Fact or Fiction: African American Confederate Veterans

By Isaac Shoop ’21

black confederates
Photo of African Americans from a U.C.V. reunion in Tampa, Florida in 1927. (Courtesy of The National Civil War Museum.)

As an intern this past summer at The National Civil War Museum in Harrisburg, Pennsylvania, I came across many intriguing artifacts. One of the artifacts that stood out to me most was the photo above, which I discovered when the museum’s CEO conducted a behind-the-scenes tour. When I look at this photo, I see, on the surface at least, a group of 13 African American men who are presumably Confederate veterans. Several of these men are dressed up for the occasion. Many are wearing ribbons, one man has a Confederate flag, and another has a trumpet. There are also two white men standing on the right side. Looking at this photo, I was fascinated by the possibility that Africans Americans would fight for the South.

The stamp at the bottom of the photo states it was taken at the United Confederate Veterans reunion in Tampa, Florida held from April 5th-9th, 1927. The South was still under the influence of Jim Crow in the 1927, and the two white men served as a reminder to me of the social, political, and economic control whites wielded over African Americans on a daily basis, as well as at UCV reunions such as the one captured in the image. As I continued looking at the photo, I couldn’t help but wonder who these men were and what story the photo was supposed to tell. The men may have been proclaiming that they were veterans of the Confederate Army, army musicians, or they possibly were ex-slaves attending a reunion at the behest of their former masters. The photo itself may have been orchestrated by white men to show the loyalty of slaves during the war and as proof that they supported the Confederate cause. Today, some people would use this photo as evidence that African Americans fought for the South and thus the institution of slavery.

Slavery was one of the major underpinnings of southern society on the eve of the Civil War, forming the foundation of the southern economy and political structure, and infiltrating the lives, either directly or indirectly, of nearly all classes of whites. When war broke out in April 1861 after the firing on Fort Sumter, the status of these slaves and their role in southern society expanded. Slaves were now not only instrumental on the home front in keeping plantations running and maintaining the economic backbone of southern society, but they were also a key component in the labor force of the Confederate military. As the white South rushed off to war, it was not uncommon to see a master take his slave to war to serve as his own personal aide-de-camp. The military also employed a large number of slaves to work as teamsters, hospital workers, cooks, and laborers who did anything from moving supplies to building fortifications. While these slaves accompanied the Confederate armies on their marches and battles, they were not considered soldiers or true defenders of the cause.

However, in the years since the Civil War, claims have arisen asserting that African Americans did fight as soldiers in the Confederate Army, and photos like this one have been cited as evidence. The earliest of these claims seemed to be offshoots of the Lost Cause mythology. By stating there were black Confederates, claimants attempted to show that the African American population of the South supported the Confederate cause, thus proving that the war was over states’ rights, and not slavery. Citing states’ rights as the cause of the Civil War then cast the South as righteous and moral. Historians often disagree with this argument, though, because numerous southerners themselves explicitly cited slavery as the cause of the Civil War. One only needs to look at Alexander Stephens’s infamous Cornerstone Speech for perhaps the most blatant example of such claims.

Although photos like the one above have often been used as evidence of black Confederates, scholars have been skeptical of them. Photographs like this one often raise more questions than answers when it comes to African Americans fighting for the Confederacy. To start, this image does not indicate what regiment these men supposedly fought in. That seems odd given someone painstakingly inscribed when and where it was taken. Although the 13 men seated on the bench are wearing medals and one is holding a Confederate flag, the sixth one from the left is wearing a ribbon that reads “Ex Slave.” Next to the “Ex Slave” ribbon is an American flag, which is quite intriguing considering these men were attending a U.C.V. reunion. The American flag may have been handed out as a symbol of the reconciliation between the North and South. A common thread of the Lost Cause involved Northerners and Southerners putting aside their differences and uniting under one flag; the American flag.

It is possible that these men were simply ex-slaves rather than Confederate veterans. These ribbons were likely handed out by whites to emphasize the African Americans’ formerly enslaved identities and to create the image that they were proud to be former slaves. Making this statement would play into southern whites’ argument that slavery was a paternalistic institution. We can see this racial divide in the photo by noting the whites are together in one corner of the photo and the African Americans take up the rest of the photo. There is no intermingling of the races in this photograph just like there was supposed to be no intermingling of the races in the Jim Crow South.

ex-slave
Close-up of “Ex Slave” ribbon. (Courtesy of The National Civil War Museum.)

The presence of Steve Eberhart, who is seated fourth from the left, is another indicator that these men were ex-slaves and not veterans. According to George Magruder Battey’s A History of Rome and Floyd County, Eberhart is a “slavery time darkey” who served with his master, Colonel Abraham Eberhart, on the west coast of Florida during the Civil War. Battey claims that Eberhart was the “mascot” of Confederate veterans in Rome, Georgia and that he entertained the crowds at Confederate veteran reunions. Why Eberhart and other ex-slaves went to Confederate veteran reunions is a mystery. They might have felt they could curry favor with the white population by attending and playing the compliant role of an ex-slave or maybe they were coerced into going. It is also possible that ex-slaves were able to make money from attending Confederate reunions and acting happy to be with former masters. Whites may have been accepting of these ex-slaves at reunions because, through them, they could reminisce about the days of slavery and what life used to be like. Some whites may also have seen this photo as proof of the loyalty of slaves, which again casts the Southern cause as moral and righteous.

Photos like this one have a lot to tell us in regards to the connection between African Americans and the Southern cause in history and in memory. It also raises numerous questions about the politics of Civil War photography that were often involved in the highly crafted staging of and iconography captured in images such as this one. While this photo poses still unanswered questions about the specifics who, exactly, the black men were who are featured so prominently in the foreground and why, for certain, they participated in this fascinating photo, the surrounding context of the image provides provocative and telling clues about the multiple uses of and meanings ascribed to the image by both its subjects and its viewers, past and present.


Sources:

Battery, George Magruder. A History of Rome and Floyd County. Atlanta: The Webb and Vary Company, 1922.

Berry, Mary F. “Negro Troops in Blue and Gray: The Louisiana Native Guards, 1861-1863.” Louisiana History: The Journal of the Louisiana Historical Association 8, no. 2 (Spring 1967): 165-190.

Coski, John. “Myths & Misunderstanding: Black Confederates.” The American Civil War
Museum.

Smith, Sam. “Truth and Legend.” American Battlefield Trust.

Stephens, Alexander H. “Cornerstone Address, March 21, 1861” in The Rebellion Record: A Diary of American Events with Documents, Narratives, Illustrative Incidents, Poetry, etc. vol. 1, ed. Frank Moore. New York: O.P. Putnam, 1862.

A Common Soldier: William H. P. Ivey

By Isaac Shoop ’21

When I set out to pick a soldier for my first Killed at Gettysburg project, I did not know what I would find. I chose to research a Confederate soldier named William H. P. Ivey simply because he was born and raised on a farm, like me. As I did my research, I realized that Ivey’s life tells us a lot about the motivations and thoughts of a common southern soldier in the Civil War. Like most Confederate infantrymen, Ivey’s family was of the lower class and they were not slaveholders. Ivey, along with his brother Hinton, enlisted in the 8th Alabama on May 8th, 1861. Ivey was 20 years old at the time and his brother only 16, which was under the legal age to enlist, but that did not stop him. They likely enlisted to protect their homes and family, as well as to protect their stake in the institution of slavery. Even though the Iveys did not own slaves they still benefited from the institution: They would have been able to hire out slaves when they needed extra labor and slavery assured them a higher social standing than the bottom rung of the ladder. The Ivey brothers came from the small town of Radfordsville, Alabama which had a population of 1,100, with roughly half of the population being enslaved peoples. Notions of masculine honor and patriotism undoubtedly also played into their decision to enlist.

Alabama Boys
Members of the Independent Blues of Selma, Alabama. Later became Company D of the 8th Alabama.

The Ivey brothers and the 8th Alabama fought in numerous, bloody battles, including the Peninsula Campaign, Antietam, and Fredericksburg to name a few. In fact, the 8th Alabama was the first regiment mustered into Confederate service for the duration of the war. During the Battle of Williamsburg, May 5th-6th, 1862, Ivey was wounded in the groin and spent time as a prisoner of war in Union hospitals. Ivey was admitted to both the Mill Creek U.S.A. General Hospital and the Chesapeake U.S.A. General Hospital in the Fort Monroe, Virginia area. After four months, Ivey recovered and was exchanged, so he rejoined his regiment in time for to the Battle of Antietam. Ivey was probably happy to be out of the hospitals and back with his friends and especially his little brother whom he likely felt great responsibility to protect. At Antietam, Ivey was a relatively “green” soldier because of his wounding, but his comrades were veterans and Ivey likely fed off of their courage in the heat of battle. Following the Chancellorsville battle, the 8th Alabama marched north into Pennsylvania and arrived at Gettysburg on July 1st, but they were not engaged until July 2nd and 3rd.

On July 2nd, the men of the 8th Alabama were positioned north of the Peach Orchard and participated in General Longstreet’s attack on the Union left flank. The widespread death and carnage of July 2nd, mixed with Confederate defeat, likely weighed heavily on Ivey. However, like many other Confederate survivors of the July 2nd fighting, Ivey saw how close the Confederates had come to cracking the Federal line, and likely held out hope for the next day’s attacks. On July 3rd, they found themselves marching over much of the same ground which they had trod the day before in support of the Confederate artillery batteries that participated in the cannonade prior to the infamous “Pickett’s Charge.” Ivey was unfortunately wounded again on July 3rd and he was cared for on the Adam Butt farm, a field hospital located to the west of town, until his death on July 12th. His brother was also wounded on July 2nd, but he would ultimately survive the war and return to Alabama. Ivey’s body was buried on the Butts’ property until he was disinterred and moved to his final resting place in Richmond’s Hollywood Cemetery in 1872. Ivey’s death had a detrimental impact on his family because it forced upon them a larger workload and likely forced the women in the family to assume new roles, such as increased manual labor around the farm.

Today the 8th Alabama is memorialized through the monument to the State of Alabama. This monument shows a woman pointing the way for two soldiers to go perform their patriotic duty and fight. This woman may be a mother telling her sons to go and fight. These two common soldiers, just like the Ivey brothers, were fighting to protect their women, their home, and their way of life, particularly slavery.

Alabamma.jpg
Battle Flag of the 8th Alabama. 

Finding information on Ivey and his family proved to be a challenge. Ivey did not hail from the aristocracy and he left no letters behind. That meant I could not learn about Ivey from Ivey himself. I began my research by searching the United States Census, and with a little luck, I was able to find Ivey and his family. From the census, I was able to determine who William’s siblings were, the town they lived in, and that he was a laborer prior to enlisting. In addition to his brother Hinton, Ivey had a sister, Milly, and his parents, Henry and Mary. Through secondary readings, such as James McPherson’s What They Fought For and Gary Gallagher’s The Confederate War, I was able to piece together the background of a common southern soldier like Ivey and provide social and cultural context for the world in which he lived. Non-slaveholding southerners, such as Ivey, fought to protect their families and to protect their right to own slaves. All common southerners aspired one day to become slaveholders. I used various online sources, including the Alabama Department of Archives and History, to find information on the 8th Alabama and their actions prior to Gettysburg. To find information on the 8th Alabama at Gettysburg, I made a trip to the Gettysburg National Military Park Archives. These sources provided me information concerning the 8th Alabama, including the muster-in date of the regiment, the battles they fought, and reports on their actions at those battles. Although reading through census records, historical documents, and secondary readings was more time consuming than I had anticipated, I was rewarded when I came across useful information and was excited to see Ivey’s story unfold in front of me.

As I was researching Ivey, I realized that he was a perfect embodiment of the common southern soldier. Although he came from a poorer background and he owned no slaves, like many other southerners, he fought for the right to own slaves and the benefits of a slaveholding society. He also fought for the protection of southern women from the ravages of African American men, whom many southerners feared posed an immediate threat, as well as the protection of his home from invading Yankees. Ivey is also an embodiment of the common Civil War trope of communities and families literally fighting in arms, as he and his brother joined the same regiment and fought together in numerous battles. Ivey has an important story to tell because through him we can personalize and thus better understand the worldviews of ordinary southern soldiers and how they experienced the Civil War. For many, stories like Ivey’s are not nearly as romantic as those of Confederate officers, and can easily be overlooked or oversimplified. However, through Ivey’s story, we are able to see how his experiences compare to that of the iconic, wealthy, slave-owning southern aristocrats. In doing so, we can not only gain a fuller understanding of the rich texture of southern society, but we can recognize important differences between these two classes, as well as the key similarities that bound them together in common goals, interests, and worldviews as they fought together for the future of the Confederate States of America.


Sources:

Alabama Civil War Service Database.” Alabama Department of Archives and History. Last updated July 19, 2013.

Ancestory.com 1860 United States Federal Census [database on-line]. Provo, UT, USA:
Ancestory.com Operations, Inc., 2009.

Ancestory.com 1860 United States Federal Census – Slave Schedules [database on-line]. Provo, UT, USA: Ancestory.com Operations, Inc., 2009.

Busey, John, and Travis Busey. Confederate Casualties at Gettysburg: A Comprehensive
Record. Jefferson, NC: McFarland & Company, 2017.

Complied Service Records. William P. Ivey. Accessed through Fold3 by Ancestry.

Gallagher, Gary W. The Confederate War. Cambridge, Massachusetts: Harvard University Press, 1997.

Herbert, Hilary. A Short History of the 8th Ala Regiment. Accessed through Gettysburg National Military Park Library.

Laino, Philip. Gettysburg Campaign Atlas. Gettysburg: Gettysburg Publishing, 2009.

McPherson, James M. What They Fought For: 1861-1865. New York: Anchor Books, 1995.