Update: Since writing this post I’ve had to push the time line back a bit to the mid-1970s. Click here.
Seem like a strange question? What I am wondering is when the first accounts of substantial numbers of loyal black Confederate soldiers surfaced. For the moment I am not drawing any distinctions between professional and non-professional historians. I simply want to know when the first claims were made public and by whom. Perhaps there is something to be discovered in the Dunning School, which emphasized a Lost Cause narrative of the war that included loyal slaves. In 1919 Charles H. Wesley published his essay, “The Employment of Negroes as Soldiers in the Confederate Army. Wesley argued that slaves demonstrated their loyalty to their masters and the Confederacy by “offering themselves for actual service in the Confederate army.” According to Wesley, like their white counterparts, slaves also believed “their land [had been] invaded by hostile forces.” I will have to double-check, but I don’t believe that Wesley actually focused on free and/or enslaved blacks already serving in Confederate ranks. Rather, it’s an article about the debate to enlist slaves as soldiers.
Jump ahead to the 1960s, the Civil Rights Movement, and the rapid growth of African-American history and slavery studies specifically and you will find nothing on the subject of black Confederates. On the one hand that may come as no surprise given the state of race relations throughout the country, and especially in the states that comprised the Confederacy. Than again there was plenty of opportunity to locate such individuals and I suspect that writers working along the lines of Lerone Bennett, Jr., would have been all too excited to point out the existence of loyal black Confederate soldiers. In 1969 James H. Brewer, who taught at North Carolina Central University, published The Confederate Negro: Virginia’s Craftsmen and Military Laborers, 1861-1865 (University of Alabama Press). As the title suggests, however, Brewer focuses on slaves who were impressed by the state and does not make any claims about black Confederate soldiers. Three years later, Robert F. Durden published The Gray and the Black: The Confederate Debate on Emancipation, but as the title suggests its focus is on the debate and says nothing about the presence of slave soldiers. Interestingly, Durden’s book was allowed to go out of print only to be brought back in 2000.
Which brings us back to the recent past. As far as I can tell this entire debate about black Confederate soldiers is roughly 25 years old. I suspect that the trigger was the release of the movie, Glory in 1989. The only scholarly study of the subject was published in 1995 by Ervin L. Jordan, Jr. Black Confederates and Afro-Yankees in Civil War Virginia is well worth your time, but it does suffer from some shortcomings. Often times, Jordan treats different types of evidence equally and there are a few serious interpretive errors. For example, at one point Jordan argues that state pensions handed out to Confederate military laborers and body servants constituted reparations for slavery. That said, Jordan does a very good job of detailing the ways in which slaves and free blacks were utilized in the Confederate war effort. Additional titles include, Black Confederates (1995), Black Southerners in Gray: Essays on Afro-Americans in Confederate Armies (1997), Black Southerners in Confederate Armies (2001). Of course, most of what can be found on the subject is online, but I would venture to guess that just about everything available has gone up over the past decade.
For those of you who are now members or were once members of Sons of Confederate Veterans or United Daughters of the Confederacy I would love to know if this subject was raised before 1989. I would love to be proven wrong. If so, with what frequency was this topic discussed?
If I am right about this than the only other question is how to explain this dramatic shift. Glory highlighted the role of USCTs and in distorting the regimental profile of the 54th Massachusetts focused specifically on the experiences of former slaves. No surprise there given that Hollywood is usually looking for a dramatic story line. The popularity of the movie led to an increased awareness among the general public of the importance that black Union soldiers played in the war and may have caused some to feel defensive about their own attachment to a certain narrative thread of the war or may have felt that the movie indirectly condemned the Confederate cause.
I don’t mean to suggest something that can be applied to every case. In fact, I am simply throwing this out there for your consideration. What do you think?