Pictured is Al Arnold (left). Photo provided by Arnold
Lucy Waskiewicz | Contributing Writer
When Mississippi author Al Arnold began to research his family history, he never expected what we would find– that his great-great-grandfather, an African-American, was a proud member of the Confederate Army.
Arnold documented his experience in a book, titled Robert E. Lee’s Orderly: A Modern Black Man’s Confederate Journey, published in 2015. The book intertwines Arnold’s research and personal journey with his strong Christian faith.
“My story is written through the lens of Grace through the background of my Confederate ancestor and the redemptive story of Christ,” Arnold said in an interview for Flyer News. “I seek to show forgiveness and Grace is the path of the Christian even when the story runs against the culture.”
Arnold said that his primary goal has always been to point people to Christ as the true reconciler of history by showing that he, as a Black man, can be reconciled to his Confederate heritage.
Arnold’s great-great-grandfather, Turner Hall Jr., was a slave owned by Confederate Gen. Nathan Bedford Forrest. During the Civil War, Hall Jr. served both as a body servant for two Confederate officers and as an orderly for Gen.Robert E. Lee.
Following the war, Hall Jr. continued to show a firm loyalty to the Confederacy, identifying as a veteran during reunions and donning Confederate medals. He notably attended the last national Civil War reunion hosted at the Gettysburg, Pennsylvania, battlefield in 1938, which hosted approximately 25 remaining veterans from the more than 8,000 who served throughout the war.
Hall Jr. died shortly after, at age 104.
Arnold seeks to use his great-great-grandfather’s story to challenge the preconceived notions many Black Americans might have in regard to their ancestors who served the Confederacy. He writes that the generation of Confederate Blacks should be remembered and held in high esteem for their service, and wants his work to bestow honor and dignity upon his own ancestor, Hall Jr.
Arnold relies on the Christian faith as the means by which the many Americans with Confederate heritage, including himself, and the nation as a whole can bridge the divide between their past and future.
“The choice to embrace my heritage has given me the most tangible path to exercise my Christian faith as an adult believer,” Arnold said. “I have discovered that it’s easier to practice Christianity in theory than it is to walk in Christianity in practice.
He said that his Christian upbringing in a black and white community and his early understanding of faith teachings both introduced him to stories that were often countercultural narratives– stories he was able to embrace.
Arnold was a guest speaker at Sidney, Ohio’s Civil War Living History Weekend, which took place Sept. 16-18. There, he spoke about the discovery that led him to eight years of research mapping out his ancestor’s ties to the Confederacy– a journey rich in personal transformation as Arnold chose to accept, then embrace, his heritage.
Arnold has shared his own story in multiple speaking events throughout the South. His event in Sidney was his first ever in a northern state. Sidney is in Shelby County, about 36 miles north of Dayton.
“It was one of my most successful book events ever,” he said. “The reception was one of the finest I’ve had. I almost sold out of books.”
However, not every host has been as welcoming to Arnold. He referenced an instance in which his beliefs led to his being disinvited from speaking at a Black church about family heritage.
“Three nights before the event, I was personally disinvited after some among the congregation discovered I was not against the state flag of Mississippi, which at the time displayed a Confederate symbol,” he said. “I accepted this cancellation with much grace. The same grace that I afford my Confederate brothers and sisters, I also give to those who may not understand my journey.”
Arnold offered advice to University of Dayton students looking to learn from his story.
“It’s okay to think differently than what society would compel you to believe,” he said. “Challenge the narratives and though you may find yourself standing alone, stand firm in Him. Judge each man by the content of his character and not by the color of his skin or ancestral history.”
Arnold’s book, Robert E. Lee’s Orderly: A Modern Black Man’s Confederate Journey, can be found on Amazon.