Thursday, March 31, 2011

A Black Confederate Soldier from Fairfax? Not Quite

The Civil War blogsphere contains many posts and websites devoted to the topic of black Confederates.  For some time now, I've steered clear of this subject.  Although I understand and support efforts to prevent the distortion of history by those who are pushing certain agendas, the issue has taken on a life of its own, generated excessive controversy, and perhaps distracted us a bit from other issues.  All of that being said, I'd like to take a look at the story of George Lamb, an African-American body servant from Fairfax.

An 1855 entry from the Fairfax County Register of Free Blacks indicates that George Lamb was a free mulatto born to a free mother in Fairfax County sometime around 1834. According to an obituary from the Fairfax Herald, Lamb, who was widely known as "Uncle George," worked on various farms throughout the county. When the Civil War broke out, Captain William Dulany of the Co. D, 17th Virginia Infantry (the "Fairfax Rifles") brought Lamb with him as a body servant. (Readers may recall that Dulany was the Unionist Fairfax delegate to the Virginia Convention.) It is not certain whether Lamb worked for Dulany prior to the war, or whether he was hired specifcially to come with Dulany. 

Lamb remained with the 17th Virginia throughout the war, even after Dulany was severely wounded at Blackburn's Ford in 1861.  Presumably Lamb continued to serve with the regiment as a servant of some sort.  I have not located any evidence that he shouldered a rifle and fought alongside white soldiers.  The website for the "Fairfax Rifles" Living History Society also notes that there were five other blacks "who served with the Confederacy from Fairfax County."  After the Civil War, Lamb worked as a blacksmith for Joseph Cooper, who ran a wagon shop in Fairfax.  Lamb never married and died in 1926.  He is buried at Jermantown Cemetery.

Lamb's obituary notes that he "was on the Confederate soldier pension role, and is believed to have been the only colored man drawing a pension on his record as a soldier in the Southern army."  The paper likely got its terminology confused and its facts wrong.  According to an 1936 letter from the Commonwealth of Virginia in the case of another servant, Virginia paid Confederate servant's pensions in addition to enlisted Confederate soldier's pensions.  The letter notes that nearly all of the servant's pensions were awarded to "colored people, who rendered service to the Confederate Government or Confederate officers" as "body servants while such officers were in service," as "cooks, teamsters, hostlers" or "in Confederate hospitals."  The Library of Virginia's Confederate Pension Rolls, Veterans and Widows Database "includes claims submitted by more than five hundred African Americans who had worked as cooks, herdsmen, laborers, servants, or teamsters in the Confederate army."  Interestingly, the only George Lamb in the database that I located was a man from Greene County, Virginia who enlisted in 1864.  If Lamb in fact received a pension, it was more than likely a servant's pension.  And he certainly was not the only black to be paid such a servant's pension in Virginia.

Andrew Chandler, and his slave, Silas Chandler (courtesy of Civil War Memory)

Lamb's story appears on the website Reconstructed Yankee, which was designed to promote the production and filming of Caleb's Triumph, a fictional story about a black Confederate soldier.  As far as I can tell, the movie has not yet been released.  The site provides background information on several black Confederates, including Lamb and the usual suspects like Silas Chandler.  The website presents most of the facts on Lamb noted above, and concludes:
Given recent research on Black Confederate pensioners in Virginia, the obituaries [sic] erroneous assumption that he was the only such African-American on the Virginia pension roles in 1926 is interesting and indicative of white sentiments at that time. 
The website extrapolates from pension records and reaches the impossible conclusion that "3,700 to 3,900 Black Confederates serving in combat roles from Virginia alone is plausible and feasible." (emphasis in original)  By grouping Lamb together with such claims, it is clear that the author would like to use Lamb's story to support his overall view that blacks willingly and loyally fought for the Confederacy, and in large numbers.

Returning to the facts, we know that Lamb was a free black body servant with the 17th Virginia during the Civil War.  What we don't know, at least from the sources I reviewed, was what motivated Lamb to accompany the Fairfax Rifles.  Was his service merely out of loyalty to Dulany?  Was he trying to avoid losing his freedom through some mischance in civilian life?  Did he welcome this service as an opportunity for steady employment during a time of war?  In any event, we must be careful not to take what we do know about one African-American's story and jump to conclusions about the role of so-called black Confederates in Virginia or elsewhere.


Slavery Database said...

Thanks for posting this.

Ron Baumgarten said...

Glad to do so. And thanks for linking to your site. I'd be interested in learning more about the database project.

Anonymous said...

Free blacks usually served in combat roles while enslaved blacks served as body servants or tended to their masters & members of the company. I have traced a few of my own ancestors who were free black that took up arms with the rebellion. That revelation disgusted me at first but I guess they brought into the argument that their land would be confiscated if the north succeeded.

Fairfax also had other free blacks who served like Mr. Samuel Gaines whose property stood behind the old city cemetery. He helped found the first Methodist church in Fairfax city in 1866 as well as provided land for the first colored school of fairfax city in 1878.

Thanks for the info...I agree, we can't afford to have African American history "rewritten" as a way to maintain some white supremist idealogy.

Be blessed.

Ron Baumgarten said...

Thanks for your comment. I'd be interested in discussing more about this issue and your family history research off-line. As you are likely aware, the issue of black Confederates is very controversial, and nearly all Civil War historians reject claims concerning black Confederate comabt soldiers. In any event, George Lamb was probably just a body servant during the war, given that there seems to be no evidence that he served in a combat role. Please feel free to contact me

Anonymous said...

I know there were no organized units of black soldiers in the southern army but I have to think there were indivuals among the ranks of the johnny rebs. Especially units organized from a melting pot city like New Orleans, a city with a certain uniqueness in 19th century America. To me, it is no harder to understand than blacks fighting in the American Revolution. TimD, Lexington, KY

Ron Baumgarten said...

Thanks for your comment, Tim. I think it is possible that there were isolated instances of Southern blacks picking up a rifle and helping out, but by and large, it seems that African-Americans occupied non-combat roles as teamsters, cooks, or camp servants for the Confederate Army. The evidence of blacks fighting for the Confederacy is not easy to find, and we can only stick to the knowable facts about a given individual. In George Lamb's case, the available evidence didn't support a combat role. I see your point about the American Revolution--that the blacks fighting to throw off British rule had no guarantees that slavery would be abolished once America won independence from the British Empire or that blacks would have greater rights. (In fact, they fought for a new nation that allowed slavery to flourish....)