Confederate Turns into Advocate for Black Civil Rights

Article excerpt

Confederate Maj. Gen. James Lawson Kemper, a native of Madison County, Va., survived a severe groin wound and capture at Gettysburg to accomplish something that few weekend historians discuss. Kemper proved that states' rights politicians could credibly shed their pro-slavery wartime platforms in favor of a postwar fight for the civil rights of black Americans.

This metamorphosis underscores that the study of Southern culture is no easy endeavor.

Before the war, Kemper proved his forward-looking quality in his 1842 commencement address at Washington College (now Washington and Lee University) in Lexington, Va. - addressing the "need of a public school system in Virginia."

A decade later, during the "bleeding Kansas" era (when pro- and anti-slavery elements clashed in the Kansas Territory, and abolitionist John Brown became involved), Kemper became a member of the Virginia House of Delegates. He postponed addressing the commonwealth's education needs in favor of bolstering Virginia's militia. Kemper did so four years before Brown's attack on Harpers Ferry. Kemper's militia unit helped guard Brown after his capture.

After Brown's attack, as chairman of the Militia Laws (military affairs) Committee, Kemper forced through the legislature a bill that financed a military unit that became the core of the Confederate Army. Just as it would be today, Brown's attack was met by a counterterrorist response; namely, the fiscal and martial aid personally orchestrated by Kemper.

During the war, Kemper rose to be speaker of the Virginia House of Delegates, He resigned to lead the 7th Virginia, fighting at Seven Pines, Frayser's Farm, Second Bull Run, South Mountain, Antietam and Fredericksburg.

At Gettysburg, he was shot from his horse while leading a brigade against the Union center during Pickett's Charge. Captured, Kemper was confined to a hospital room with his fellow Washington College alumnus, Henry Kyd Douglas, the gifted young Confederate staff officer whose autobiography was

titled "I Rode With Stonewall." (It would be interesting to know whether Kemper heard Douglas recount how he had unwittingly helped Brown push a heavy wagon that was subsequently thought to have contained the weapons used by Brown's guerrillas.

Kemper was freed in a prisoner exchange in late September 1863 but was physically unable to enter active service again until late April 1864, when he commanded Virginia's reserve forces. …