MASSEY: The Myth Of Black Confederates
Tim Massey – Jan 19, 2019
I was living in South Georgia back in the early ‘90s managing a business for a Maryland corporation. Each morning an older black gentleman would come to work driving an old Ford pickup, and right in the middle of the front bumper was a Confederate flag tag.
I snickered to myself more than once before finally asking, “Leroy, what’s that tag doing on your pick up?”
Leroy looked at me and bristled up saying, “Boy, you’re in the South now.” I let that one drop quick. I had expected him to tell me he bought the truck from a redneck white boy and just never took it off, but that was not it.
The next morning Leroy came to my office carrying an old cedar box that reminded me of a child’s coffin. Leroy sat the box on my desk and said, “You know that tag you asked me about? Well, my great-granddaddy was a Confederate soldier.” I immediately thought Leroy’s great granddaddy was white!
Leroy pulled a framed picture out of the box and told me it was the only picture of his great-grandfather that wasn’t made with other men. Leroy’s great-granddaddy was a distinguished looking, gray headed black gentleman in a nice gray suit covered with Confederate reunion badges and ribbons. I had never in all my years seen or heard of a black Confederate soldier.
Leroy told me his great-granddaddy was part of a group of men who enlisted in the Confederate Army in Dothan, Alabama. His granddaddy’s enlistment showed he was a free man of color. Leroy made it very clear that he was not a teamster nor a cook; he was a soldier.
Leroy related that after the war his ancestor was a dirt-poor sharecropper when the old soldiers started having reunions. His grandfather was in town one day when one of the other veterans asked him if he was going to the reunion. Leroy’s ancestor told the man, “You know I don’t have money to go to any reunions.”
The next day Leroy said there was an envelope on the front porch with a train ticket and some cash. He immediately went to town looking for the person who had left the envelope, so he could return it. He ran across another veteran who was a shopkeeper and tailor in Dothan. The tailor told the old soldier that the other veterans wanted him to go to the reunion with them and he should keep the ticket and cash and use it to attend.
Leroy said his ancestor told the man, “You know I can’t go, I can’t go anywhere wearing these old rags and can’t buy no clothes.” Leroy said the tailor asked where another veteran lived, and his granddaddy told him, “You know where he lives.”
The tailor said, “No, if you were going over there, which way would you go? Point it out to me.” Leroy’s granddaddy pointed toward the man’s house, thinking the tailor had lost his mind as he walked home.
Leroy said in few days his granddaddy went out on the porch and there was a new gray suit of clothes, two white shirts, two pairs of undershorts, two pairs of socks and a brand-new pair of shoes. Leroy said, “Every year a train ticket and some cash would show up on the porch just before a Confederate reunion.”
He said his granddaddy attended every reunion as long as his health held out, 18 of them. He said the gray suit was the only suit his granddaddy ever owned, and he wore it to every reunion and was buried in it. His granddaddy asked to be buried with his Gettysburg, Chattanooga, Shiloh and Atlanta ribbons. The rest were in a small box inside the chest.
Also inside the box were reunion programs, group photos and a really large Confederate battle flag. Leroy said it was his granddaddy’s coffin flag. Leroy said those old white men who carried his granddaddy to all those reunions also carried him to his grave. They folded the flag and gave it to his great-grandmother, who placed it in the box. He said it had never been unfolded and never would be as long as he had it.
Leroy’s eyes teared up, and I must admit, I was wiping mine too. I told him that those items were too valuable to have at work and he could have the day off to make sure he got them back home. Leroy would later tell me he was a proud member of the Sons of Confederate Veterans, and there were several black members. He said his sister was in the process of joining the United Daughters of the Confederacy. This had opened a whole new realm of research for me.
BLACK CONFEDERATES FROM GREENE COUNTY
I would read five books about black Confederates and knew there had to be some in Tennessee. After the state allowed black soldiers to apply for pensions in 1895, over 500 applied and were granted full or partial pensions; 269 of those can be seen at www.blackconfederatesoldiers.com/tennessee-state-records.html
Remember, these were men all over 60 years old. If 500 had applied, there had to be many who were deceased, as the average age of death was 46 at that time. Many others would be too old and infirm to apply. It was an ordeal to apply for the pension. One had to appear, give testimony and provide witnesses who would do the same. This was a lot of trouble in 1895, and people of that period did not like government handouts as they saw them.
I was curious about East Tennessee and more specifically Greene County. I found one in Hawkins County, and then there was Robert Stover in Elizabethton who was a slave and enlisted as a teamster.
There is a man buried in the Mosheim Church Cemetery that the late Greene County Historian and museum director Earl Fletcher told me was a black Confederate. Earl pointed his small stone out to me, but when I went back recently it was gone!
Last winter, I was looking through the roll of the 29th Tennessee Infantry when something caught my eye. I had looked through these before, but totally overlooked three black Confederates. At the top of the muster cards were David Anderson (on another he is listed as “of color”), Chance Alexander “of color,” and Newton Canon “of color.” All three joined Company F of the 29th Tennessee Infantry and were listed as “privates” — they were soldiers! Greene County soldiers, and all three list Greeneville as their home, joining at Camp Henderson, present day Afton. James W. Gillespie signed them up on Oct. 3, 1861.
I do not know what happened to Anderson or Alexander. I do not know if they were killed, or survived the war — I have not run across them. Their records seem to stop about the time part of their regiment was captured.
I do know that Newton Cannon joined the Union side. Union records have him joining on Oct. 1, 1863, in Knoxville; Oct. 10, 1863, in Greeneville; and on March 14, 1864, at Cumberland Gap. I think he was likely captured at the Gap and given a choice.
The proclamation would have been issued by the notorious Greene County native George Washington Kirk. Kirk didn’t take prisoners. He gave captive soldiers two options: “Join us or else.” Some swore allegiance to the United States and joined Kirk’s band. Others paid the ultimate price, thinking they would be marched off as prisoners of war. Kirk had those remaining loyal to the South shot.
Western North Carolina and Eastern Tennessee are littered with graves from Kirk’s work. If one claimed to be a Union man and he didn’t believe it, then he shot them anyway. Kirk could be another story, and after the war he moved to California where he slept with a loaded pistol in one hand and a sword in the other, haunted to the day he died by all the murders.
Newton Cannon is not listed as “of color” in union records. His complexion is listed as “dark.” His occupation is listed as a shoemaker. I know he was later a prominent minister in the black community and is buried in Wesley Cemetery under a U.S. government-issued stone identifying him as a member of Kirk’s 2nd North Carolina Infantry US. In the 1870 U.S. census he is listed as “Mulatto,” and his occupation is “boat and shoe maker.”
Cannon had two brothers who were members of the U.S. army: Leander and John Weston. Leander served in the 1st US Heavy Colored Artillery, and John Weston was in the 2nd Ohio Cavalry and is listed as “white.” Both brothers are also buried in Wesley Cemetery. Leander’s grave is unmarked.
So, are black Confederates a myth? No, Greene County was home to at least four men of color who made a decision to support their state. We can never know what was in their hearts, or how they thought, what their feelings or reasoning may have been.
Like all the many others on both sides they made the choice they felt best at the time. They were men of their times and cannot be brought into our time to be judged.
As Black abolitionist Frederick Douglas wrote in his newspaper in July 1861: “It is now pretty well established that there are, at the present moment, many colored men in the Confederate army doing duty not only as cooks, servants and laborers, but as real soldiers, having muskets on their shoulders, and bullets in their pockets.”
Tim Massey serves as Greene County Historian. He is an award-winning writer for Civil War News with more than 40 photos featured on various magazine covers. He also has served on various boards and held positions in several historic organizations locally, statewide and nationwide.
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