Thursday, January 13, 2011

"A Dangerous Experiment"

            Almost everyone in America must have heard by now of the Virginia textbook kerfuffle (if not, click here). In a nutshell, a state-approved fourth-grade history textbook, Our Virginia: Past and Present by Joy Masoff, presented as facts statements that most historians regard as false. The most controversial of these was the claim that thousands of black soldiers fought for the Confederacy, including two battalions of black soldiers under the command of General “Stonewall” Jackson.
            The excellent blog published by Kevin Levin, “Civil War Memory”, recently had a post on the topic, called “An Unremarkable Letter About Black Confederates”. The unremarkable letter was written by one of my kin, Matilda (Breckinridge) Bowyer, dated Fincastle, Virginia, 26 March 1865, and addressed to her cousin General John C. Breckinridge. She was a daughter of General James Breckinridge, John’s cousin, a fact she alludes to in her letter, and she was married to Henry Winston Bowyer, clerk of the Botetourt County Court, whose family lived at Santillane in Fincastle.
John C. Breckinridge
            The addressee, John Cabell Breckinridge, was a politician from Kentucky before the Civil War, who was elected vice president of the United States under Buchanan in 1856, and ran for president in 1860, but was defeated by Lincoln. When Kentucky refused to join the other states of the Confederacy in seceding, Breckinridge broke with his home state and became a general in the Confederate army. In September 1864, he was put in command of Confederate troops in southwestern Virginia. In early 1865 he became Secretary of War for the Confederacy, the post he held when Matilda Bowyer wrote to him.
            Mrs Bowyer was writing to ask a favor for her son, a soldier in the 28th Virginia Infantry. “He is anxious,” she says, “to be appointed an officer to recruit Negro soldiers for the army, and believing as I do that he is well qualified for succeeding in that business, & that the long and arduous service he has performed as a private entitles him to a promotion, I ask his appointment in full confidence that it is is well deserved and that it will promote the public good.”

            At first glance, this letter might seem to support the claim of large numbers of black soldiers fighting for the Confederacy. As Kevin Levin points out, however, it was written just days before the surrender at Appomatox, when the South was desperate and clutching at straws. Nowhere in the letter does Mrs Bowyer mention other Negro troops, or claim that her son had any experience in recruiting them. What she does say in support of her son’s qualifications, although it makes one cringe to read it, suggests strongly that this was a new and untested idea:
            “He is connected on both sides with the largest slave-holding families in this section of the state, and would no doubt have more influence with the Negroes, than a stranger, or one who has not borne this relation to the race; and his friends anxious to promote his success would use greater efforts & offer more inducements to their slaves to volunteer than they would in behalf of another.”

            This letter comes from a mother, as desperate as her country was, trying to get her son out of harm’s way. As she imagines the plan, she is at least not deluded enough to think that slaves would rush to volunteer; their owners would have to pressure them or offer them inducements, and the recruiter would have to know how to persuade them. At the end of her letter, she mentions as a reference her nephew, Colonel William Watts. In this context, it is worthwhile quoting a letter from another of his aunts, on the Watts side of the family, Alice (Watts) Saunders, b. c. 1793, d. 1867, widow of Fleming Saunders. She lived at Flat Creek in Campbell County, Virginia. She, too, had sons in the Confederate army, to one of whom she wrote on 13 November 1864: “The subject of arming Negroes seems to be engrossing the minds of a great many persons. I fear it may prove a dangerous experiment.”

            Five months before the war’s end, arming slaves to defend the Confederacy was still an untried experiment, proposed by certain desperate members of the slave-owning Southern leadership, at least according to one well-placed witness.
            Alas, it is in the nature of history that most propositions cannot be proved, in the same sense that mathematical theorems or problems in logic can. The best thing that could come of the tale of Virginia’s textbook is for a generation of students to learn to question what they are told—including by me. The letter from Alice Saunders is in the “Flat Creek” collection at the Historical Society of Western Virginia; it’s not online yet, but will be soon. It doesn’t prove anything, but it could help lead to an informed and intelligent conclusion.

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