Peter Carmichael was kind enough to take the time to add a few thoughts to a post of his that I recently republished. His comment is fair and balanced in its critique of the way various groups have approached this complex topic, which is why I decided to feature it in a new post.
In all the debate that the Confederate slave subject generates on this blog and elsewhere, I am still mystified by the failure of some to appreciate a fundamental fact that applies to every African American who existed in a Southern army—he was a slave and thus denied the ability to have free will in exercising his political loyalty. All the acts of bravery and fidelity on the part of slaves in battle and camp cannot overturn this basic and defining fact. Once we recognize this hard reality we will be better prepared to subdue our emotion and begin to consider the complicated ways in which slaves and whites coexisted in the army. To suggest that a slave who purchased a gray uniform was somehow committed to the Southern cause or loyal to his master overlooks the fact that there wasn’t a blue one at the Sutler’s store for him to purchase. Even if he was able to secure one, he sure as hell wouldn’t have been allowed to wear it in the Confederate ranks. What choices and political options were available to slaves is what we should be focusing on in this debate, for we cannot consider any act of “devotion” without also considering at the same time what punishments awaited a black man who failed to do his “duty” to the master class.
For those who are emphatic that Confederate slaves were both brave and loyal in their service to the Southern cause I would like for them to explain the implications of this argument. When I am in a charitable mood, I would like to believe that those who cherish the idea of the loyal Confederate slave do so as a way to protect their ancestors from being demonized by Americans who see history as a morality play. I understand their insecurities, but if they really want Americans to take their Southern ancestors on the historical terms of the antebellum South then they will have to abandon the notion that they are a minority group that is under siege from the political left–in doing so they will take the first step to seeing the past as a search for complexities and not for universal truths that can be used to assail PC radicals. Too many Americans have the insatiable need to see themselves as a minority group under attack. This perspective fosters a strange way of seeing the world in which the “persecuted” feel that they are the true owners of truth because the rest of the world has conspired against them. This position is intellectually debilitating and it is a paranoia that pervades both political extremes, not just the right. Those of us who are baffled by the folks who go to sleep every night believing that Confederate armies were composed of slaves who wanted to die for their masters and the Southern cause deserve our serious engagement, not our ridicule. We cannot make fun of their ceremonies, even if we think they are doing injustice to the complexities of the past. We have to find a way to create a dialogue.
I have no doubt that some slaves felt a strong sense of attachment to their masters and maybe even to the outfits that they served, but this “attachment” was forged as part of a slave system that was based, at the most fundamental level, on coercion. Let’s stop getting so misty-eyed over those slaves who served with white soldiers as a band of brothers and let’s also stop denouncing anyone who sincerely wants to understand the intimate relationship that existed between slaves and their masters. We are missing the complexities of this relationship in the army and its broader impact on soldier relations, the home front, and the political ideology of the Confederacy.