I have to admit that I thought the publication of Bruce Levine’s Confederate Emancipation: Southern Plans to Free and Arm Slaves During the Civil War would generate a more intelligent discussion of this controversial and confusing issue. Those hopes were certainly misplaced. This debate, specifically points to the wide gulf between the goals of those interested in preserving a certain vision of the war and those who apply a more critical methodology to the evidence that is typically used to prove the willing participation of Southern blacks in various Confederate armies. Aspects of this debate remind me of the debates surrounding U.F.O.’s and Alien Abduction. It is much more interesting to analyze the messenger than the evidence provided, including his/her geographic, and economic/social background. Those who believe in the veracity of these stories tend to collect individual accounts regardless of the origin of the stories, the accumulation of which is supposed to be considered a sufficient condition for drawing a specific conclusion. So it is in the debate over Black-Confederates.
Bruce Levine does two things in his article, “In Search of a Usable Past: Neo-Confederates and Black Confederates” which is included in the edited volume Slavery and Public History. (See two earlier posts on this book – here and here.) First, he sketches the reasons behind the continued claims of Black Confederates and later provides a short overview of the actual debate that took place in the Confederacy (from the beginning of the war) over whether to recruit blacks into the army. Those interested in a more complete account of the actual debate should read Confederate Emancipation.
What I like about the structure of Levine’s article is his decision not to take on Neo-Confederate claims of Black Confederates directly. And the reason is because it is unproductive to do so. Consider the standard approach to this debate. Individual stories are cited as evidence of a certain conclusion, but there is almost always no critical discussion of the origin of the source or whether the account really implies only one conclusion. For an example, check out the discussion on this topic over at Civil War Talk Forum. (This is a great example of why I usually steer clear of on-line discussion groups.) You will find the same lack of critical analysis in books that purport to demonstrate broad commitment to the Confederacy such as Black Southerners in Gray by H.C. Blackerby, The South Was Right! by James and Walther Kennedy and the edited collection Black Confederates. All of these books have been released by partisan presses which suggests that they did not go through any serious editing or review that is regularly carried out in more mainstream and university publishers. These debates lack any attempt at analysis, but this is exactly what is missing from the debate. Just consider the spectrum of supposed numbers of Black Confederates that were to have served: they range from 1,000 to 100,000. More depressing, however, is the sloppiness that lay just behind this debate. Finally, even if we can establish a certain number of blacks who “supported” the Confederacy one way or another we still need to know what this means. Of course it does not necessarily follow that they were considered as officially serving in a Confederate army since we know that the final authorization did not take place until March 1865. More on this later.
Levine sketches out the reasons behind these claims. They all fall under the broader concern of those who wish to vindicate the Confederacy and honor their own southern ancestors:
1. “Insisting on a massive black presence in southern armies aims to strengthen that assertion by demonstrating that African Americans identified with and were loyal to the Confederacy. The southern war effort thereby comes to appear as the cause not merely of slave owners, nor even of southern whites more generally, but all southerners, white as black, free as well as slave.” (190) The point is important here. The emphasis on loyal black southerners masks the further question of the extent of white loyalty to the Confederacy which is widely debated among academic historians. As we all know, not all Southern slave states joined the Confederacy.
2. “Painting the Confederate army as a sea of both white and black faces it is hoped, will convey a very different impression of the war’s significance. Recruiting a sprinkling of black members to modern Confederate heritage or reenactor groups is useful in the same way. ‘Obviously we’d like to have more black or minority members,’ Ben C. Sewell III then executive director of the Sons of Confederate Veterans, told one reporter, ‘because the fact that we have minorities and welcome them deflects some of the criticism we seem to get’ when championing the official public veneration of Confederate symbols.'” I still find it difficult to understand why blacks today align themselves with Southern Heritage organizations. Consider the reasons provided by H.K. Edgerton.
3. “The claim of a massive black presence in southern armies is meant to accomplish something else as well: to demonstrate once and for all that the Confederacy did not stand and did not fight for slavery. After all, the neo-Confederates ask, would so many blacks have so enthusiastically supported a war effort that was defined by such a goal?” For many neo-Confederates this is a wonderful example of the split between the preservation of memory and critical historical analysis. I will not belabor the point here except to suggest that scholarship over the past 30 years has demonstrated (and continues to show) the complex ways in which slavery shaped the nation and especially the South in the years leading up to and through the Civil War. Perhaps what is needed is a distinction between why any one individual fought in the war and the reasons behind secession and the creation of the Confederate States of America. (190)
4. “The Black Confederates campaign also aims to reinforce a particular view of the postwar Reconstruction years. Just as abolitionists are to blame for slavery’s survival into the 1860’s, so the North bears responsibility for subsequent conflicts between southern whites and blacks–and even for legalized segregation and Ku Klux Klan terror.” (193)
I would like to see proponents of the Black Confederate interpretation to address two issues. The first is one that Levine raises and the second stems from my research on the Crater. Levine clearly demonstrates the difficulties that General Patrick Cleburne and others who attempted to convince the government to recruit (on a limited basis) blacks into Confederate armies. Almost no one, including Jefferson Davis, believed that this was a good idea. In fact many argued that it would be a fatal blow to the Confederacy, including Howell Cobb who concluded that “If slaves make good soldiers our whole theory of slavery is wrong.” I refer the reader to Levine’s chapters on this subject. His analysis of the debate from December 1863, when Cleburne first proposed the idea, to the end of the war is well documented and provides a thorough analysis.
The other issue that I would like to see addressed is the reaction of Confederate soldiers to the presence of black Union soldiers at the Crater. As I’ve shown in a number of publications (check out my recent article, “The Earth Seemed to Tremble” in America’s Civil War [May 2006]) white Southerners were not simply outraged that the Federal commanders had unleashed U.S.C.T.’s on the battlefield. They were just as concerned about what it meant – nothing less than a leveling of their society. Many soldiers understood and wrote clearly about their fears of what losing the war would mean to the racial hierarchy of the South. It is not surprising then that during the postwar years, and increasingly during the Jim Crow era, white Southerners would distance themselves from the memory of black Federal soldiers in their public commemorations of the Crater.