October 14, 2011

Lieut. William McCaskey's Two Black Confederate Regiments

Location: Murfreesboro, TN, USA
If you've spent a few minutes browsing Civil War websites and blogs in recent weeks, you'll inevitably (and lamentably) hit a somewhat bizarre and controversial topic known as "Black Confederates"--the proposition that African Americans fought in significant numbers as soldiers with Southern armies.  It's promoted by a fringe element of self-styled defenders of the Confederacy's heritage, but basically all historians dispute the interpretation of the evidence (if not the evidence itself) behind their claims and view it them as the disturbing descendant of the early-20th century "faithful slave" narrative.

The issue has even gained national attention with the Virginia textbook mini-scandal of last year and a recent episode of the "History Detectives."  I'll refer you to primers on the subject that can be found on two blogs: Dead Confederates and Civil War Memory.  The whole issue is sad as it diverts talented and/or passionate historians and readers from connecting new resources with new questions in novel ways--an activity that I hope ends up defining the Civil War Sesquicentennial.

William S. McCaskey, Co. B, 79th PA
Richard Abel Collection, USAMHI
With the attention of this past week to Black Confederates, I thought I'd throw out a reference I coincidentally discovered while re-checking a note about Corp. Elias H. Witmer, a 79th Pennsylvania soldier-correspondent who penned his first letter to the Lancaster Daily Evening Express 150 years ago last week.  The source is a private letter from Lieut. William S. McCaskey, Co. B, 79th Pennsylvania, to his brother John Piersol McCaskey (a locally famous educator and the namesake of Lancaster's McCaskey High School), written in Murfreesboro, TN, on March 20, 1863--a very interesting time when the Union army was dealing with the Emancipation Proclamation and going through its own internal "Republicanization."  Here's the excerpt, as transcribed in The Letters of William S. McCaskey:
A negro brigade or two would come might handy, to throw into the thickest of the fight, for by this, you scary many a white man, and at no cost to the government.  I sounded most all our boys, and most of them did not like the idea of having them as comrades, but when the matter was fully explained and when they heard that Van Dor of the rebel army had two regiments in the fight at Franklin some few weeks ago, to which Regiments (Negro), many of the men had to surrender, they kind of changed their foolish ideas and now the cry is, "let them come, let them come," with regard to those remarks of mine, and your request to show them to [Corp. Elias H.] Witmer, I would say, that your request has been complied with and he will give them a little thunder.  with regard to my being acquainted with him, I would say that he is a member of Co. E., and I had command of him some two months and further that he is a very particular friend of mine.  (March 20, 1863, Murfreesboro, Tennessee)
Although it's hard to prove a negative, it appears to us as obviously a false rumor that Confederate Gen. Earl Van Dorn fought with two regiments of black soldiers.  Note the fairly apparent motivation of the myth here: McCaskey was trying to justify the use of African-American soldiers in the Union Army to the men of his company (and maybe even to himself).  This thought process calls to mind Frederick Douglass' 1861 comments about Black Confederates

J. P. McCaskey
Richard Abel Collection, USAMHI

Even more interesting to me is the coordination dynamics between the home front and battlefield.  We have Republican agitator J. P. McCaskey, who we know (from other letters) occasionally put anonymous articles in the Express attacking Democrats, appealing for an audience through his brother to soldier-correspondent Elias H. Witmer.  J. P. McCaskey's concern was presumably a Lancaster citizens' public claim of receiving a letter from another 79th PA soldier stating that "contraband negroes are fed better than soldiers," as Witmer's next letter, published in the Express on April 6, 1863, contained a lengthy build-up to a strong denial:
I have been led to this train of thought by a letter handed me written by a prominent citizen of Lancaster, saying that at a meeting held in that city, one of the speakers remarked that he saw a letter from the 79th P.V., stating that contraband negroes are fed better than the soldiers.  I do not wish to have any controversy of a public character with any person, but justice to the army, and to the government demands a denial of so fabulous a charge.  If the letter was written from this regiment it is a misrepresentation of facts; if it was an imaginary fabrication, manufactured for the occasion, it was done to drop a narcotic into the public heart and breath a upas breath into the public mind.  If the letter was written in this regiment it promulgates a falsehood; if not written here, the publication of such a statement was the damning work of partisanship bordering on disloyalty, and should receive the condemnation of every loyal citizen in the country...I forewarn all men against writing to men in this regiment telling them to lay down their arms, as this is a war for the nigger.  I shall expose every man that resorts to this "snake in the grass" manner of sending discord in our ranks.  (April 6, 1863, Daily Evening Express)
Those are pretty harsh words for simply suggesting that African Americans could achieve equality in terms of caloric intake, but I think it testifies to the sensitivity and volatility of the issue of race at that time in the North.  If you want the Democratic counterpoint to Witmer's letter, see this poem reprinted from the Philadelphia Sunday Mercury in the February 17, 1863, edition of the Lancaster Intelligencer.

The Union army's winter camps of 1863 seemed to provide a crucible for matters of race, so it will be interesting to catalog the diverse perspectives within the 79th Pennsylvania (recall Lancaster was home to both Thaddeus Stevens and James Buchanan) and their evolution during the war and after.  Based on other research, I'm fairly confident that Witmer, McCaskey, and the Daily Evening Express approximately represent the median Republican opinion, so it's important to note the reluctance in early 1863 to advocate on African Americans' behalf as a benchmark for future reference. 

Letter by Elias H. Witmer, Co. E, 79th Pennsylvania, appearing in the April 6, 1863, Lancaster Daily Evening Express: (alternate link)

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