A Quick Thought About Black Confederates and U.S.C.T.’s

I find the "debate" surrounding so-called black Confederates to be quite interesting beyond the analytical questions of evidence and explanation.  While the number of interpretations has waxed and waned over the years we are clearly in a period of resurgence since the early 1990′s.  Is this surprising to anyone?  This resurgence came at just the time that the bitter debates surrounding the placement of the Confederate flag on statehouse grounds and the incorporation of the symbol on state flags were heating up.  The debate about black Confederates provides a way of divorcing the history of the Confederacy from the issues of race.  It fits neatly into the "virgin-birth theory" which suggests that the Confederacy was the result of abstract constitutional and philosophical debate.  The shortcomings of most of these explanations are obvious: they include a tendency to collect any and all stories that place a colored individual in the army on the battlefield without providing any serious analysis as to why that individual was present.  In addition, these interpretations (most of which you will only find on the Internet or small vanity presses) tend to focus on post-war sources, which must be treated very carefully for a number of reasons.

An additional problem that tends to be ignored is the question of what broader historical context could justify the existence of black Confederates.  What historical trend would allow us to better or more clearly understand why large numbers of black Southerners willingly fought for the Confederacy?  This is all the more significant given the very public statements of high-ranking political officials including Jefferson Davis and Alexander Stephens who clearly articulated the racial purpose of their government.  What exactly does it mean to say that black Southerners identified enough with the Confederacy that they were willing to risk their lives?  I have never read a satisfactory answer.  I guess if you are convinced by the Lost Cause interpretation than you are more likely to interpret any evidence as constituting a sufficient explanation.

As I finish my Crater manuscript I am thinking more about how my research connects to how the NPS ought to interpret the battle site.  The presence of African-Americans at the Crater as well as the army as a whole does fit into a broader historical context.  Historians such as Eugene Genovese and others have provided very sophisticated explanations of slave resistance, not simply from the perspective of their white owners, but from a perspective that takes seriously the on-going struggle to attain freedom and civil rights.  Abraham Lincoln may have provided the legal means that made the recruitment of black soldiers possible, but it was the initiative of tens of thousands of free and enslaved blacks who embraced the opportunity to fight. 

From this perspective the story of U.S.C.T.’s at the Crater is both one of promise and tragedy.  The tension between these two positions can be seen in the bravery exhibited by those who fought and were injured or died and the postwar decline into the abyss of Jim Crow and other forms of racial discrimination.  From the broadest perspective it is easy to situate the Civil War and the Crater specifically into a much richer and longer Civil Rights Movement. 

I would love to see the NPS in Petersburg do more to highlight this aspect of the story.  It would, quite possibly, bring more African Americans to our Civil War battlefields as well and the serious study of the subject.

4 comments… add one

  • Michael Aubrecht Aug 16, 2006

    You make some great points Kevin. This of course is one of the most widely debated topics in all CW history. The fact is that there were free African-Americans living in the South at the outbreak of the war, and some of them took up arms alongside their white neighbors in an effort to protect their own families and interests. The discrepancy lies in the numbers of black Rebels, which have been quoted as anywhere from 10 to 10,000. (That’s quite a statistical difference!)

    Perhaps the worst discrimination of all fell on the shoulders of the black Confederate veterans, who were not given the same postwar pensions and accolades as their white peers. One of our local experts here in Fredericksburg (R. Krick) has researched hundreds of CSA pension records and he concluded that there were black Confederates, but the numbers were VERY minimal.

    Another forgotten aspect of the war was the struggle that was endured by Southern blacks (both free and freed) who were trying to establish their own identities in the postwar Reconstruction era. Many of these emancipated citizens were unable to find jobs or establish homesteads despite the best efforts of the Freedmen’s Bureau, whose mission of establishing “freedom and liberty for all” was often corrupted by crooked politicians and white supremacist societies. I have read accounts of black vets traveling all the way to Canada before finding a suitable place to start over again.

    Regardless of the debate, their history is just as valuable and has been overlooked for far too long. I don’t agree with a lot of what Rev. Jackson says, but he is absolutely correct when calling out the NPS for not incorporating enough material on the plight of the African-American.

  • Kevin Levin Aug 16, 2006

    I actually don’t agree with you that this “is one of the most widely debated topics in all CW history.” I say that because a serious scholarly debate has to be based on positions that while divergent have been sufficiently researched. Unfortunately, this is not the case in reference to black Confederates. Most of the “arguments” that you will find are on the Internet and written by people who obviously have an agenda or are released by mediocre publishers. We simply have much too little on this issue. And it’s not surprising as there seems to be so little wartime evidence to substantiate some of the more ridiculous conclusions. Of course some black men picked up guns at various points during the war and fired at Yankees, but this does not in any way lead to significant conclusions about black “soldiers” in the Confederate army.

    We can at least conclude that based on the available scholarly research there is no black Confederate soldier. On the other hand the experiences of roughly 200,000 African Americans serving in the Union army has been and continues to be well documented. And the reason is because a substantial number in fact served as soldiers.

    I would love to see more research done on the presence of black men in the various Confederate armies. Thousands were present as slaves, servants, or were hired out to the army by their owners. This is fertile ground in which to contribute something significant to Civil War studies. It was a complicated relationship. Unfortunately, most of the amateurs who write about this on the Internet have little or no analytical ability and they are from the beginning convinced of a certain naieve and simplistic conclusion.

  • Michael Aubrecht Aug 17, 2006

    “I would love to see more research done on the presence of black men in the various Confederate armies.” = me too Kevin. I have discussed this issue with several historians and authors in recent years. I understand what you are saying about “internet and agenda” based stuff, but I wonder what you make of the CSA’s Louisiana Native Guard who were both documented and photographed. Clearly they are proof that black Confederates existed (at least in a militia-like capacity), but as I said before, the REAL experts like Mr. Krick stated that the numbers of black Confederates w/ documentation here in Fredericksburg are closer to 10.

    Also, I wouldn’t hold “mediocre publishers” against a writer (especially a historian). Many of the ones that I review for the paper started out w/ a lesser-known publisher (me included) in order to get their feet wet and start getting their name out. This often leads to larger firms.

    BTW: Picked up the latest America’s CW this morning on the way to work and saw an article on Spotsy/Wilderness. LOVE reading about stuff that took place in my own backyard – and especially love reading stuff by people I “know.” Well done.

  • Kevin Levin Aug 17, 2006

    The case of the Louisiana Native Guards was clearly an exception, which was made up of roughly 1,800 “free men of color” who offered their services to defend the city of New Orleans against Union forces in 1862. Many of these free blacks had achieved some level of economic success so it is not surprising that they would make this move. What most people ignore is that after Bulter took New Orleans many of the unit’s members changed their allegiance and formed one of the first all-black Union army regiments. As for small presses I tend to stay away. Perhaps I am missing something interesting, however, so many disappointments and so little time means that one must make certain decision.

    Thanks for the kind words re: the Winsmith letter.

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