A Few More Thoughts About Confederate Slaves

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.

21 comments… add one

  • Sherree Tannen Apr 20, 2009

    Thank you, Professor Carmichael, and thank you, Kevin. This post offers very welcome commentary on a truly difficult subject. Sherree

  • Sherree Tannen Apr 20, 2009

    Kevin,

    The conversation that we have had on your blog for over a week now seemed productive to me. Yet, in the end, we are all back on our respective sides of the fence, or sitting on top of it, wondering where the answers are. Perhaps, that is the true lesson of this conversation–that America is still an almost irreparably divided country. I hope not. But that is the way it seems sometimes. Thanks for the conversation, and thanks to all participants. Sherree

  • Kevin Levin Apr 20, 2009

    Sherree,

    I never anticipated that any of this would change people’s minds regarding this difficult issue. My goal is to better understand the questions that need to be posed to better understand how the war challenged the institution of slavery and how the realities of camp life and battle shaped the experiences of those who found themselves attached to the Confederate army.

    Ultimately, my goal is to get those people who share my interest in Civil War history to think about the tough questions. I have no doubt that it does just that for just under 1,000 people each day. I must assume that this is why they check in each and every day and that goes especially for those who feel as if I am engaging in sweeping denunciations of all things southern.

    My view of history is shaped by the research done by professional historians and that is what ultimately will provide some of the answers to the questions surrounding this particular issue.

  • Sherree Tannen Apr 20, 2009

    I agree, Kevin, that the answers will be provided by professional historians. Perhaps the discussion is best left in that forum, until some basic issues are decided, as you indicated last week. On the other hand, you have done a great service debunking some false information that is on the Internet. In addition, you have highlighted the fact that this issue deserves serious research. Thanks, as always. Sherree

  • chris meekins Apr 20, 2009

    Please do not abdicate the responsibility of any issue to someone who is trained in a field, whatever field. Once upon a time a clerk challenged us to think differently about the laws of the universe – he was not a professional. I admire professionals – the discipline behind the work and study they have done; their craft at sharing that work with others in such a way as to educate and challenge us. I think Kevin is right in saying that professionals will indeed challenge us, lead us, in asking the tough or complicated questions. But answers we must come at ourselves. And this dialog provides us with a place to learn about questions and express our attempts to answer those questions in a relatively safe environment. When we listen to one another we value one another. Thanks for the opportunity and the trust.

  • Kevin Levin Apr 20, 2009

    You are very welcome, Chris.

  • Sherree Tannen Apr 21, 2009

    What you have said is true, Chris. Kevin provides a very dynamic forum and a truly complex and brilliant blog in which historians and the public can meet. New ideas can come from this interaction, and hopefully will come from it. The difficult part in maintaining the discussion comes in finding a common ground that is free of preconceptions on all sides. I understand the historiography of the subject and find it to be accurate to a point. I accept fully that the South was a slaveholding society, and all that that implies. Slavery was a brutal institution, and the profile of the slaveholder that has emerged is an accurate and brilliant description of the pathology that ensued. I also understand that it is necessary to drive home the point that non slaveholders were interested in upholding the institution of slavery as well. Otherwise, the Lost Cause view of history begins to take hold and we are once again back to arguing why the war was fought. Denying that slavery was the main cause of the war denies the reality of the situation and the history and suffering of black men and women. Where it all begins to break down for me is when I attempt to apply this profile to my actual ancestor, whom I have knowledge of through the living oral history of his grandchildren. And the profile breaks down not because of a mawkish sentimental need to uphold the sanctity of my history; but because the profile is not true. Without going into my history again, it is hard to imagine my great great grandfather worried about my great great grandmother being raped by freed slaves when she could, and did, handle a rifle as well as he did. He may have been worried, but not that worried. There is a complex untold history running just beneath the surface of the debates that swing back and forth between the Lost Cause view and the attempts to defeat the Lost cause view once and for all. I think that both historians and non historians have acknowledged this, and once we get beyond this seemingly insurmountable impasse, maybe we will truly understand our history. Thanks, Chris, and thanks Kevin. Sherree

    • Kevin Levin Apr 21, 2009

      Sherree,

      There is no necessary contradiction between the broad conclusions that historians often make about causes and the complexity that often can be found just below the surface. You should check out UVA’s Online database, The Valley of the Shadow which compares two Shenandoah Valley counties, one in Pennsylvania and the other in Virginia. Spend even small amount of time sifting through the documents and you will notice that many of our generalizations break down into multiple narratives that crisscross and diverge. On the one hand we can talk about the importance of slavery in explaining the secession of the Deep South and the evolution of the war, but at the same time, we must keep in mind that the people on the ground did not live in generalization and hindsight. We must appreciate both perspectives if we are to do our job correctly.

  • Sherree Tannen Apr 21, 2009

    Thanks, Kevin. I will definitely view the Valley of the Shadow. Sherree

  • Robert Moore Apr 21, 2009

    Re: Valley of the Shadow… Augusta County, Va. is in the Shenandoah Valley and Franklin Co., Pa., I think, is part of the Cumberland Valley.

    • Kevin Levin Apr 21, 2009

      Robert,

      According to the website, they are both considered to be part of the Shenandoah Valley.

  • Robert Moore Apr 21, 2009

    Kevin,

    Really?! Then, regretfully, that is incorrect. The Shenandoah Valley ends with Jefferson and Berkeley counties in the eastern panhandle of West Virginia.

    Franklin and Cumberland Co., Pa., as well as Washington Co., Md., are all considered part of the Cumberland Valley. http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Cumberland_Valley

    Now, if we’re talking about the “Great Valley,” the number of counties is immense.
    http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Great_Appalachian_Valley

  • Robert Moore Apr 21, 2009

    Kevin,

    I don’t see anywhere in the site that they say that both are part of the Shenandoah Valley.

  • Shenandoah Vally with the Cumberland Valley constitute the “Great Valley”… or at least that’s what the geography say.

  • Mike Apr 29, 2009

    As a History Teacher my issue is the push by the NAACP to deny this historical fact that Blacks Free or Slave fought and served in the Confederate Army. As well as Hispanics and Jews.

    • Kevin Levin Apr 29, 2009

      Mike,

      I don’t know what the NAACP says about these issues. Regardless, as far as we know free blacks and slaves did not fight in Confederate ranks in anything approaching substantial numbers.

  • Greg Rowe Apr 30, 2009

    Mike,

    Yes, Hispanics did fight in the Confederate Army, but they also fought in the Union Army in about equal numbers. As a teacher of Texas history, what I have found in my research on this topics is that the Tejano population was equally despised by Texans on both sides of the slavery and secession issues before the war. Like Native Americans, this was, in a way, a separate front of the Civil War amongst a subculture in the nation. To use Hispanics or Jews to support your claim that other cultural groups fought for the Confederacy so we can assume that slaves and free blacks also served does not have any significant bearing toward answering the question of how blacks were viewed by white soldiers in the Confederate Army.

  • Mike Apr 30, 2009

    http://images.google.com/imgres?imgurl=http://www.amren.com/mtnews/archives/2007/10/29/heritage.jpg&imgrefurl=http://www.amren.com/mtnews/archives/2007/10/in_defense_of_h.php&usg=__XJKMNdl57tdrTDfqTYyAJ4ysQP8=&h=300&w=450&sz=30&hl=en&start=428&tbnid=WvKyS2K6Oe6y7M:&tbnh=85&tbnw=127&prev=/images%3Fq%3Dconfederate%2Bflags%26gbv%3D2%26ndsp%3D20%26hl%3Den%26safe%3Dactive%26sa%3DN%26start%3D420

    Here is a man who claims his confederate roots.

    Maybe I am misunderstanding the issue Dr. Carmichael is addressing. I see him trying to marginalize the service of Black Confederates by reducing them to just personal servants when records show how ever spotty that free blacks and others served and to quote Gen Forrest He said they were the best soldiers he had. I want to remove emotion and past racial conflict, and focus upon the Facts as best as we can gather them about the Confederate Army and who fought for States Rights in the South.
    I know this is a very complex issue as we hear it divided families. I am afraid that many in the Academic world are to use a movie phrase ” Truth, You want the TRUTH! , You can’t handle the TRUTH. It is out there may be not as appealing at the SCV and the UDC wants but it is not a bad as so many in modern academia try to portray. May we all strive to find and record the TRUTH in all its facets as we study and teach the Civil War. Or a my Great grandpa in Arkansas called it The Great War of Northern Aggression.

  • Mike Apr 30, 2009

    I am sorry my typing skills are horid.

  • Kevin Levin Apr 30, 2009

    Mike,

    Peter Carmichael is not trying to reduce anything; rather he is trying to understand the role slaves played in the Confederate army. There were no black Confederates – there were thousands of Confederate slaves that played various roles as slaves. Some no doubt even carried weapons and may have even shot at Union troops. The problem with this issue is the failure to frame the issue correctly as well as the lack of scholarly research. That is beginning to change. The UDC and SCV do not engage in scholarly research. The site you link to, for example, is not an example of serious research. Please understand that future references will be censored as I am not interested in sharing partisan sources that reflect a complete lack of scholarly research. Thanks for your understanding.

    I would suggest that you read Bruce Levine’s book _Confederate Emancipation_ (Oxford University Press) for an overview of this issue. You may also want to browse the category “Confederate Slaves” on this blog for more information.

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