The obvious answer is that black support for the Confederacy goes hand-in-hand with the widely held belief that slavery was a benevolent institution overseen by paternalistic slave owners. Bruce Levine’s Confederate Emancipation throws a wrench into this thinking in reference to the decision late in the war to enlist slaves in exchange for their freedom:
“If slaves were so satisfied with their status–and both grateful and loyal to their masters–why offer to sever their bonds? Why alter their status at all? Didn’t emphasizing their fidelity and contentment suggest that manumission was an unnecessary–even a wrong-headed, if not positively destructive–reward? Why not simply muster southern blacks into the army as slaves?” (p. 65) It is important to note that the enthusiasm with which many assert the involvement of black southerners conflicts sharply with the strong opposition by slave owners during the war. Levine notes: “To emancipate slaves and place them in the army conflicted in many ways with the elaborate ideology that justified African American bondage, and ideology that white southerners had for generations imbibed with their mother’s milk. For one thing, the idea of enlisting black soldiers flew in the face of what every right-thinking southerner had been taught about what the African was and could and could not do.” (p. 48)
Levine’s research into primary sources will satisfy any reasonable judge as to the outlook of slave owners in response to recruitment proposals in different regions of the south and who held differing views on the war, the Confederacy, and secession. It is important to note that plans for enlistment at the end of the war were limited and would not include full civil rights for those who joined. In addition, southerners discussed ways of insuring that a successful war would not be followed by general emancipation. As Levine demonstrates, steps were already being discussed to ensure that the black race remained subservient to white southerners. In short, limited black enlistment into Confederate ranks was discussed as a way to preserve the antebellum social hierarchy and not to overturn it.
What I find most interesting is the obsession with the image of the “faithful slave” that took hold throughout the south by the beginning of the 20th century. This can be seen clearly in the 1903 Crater reenactment which included Jackson’s “faithful” servant from the war. The contrast is so striking between on the one hand the public denial that black men fought for their freedom at the Crater and the presence of the faithful slave. Such imagery only served to reinforce the white social hierarchy at a time when Virginia’s legislature was passing Jim Crow legislation.
“As a wave of lynchings sought to help blacks once again find their proper place in society, the renewed and now nationally observed cult of the Lost Cause piously celebrated the grateful slaves of yesteryear who had served their masters faithfully in both peace and war. It all served (as the recently-launched journal Confederate Veteran summarized) to teach ‘young negroes’ that ‘their aspirations for social equality will ever be their calamity.’ They must instead ‘accept the situation, treat the whites with deference, and they will soon realize the best they need ever hope to exist between the races.’” (p. 163)
It is clear that certain groups will always have a reason to claim that blacks fought for the Confederacy. No amount of argument or evidence will make a difference. If there is one area that is crying out for serious research it is the relationship between southern blacks and the Confederacy. Until then, let us steer clear of vague generalizations and anecdotal evidence. Here is another suggestion: If people are truly interested in black participation in the military why not concentrate on the roughly 200,000 African Americans who we know volunteered to fight for their freedom.