Talk About Confederate Slaves Pays Off

I know I’ve said it before, but it bears repeating that our recent forum concerning black Confederates/Confederate slaves is perhaps the most intelligent discussion on this topic to be found on the Internet.  My commentary over the past ten days has clearly paid off in terms of its place in the Google rankings.  If you had searched for “black Confederates” six months ago the first post from Civil War Memory would have appeared on page 7.  Try searching for “black Confederates” now (7/28/08) and you will find Peter Carmichael’s essay on the subject at the bottom of the first page.  Search for “black Confederate” and you will get my 9-part series of posts on Weary Clyburn at the bottom of the first page. 

It is going to be difficult to move up in the rankings even further given that these sites have been around for quite some time.  The 37th Texas site is one of my personal favorites. It’s a real whoot.  Some of the others reference the shoddy work that went into Pelican’s Black Confederates, which is nothing more than a collection of accounts without any serious attempt at analysis.  Between my own commentary on the subject and Peter’s essay this blog does not claim to offer the final word on Confederate slaves.  We have tried to show that the subject is much more complex and that the questions that have tended to be posed are inadequate for understanding the master-slave relationship.  Between Peter’s essay and the discussion which ensued it is clear that we also need to take a much more critical stance in regard to the range of sources used as well as how those sources are interpreted.   I see a couple of research projects coming out of our discussion that could begin to fill in some of the major gaps in our understanding. 

It may be a trivial matter to some, but I am delighted that people are now much more likely to find this site when searching this particular subject. 

17 comments… add one
  • Greg Rowe Aug 1, 2008 @ 21:16

    Thanks guys. Matt, I’m sorry for coming across as rude in my post. I’m still new to looking at many of the issues of the Civil War with the same objective eye I used as a former newspaper editor and publisher. I am something of a “reformed” Confederate apologist.

  • Matt McKeon Aug 1, 2008 @ 18:40

    Bruce Levine, in “Confederate Emancipation” describes several schemes to use slaves as combat soldiers. I could be recalling this incorrectly, and will check my copy, but I remember Lee supporting a plan for enlisting slaves with the promise of freedom.

    As Kevin notes, this all started to happen in late 1864.

    It’s a catch 22, the CSA wouldn’t consider unless they were desperate, and if they were on the verge of defeat, it wouldn’t work.

    I’m not really a researcher, but merely repeating what a well regarded book stated.

  • Kevin Levin Aug 1, 2008 @ 16:21

    Greg, — The plan was supported by a number of people, including Lee. Bruce Levine’s study of the debate on emancipation must be your first stop on this subject and he concludes that the plan was not a step toward general emancipation, but a way to maintain slavery. At first glance it sounds contradictory, but we must keep in mind that a central goal of the war itself was to preserve slavery and in the last desperate weeks of the war it was agreed that limited emancipation in exchange for military service would somehow make this possible. Of course, only a few deluded souls believed it had a chance at that point.

  • Greg Rowe Aug 1, 2008 @ 15:50

    On what do you base the claim that “…Robert E. Lee’s scheme to enroll soldiers had a similar promise.”? The evidence may be there, but you can’t just say something like that without offering your readers something on which you base that comment. It does you an injustice as a researcher and your reader a disservice in that he/she must take your word for it.

  • Matt McKeon Aug 1, 2008 @ 14:14

    Slaves who served in the British or Continental Army during the revolution were promised a ticket out of slavery. Slavery itself would endure, but slavery for them personally would end.

    I believe(Levine?) that Robert E. Lee’s scheme to enroll soldiers had a similar promise.

  • toby Jul 30, 2008 @ 4:39

    The comparison of Confederate Army slaves and the slave armies of history is completely fallacious. It is turning a horse chesnut into a chesnut horse.

    In antiquity, neither the Greeks nor Romans used slaves as soldiers.

    Good examples of slave armies were the Muslim Janissaries (Turkish) and Mamelukes (Egyptian). These were young boys (often Christian) seized from their parents when young and reared as soldiers in special barracks (somewhat like the Spartan system, except the Spartan system was confined to “Spartiates” – those with the necessary pedigree). These were slaves in the sense that they had no choice, but they were the elite corps of the army, living a life of privelege and comfort between campaigns. Both Mamelukes and Janissaries became Praetorian Guards who took over political as well as military affairs in both Egypt and the Ottoman Empire.

    Making an army from the people you are simultaneously oppressing continues into our own time. In white South Africa and Rhodesia, the armies were composed of mainly black men with white officers. And they fought very well. For the soldiers, the priveleges extended to his family made it worthwhile.

    Patrick Cleburne knew from his experience in the British Army that most of its ranks were made up of the poor, oppressed Irish. Hence he could see that armed slaves could be induced to fight in exchange for the privelege of freedom.

    But it is hard to see any of these in the labouring slaves who followed the Confederate Army. Slave armies like the Janissaries had flags, regiments and esprit de corps. So also did the South African army, and the Irish peasants who joined the British Army to ease the desperate drudgery of their everyday lives.

    No, the slaves who dug trenches and corduroyed roads were not “soldiers” in the accepted sense. I cannot see Janissaries in these coerced and put-upon labourers.

  • Robert Moore Jul 30, 2008 @ 0:40


    I think you are missing the point and since you say that “emotion” is blurring “our vision” and logical capacities… I’ll stick to the guidelines that you have selected… those of ordering headstones from the V.A.

    Was Louis Napoleon Wimbush a soldier? Pension records show that he was, and served in the 7th Tennessee. Under the guidelines for ordering headstones, he qualifies.

    Was Charles Brown a soldier? Military records show that he enlisted in the 10th Virginia Infantry. Under the guidelines for ordering headstones, he qualifies.

    Were “Thornton” and “Jim” (who were accompanying the Charlottesville Artillery on the march to Gettysburg as body servants) soldiers?… No. They were body servants and, had they not been mentioned by the sergeant major of the company, their “service” as body servants would likely remain unknown. That one citation would not be enough for ordering a headstone. Even if they were cooks, there is still no provision for providing headstones for them under the V.A. guidelines, unless there was a record of enlistment or a pension.

    You are clustering ALL blacks in the “service” of the Confederacy under the idea that, in any capacity (cooks, wagoners, body servants, etc.) they were ALL “soldiers.”

    Let’s detach ourselves from the Civil War. Would civilians, as hired cooks, or in any other capacity, even in a time of war, working with a military unit, count as soldiers? I know a professor who was hired by the Navy, did a year off the coast of Vietnam on an aircraft carrier, in the “service” of the Navy while that particular aircraft carrier on which he was riding received combat citations. Would he, therefore, be considered a sailor and qualified under the V.A. system for a headstone? How about a “Donut Dolly” that I know – she was in the “service” of the Army on the land in Vietnam for over a year (and under fire), but will she get a headstone from the V.A.?

    My point… “service” in a war and/or with a military unit does not necessarily mean that the person was a member of the military and most certainly does not mean an entitlement to being labeled as “soldier.”

  • Kevin Levin Jul 29, 2008 @ 21:41


    You said: “Whether or not you, or I, or Confederates “viewed” slaves as soldiers is irrelevant.”

    The only “reality” that is important to me is the one rooted in the past that we work carefully to approach via critical analysis and interpretation of sources. I happen to be interested in what was the case at the time of the event in question, which means that I am very interested in what Confederates and white Southerners thought of Confederate slaves. If the SCV or VA wants to commemorate slaves as soldiers than so be it, but please don’t tell me that they are commenting on the historical record.

    Finally, if slaves are to be considered soldiers than please explain to me what military and political leaders were debating between 1863-65 over the recruitment of slaves.


  • Richard Williams Jul 29, 2008 @ 20:01

    Gentlemen – I can’t make sense of your logic–or lack thereof. You’re contradicting yourselves. Robert – of course not “equivalent” – never said that. (Do I have to present all of my brilliant logic all over again?) But some things in common, certainly. Consider these comments regarding the Revolutionary War and slaves:

    “It is reasonable to believe that they [slaves] desired to have the same opportunities as their Euro-American neighbors to acquire personal property, raise their families, and travel freely. It is conceivable that, for reasons of personal freedom and the future freedom of their progeny, many African Americans willingly enlisted in the Continental and British Armies. These personal reasons certainly made it possible for them to justify their active defense of a new nation that demonstrated no signs of eliminating the institution which continued to enslave their fellow African Americans.” ~ Noel B. Poirer, Colonial Williamsburg Foundation

    Are you also going to deny that these men were soldiers? To be consistent, you have to.

    You are denying thousands of years of military history. As I’ve already pointed out, men have, throughout history, been both soldier and slave and been “coerced” into fighting. Are we changing the definition just because it’s the Confederacy? Does the issue present problems? Yes. Is their perspective different from free soldiers? Of course. But that does not change the fact that if they served in an army–even in a support position–they were still soldiers. If not, how is it that they qualify for a Veterans Administration issued headstone from the Federal Government? The Feds don’t issue those headstones unless one can “verify military service.” Weary Clyburn has one. Jefferson Shields has one. (Search Shields on my blog for a photo of his V.A. issued headstone. Shields was a cook in the CSA. That qualifies as military service according to the laws and regulations of our own military.)

    Robert, you know that.

    Whether or not you, or I, or Confederates “viewed” slaves as soldiers is irrelevant. They, in many cases, fit the historical definition. No offense, but I see emotion blurring your vision. Every anecdotal quote by David could be countered with an anecdotal quote to support my position. That’s pointless. And opinion does not change reality.

    I too enjoyed the discussion Kevin, but someone else will have the last word here. I, like my Confederate ancestors, are vastly outnumbered. Though unvanquished, this is my last volley as I retreat to the security of my basement bunker and plot my next raid. I hereby declare victory as I’ve no doubt left all of you utterly bewildered and leave you now to fight among yourselves. 🙂

    Richard Williams
    Old Virginia Blog

  • David Rhoads Jul 29, 2008 @ 16:26

    I have to agree with Kevin that slaves were not Confederate soldiers. Slaves were property, subject to loan, lease, and impressment. They were used by the Confederate military, but they were not soldiers in that military. By way of illustration, here are a few voices from the January 1865 debate within the Confederacy over the question of arming slaves:

    “I think that the proposition to make soldiers of the slaves is the most pernicious idea that has been suggested since the war began. You cannot make soldiers of slaves, or slaves of soldiers. The day you make a soldier of them is the beginning of the end of the revolution. And if slaves seem good soldiers, then our whole theory of slavery is wrong. If blacks can be well-led, well-trained and go into battle and show the same courage as whites, then the whole theory of slavery is dead. The Confederacy must be alive.” –Howell Cobb of Georgia

    “The day that the army of Virginia allows a negro regiment to enter their lines as soldiers they will be degraded, ruined and disgraced.” –Robert Toombs of Georgia.

    “The existence of a negro soldier is totally inconsistent with our political aim and with our social as well as political system. We surrender our position whenever we introduce the Negro to arms. If a negro is fit to be a soldier, he is not fit to be a slave, and if any large portion of the race is fit for free labour-–fit to live and to be useful under the competitive system of labour-–then the whole race is fit for it.” –The Richmond Examiner

  • Anonymous Jul 29, 2008 @ 16:04


    Maybe a way to get to your point about slaves not being able to be soldiers is to look at what Americans considered a soldier to be. You’ve said pretty much what I am saying right here, but maybe not as explicitly. What needs to happen is a historicization of both the concept of “soldier” as well as “slave.” Most Americans in the 19th century would have tied “soldier” to the concept of “citizen.” This linkage would preclude that slaves, even in a combat capacity, would not really be a “soldier,” because they could not be a “citizen.” Northern blacks/escaped Southern blacks certainly fought for the right to fight as a way to assert that they were full citizens of the United States; did Confederate slaves do the same? So in essence, the problematic concepts are “slave,” “soldier,” and “citizen.” Southern whites (and many Northerners) could not see blacks as citizens, so they could never see African Americans as “soldiers.” Toss into this the fact that the very definition of citizen was freeman, which a slave emphatically was not.

  • Robert Moore Jul 29, 2008 @ 15:45

    Rick, I’m not sure that it could really be said that the motivations of slaves to “serve” were equivalent to the motivations of whites to “fight” (I say “fight” and yet both should read as “serve” – the distinction is necessary in order to present the different “expectations” of the two groups of men). Likewise, I think that the “motivations” of the slaves in the service of the Confederacy need to be measured one by one (for obvious reasons, that will prove difficult) to even come close to being able to make strong arguments behind “service” and the “opportunities” that presented themselves to the slaves while in that capacity. I believe that the matter of motivation in slaves becomes even more complicated when we consider coercion of free blacks to “serve” (see my post on John Dogans).

    Also, because there is evidence that “some” slaves were “fighting” does not mean that “all” in the “service” of the Confederacy should be labeled as “soldiers.” It may be that there has been an overlaying of ideas of the post Civil War concept of “being a soldier” and inappropriately adopting it for use in terms of the Civil War. Additionally, I can’t help but think that there has been a gradual and perhaps convenient change in identifying blacks in the service of the Confederacy. From slaves in the “service” of Confederate soldiers, the label seems to have shifted to an identity as “black Confederates,” and now, to the thought that these “black Confederates” were “soldiers.”

  • Kevin Levin Jul 29, 2008 @ 14:56

    Let me just say again that I don’t disagree with Davis. It seems to me that you are the one who is making “modern comparisons.” As far as I can tell from the hundreds of letters and diaries authored by Confederate enlisted men that I’ve read through they did not view slaves as soldiers.

    If that is true and most of the scholarly studies on this bear it out why should I be expected to see them as soldiers? As a historian I am not interested in any moral question surrounding their presence with the army. I just want to understand their status and relationship with the master class as much as possible.

    You are probably correct that we are going to have to agree to disagree. Still, I am enjoying the discussion.

  • Richard Williams Jul 29, 2008 @ 14:40

    All I can say Kevin is that one of us is suffering a mental block. I just don’t get your point at all. I think my argument is clear, and thousands of years of military history support that position. As I’ve already stated, by not acknowledging that the slaves were soldiers, it is their service that is diminished, not the concept of soldier – at least in my opinion.

    (Note that I’m not arguing the morality of the practice, just the fact it occurred.)

    Trying to make modern comparisons is, I believe, distracting and serves no purpose in advancing your argument. I have Professor Davis on my side of the argument, you have Professor Carmichael on yours. I think we should agree to disagree at this point as I think we’ve both played out our points.


  • Kevin Levin Jul 29, 2008 @ 13:57

    Richard, — I agree with the passage you quoted from DBD. However, I simply do not follow your reasoning when you say, “…Southern slaves military duty was motivated by…” Their presence in Confederate armies was the result of coercion; that is what it means to be a slave. Now, once they were with the army on the march and in the field the slave may have seen any number of opportunities that “faithful” or “loyal” service may have offered. That to me was the overall point of Peter’s essay. I believe this to be an important distinction.

    You said:

    “Soldiers fight for different reasons. Patriotism, boredom, revenge, defense of home, career opportunities, etc. Often a combination of these. They are still soldiers.”

    I do not believe I am pulling hairs when I say once again that a slave is not a soldier. Not only do I believe that it is a distortion of the past to say so, but it demeans the very concept of a soldier.

    Am I to believe that if the United States went to war today and utilized slave labor in various capacities based on race or some other category that you would consider them to be soldiers? I would consider them to be slaves utilized by the military.

  • Richard Williams Jul 29, 2008 @ 13:38

    “For slaves, military duty offered a welcome escape from the misery of plantation labor. The allure of a promise of freedom also entailed upward mobility, dignity, prestige, and the chance to prove one’s manhood and even to receive awards that would impress one’s peers as well as white authorities. For blacks who had already spent significant time in the New World, there were also motives to defend one’s homes, families, and even paternalistic whites.” ~ David Brion Davis, Ph.D. (Harvard)

    I’ve made these same points. As Professor Davis points out, Southern slaves military duty was motivated by many of the same reasons that have motivated soldiers since the beginning of time. I believe the inability to accept this truth (relative to the Confederacy) is based on emotion and presuppositions and not on careful analysis, logic or historical facts. Some of those arguing otherwise are splitting hairs.

    The concept of using slaves as soldiers was not new at the time of the Civil War. The Greeks and Romans did it and Muslim armies have a long history of doing so. Other examples could be cited.

    Soldiers fight for different reasons. Patriotism, boredom, revenge, defense of home, career opportunities, etc. Often a combination of these. They are still soldiers.

    Slaves, yes. Soldiers, yes. Myth, no.

    Richard Williams
    Old Virginia Blog

  • toby Jul 29, 2008 @ 10:04

    The “Black Confederate” myth conforms to a great extent to all of the 7 signs of bogus history:

    The Seven Warning Signs of Bogus History
    1. The author pitches the claim directly to the media or to organizations of non-historians, for pay.

    2. The author says that a powerful establishment is trying to suppress his or her work.

    3. The sources that verify the new interpretation of history are obscure; if they involve a famous person, the sources are not those usually relied on by historians.

    4. Evidence for the history is anecdotal.

    5. The author says a belief is credible because it has endured for some time, or because many people believe it to be true.

    6. The author has worked in isolation.

    7. The author must propose a new interpretation of history to explain an observation; heroes become villains, or great conspiracies are often invoked.

    Most of these are familiar: “Black Confederate history” is aimed at a particular receptive audience, which assumes the strengths of a cult. The proponents present themselves as rebels against an unjust and exclusive establishment. Their evidence is anecdotal, fragmented & usually selective to better support their case. They work alone, usually not attending the same conferences and seminars as mainstream historians. They reject all negative critiques. Conspiracy theories are rife. Myth is accepted as history if it is congenial to their case.

    This suggests that the main battle is for “hearts and minds” of the ordinary history-reading public. The “Black Confederate” mythologists will be as difficult to counteract as advocates of teaching Intelligent Design, or the ones who reject Global Warming. They may be vanishingly small in numbers but people, in fairness, feel like giving them a fair hearing.

    This is a mistake. Every debate with the Black Confederate cultist will be presented to the initiated as a victory, and as a sign of acceptance of their message by the wider historical community. Even effort at “reaching out” will be presented as a victory for them, so don’t even try.

    That’s where sites like this one will work. By presenting good, strong research and showing how real historical controversies are handled, the cultists will be defeated.

    You can read more about bogus history at

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