I had a pretty good time

today on the radio discussing the subject of black Confederates.  The hour went by fairly quickly and with the commercials the interview probably lasted about 45 minutes.  Ben Fordney posed some interesting questions and there were also a few phone calls.  I tried my best to keep the focus on why these stories are so prevalent as opposed to debating the evidence.  The fundamental problem is that there is so little evidence and very little interest in serious analysis by those who push this topic.  The fact that there is no agreement on numbers suggests how little we know, but the more difficult problem is that overly simplistic language that is employed in trying to prove large numbers of black Confederates. 

Towards the end of the show an elderly women read from a pamphlet from some Confederate heritage group that explained secession by referencing high tariffs and Lincoln’s failure to end slavery at the beginning of the war.  What I find so interesting is that what appears on the surface to be a point that has nothing at all to do with the subject at hand it actually has everything to do with it.  The agenda of proponents of black Confederates, either explicitly or implicitly, is to minimize the importance of slavery and race to the Confederate experiment and the war as a whole.  If you can show that secession was not about slavery or that Lincoln was a racist than somehow that demonstrates that the Confederate government was not established to protect the institution of slavery.  If that doesn’t work that go for the line that black Southerners were loyal to the Confederate government and fought to maintain it.  It has little to do with an interest in uncovering historical truth.  I forgot to make the obvious point that the advocates of this story are just about all white.  Why don’t we have substantial numbers of black Americans acknowledging the existence of large numbers of loyal black Confederate soldiers?  Are we to believe that they are intentionally ignoring this little piece of history?  Could it be that there weren’t any beyond the small number (perhaps 20-25) that Robert Krick uncovered in his analysis of 100,000 service records? 

At the end Fordney concluded that this is a topic that will remain divisive and widely debated and he is no doubt correct about this.  I made it a point to quickly interject that this is in fact not a hotly debated topic within the professional historical community.  In my last class today I made it a point to emphasize the importance of asking the right questions when thinking about the past.  We could use a little of that here.

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2 thoughts on “I had a pretty good time

  1. Rebecca

    This is really interesting stuff, Kevin. Finding out about black soldiers in any American war prior to 1898 is difficult at best–for a long time historians of the Revolution thought there were hardly any on either side. Now we’re getting better numbers for black Revolutionaries and black Loyalists alike–and they’re in the tens of thousands. I wonder what kinds of numbers really sustained examinations of the remaining evidence for the Civil War would reveal??

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  2. Kevin Levin

    Hi Rebecca, — You are absolutely correct in pointing out that we are learning much more about black soldiers before 1898. My students are usually surprised to hear that black Americans fought with the British and eventually with Washington’s army after he realized that it was a necessity. That particular story is wonderful since it muddies up the waters of our traditional picture of our Revolution: Colonists = Good/Freedom, British = Bad/Enslavement. Well, it depends whose perspective you take. A slave in Virginia is more likely to see Dunmore as the track to freedom regardless of D’s intentions.

    As for the story of black Confederates the interesting thing is that there is a rich history to be told. Better yet, some of the evidence has already been uncovered by those who push the narrow conclusion of large numbers of loyal black Confederate soldiers. The problem is that they don’t know how to interpret the evidence because they have this overarching agenda. There were thousands of slaves with the various Confederate armies and what we need to know is how the war altered race relations. It’s much more interesting than the simplistic question of soldiering.

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