“Black Confederate troops are a fact and not fiction….”

negro-confederateYesterday I received a comment from a reader in response to one of my posts on black Confederates or what I am now calling, Confederate slaves.  I am not highlighting this comment to necessarily embarrass this particular reader, but to point out the quality or level of sophistication of the vast majority of comments and emails that I receive from people who continue to push this line of thought.  In this case the reader included a link to an image of two armed black men from the January 3, 1863 issue of Harper’s Weekly that you see here.  The short editorial that accompanied the image includes the title, “Rebel Negro Pickets”, and reads as follows:

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.

Following the link, the commenter suggests simply that, “Black Confederate troops are a fact and not fiction….” Granted that this is an extreme example, but it is an excellent example of the biggest problem when it comes to this issue. There is a glaring inability on the part of many to engage in even the most rudimentary historical analysis. In this case there is no attempt to interpret the newspaper in which the image and commentary were included. No questions are asked about the source of the observation. How does the writer know that the two men were on picket duty? There is no evidence that Davis believed that what he saw were two black soldiers on picket duty. I have to assume that the author of the comment believes that in referring to the two black men as black Confederates he is implying their service as soldiers in the Confederate army. The problem is that even the commentary accompanying the image in Harper’s attempts to push black recruitment in the Union army based on the fact that Confederates were already utilizing their slave labor to support their military.

As serious historians we are supposed to ask questions of the available evidence. A healthy dose of skepticism is always necessary when wading through complex questions. However, in the case of black Confederates I am constantly amazed at the sloppiness that passes for serious thought. If it’s not the unquestioning acceptance of a supposed first-hand account it’s a postwar photograph of a Confederate veteran along with a black man who also happens to be wearing a uniform or a pension file that lists a black man as a member of a specific unit.

Finally, I find it strange and a reflection of just how distorted our memory of the Civil War has become that we would look at this particular image and be inclined to interpret the presence of blacks with the Confederate army as something positive. When I look at this image it reinforces the horror of slavery itself. Consider how many black families were split apart and then consider the number of slaves that were forced to travel with the army and engage in activities that put their own lives at risk in a cause that if successful would have guaranteed their future enslavement.

17 thoughts on ““Black Confederate troops are a fact and not fiction….”

  1. chrismeekins

    Yes, I ran into the same thing at the public desk in the Archives. An otherwise kind and dedicated researcher turned rather fanatic about the concept of “Black Confederates.” In part his refusal to include slavery and a slave society in any aspect of his interpretation (from causes associated with starting the war, etc.) built an gap between us fr any positive discourse we could have had on the subject. I would suggest, as you point out, this is another example of non-critical thinking. Much ink has been spilled while seeking to understand the master and the slave in society together. When we pull either one away from the other we lessen our understanding of both (or so my training tells me!). I get that history is not and should not be absolutes – but it should also apply Occam's Razor.

    Reply
    1. Kevin Levin

      Nice to hear from you. Gary Gallagher is fond of cautioning his audience at the beginning of talks that they may hear something that they do not like. He is quick to follow up, however, by noting that that is a good thing. My favorite moments as a historian are when something I believe turns out to be wrong. Those are the moments of insight. It's not always easy as sometimes we grow emotionally attached to our beliefs about the past. No doubt, some of that is at work here in the case of black Confederates, but I think you nailed it. All too many people simply do not engage the past with a critical eye. It is a series of stories learned at a young age or the individual simply never learned how to think critically about the past. Those of us who spend our time researching and writing would do well to remember this.

      Reply
      1. Richard

        Hi Kevin

        I have a question. Is the topic of Black Confederates something accepted by the general public? I grew up in the South, usually fall on the Right side of things and know quite a few people in the SCV. I never heard anyone talk about Black Confederates. In fact blacks were totally absent from conversations regarding the Civil War, as if they did not exist. I must have lived a sheltered life.

        Reply
        1. Kevin Levin

          Thanks for taking the time to comment. You are probably right that most people no little to nothing about black Confederates. I've found that it is mainly SCV chapters that are pushing this line of thought for one reason or the other and it has definitely increased over the past 15-20 years. It's basically an attempt to remove slavery from the history of the Confederacy. If you can argue that large numbers of blacks fought for the Confederacy than the issues of race and slavery can be safely set aside.

          My bigger concern is that the general public will believe pretty much anything you tell it. You can see this whenever the SCV holds some kind of event that is covered by local news. Reporters simply report what they hear as if it is fact and this works to perpetuate this nonsense into the general public.

          Reply
          1. danwright

            The local paper in the Shenandoah Valley recently ran a story about the controversy of a high school student with a BA Confederate flag on his pickup. When asked about it, the student cited his heritage and the reporter did not ask any follow up questions. Or at least it wasn't in the story. What is this guy's heritage that he's so proud of – does it include racial oppression, lynching, maybe a little hatred? It's as if heritage is the trump card in a little game. He played the heritage card. That's beats anything the reporter was holding. And it seems that Southern Heritage begins and ends with the CW. You don't see these guys with a bust of James Madison hood ornament or a Thomas Jefferson Rocks T-shirt.

            Reply
  2. robwick

    Kevin,
    It seems to me this is just a small part of the growing politicizing of history, which is so ably represented by the PIG series among others. Not to put too simplistic a point on it here, but I would hazard a guess that most people who support the idea of Confederate slaves serving with devotion that rises above the need for force are generally conservative in nature. As Richard Hofstadter (and later Susan Jacoby) have shown, these conservatives eschew intellectual pursuits almost to a person. My best friend (who is a anti-Obama conservative and honestly believes the birther nonsense) told me the other day he thought that education was overrated and ended up draining the common sense out of people. I didn't know what to say. We are close friends because we accept that in politics we won't agree and base our friendship on other things (a shared interest in history, for example). I think the people who support the concept of black C0nfederates don't want to be bothered with parsing historical analysis or reading something which might cause them to re-think their beliefs because they feel that in this so-called “descent into socialism” that our country appears to be headed, all they have left are their beliefs. I'm currently reading Hofstadter's “Paranoid Style in American Politics” and much of what he was writing in the 1950s and 1960s is still relevant today, and quite frankly, it is quite disturbing to see it re-emerge.

    Best
    Rob

    Reply
    1. Kevin Levin

      I couldn't agree with you more. I read Jacoby's most recent book over the summer and thought it was very helpful in understanding that streak of anti-intellectualism that has coursed through American history for so long. I don't know how far I am willing to go in lumping the black Confederate supporters into one political/social group, but it no doubt explains the fascination for some. Like I said in response to Chris, I tend to think that these people are unable (for whatever reason) to engage in serious political thought.

      Beyond the fact that Crocker's book is full of factual mistakes and poor interpretation, what I truly troubles me is the way he turns history into a game.

      Reply
  3. Woodrowfan

    “Politicization of History” The so-called “black Confederates” is just one of several issues I’ve noticed lately that seem to be attacking revisionist history from particular political groups on the right. There are also attempts..
    –to make the founding fathers all appear to be conservative fundamentalist Christians. (including one claim that a majority of the signers of the Declaration of Independence were ministers).
    – to spread the view that FDR caused the Great Depression and/or made it worse. These claims always use the stats from 1937 (when FDR tried to cut back on the New Deal and sparked a recession.) and tend to ignore stats from 1936 or 1939 which showed a clear economic improvement. Or they argue that federal works jobs are not “real jobs” as if building roads, courthouses, dams and schools wasn’t “real” work.
    – and, of course there is the usual “we could have won Vietnam” school, the 20th Century US version of Der Dolchstoß.
    There is also a group of Libertarian writers that attacked not only Lincoln and FDR, but also Teddy Roosevelt and Woodrow Wilson for building and strengthening a strong national government. You’ve heard of one of the main writers in this group, Thomas DiLorenzo, an economics professor who has made a career of slandering Lincoln. The writers in this genre tend to be trained in economics and not history (and it shows).
    Finally, let us not forget the efforts to convince people that Nazis and Fascists were left-wingers.
    This is not to suggest that writers on the left don’t sometimes do the same thing. Zinn’s “People’s History” is a dreadful book and I wince every time I see it recommended as a good history. But there is a larger effort, of which “Black Confederates” is a part, to rewrite American history to fit a particular political agenda.

    Reply
  4. msimons

    I have to agree with you Kevin until we can get documented proof like pension papers we can not say for sure wither or not these men are slaves doing a job or Free blacks from the South that are serving.

    Reply
    1. Kevin Levin

      Thanks for the link, Jim. What research have you done to follow up this little story. Were 500,000 thousands blacks, in fact, recruited into the Confederate Army? Research doesn't begin and end with a piece of evidence. That's where it begins.

      Reply
      1. Bob_Pollock

        Did you scroll down and read the section “The Situation of Affairs in the Rebel States” in the newspaper? How do we reconcile this with the blurb about Davis supposedly calling for black troops?

        Reply
    2. Brooks D. Simpson

      Jim, as you seem quite interested in this topic, could you show us from Davis's own papers where he said this? After all, if you can't find said document, then I'd treat the newspaper report as I treat many newspaper reports at the time: rumor posing as fact. How many times have you read a Civil War newspaper report the outcome of a battle, including claims about the killed and wounded among general officers, only to retract that misinformation later?

      Besides, Jim, if Davis did say what the paper claimed he said, then why did he reprimand Cleburne in December 1863 for offering the same proposal? How exactly do you explain that?

      Good luck with your research.

      Reply
    3. margaretdblough

      Jim-The Union newspaper editor must have been psychic because none even remotely like that happened until nearly two years later. Patrick Cleburn did not even make his Memorial about the need to arm slaves until January 1864. The fact that he even made it was kept secret by both the AOT and the Davis administration; copies were ordered destroyed (fortunately, at least one copy evaded destruction) and it appears to have effectively ended Cleburne's chances for promotion) http://www.nytimes.com/learning/general/onthisd…. There were laws impressing slaves and free blacks but they were far more comparable to the laws impressing cattle and other supplies. The NYT educational article I cited summarizes the timeline: by November 1864 as Confederates were running out of white men of military age, Davis first broached the possibility of arming slaves. The first bill authorizing arming slaves wasn't introduced until February 1865. It passed, narrowly, over bitter opposition, on March 13, 1865 without providing for emancipation for enlistees. Davis issued an executive order on March 23 curing, to some extent, those defects. Only one black company was recruited before Richmond fell.

      Reply
  5. margaretdblough

    Jim-The Union newspaper editor must have been psychic because nothing even remotely like that happened until nearly two years later. Patrick Cleburne did not even make his Memorial about the need to arm slaves until January 1864. The fact that he even made it was kept secret by both the AOT and the Davis administration; copies were ordered destroyed (fortunately, at least one copy evaded destruction) and it appears to have effectively ended Cleburne's chances for promotion) http://www.nytimes.com/learning/general/onthisd…. There were laws impressing slaves and free blacks but they were far more comparable to the laws impressing cattle and other supplies. The NYT educational article I cited summarizes the timeline: By November 1864 as Confederates were running out of white men of military age, Davis first broached the possibility of arming slaves. The first bill authorizing arming slaves wasn't introduced until February 1865. It passed, narrowly, over bitter opposition, on March 13, 1865 without providing for emancipation for enlistees. Davis issued an executive order on March 23 curing, to some extent, those defects. Only one black company was recruited before Richmond fell.

    Reply
  6. Rob

    It’s remarkable. I am working on a thesis actually right now trying to connect the actual history of the event, to the way, reason, and beliefs that many hold about the war now. How did we go from Alexander Stephen’s “Cornerstone Speech” to an entire publishing company pushing propaganda stating that slavery was not an issue, and that ‘freedmen’/slaves fought for the South. I have heard this slander on history before many times, and many times over at Civil War Reenactments. It’s propagated by SCV, and probably worse the UDCV to the point that it is taken as factual. Interestingly enough, it also seems to be aligning itself in the grassroots to political factions. Most champions of the black confederate are usually Republican, which allows them to demonize scholars as Liberals. The same argument is used when talking about whether or not America was founded as a Christian nation. I think a simple fact that we have to realize and overcome, is that slaveholders in that time period were in the minority, 150 years later, it remains a minority and so many people have ancestors that fought in the war, that didn’t own a slave and they refuse to accept a notion that their ancestor fought for slavery.

    Reply

Join the Conversation