Documentary brings to mind `forgotten' black Confederates

September 22, 2002|By GREGOYR KANE

IF I made a bet that this fella Stan Armstrong likes to ice-skate uphill, I'd probably get no takers.

Armstrong's a filmmaker, not exactly the easiest of careers to break into. You have to get the training. Then have to hope financing comes from somewhere for a film.

To make matters even more difficult, Armstrong's a documentary filmmaker. Remember documentaries? Good. I barely do. Few directors bother to make them anymore. It's rare for a major studio to fund one. Armstrong is also a black documentary filmmaker and, so the perception goes, faces the obstacle of race in a white-dominated field.

So with all those hurdles in front of him, what topic does Armstrong select for his second documentary feature? How does the title Black Confederates: The Forgotten Men in Gray grab you?

"Black people tend to look at me as if to say, `Wow, we didn't know this,'" Armstrong said last week as he stood outside the Maryland Theatre in Hagerstown, where his film had just ended a two-night run. Armstrong was selling videos of Black Confederates and his first documentary, The Fort Pillow Massacre, about an infamous Civil War incident in which Confederate troops are alleged to have slaughtered unarmed black soldiers.

With Armstrong was Jack Maples, author of Reconstructed Yankee, a Civil War novel about two men, one black and one white, who first fight for the North but then fight for the South after witnessing Union atrocities. Maples assisted Armstrong in answering questions about Black Confederates.

Armstrong came to Hagerstown from Las Vegas, his home, where, he said, folks don't appreciate Civil War history like we Marylanders do.

He couldn't make a living off proceeds from documentaries, of course. He supplements that income by doing disc jockey work and teaching courses called "Ethnic Awareness in Film" and "The Civil War in Film" as an adjunct professor at the University of Nevada, Las Vegas.

Black Confederates is a 70-minute work that tells the story of those African-Americans who fought for the South in the War between the States. Using interviews with historians and ancient newsreel footage of actual black Confederate veterans, Armstrong tells the tale of their service as laborers, teamsters, body servants and, in some instances, combat troops. Here are a few facts from the documentary:

Estimates of the number of blacks fighting for the South range from 50,000 to 100,000.

Some 3,000 blacks, armed with muskets and Bowie knives, were in the Army of Northern Virginia that marched north to its fateful meeting with the Army of the Potomac at Gettysburg.

There were even blacks who rode with Confederate Gen. Nathan Bedford Forrest when he gave Union generals fits in Mississippi and Tennessee. "Better Confederates did not live," Forrest said of the blacks that rode with him. Interesting comment, coming from a guy most folks think started the Ku Klux Klan. Armstrong cleared up that misconception in a question-and-answer period after the film ended.

"Nathan Bedford Forrest didn't start the Klan," Armstrong said. "He was the first Grand Dragon of the Klan."

Not much better, most would think. But Forrest was an enigma. A slave trader before the war, he left the Klan and criticized it when the terror group became "too violent." Armstrong said that Forrest also donated money to a black church and, to the dismay of many of his fellow whites, advocated equal rights for African-Americans.

"Do we call him the first civil rights leader?" Armstrong asked. "I don't know."

Let's call Frederick Douglass the first civil rights leader, thank you very much. Forrest was the Confederate general in command at the Fort Pillow massacre. But on the matter of race, Armstrong may have a point about Forrest. He was probably more liberal in his views than Union Gen. William Tecumseh Sherman, who referred to blacks as "Sambo" and, according to Maples, left a group of fugitive slaves attempting to follow him to the tender mercies of Confederates who gleefully slaughtered them.

Armstrong's goal is to get his film shown on the Hitler Channel - er, uh, excuse me - that should be the History Channel. But, he's not optimistic.

"I'm liberal, but they're really, really liberal," Armstrong - a descendant of one of those black Confederates - said of the folks at the History Channel. "I don't think they'll show it."

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