Author Interview--John Patrick Blair (African American State Volunteers in the New South) Part 2

Niels Eichhorn's picture

Hello H-CivWar Readers:

Today we continue our conversation with John Patrick Blair to talk about his new book, African American State Volunteers in the New South: Race, Masculinity, and the Militia in Georgia, Texas, and Virginia, 1871–1906, published by Texas A&M University Press in November 2022.

Part 1

Allow me to follow up regarding the officers since you touch on that in previous answers, African Americans were elected as officers for these volunteer units and you mention that there is the awkwardness of white volunteers serving under black officers--how did the South get around that dilemma? You also have an instance in Georgia where instead of allowing such service all white officers received a higher rank--did I read that correctly?

JPB: This was one of the fascinating aspects of how these African American organizations were utilized in the different scenarios that played out in the book. One instance involved the simple solution of having no commissioned officers present of either race while other situations involved what I would describe as splitting each group into distinct areas of responsibility. For example, during the labor strike the Black militia was on a different loading dock or pier than their White counterparts, while in other circumstances they stood guard on the outskirts of town, or outside the penitentiary versus in the town square or inside the jail yard. And yes, you did read the entry correctly concerning Colonel Anderson in Savannah who was concerned that if he was absent from the city that Lieutenant Colonel Woodhouse, the African American officer commanding the so-called Colored Battalion, would in fact become the ranking officer in the city. Anderson’s solution was a promotion for himself and his staff, which could have also been solved by what we use today in the form of a promotion list. One cannot help but wonder if Anderson used this issue to obtain a promotion for himself.

You have an entire chapter on colorism--how did you come to devote a chapter to colorism? What was your most surprising finding with that chapter in particular?

JPB: The issue of colorism first presented itself when I began my research with the African American troops in Texas. Since at this time there were no identification cards like we use today, they used “descriptive rolls” to record hair, eye, and skin complexion to help identify individuals. One company in Texas had such a variety of skin complexion categories that I was curious to determine what each exactly meant and how this was interpreted in Georgia and Virginia. And yes, of course, did lighter skin mean more acceptance to White society? Was there discrimination within the ranks of African Americans based on skin tone? The most surprising finds for me involved Captain Henry Bird’s company in which he refused to enlist anyone he considered not to be of pure African blood and the appearance of Dr. John Ferguson. I can only assume that Bird made a judgment based on skin tone to determine this requirement for his command while Ferguson, from his photo could, as they say, “pass” into White society.

You have collected a significant array of material and I know guests at institutions like yours like to ask about what is your favorite artifact or collection item--so, what was your favorite or most surprising story that you found working on the book?

JPB: I know you are asking about a story, but it is an artifact that is my favorite and why I insisted on their inclusion in the book. The small booklets from the Second Battalion in Atlanta and the Maceo Guards from Augusta were wonderful and surprising finds in the archives. They were simply beautiful little booklets. The contents clearly illustrate the objective of self-improvement through military service. On a disappointing note, I found evidence that the Douglass Infantry took a photograph in front of their armory prior to its demolition. It saddened me that I could not locate that photograph. It would have been a more spectacular find and I can’t help to think that someone/somewhere might have a copy.

I want to briefly query you about a small comment that you made in the conclusion--about African Americans in southern militia units before the Civil War. Did I read that correctly? And, if so, could you elaborate a little more on that?

JPB: I think you are referring to my comment on “soldierly creditability” of African Americans in Confederate units during the Civil War. My contention is that historians must consider this concept of manliness when researching why some of these Black men served in the southern armies. I argue that it matters not whether they served as federal or rebel troops, but what was important is they had a shared experience as soldiers and men. I would also add that the historical records are difficult at best to determine the extent of this southern service. For example, nowhere, absolutely nowhere, is there a single mention in William Woodhouse’s Confederate service record that he was Black. But, then again, he was light skinned.

You are very busy working at the George Bush Presidential Library, do you have any personal project or new book idea that you are thinking about?

JPB: I recently served as the Chair of our county’s World War I Centennial Committee. Our last project centered on collecting and publishing the findings of our research. I collected, edited, and wrote much of this 678-page publication. As you might already know the Presidential Library is located on the campus of Texas A&M University, an institution that has a long military tradition. My family shares that tradition of service and attendance at Texas A&M. During the Centennial we discussed identifying all the graduates, students, and former students from the school who served during the war, but we could not achieve that goal. I am attempting to do so now. I have accumulated about 3300 names so now the difficult part is how do you tell the story of that many individuals? I realize this will be for a very small audience, but it is something that I feel is long overdue and should be done. I am looking forward to the challenge.

And for an even smaller audience, I have a very personal project involving my grandfather. He graduated from the A&M College of Texas in 1931 and was a high school agriculture teacher. John Lockhart suffered a stroke when I was only one year old so I never saw him walk unassisted. He has been gone now for over 35 years, but he is still alive in the aging students who studied with him. I am meeting with them to build a profile of this man to get to know him better and to ensure his teaching legacy is remembered by his descendants. I guess this is an attempt to correct what I missed as a child and it is a labor of love. From what I have learned already I believe his story will demonstrate how leadership, caring and hard work in the classroom will pay off for the student. Obviously, it will never make the best seller list. I only share it here in the hope that perhaps one of your readers will give this some thought and do the same for their family.