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.