'Takeaway' segment on black Confederate soldiers

The Public Radio International program "The Takeaway" marks today's 150th anniversary of the start of the Civil War with a discussion about an overlooked group of those who fought: black soldiers serving the Confederacy. The guests are Stan Armstrong, director of the documentary "Black Confederates: The Forgotten Men in Gray."  whose great-great-grandfather was a Confederate soldier, and Nelson Winbush, whose grandfather fought in several famous battles including Shiloh. The segment's web page includes a picture from 1932 of a young Winbush and his grandfather, dressed proudly in his gray uniform, at a train station in Memphis as the veteran departed for a Confederate reunion.

UPDATE: I just noticed that Nelson's name is spelled both "Wimbush" and "Winbush" on "The Takeaway" site. Some further digging found that The Commercial Appeal ran a story in 1996 on Nelson Winbush, with an "n." So we'll go with Nelson Winbush, as I originally spelled it. CA Stories from that far back are not available online, so I have copied and pasted that story on the jump.
Jan. 21, 1996

Winbush's grandfather served in the cavalry under Gen. Nathan Bedford Forrest, so the first thing Winbush did Saturday after arriving in Memphis was to drive to Forrest Park on Union Avenue to pay his respects at the grave of the Confederate military leader.

Winbush wore a necktie depicting a Civil War battle scene, several pins advertising his membership in the Sons of Confederate Veterans and a baseball- type cap with a picture of Robert E. Lee and the words "Carry Me Back to Old Virginny." He carried the Confederate flag that had been draped over the coffin at his grandfather's funeral in 1934.

There are many proud sons and daughters of the Old South. What may be surprising is that Nelson Wyman Calvin Winbush is a black man.

Winbush's grandfather was a slave when he joined the Confederate Army in 1861, along with the two sons of his master.

"A lot of folks don't realize what happened during the war, " said Winbush, 66, of Kissimmee, Fla., who was in town to speak at the annual banquet of the local Forrest Camp of the Sons of Confederate Veterans Saturday night at Woodland Hills in Cordova.

Lee Millar, 46, commander of the Forrest Camp, said there are few black members of Confederate organizations. But the Forrest Camp did have several black members when it was founded in 1901.

"Blacks went to war just like the whites did, for the same reasons, " Winbush said. "Contrary to what Yankees want you to believe, the war wasn't about slavery; it was about state's rights. We got the same problem now."

Many people are aware of the black regiments that fought for the Union during the Civil War, as shown in the film Glory. About 180,000 black soliders fought for the Union.

The number of black soliders in the South is not so well documented. The Confederate Congress did not officially approve the use of black soldiers until 1865, although in reality some blacks had been fighting alongside white Confederate soldiers since the beginning of the war.

"They fought, ate and prayed together, " Winbush said. "You won't see this in the history books because the history books are written by Yankees. They aren't about to put in there that they had some black dudes shooting at their ass for keeps."

Winbush, who has many letters and legal papers that detail his grandfather's military career, said most black men and women whose ancestors fought for the Confederacy don't know it or don't talk about. "Some people, for various reasons, are afraid to come out of the closet."

Winbush's grandfather was Louis Napoleon Nelson. He was born in Lauderdale County and lived all his life in West Tennessee.

As a member of Forrest's 7th Tennessee Cavalry, Nelson saw action at Shiloh and Lookout Mountain in Tennessee and at Brice's Crossing and Vicksburg in Mississippi. He attended 39 reunions of Confederate veterans before his death, often wearing a re-creation of a Confederate uniform that Winbush still owns.

On Lookout Mountain, "he would slip down from the camp at night and kill a jenny mule and skin it back for some meat, then scale back up the mountain. He said when you don't have nothing else, mule meat tastes really good."

But "Vicksburg he didn't talk about much, " Winbush said. "He said Yankees and Confederates were falling side by side just like cordwood."

According to a story in The Commercial Appeal in 1933, Nelson styled

himself as "the only colored Democrat in Lauderdale County." (At the time, most black voters were loyal to the Republican Party of Abraham Lincoln.) His funeral the following year, which included a military procession, was described as "the largest colored folks funeral we had ever seen in our time."

After the war, Nelson worked for his former master for 11 years before building a home in Ripley. Winbush grew up in that house. Nelson died when Winbush was 5 but not before the older man had passed on many Civil War stories to his grandson.

Winbush, a longtime teacher and school principal, decided to begin talking about his grandfather publicly after his retirement because he was "fed up" with the stereotypical depiction of Confederate soldiers as racists attempting to perpetuate slavery.

"I wanted to set the record straight about one, " he said, referring to his grandfather.

He admitted many of his black acquaintances don't exactly approve of his defense of the Confederacy. That's why he waited until after his retirement to begin speaking out.

"I was retired. Can't anybody mess with my job; all they can do is look at me mad, and I can cuss them as well as they can cuss me."


We fixed the typo. Sorry!

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