6th Kentucky Infantry, accompanying his master, Dr. John L. Vertrees.  A convoluted background finds Peter’s mother, Mary “Polly” Elizabeth Skaggs, was a young white girl of 15 who just happened to be the great-niece of Patrick Henry, his father a mulatto preacher named Booker Harding.  Young Peter was apprenticed to Harding’s natural father, Jacob Vertrees, in order that he might have the “necessities of life.” When Jacob’s son, Dr. Luther Vertrees, enlisted in the Confederate Army as a surgeon, young Peter came along as servant and assistant to the surgeon.  The records indicate that he also was a cook for the regiment, and much admired by the men.  It  happened.

There is an old copy of an Affidavit of Reubin Couch of Georgia, in support of an Application for a Confederate Pension, attesting that “Clark Lee, Colored  was in the Confederate army with his master Col. Clark Gordon of the First Confederate Georgia Regiment, Infantry and that he was with our Regiment up to the close of the war.  I testify that I saw him in person two days before the close of the war he was with his master, Col. Clark Gordon at the time.”  Gordon was a teamster with the regiment, and it is likely that Lee served in that capacity as well.   It  happened.

One of the most famous of the black Confederates who fought was Holt Collier, a bear hunter and guide from the Mississippi Delta who became known as a guide for President Theodore Roosevelt.

Holt fought with the Ninth Texas Cavalry, having grown up as a slave on the plantation of General Thomas Hinds.  Holt  Collier saw action during a mission to transport guns for use by the Trans-Mississippi Department in Arkansas.  During a realignment of troops, Collier and several other soldiers personally selected from the regiment by Captain Perry Evans, reorganized into a detached unit which became known as Evans’ Texas Scouts, serving as rangers throughout the Mississippi Delta from January 1864 to the end of the war.  It happened.

It has been pointed out to me that several historians have indicated that black Confederates WERE with Stonewall Jackson when he neared Sharpsburg, and a Yankee spy expressing surprise and disbelief at the number of blacks, in Confederate uniforms, and interacting with the white troops, thus I stand corrected on that point, and that a Professor Joseph L. Harsh of Virginia’s own George Mason University has done research on that fact. Valid research and reading makes it clear that black soldiers participated with valor and honor on the side of the Confederacy.

This is really not  so incomprehensible; slave or free-man, they had a type of family connection, they went or were sent with their soldier owner, and they should be accorded the same recognition and  honor as any other for their service.  Opinions may differ and figures may be underestimated or over-embellished, but the basic facts remain the same.

It happened.

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Martha M. Boltz

Martha Boltz is a frequent contributor  to the long running Civil War features in The Washington Times America At War feature in the print and online editions. She has been a regular contributor to the original Civil War Page and its successor page since 1994, and is a civil war buff, historian, and writer. "Someone said that if we don't learn about the past, we are condemned to repeat it," she said, "and there are lessons of all sorts inherent in this bloody four-year period of our country's history."  She is a member of several heritage and lineage groups, as well as the Montgomery County Civil War Round Table. Her standing invitation is, "come on down - check the blog - send me your comments and let's have fun with its history and maybe learn something at the same time."


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