The topic of Black Confederates continues to be one of the most controversial subjects in Civil War scholarship. As I have written extensively on the life and times of Civil War drummer boys it seems fitting that I share this story here.
Throughout the course of the war, Confederate officers routinely brought their slaves with them to act as camp servants and mess cooks. This was done as both a reflection of the officers’ social status and for the domestic services provided by the slaves. In some cases, these African Americans would be issued uniforms, and their typical responsibilities included cooking, washing clothes and cleaning quarters. In addition, those slaves with a musical talent were often called upon to sing, dance and play tunes to entertain their masters’ staff or messmates. The sincere nature of these relationships is required to be judged on an individual basis, but it is fair to say that the overwhelming majority of blacks in Confederate camps were acting in the role of servants rather than soldiers. This topic has been aggressively debated to this very day. Historians routinely differ with those who have propagated what they consider to be a myth. Newfound information continues to support their theory of mythical historical memory.
One African American who is believed to have enlisted in the Confederate army and served as a free man was Henry “Dad” Brown, a Confederate drummer from Darlington South Carolina. Brown was a veteran of the Mexican, Civil, and Spanish-American Wars. He is said to either have been born free or as a slave that was able to purchase his freedom. According to his roadside marker he joined the Confederate army in May of 1861 as a drummer in the Darlington Grays, Co. F, 8th S.C. Infantry. After they disbanded he enlisted as a drummer in Co. H, 21st S.C. Infantry in July 1861 and served in that outfit for the rest of the war. Years later he was made a member of the Darlington Guards where he held a membership from 1878 until his death in 1907.
It was said that Brown “captured” a pair of Yankee drumsticks at the Battle of Second Manassas. (They are on display at the Darlington County Historical Society museum.) Confederate Gen. W.E. James recalled Brown’s valor in a written account of that battle:
…on the 21st of July ‘61 the regiment was stationed at Mitchel’s Ford on the South side of Bull Run. The battle began two miles above and at 12 o’clock the regiment was ordered to go where the battle was raging. As soon as the order came Henry began to beat the long roll. This indicated to a battery on the other side of the Run the position of the regiment and the shells began to fall thick and fast. It was some time before the Colonel could stop him but he was beating all the time regardless of the danger. He followed on to the battlefield and was under fire with the others.
Brown’s service and dedication to the Confederate cause has been debated for decades. That argument has not affected his opportunity for commemoration. In 1907 a grave and monument were erected in his honor. The citizens of Darlington were said to have referred to him as “a man of worth.” A spiraling 20-foot marble obelisk was erected in his honor by both black and white members of the community. In 1990 his monument underwent restoration and was rededicated with a 21-gun salute. The ceremony was attended by a crowd of 200 people. Among those present were Army Gen. William Westmoreland and Army Secretary Michael Stone.
Understandably, the event instigated a public argument. Arthur Stanley, who was then-president emeritus of the Darlington branch of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People wasn’t supportive of the ceremony. He said, “I feel Henry Brown was a handyman for the white man. There are a lot of other blacks who could have been honored who weren’t Uncle Toms.”
Wilhelmina P. Johnson, who is black, is the founder of Cultural, Realism and Charm Complex and director of the Darlington County Museum of Ethnic Culture said, “While the tribute to Dad Brown might offend some African-Americans, especially considering his service in the Confederacy, I feel the tribute is long overdue.”