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Book on Confederate Senator touches on the controversial black Confederate combat soldier issue


The late Judith Y. Shearer and Derek B. Hankerson teamed up to write a short book (123 pages) explore the motives behind why some Southern men went to war. The book is entitled Belonging: The Civil War’s South We Never Knew. Its central focus is on Tennessee attorney and Confederate Senator Gustavus Adolphus Henry, Sr., who unsuccessfully defended a slave girl named Cassy in an 1833 murder trial. Born as a slave in Lancaster, Pennsylvania, Cassy was found guilty of the charge and executed by hanging.

The Kentucky-born Henry, nicknamed¬†“Eagle Orator of Tennessee,” almost three decades later joined the Confederate army, a military force which to many abolitionists in the North were trying to perpetuate the institution of slavery as much or more than they were fighting for states’ rights or against Northern aggression.

This is part 2 of a planned trilogy. The first installment, All Bones Be White, covered Cassy’s story in depth. The second book focuses more on Henry, as well as other Southern soldiers and defenders. Shearer and Hankerson briefly discuss the fighting at Fort Henry in Tennessee, as well as at Shiloh where G. A. Henry’s son perished in a Confederate uniform.

G A Henry

G. A. Henry

James Phelan, School History of Tennessee (Philadelphia: E.H. Butler and Co., 1889), 178.

What will draw the attention of many readers is the cover image, which shows the very controversial and well known August 1861 photograph of teen-aged white soldier Sgt. Andrew M. Chandler of Company F of the 44th Mississippi Volunteers sitting beside a uniformed black man, Silas Chandler, who sports a menacing Bowie knife and musket. It is an image which has sparked significant disagreement as to whether Silas was merely holding the weapons as props for the photographer, or if he actually used them during the war. Was the approximately 24-year-old slave Silas Chandler a fighting man in a gray uniform?

The authors draw some controversial conclusions, most notably siding with those writers who believe that significant numbers of black men (between 65,000 and 150,000 according to Hankerson) served in the Confederate armed services during the Civil War. Hankerson claims that 13,000 of these “saw the elephant,” i.e. experienced combat, but does not cite his specific source for his belief.

Other writers have definitely taken the exact opposite view, believing the number had been significantly overstated for various reasons.¬† My own detailed research into Jubal Early’s division in the Gettysburg Campaign has indicated that only a handful of black men, out of more than 6,600 enrolled soldiers in the division, may actually have been combatants, including the light-skinned Charles Lutz of the Louisiana Tigers who passed himself off as a white person to join the infantry. My expertise stops at Early’s boys who invaded York County, Pennsylvania, in the summer of 1863. They did have a large number of black men as body servants, teamsters, cooks, hostlers, and other traditional non-combat roles. Other than Lutz and a few others, none are known to have fired a gun at Gettysburg.

Be that as it may, Shearer and Hankerson cite Inspector Lewis H. Steiner of the U.S. Sanitary Commission who believed 3,000 black men must be included in a tally of Stonewall Jackson’ forces. They opine that, “Most of the Negroes had arms, rifles, muskets, sabers, bowie knives, dirks, etc. Many were supplied with knapsacks, haversacks, canteens, etc., and were an integral part of the Confederate army.” They do not footnote or source the reasons for their assertions. In the next paragraph, they cite Nathan Bedford Forrest who took 45 black men into the army with him, but note that Forrest stated, “The boys stayed with me, drove my teams and better Confederates did not live.” Researchers such as Kevin M. Levin have for several years refuted the idea that blacks served as combat soldiers (see his blog Civil War Memory for more details on his opinions).

Shearer and Hankerson, the latter a descendant of slaves, are to certainly to be commended for tackling a controversial topic in this book, which strays from its biographical course more than a few times into other topics. They are likely to be picked apart by some of the more adamant disbelievers in Confederate black soldiery. Still, this is an interesting little read which stirred me to re-read Kevin Levin’s blog entries and magazine articles, as well as contrarian views on both sides of the black Rebel fighting man controversy. Thanks to them, I now know more than I did before picking up this book. And that should be the goal of every writer — to interest the reader into diving deeper into the subject matter to form his or her own opinions independent of the author’s beliefs. For that, Shearer and Hankerson have certainly succeeded.

Judith Y. Shearer and Derek B. Hankerson, Belonging: The Civil War’s South We Never Knew, Archway Publishing, 2015, 123 pages, no maps or illustrations,¬† annotated (62 end notes), ISBN 978-1-4808-2000-5.