The Black Confederates
by David Schmidt
Main Line Life
Originally published January 29, 2003
For a historybuff, fiction sometimesfills in theblanks. It’sinevitable thatmuch of what weknow of our pastis affected by two things: theloss of knowledge over timeand the application ofrevisionism.
The concept of “political correctness”isn’t new. Facts must face the filter of fad.They ebb and flow in support of someone’sagenda.
Fiction bypasses all that, becausenobody can argue with you. But most historical writers seek to have an intellectualhonesty in their portrayal of the events thatmake up their character’s world. What’sfun is when that perspective is controversial.
Winston A. Jones has written a novel ofthe South during the Civil War (or the Warof Northern Aggression, since it’s set inLouisiana). That in itself isn’t unusual,because the Exton resident has been writing for most of his life. But about 10 yearsago he “for a reason he can’t recall” wondered if blacks had served the Confederacy.
“When I was in school, everything Iheard about my ancestors was that theywere slaves. The thought occurred to me tolook into this and find out if they did [servethe Confederacy], why,” he said.
Jones was born in Richmond, Va., butgrew up on the Main Line, living in Wayneas a boy and graduating in 1964 fromLower Merion High School.
“I stumbled across a couple of booksabout blacks supporting the Confederacy,but they were slaves, and that wasn’t whatI was looking for,” he said. “I did a searchon black confederates on the Internet andwas surprised to find an article fromLouisiana State University on black confederates in Louisiana.”
That information led Jones tothe idea of a novel about freeblacks in the South during theCivil War. “The book is based onthe Louisiana Native Guard, a unitwhich is well documented,” hesaid. “This was a militia unit, soeven though the ConfederateConstitution forbade Negroes fromserving as soldiers, black citizens ofNew Orleans and Louisiana couldform their own units.”
In the case of the Louisiana NativeGuard, it was apparently successful.
“It was formed by a Capt. Favrot,who wasn’t black,” Jones said. “It wasinitially a military unit of 300 blackvolunteers in 1861, but within a year hehad 3,000 volunteers.”
According to Jones, the unit marchedin a parade on Nov. 15, 1861, documented in a newspaper of that era, The DailyPicayune. “If this was documented, myconcern was why hadn’t I learned thatwhen I was growing up. So I started layingout the story,” he said.
The book, which he’s self-publishing, istitled For God, Country, and theConfederacy. Its premise is based on a concept that shocked Jones: that there werewealthy, free Negroes in the South whohad a vested interest in the status quo.That’s the environment for his story. Headmits it’s a story about a family, and theCivil War setting is an interesting place torecount the lives of his characters.
“My book isn’t a pipedream,” he said.”In the first year the support for theConfederacy was the strongest. FromCharlotte, N.C., to New Orleans there wereincidences of free blacks dedicating themselves to the Confederacy. They had a vested interest in the Southern economic fabrics.”
At the time of theCivil War there wereabout 10 million people in the South. Fortypercent of those people were Negroes,according to Virginiahistorian Ervin I.Jordan Jr. “Of that, 5to 7 percent werefree,” said Jones.
This bothers him.”I have another contradiction, from what Iwas taught aboutblacks and the South,”Jones said. “I didn’tknow there were thatmany free blacks inthe South. I did somechecking and therewas an average threegenerations of freeblacks in cities in theSouth.”
Although he has noties to Louisiana,Jones decided to makethat the location of his book. He also wanted to focus on a group that did not fittoday’s image of the Southern Negro during the Civil War.
“There was a black aristocracy in NewOrleans at that time who were wealthy, hadballs, private schools, and many whitesresented them,” Jones said. His sources saythat at the time of the Civil War, free blacksowned $10 million worth of property inNew Orleans.
So that became the concept of his book- a wealthy, educated Negro family andwhat happens to them during the war. “I’vegot a bit of everything going on in the family in the book,” he said. “They are awealthy black family who’ve always had ittheir way.”
The action of the book follows thisfamily, not the waritself. It does, however, seek to portray arealistic view.
“They were fittingin economically, butthe father wanted tobe accepted,” saidJones. “Free blacksweren’t able to takeup arms, and he sawthat the war was away to show theywere willing to die forwhat they believed.”
While it was illegal for blacks to fightfor the South, in someparts of theConfederacy blackswere a part of the military effort, althoughwhether they werethere voluntarily ornot is a matter ofsome doubt. There arephotographs both of Negrosoldiers inConfederate uniforms and Negro menattending veteran reunions decades afterthe war.
One of the essential concepts of thebook is that the members of the family areeducated, and that is what lets them controltheir fate.
“The free blacks were educated and hadbeen for several generations,” said Jones.”In order to understand how democracyworks you have to be educated, and freeblacks in Louisiana had woven themselves into theeconomic fabricof Southernsociety.”
And that’swhat gets toJones, that whatwe do and arehave much todo with whatwe know, withhow we areeducated.
“If this hadbeen taught tome, my wholeself-esteemwould havebeen different,”he said. “Also,if white kidsknew it, theywouldn’t have thought that whites werejust predators when it came to race relations. This would make a big difference,and I doubt if it’s taught today.”
This is a viewpoint that Jones feelsneeds understanding; that people arediverse, and that even then African-Americans held different views.
“History wants to make all blacksdescended from slaves,” he said. “But thatisn’t true, blacks were free. I want to getrid of the attitude that it’s the black victimversus white oppressor. Every time something comes up, we play this victim-and-oppressor game again.
“We need to temper these attitudes withknowledge of what really happened duringthe Civil War.”
But this is something that is very controversial. On some Web sites there are vitriolic denouncements of the whole concept,as if it makes Southern history somethingunacceptable. That’s where the retellingtends to support someone’s agenda.
For many the concept of blacks with apositive attitude toward the Confederacyjust doesn’t fit, and they’re willing to fightto keep it from fitting.
But that pales compared to the emotionthe cover of this book can generate. Itshows a Confederate flag lying on the lapof a black family. Jones is more than happyto step up to theplate on this issue.
“It’s importantthat theConfederate flagremain a part ofAmerican historybecause it was apart of our history,both black andwhite,” he said.”As far as I cansee, it’s not theflag that the problem, it’s whatsome people dowith it that’sobjectionable.”
The battle toremove theConfederate flagis about the wrongthing for Jones. No matter what peoplemay feel when they see the flag, for himit’s wrong to seek to eliminate it.
“It was crucial time in American historyand if we deny that blacks were a part ofConfederate history, we’re wrong,” he said.
Apparently not many in the book industry agreed with him.
“I sent queries out – 70 or so queries -and got an equal number of rejections,”Jones said. “They said this wasn’t forthem.”
So he decided to self publish, and it’snow on sale in local bookstores andthrough the Internet.
“This has been a 10-year adventure andlearning experience,” Jones said. “I feelbetter about myself. It’s important that weknow that all of us weren’t just slaves.
“Many blacks then were educated,owned businesses, were free, contrary towhat we’ve been told. What we knowabout slavery comes from Roots, Gonewith the Wind and Birth of a Nation.”
His final point might give one pause, ifyou consider the high emotional impact ofan event that took place a century and ahalf ago: Why don’t we get the Civil Warmonkey off our back?’
That may be what needs reviewing, perhaps more than those facts that come downto us as history – or myth.