Feedback: “Hey, I know that guy!”

Published:October 19, 2011 by Brendan Wolfe

Yesterday, hundreds of people clicked on our post about black Confederates. One of those people, a friend of mine recently of Charlottesville, even watched the segment from History Detectives we linked to and, whaddya know, she recognized a photograph of her own relative! That’s him seated there with his giant sword, his hat at a cocky angle. An officer in the 57th Alabama Infantry, his name was John Wallace Comer. (Comer’s younger brother later became governor.) The man standing behind, meanwhile, hat in hand, is Burrell, Comer’s presumably enslaved servant.

Although the source of this striking photograph is likely the Comer Family Papers at the University of North Carolina, my friend remembers it clearly from back home in Alabama. She reports that family legend has it that when Comer was injured on the battlefield, Burrell braved enemy fire to drag him to safety. Having watched the History Detectives and read about black Confederates, she now wonders whether the old story is true. And what does it mean that her family has chosen to remember Burrell primarily as a war hero rather than a slave?

Still, she notes that Comer and Burrell’s pose is classic master-servant, and that no one in her family has ever claimed Burrell was a soldier. As it turns out, this website, run by Anne Dewitt, suggests otherwise, labeling Burrell a “Black Confederate” without offering any evidence for that assertion. The historian Kenneth W. Noe, meanwhile, complicates the story. In Reluctant Rebels: The Confederates Who Joined the Army after 1861 (2010), he notes that Comer was the son of a wealthy planter who owned sixty-one slaves, one of whom was Burrell. In a wartime letter, young Comer praised his servant: “If Burrell holds out fast full to the end & stick to me as well as he has done here to fore & I come out safe a mint could not buy him ther are very few Negroes in the army that are not worth enything to their masters in times like this.”

Comer also praised Burrell’s bravery, writing that “he came to us the other day while we were on Picket … he said he wanted to kill One yankee before the war ended.” According to Noe, however, “Comer consistently maintained in his letter [that] Burrell was not really a soldier. He was still a ‘Negro,’ while Comer remained among the ‘masters.'” (Soldiers did not generally sell for “a mint” or for any other price.)

The relationship between Comer and Burrell was complex, in other words. But what it clearly was not was a soldier-soldier relationship. And yet, turn to page 122 of that infamous edition of the Virginia studies textbook and there they are again! Comer and Burrell are presented here not to illustrate complicated relationships, of course, but to illustrate black Confederates. (You can click on the image above to make it larger.) Above their heads, in the book’s main text, is the controversial claim that Stonewall Jackson commanded two battalions of black Confederates. But notice, also, the quote set inside the image:

“We are willing to aid Virginia’s cause to the utmost of our ability. There is not an unwilling heart among us.” — Charles Tinsley, a free black, Petersburg, V.

While that quotation is genuine (if not at all representative of free blacks in Virginia), it is not relevant to the image of Burrell, who was neither free nor a soldier. And yet the image’s placement—absent any kind of caption—argues exactly the opposite!

Seeing the image again has motivated my friend to dig deeper into that story, and I wish her luck. Perhaps the truth will surprise us all.