Joseph Glatthaar on Black Confederates

Actually, Glatthaar refrains from referring to black Confederates in his latest study, General Robert E. Lee’s Army: From Victory to Collapse.  When the book first arrived I was tempted to skip directly to chapter 24 which is titled "Blacks and the Army", but decided to read through just in case his analysis hinged on issues discussed in previous chapters.  I was hoping that Glatthaar would address the controversy surrounding this subject, but by the time I finished the chapter I understood why he avoided it.  The book is essentially a biography of the Army of Northern Virginia and the narrative tends to avoid explicit references to broader historiographical themes; the endnotes list the massive amount of primary sources utilized in this study as well as more detailed statistical analysis culled from his sample size.  [In contrast, consider Chandra Manning's endnotes which are filled with interesting references to historiography, though this is not surprising given that the book was based on her dissertation.]  That said, anyone familiar with recent interpretive themes from the past 2-3 decades will easily recognize that this is a sophisticated narrative which situates the Army of Northern Virginia within a broader social and political context. What I like about is that it is organized chronologically, including chapters that address various topics such as religion, home front, discipline, supply, and organization.

By discussing blacks in the Army of Northern Virginia as opposed to black Confederates Glatthaar avoids the semantic pitfalls that accompany the debate.  By chapter 24 the reader understands how important the institution of slavery was to a large percentage of the men who served in the army [See my earlier reference to this.] and the role of the army as an extension of a government whose professed goal it was to protect it and the racial hierarchy of the South.  Glatthaar surveys the various functions that blacks provided in the army throughout the war, including the impressment of slaves and the experiences of those who accompanied their masters into camp and on occasion into battle.  Such a survey – both within the army and in terms of the threat of slave unrest on the home front – serves as a reminder that the burden is on those who would have us believe that large numbers of slaves and free blacks served as soldiers in Lee’s army.  In other words, the goal cannot simply be trumpeting photographs, news articles, and other sources that vaguely point to black men in Confederate uniforms or engaged in an activity as a sign of loyalty or as an indication that the ANV is somehow to be understood as an interracial army.  The only way you can do so is if you ignore the large body of scholarship that has emerged over the past few decades which demonstrates the centrality of slavery to the Confederate experience.  Without saying as much Glatthaar’s brief chapter on this subject brings into sharp focus the fact that the people and organizations who continue to push the black Confederate narrative are completely oblivious to serious scholarship on race and slavery in the Civil War.  Sometimes there is no way of getting around having to read those pesky scholarly studies. 

Note: Check out Dimitri Rotov’s excellent post on the handling of black Confederates by North and South editor, Keith Poulter.  I like the angle on the responsibilities of an editor which I haven’t given much thought to in my own posts on the subject

14 responses... add one

Thanks for the heads up Kevin. I’m headed to U. of Alabama tomorrow morning for the Sanders lecture series. Glatthaar is speaking and I look forward to what he has to say about the subject. Gary Gallagher and Robert Krick will also be there. Last year I heard Daniel Sutherland and Steven Woodward. George Rable does a great job pulling in top-notch people. And I get a free lunch out of it. What better way to spend a Saturday?

Chris

Kevin,

Thanks from me as well for this post…I would also direct you to James Hollandsworth’s excellent study of black Confederate pensioners in a recent issue of the Jnl of Mississippi history…he also avoids the “pitfalls’ you refer to…another great recent (20080 reference for African Americans in the civil war is Margaret Humphreys’ “Intensely Human” (Johns Hopkins U Press)…I’ll have a review/author interview with her in the May 2008 issue of Civil War News.

I’ll agree with your kudos to Dimitri in regards to N&S, but am afraid he didn’t redeem himself with his cynical take on the gunshot wounds paper…it is actually relevant research with a tradition that goes back to the early 1800s.

All my Best,

Jim schmidt

Jim, — Thank you very much for the references. I was not aware of the Humphreys study.

Be careful with the Hollandsworth study on black Confederate pensioners. He does make a couple of good points and it’s nice to see someone looking at pensions because they are incredibly important. However, I disagree with many of his assumptions, as I’ve studied Mississippi Confederate pensions quite a bit.

-Lisa-

Lisa, — Thanks thanks for the tip. I would love to hear a little bit about your research on Mississippi pensions.

Bruce Levine beats up on the Black Confederate myth in the new issue of North and South. He states that state pensions were granted to laborers and other non military people who served the Confederacy. So pension records wouldn’t be evidence of black soldiers in the CS army. The editor, K. Poulter, compares Black confederates to Bigfoot, and is ending the back and forth in the letters column, good news to you, Kevin, based on your earlier letter to N and S.

matthew mckeon:
“He states that state pensions were granted to laborers and other non military people who served the Confederacy. So pension records wouldn’t be evidence of black soldiers in the CS army.”
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The majority were servants and laborers but there are some that served as soldiers.

I have a lot to say about this but I’ll try to make it short.

Here’s the Hollandsworth article if anyone is interested that hasn’t read it yet: http://mdah.state.ms.us/pubs/pensioners.pdf

Pensions are important sources of information. That said, the information taken from them should NEVER be used without backing them up with other sources. This is why I can’t take the Hollandsworth article seriously. He puts way to much faith in the pension boards and accuracy of the pensions.

He uses Confederate servant pension applications to try to prove that black noncombatants were not sent home in 1862 and remained loyal to the Confederacy until the end of the war. While I agree that they probably weren’t sent home, I have doubts that they remained loyal (had he checked other sources he may have found this out).

The best example I have is Nathan Best and Frank Childress. Both black Confederate noncombatants who ended up at the Beauvoir Soldiers Home. Their slave narratives along with some magazine articles written about them in the 1930s can be found online.

http://mshistory.k12.ms.us/index.php?id=64 (click on the link under their photo)

http://www.rootsweb.ancestry.com/~msgenweb/xslaves/best-xslave.htm

http://www.rootsweb.ancestry.com/~msgenweb/xslaves/childress-xslave.htm

Childress flat out admits he served with the Union although he claims he “neber fought for de Yankees” until they “forced” him to join them for 2 years. Yet, his pension application was approved and they allowed him to live at Beauvoir. Ever since I read the Hollandsworth article I’ve been anxious to see his pension app but haven’t time to find it but am going to do as soon as the semester is over.

I have Nathan Best’s application. When asked when his service “end[ed] in that capacity” (as an attendant) he answered “1865, close of War”, that he never “desert[ed] such service” and that he was in Newburn, North Carolina at the surrender. According to the other sources, he was in Newburn, North Carolina allright, in a contraband camp. Even though he never officially took up arms against the Confederacy, it sure doesn’t seem like he was trying to help them out.

Why the pension board approved their applications, even after those article were printed, is beyond me and it needs more research?

I have much more to say, especially about CW memory and black pensioners but this is getting rather long so I’ll stop there.

-Lisa-

Thanks for passing the article along Lisa. Given the racial dynamics of the time it seems absolutely essential to ask why pension boards approved applications for blacks who traveled with the army for various reasons. To simply reduce the question to loyalty is a huge leap. I would love to know what you find re: Bob’s application. Good luck

Lisa-
I have Nathan Best’s application. When asked when his service “end[ed] in that capacity” (as an attendant) he answered “1865, close of War”, that he never “desert[ed] such service” and that he was in Newburn, North Carolina at the surrender. According to the other sources, he was in Newburn, North Carolina allright, in a contraband camp. Even though he never officially took up arms against the Confederacy, it sure doesn’t seem like he was trying to help them out.
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The key question would be- When did he arrive at the Newbern cotraband camp?

Virginia has a similar set of servant pension records that, I think, have hardly been tapped. I know that for Page County, the only people listed as pension recipients on the microfilm were white!

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