David Blight Reviews Bruce Levine’s Confederate Emancipation
No surprise that David Blight approves of Levine’s ground-breaking study that seriously challenges the popular belief that black Southerners willingly fought for the Confederacy in large numbers. Blight knows all too well that this belief is rooted in a postwar re-interpretation that sought to distance the memory of the Confederacy from any connection with slavery and emancipation. From the review:
The idea of faithful slaves in the Old South has been one of the most tenacious myths in American history. Slaves’ fidelity to their masters’ cause — a falsehood constructed to support claims that the war was not about slavery — has long formed one of the staple arguments in Lost Cause ideology. In dealing with such myths, historians often analyze their tenacity instead of their veracity. Not so Bruce Levine, a professor of history at the University of California at Santa Cruz. His Confederate Emancipation is brilliantly researched and persuasively argued. In the past decade, the neo-Confederate fringe of Civil War enthusiasm (with tentative support from some academic historians) has contended that thousands of African Americans, slave and free, willingly joined the Confederate war effort as soldiers and fought for their “homeland.” A quasi-debate over the existence of “black Confederates” has seeped into academic conferences, historical journals and many Web sites. The issue of competing popular memories is driven largely by the desire of current white supremacists to re-legitimize the Confederacy while tacitly rejecting the victories of the modern civil rights movement. What could better buttress the claims of “color-blind conservatism” in our own time than the notion that the slaveholding leaders of the Confederacy were themselves the true emancipators and that many slaves were devoted to the Southern rebellion? George Orwell warned us: Who needs real history when you can control public language and political debate? This book is a scholarly, well-written demolition of the invented tradition of “black Confederates.” Levine’s intrepid research overwhelms the myth, although it will never kill it as long as such stories reinforce current social needs and political agendas.
The problem with this debate and the reason it will continue is that proponents of the black Confederates theory are not really interested in serious debate. Their agenda is in part to protect and defend a certain vision of the Old South and Confederacy along with their emotions that go along with it. Their responses to historians such as Blight and others is to charge them with writing revisionist history or subscribing to some kind of liberal doctrine. Few ever put forward a coherent explanation beyond pointing to a photograph of Confederate soldiers along which includes a black man. I am really looking forward to seeing how people react to my upcoming Crater article which will appear in America’s Civil War. No doubt it will be read by a sizeable contingent of people who subscribe to this nonsense.