John J. Dwyer’s Black Confederates

It should come as no surprise that Dwyer would emphasize the loyal service of tens of thousands of “black Confederates” – or what he describes as “Forgotten Blacks in Gray” -  given his analysis of slavery.  The author emphasizes this long-standing myth throughout the text and offers his usual service of vague generalizations, meaningless definitions, and a complete lack of any primary and secondary source references.  I will not bore you with the kind of nonsense that I’ve pointed out over and over, but instead will point out a few of the more ridiculous claims made by Dwyer.  First, I should note that Dwyer does note that the Confederate government did not authorize the use of black men as soldiers until the final months of the war, but that does not prevent him from suggesting that 40,000 blacks served in combat roles at some point during the war.  No attempt is made to demonstrate how he arrived at this number.  Even better is Dwyer’s estimation that somewhere between 50-100,000 blacks “served in the Southern military” as body servants, teamsters, and cooks for quartermasters and engineers, in commissaries, and as constructions workers.  Of course, no mention of the fact that many of these men would have “served” as slaves in these and other capacities.  Dwyer includes a number of accounts from various sources purporting to reinforce these figures, though as I pointed out there are no references as to where these sources can be found.  He even quotes Frederick Douglass’s 1861 observation of blacks with “muskets on their shoulders and bullets in their pockets”.  There is an air of legitimacy through the use of brief quotes by supposed experts on the subject such as Walter Williams, who teaches economics at George Mason University and to my knowledge has never done serious research on the subject.

Why, according to Dwyer, was there “such widespread support…among black southerners for the Confederacy”?

  • “Some slaves supported the Confederate cause from a sense of adventure, much more exciting than their usual activities.”
  • “…like their white counterparts, to preserve their homes and family, and the way of life they had always known.”
  • “Story after story from every corner of the South recalls the wartime love of blacks and whites, who had grown up together, for one another.”

My personal favorites

  • “They felt threatened by the Northern invasion and the aims of the abolitionists, whom they saw as a threat to their wealth and social advancement.  Large numbers of these blacks enlisted in the Confederate armies.  Sometimes they raised their own units, one of which required each man to own at least $25,000 in assets to join.  They knew a Northern victory would bring economic and social ruin to them–and it did.”
  • “They loved the South and were delighted to be identified with its cause, which they understood to be freedom.  They viewed the North as a bully seeking to force its will on others who wished to live as they pleased.”

Dwyer includes story after story of slaves refusing their freedom and rarely maintains any kind of consistency in maintaining a distinction between free and enslaved blacks.  The sections include a number of photographs of so-called soldiers, a list of individual black Confederates, and passage after passage without any historical context.  No doubt, it’s probably enough to embarrass even Earl Ijames.

It’s hard to know what to say beyond the obvious.  The most disturbing aspect of all of this is that Dwyer’s narrative “is His Story, God Almighty’s work…”  That means that the student/reader cannot must not question any piece of information presented in this book.  To question it would be to question God’s divine plan and vision for his children.  The entire book is set up to discourage further inquiry, which is why there is no indication whatsoever that many of the isues related to the war have been and continue to be debated among serious scholars.  The few historians that are presented end up being used in a morality play by Dwyer.  Either they have signed on to the correct interpretation or they must be understood as a threat.   As a history teacher who emphasizes the importance of learning to think historically, it pains me to imagine children being taught history as some kind of sacred text that must be accepted on faith.

18 comments… add one

  • James F. Epperson Jul 6, 2009

    Oh … my … God!

  • James Bartek Jul 6, 2009

    “They felt threatened by the Northern invasion . . .”

    No doubt many did. After all, master insisted that Yankees had horns and cloven feet and liked to eat slave children for breakfast. ;)

  • Greg Rowe Jul 6, 2009

    Of course, fighting for a sense of adventure, defending home and way of life and “loving” your master all presume a level of choice, which has been argued ad nauseum on this and other blogs. At least, this is a point that can be refuted at some level. As to the last two points:

    1) Where would most blacks, even most free blacks, get $25,000 in the 1860′s? That’s more cash than even some white people saw in a lifetime of more freedom and opportunity.

    2) If the “Southern cause” meant freedom to slaves and blacks, why did slaves continue to run away throughout the war? Why did free blacks from the South enlist, legitimately, in Union regiments rather than running down to the Confederate muster?

    Those questions are rhetorical, unless, by some wild chance, Dwyer would like to actually engage his critics. I know you can’t answer them because you do not purport to think for Dwyer. First, because I just don’t see you abdicating intellectual reality, Second, does any serious history scholar or student think this way?

    Regarding your final point, I guess my question is, if we all were to teach our children by the Dwyer theory of education, how would those children ever be able to respond if someone actually started using their brain and asking questions? Sure, Dwyer’s “philosophy” (I use the term rather loosely here) of history eduaction, if applied across the board, would leave little encouragement for questioning or the long-term need for it, but, just as assumptions have always been questioned, at some point, his would as well, only students taught from his book and his method would have no skills from which to interpret those questions and find any sort of answers. What happens to (to paraphrase Jude 3 from the Bible) “earnestly contending for the faith once delivered to the saints?” [Perhaps, that is just a rhetorical question as well, sans a Dwyer comment. I ain't holdin' my breath! :)]

  • James F. Epperson Jul 6, 2009

    One thing that really disturbs me about junk like this, is that it makes people of faith look bad. I am certainly not the world’s best Christian, but I take my faith seriously, and like this makes us all look bad.

  • Craig Jul 6, 2009

    How could he overlook the other major factor which enticed blacks to serve the Confederacy…. With so many of the able bodied whites out fighting the war, the home front was subject to relentless waves of Chupacabra attacks! I saw that on the (un)History Channel during a Monster Quest marathon….

  • Larry Cebula Jul 6, 2009

    …and a couple of years later the kids educated with this curriculum are in my college History 101 class! Argh.

    James, you make a good point. These dpeople do make Christians look bad, and at the same time use their version of Christianity as a lens and a filter. An academic such as myself cannot get through to them, they are conditioned and condition their kids to dismiss what I say as academic/liberal/atheist/revisionist propaganda. If there is going to be any successful push back it has to come from the churches, from people like yourself.

  • David Woodbury Jul 6, 2009

    I thought The South Was Right by the brothers Kennedy was the absolute pinnacle of neo-Confederate fiction, but this book is starting to sound like it’s a contender for the title. Does Dwyer list the Kennedy book in his bibliography, assuming there’s a bibliography? It really is a particularly insidious kind of child abuse. Might as well throw Creationism in there for good measure — that way the child’s education can be skewed in both the sciences and the humanities, lending a measure of symmetry.

    • Kevin Levin Jul 6, 2009

      David,

      There is no bibliography. I have no doubt that families that use this book also include a healthy dose of creationism to boot. After all, there is no way that Lee and Jackson could be the product of evolution. :)

  • Mike Jul 6, 2009

    This sounds horrible! Who produces it?? Bob Jones press had quality text books when I taught in Private schools.

  • Shane Christen Jul 13, 2009

    I think this proves beyond a shadow of a doubt that Dwyer has no credabilty and proves that a publisher will print anything if it’s thought it will earn them some coin.

    I think the author could do better by spending some constructive time reading period diaries and letters because it’s apparent to me that none were consulted.

    Fiction as history; that’s all this book is.

  • Thearmchairgenealogist Jul 17, 2009

    The whole flurry about Black Confederates going on now among devotees of the Lost Cause comes partly from their chagrin at having a Black man as President.

    This is an attempt to rewrite, or deny, history.

    History has already pulled out of the station and the devotees of this book can wave it in the air as they race down the tracks; I dont think its going to make any difference.

    And while Im at it, someone should be asking why so many wealthy white boys needed Black body servants to serve their every need while in the army.

    By the way, I am white, but disgusted by the Lost Cause propaganda and books like Black Confederates. I could hardly believe it when I found this site — someone is actually trying to present an accurate view of Civil War history.

  • Greg Rowe Jul 25, 2009

    TAG (I hope you dont mind the abbreviation):

    The mythology of Black Confederates has been perpetuated for a great deal longer than the beginning of the current Presidents administration. Kevin has several posts on the subject that predate Mr. Obamas presence on the national political scene as a viable candidate for the Presidency. It might be a perceived chagrin at having a Black man as President that makes it seem more prevalent in some communities and among certain groups that have otherwise ignored this historical debate up to this point. Among historians of this era, however, this is an ongoing debate that the historical record just doesnt support in any substantial manner.

  • Jim Oct 17, 2009

    Who are these black guys in Confederate uniforms in a Yankee paper just before the battle of Fredericksburg???

    http://www.sonofthesouth.net/leefoundation/civi

    Black Confederate troops are a fact and not fiction….

    • Kevin Levin Oct 17, 2009

      Thanks for taking the time comment. This is a very popular image of so-called “Black Confederates.” Of course, all evidence must be interpreted before any conclusions are drawn. In this case it is important to remember that Harpers pushed early for the recruitment of blacks into the Union army. This image is supposedly based on the observations of a Union officer in the field, but do we know who that officer was or whether this has anything at all to do with his observations. Did the illustrator consult with the officer in question. Remember, no one denies that thousands of black slaves were present with the Confederate army and it is just as likely that some even carried weapons, but that does not in and of itself tell us much. Even the article refers to the two pictured as slaves. It is a reflection of just how immoral slavery was that their owners would put them at risk by bringing them into their war. Thanks again for taking the time to write.

    • Brooks D. Simpson Oct 17, 2009

      Let's read the description:

      “REBEL NEGRO PICKETS.”

      “So much has been said about the wickedness of using the negroes on our side in the present war, that we have thought it. worth while to reproduce on this page a sketch sent us from Fredericksburg by our artist, Mr. Theodore R. Davis, which is a faithful representation of what was seen by one of our officers through his field-glass, while on outpost duty at that place. As the picture shows, it represents two full-blooded negroes, fully armed, and serving as pickets in the rebel army. It has long been known to military men that the insurgents affect no scruples about the employment of their slaves in any capacity in which they may be found useful. Yet there are people here at the North who affect to be horrified at the enrollment of negroes into regiments. Let us hope that the President will not be deterred by any squeamish scruples of the kind from garrisoning the Southern forts with fighting men of any color that can be obtained. “

      So what we are talking about is a representation of something someone seems to have seen through their field glasses across the Rappahannock River in the dead of winter. Davis draws what the officer describes, and no more. Now, if African American Confederates were doing picket duty, then why don't we find that described in the letters and diaries left by Confederate officers and soldiers? Why, if African American Confederates were doing military service, did Robert E. Lee not bring up that point when he argued for using slaves a s soldiers?

      Why, in short, would Confederate soldiers engage in such a massive cover-up? Why did they lie to their fellow white southerners? Why did Robert E. Lee lie to all those people who worship him?

      Answers, please, from advocates of the black Confederates position.

      This was not the only time this was reported. See:

      http://query.nytimes.com/mem/archive-free/pdf?_

      BTW, anyone who actually takes the time to read the entire issue knows that this image was from after the battle of Fredericksburg.

  • Jim Oct 17, 2009

    Who are these black guys in Confederate uniforms in a Yankee paper just before the battle of Fredericksburg???

    http://www.sonofthesouth.net/leefoundation/civi

    Black Confederate troops are a fact and not fiction….

  • Kevin Levin Oct 17, 2009

    Thanks for taking the time comment. This is a very popular image of so-called “Black Confederates.” Of course, all evidence must be interpreted before any conclusions are drawn. In this case it is important to remember that Harpers pushed early for the recruitment of blacks into the Union army. This image is supposedly based on the observations of a Union officer in the field, but do we know who that officer was or whether this has anything at all to do with his observations. Did the illustrator consult with the officer in question. Remember, no one denies that thousands of black slaves were present with the Confederate army and it is just as likely that some even carried weapons, but that does not in and of itself tell us much. Even the article refers to the two pictured as slaves. It is a reflection of just how immoral slavery was that their owners would put them at risk by bringing them into their war. Thanks again for taking the time to write.

  • Brooks D. Simpson Oct 17, 2009

    Let's read the description:

    “REBEL NEGRO PICKETS.”

    “So much has been said about the wickedness of using the negroes on our side in the present war, that we have thought it worth while to reproduce on this page a sketch sent us from Fredericksburg by our artist, Mr. Theodore R. Davis, which is a faithful representation of what was seen by one of our officers through his field-glass, while on outpost duty at that place. As the picture shows, it represents two full-blooded negroes, fully armed, and serving as pickets in the rebel army. It has long been known to military men that the insurgents affect no scruples about the employment of their slaves in any capacity in which they may be found useful. Yet there are people here at the North who affect to be horrified at the enrollment of negroes into regiments. Let us hope that the President will not be deterred by any squeamish scruples of the kind from garrisoning the Southern forts with fighting men of any color that can be obtained. “

    So what we are talking about is a representation of something someone seems to have seen through their field glasses across the Rappahannock River in the dead of winter. Davis draws what the officer describes, and no more. Now, if African American Confederates were doing picket duty, then why don't we find that described in the letters and diaries left by Confederate officers and soldiers? Why, if African American Confederates were doing military service, did Robert E. Lee not bring up that point when he argued for using slaves a s soldiers?

    Why, in short, would Confederate soldiers engage in such a massive cover-up? Why did they lie to their fellow white southerners? Why did Robert E. Lee lie to all those people who worship him?

    Answers, please, from advocates of the black Confederates position.

    This was not the only time this was reported. See:

    http://query.nytimes.com/mem/archive-free/pdf?_

    BTW, anyone who actually takes the time to read the entire issue knows that this image was from after the battle of Fredericksburg.

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