Tuesday, February 24, 2015

Documentary Evidence that Ought to have been Used in BLACK FLAG OVER DIXIE (2004)

This is not a review of the whole collection BLACK FLAG OVER DIXIE but a comment on James G. Hollandsworth, Jr.'s essay on "The Execution of White Officers from Black Units." I am more than a little distressed on a personal level, since the two men accused on p. 58 of murdering two white Union officers are both cousins of mine, though not related to each other, Major M. W. Sims and Lieutenant Sparks. Hollandsworth says (somewhat inexactly): "After a brief stay in Northern prison camps, Sims returned to Vicksburg, where he was jailed until he could be court-martialed for the murder of the still unidentified officers. Unfortunately, this writer could find no evidence in the National Archives that Sims's court-martial ever took place. What I did find was a pardon for Sims after the war, ordered by President Andrew Johnson and signed April 23, 1866. Thus, the question of whether Sims and Sparks murdered two men and, if so, who they were remains unanswered." My Sparks cousin (Jesse W. Sparks) as far as I know left no statement about his arrest. Very curiously, one of the last notable acts of Sparks's life, as consul at Piedras Negras, was the rescue of Georgia and Alabama blacks from a settlement in Mexico, where they were suffering from smallpox, untreated. My Cousin Milton Walker Sims did leave a remarkably full account of the 1863 events, eloquently written by an eminent Texas journalist, Charles L. Martin, "Sentenced to be Hanged." In this article Milton says that when ransacking his brain to try to imagine what he was about to be executed for doing (without trial), he could think of grisly orders he received and carried out, not involving Union officers. On 57 Hollandsworth makes it clear that Thomas Cormal was lying about his claim that a white officers and many, many blacks had been hanged by Confederates in Richmond, Louisiana. Linda Barnickel in her more recent book on Milliken's Bend quotes an anonymous accusation that Sims and Sparks dragged four [black?] ministers from their bed or beds and slaughtered them! Somehow the names of Sims and Sparks were available to attach to crimes. Now, what Sims states is horrific enough. Sims says that in solitary confinement he ransacked his brain "as to the probable charges against him." He decided it must have to do with four slaves "who had enlisted in the federal army and were caught with arms in their hands making war upon the white people." Sims "was ordered to send two of them to Delhi and have them hanged in the presence of the troops there and the other two to hang in the presence of the troops at Floyd, where he was stationed. This order he executed. He simply obeyed orders." This newspaper article from 1895 was probably not easy to find when BLACK FLAG OVER DIXIE was being prepared. Once I saw that two of my cousins were being accused of vague but horrible crimes, I took off several days to learn what I could find, and in fact I find that evidence is out there that professional historians might well have found if they had tried harder--and more powerful evidence than the historians had, given their topic of black service in the Union army. This is worth emphasizing: historians still have not learned to use the treasures of Internet databases. I have been saying in pieces in THE JOURNAL OF THE AMERICAN REVOLUTION that historians have not been using the 20,000 and more searchable Revolutionary pension applications under the 1832 law. Now I insist that historians of the Civil War need to spend time in the databases of newspapers. No matter how many newspapers have been lost, what remains is an unexplored or barely explored treasure.

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