Black Confederates: The Standard Formula

Here is a wonderful example of the rhetoric surrounding the myth of black Confederate soldiers.  You can find this story in the pages of The Murfreesboro Post by Shirley F. Jones:

1. Find a historical adviser from the Sons of Confederate Veterans and a “doctor George Smith” but fail to mention that he is a medical doctor.

2. Provide the standard quotes from Ed Bearss and Ervin Jordan even though Bearss never did serious research on the subject and Jordan’s study does not draw broad conclusions about the loyalty and service of black southerners across the Confederacy.

3. Include incoherent/meaningless thoughts by black “historian”:

“Roland Young says that “he is not surprised that blacks fought … some, if not most, would support their country, and that by doing so they were demonstrating that it was possible to hate the system of slavery and love one’s country.””

By the way, who the hell is Roland Young?  Unfortunately, the author of the article can’t tell us because she found and quoted it from a website.  Thanks for the responsible reporting Ms. Jones.

4.Remind readers that Lincoln’s Emancipation Proclamation only freed slaves in areas that were not under direct military control as of January 1, 1863, as if this has anything to do with the question at hand.

5. Reach for moral parity by suggesting that Ulysses S. Grant owned slaves.  Oh..and throw in that wonderful quote from Frederick to Douglas to Lincoln suggesting that unless he freed the slaves they will fight for the Confederacy.

6. Drive your point home by including names of black men who received a pension from the state of Tennessee.

7. Top it off with a conclusion that implies that the author has done something to bring us closer to uncovering a long lost story:

Blacks fought for the very same reason as whites – to defend their homes and their families. Historical data can sometimes be a matter of
interpretation and the facts can sometimes contradict themselves. But, one must remember that day and time and judge it accordingly, for a man of the 19th century should not be compared to a man of today’s world and evaluated by current standards. Regardless of how black Southerners participated, whether voluntary or involuntary, one thing is certain: the thousands of slaves and free persons of color in the South are the most forgotten group of the Civil War. They, too, should be remembered for the suffering, sacrifices and contributions they made.

Actually, we have a great deal of information about tens of thousands of black southerners who fought with the army – the Union army that is.

Note: Joseph Glatthaar’s General Lee’s Army: From Victory to Collapse is scheduled for release in March and supposedly analyzes the role of blacks in Lee’s army.  I should be receiving a review copy in about a week or two.

13 comments… add one
  • Marc Ferguson Feb 10, 2008

    Kevin,
    The Ed Bearss quote is indeed part of the standard recipe for serving up “black Confederates.” Unfortunately for the “black Confederates” advocates, Bearss has denied making any statements in support of substantial numbers of black Confederate soldiers. If you look at the quote itself, “I don’t want to call it a conspiracy to ignore the role of Blacks both above and below the Mason-Dixon line, but it was definitely a tendency that began around 1910,” it is clearly, at least to me, a comment on the reconciliationist attitude of the time that pushed the issue of slavery, and the role that blacks both free and enslaved played in the war, into the background.

    Marc

  • Woodrowfan Feb 10, 2008

    I had a student ask about this myth last term. Hopefully I shot it down. Some myths will never die because they serve a political purpose, and this is one of them…

  • Kevin Levin Feb 11, 2008

    Marc, — You are absolutely correct re: Bearss on black Confederates. As for Jordan I suspect that most people who cite his work have never actually read it. If they did they wouldn’t continue to prop him up as the intellectual leader of this silly movement.

  • Sean S. Feb 12, 2008

    I constantly have to deal with this sort of garbage editing Wikipedia, where I have to keep a close eye on my watchlist to make sure certain users don’t go in and attempt to introduce weasel words (replacing stark language on slavery with mealy mouth stuff about complex issues of loyalty). citing absurd Lost Cause junk that blacks fought freely in large numbers in the South, and generally trying to stem the tide.

  • Kevin Levin Feb 12, 2008

    Sean, — Sounds like you’ve got yourself a full-time job.

  • Border Feb 12, 2008

    Woodrowfan-
    “I had a student ask about this myth last term. Hopefully I shot it down. Some myths will never die because they serve a political purpose, and this is one of them…”

    ==========================================

    What sort of modern-day political issues are involved?

    Is there any political purpose at stake for those on the other side of the question?

  • Dixie Dawn Feb 16, 2008

    Granted if your going to write you should have proper information, however, I think the point she’s trying to make is that its wrong to say that a man does not deserve honor and glory because he was a black slave that was forced to fight. Whether he was forced or chose to, or Union or Confederate, he still fought, so he deserves recognition. Sometimes we need to step away from the labels of the past and look at the people, thats my feeling for what its worth, though I believe its not much…LOL…

    Most Respectfully
    Dixie Dawn

  • Kevin Levin Feb 16, 2008

    Hi Dawn, — Nice to hear that you are on the road to recovery. Well, I couldn’t agree more that black Americans deserve recognition for their participation and service in the Civil War. Black Union soldiers deserve just as much recognition and honor as their white comrades. As for black southerners who performed various roles in Confederate armies it is first necessary to do the proper research to better understand their involvement. We’ve had very little of that and this article only serves to perpetuate myths and nonsense about a very important topic. Thanks for writing.

  • Border Feb 19, 2008

    KL:
    “Black Union soldiers deserve just as much recognition and honor as their white comrades. As for black southerners who performed various roles in Confederate armies it is first necessary to do the proper research”
    ==================================

    Like this:

    Gregory Laurendine
    Murphy’s Battalion Alabama Cavalry (Confederate)
    Mustered-in as Bugler July 30, 1861.
    “copper complexion, dark eyes, dark hair”
    Listed as “mulatto” in 1860 Census.

    National Archives Compiled Service Records.
    1860 United States Census.

    …and this:

    Joseph Rickman
    25th Tennessee Infantry (Confederate)
    Mustered-in as Private July 26, 1861.
    Described on roll as “Freeman of Color.”

    National Archives Compiled Service Records.

  • Kevin Levin Feb 19, 2008

    Very good Border. You’ve managed to list records from the National Archives. The collection of source material is a great start, now you need to begin to interpret your sources. Good luck.

  • Jim May 1, 2009

    Why would Confederates make slaves pickets????? This doesn’t make sense if they were not loyalists to the Confederacy.

    http://www.sonofthesouth.net/leefoundation/civil-war/1863/battle-of-fredericksburg.htm

    • Kevin Levin May 1, 2009

      Jim,

      First, it is important to remember that the news piece refers to the individual as a slave. Also keep in mind that the report was based on an eyewitness account that could not be verified. Slaves were used in a wide spectrum of roles within the army. Our job as historians is to understand these roles and how the war altered the master-slave relationship.

  • Mike May 1, 2009

    Thanks for the info. I will be looking for Joseph Glatthaar’s General Lee’s Army: From Victory to Collapse next time I am at the Bookstore. Kevin How do we interpet these kind of findings. What are we to be looking for? Pension records, orginal source documents ect.

    Joseph Rickman
    25th Tennessee Infantry (Confederate)
    Mustered-in as Private July 26, 1861.
    Described on roll as “Freeman of Color.”

    National Archives Compiled Service Records.

    As a Civil War Buff, I want to do properly documented work that will be accepted in a academic field since I am laying the ground work for a PHD project in the future.

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