Even the U.S. Army Can’t Get It Right

This morning I took a few minutes to write one of the authors of the recent articles about Weary Clyburn.  I suggested that the next time he writes a story about the Civil War he should consult a trained historian at one of the many fine history departments in North Carolina.  Then I received an email from one of my readers with a link to our very own U.S. Army’s website, which includes a page on the history of African Americans in the army.  The last sentence reads:

Less known is that several thousand blacks also served with honor in the Confederate Army.

For an organization which prides itself on maintaining a strict code of honor they should be ashamed of themselves.

Addendum: One of my readers was kind enough to send the following comment along via email and I share it with you with his permission:

In my opinion this army history blurb you cited has much deeper problems than the statement about black Confederates in the final sentence.  In my opinion the biggest problem is in the first phrase of the first sentence.  Does the modern U.S. Army honestly believe that they invaded the southern states in 1861-1865?  Did they invade Little Rock in 1957?  If the Illinois National Guard drives to Fort Stewart for training, are they invading Georgia?  Did the Coast Guard invade Louisiana when they rescued people after Hurricane Katrina?

The Commander in Chief has the right to send the army anywhere in the country that it needs to go, consistent with the Posse Comitatus law (which did not exist in 1861).  It reminds me of President Lincoln’s exasperation over General Meade’s congratulatory order to his army after the battle of Gettysburg, when Meade told his soldiers they had chased the enemy from “our soil.”  Lincoln felt it was obvious that it was all “our soil.”  To distinguish between sections of the country in casual conversation is one thing, but for the commander of the Army of the Potomac to rhetorically grant the Confederacy independence in the wake of a great Union victory seemed to strike Lincoln as an unforgivable misunderstanding of the Union cause.

Yet the army’s web site now frames the war in pro-Confederate language and passes that point of view off as objective history.

Also, the use of Thomas Wentworth Higginson’s quote is nice, but used so out of context as to misinterpret the meaning.  When Higginson wrote the quoted passage he was describing how black South Carolinians were superior to northern white soldiers on one specific expedition into South Carolina, because of their familiarity with the local area.  The army web site seems to indicate that Higginson was arguing that black soldiers were generally better than white soldiers.  He never said such a thing, nor did almost any other proponent of African American soldiers.  Think of reading Stephen Ash’s excellent new book on the Jacksonville expedition, Firebrand of Liberty.

94,000 former slaves out of 186,000 USCT’s seems very low.  I thought the vast majority of African American soldiers were freedmen.  No, I don’t think, I know.  Still, that’s a statistic and I’m sure the writer got it somewhere.

Then we get to the statement about “several thousand” blacks honorably serving the Confederacy, an argument that disingenuously equates forced slave labor with duty in the line of battle.  You have already addressed that issue better than I could.

This little bit of verbiage may reflect a much, much bigger issue within the military about the Lost Cause and institutional memory.  How much would you bet that the writer of this paragraph thinks it reflects an inclusive, even “liberal” view of history?  I can’t think of a better description than pro-Confederate.

Searching for Black Confederates: The Civil War’s Most Persistent Myth

“Levin’s study is the first of its kind to blueprint and then debunk the mythology of enslaved African Americans who allegedly served voluntarily in behalf of the Confederacy.”–Journal of Southern History

Purchase your copy today!

8 comments… add one
  • Kevin Levin Jul 21, 2008 @ 6:07

    GE, — I am currently making my way through Ward’s new book. While I applaud his taking on this topic, unfortunately, there isn’t much analysis of the sources he utilizes, which as you note come from the WPA projects. The narrative is basically slave passages strung together to make a coherent story. He obviously wanted the former slaves to speak for themselves, but there is a serious problem of hindsight as well as other issues attached with their testimony.

  • GE Jul 21, 2008 @ 4:54

    Did they invade Little Rock in 1957?

    I think that happened in 1863, shortly after Vicksburg fell.

    It seems to me that when the U.S. Marines invaded Tarawa it was learned that a substantial portion of the Japanese ‘defenders’ of the atoll were actually Koreans who were essentially prisoners of war and thus had done much of the actual physical labor involved in building the Japanese airstrip and fortifications on the island. Many Korean laborers survived the Battle of Tarawa. Japanese soldiers didn’t.

    I wouldn’t be at all surprised to learn that slave labor contributed significantly to the construction of Confederate fortifications in the south. I also understand that a new book has been written by Andrew Ward about The Slave’s War. I haven’t read it yet, but I did see Ward interviewed by Jon Stewart on The Daily Show. Apparently a WPA writer’s project during the Depression involved transcribed interviews of large numbers of former slaves who were still alive after 1930. Any good existentialist can tell you that freedom entails a great deal of uncertainty and a profound sense of personal responsibility. I’m not sure that “evidence” is automatically disqualified by the word “anecdotal”.

    I would guess that the Siege of Vicksburg was a major factor in the ‘liberation’ of both New Orleans and Little Rock, which were ‘occupied’ to all intents and purposes by the Union army for a major portion of the war’s duration.

  • Kevin Levin Jul 19, 2008 @ 10:40

    Larry, — Thanks

    Jarret, — I suspect that they push the “Northern” bias angle because they don’t have the inability to frame an argument. Of course it is absurd since much of what they don’t agree with happens to be written by historians who were born and teach in the South. Finally, it’s not that northern racism justifies slavery, what they hope to accomplish is to diffuse the slavery-Confederacy connection by suggesting that racism was endemic across the board. Well, of course it was, but that has nothing to do with the issue at hand.

    Stuart, — The explanation for this has everything to do with the pervasiveness of the Lost Cause; the black Confederates story is but one example. If you can show that black southerners were loyal to the Confederacy than you’ve diffused the problem of slavery and are left with a glorious cause led by Christian Warriors.

  • Stuart Eugene Thiel Jul 19, 2008 @ 8:48

    The Army’s officer corps has always had more than its share from the Confederate states; this was one reason that the defection of Southern officers was so crippling in 1861. I suppose it stands to reason, or simple probability, that an unreconstructed Confederate would eventually come to control the Army’s web site.

  • Jarret Jul 18, 2008 @ 21:43

    The most disturbing thing about all this black confederate nonsense is the air of paternalism that it suggests, which comes eerily close to the same kind of paternalism the slaveholders used to justify the Christian “benevolence” of their institution. Myth pushing groups like the SCV use the same paternalistic language to praise the “faithful service” of their “happy darkies” like Weary Clyburn. Its frankly insulting and has no place in serious historical studies. By the way, why do people post on boards like these claiming that historians are “Northern” biased? This makes no sense and clearly they’ve never read the material they claim is “anti-south.” In their logic, northern racism justifies the existence of a slaveholding Confederacy.

  • Larry Cebula Jul 18, 2008 @ 19:04

    There is a “Contact Us” form at the website. I contacted them.

  • Kevin Levin Jul 18, 2008 @ 14:57

    Marc, — EXACTLY!

  • Marc Ferguson Jul 18, 2008 @ 14:32

    One wonders how this statement even ended up on that site. One of the problems with this “black Confederate” nonsense is with the claim that blacks “served” in the Confederate army. We know that it was illegal for blacks to enlist as soldiers in the Confederate armies. We also know that there were perhaps a few dozen men of mixed-race ancestry who enlisted by passing as white. This is not evidence of the loyalty of blacks to the Confederacy, it is the opposite, since these men were attempting to assimilate into white society and be accepted as whites. We also know that when the Confederacy, out of desperation, decided to enlist blacks at the very end of the war, no more than a handful volunteered. There are many who want to make the claim that even slaves who were forced to work for the Southern armies in such positions as laborer, teamster, cooks, etc., should be honored for their “service,” and this is perhaps what the military site is implying. The problem with this is that it obscures the fact that they were forced slave labor for an army fighting to secure the independence of a “country” founded for the purpose of preserving slavery. For me it is beyond ironic, it is ridiculous, to assume that such slaves would feel “honored” by the claim that they “served” in such an army for such a cause. Furthermore, considering this nation’s history of racial exploitation and violence, I find the attempt by some to further exploit these racial issues by falsifying history for ideological purposes to be disgusting.

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