How Old Are Black Confederates?

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?

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22 comments… add one

  • Tim Abbott Jun 9, 2010

    Nice shirt, Kevin. I recognize the template as a Zazzle product. I wonder if whoever made it has sold any?

    • Kevin Levin Jun 9, 2010

      One of my students bought me a “Chandler Brothers” t-shirt from Dixie Outfitters. I think that’s enough in the black Confederate wardrobe department. :D

  • James F. Epperson Jun 9, 2010

    I started participating in online Civil War discussion groups in the mid-1990s, and the notion of “black Confederates” was an established assertion at that point in time. You might contact a John Gross. John is a reasonable person, re-enacts in Florida (I think) and was one of the early advocates of the notion that I recall.

    • Kevin Levin Jun 9, 2010

      Hi James,

      If I am right that’s when most people started discussing this issue. As you know, I believe that online chat rooms have done the most to further discussion of this issue. In fact, it may be the case that without it, this wouldn’t have turned into such a popular and divisive topic.

    • Margaret D. Blough Jun 24, 2011

      Jim-That came up a lot in the CompuServe Civil War forum.That’s where I first came across it and the rage proponents tend to fly into when presented annoying things like requests for supporting evidence and being confronted with evidence that rebuts their claims.

  • Larry Cebula Jun 9, 2010

    I just played around with Google Book Search for a bit. A search for the phrase “black confederates” before 1950 resulted in only 17 hits, none of them about the Civil War.

    • Kevin Levin Jun 10, 2010

      I did a couple of searches as well and came up with nothing. The other aspect of this is that apart from a few exceptions this is not a topic of interest within the African-American community, which is why I love the photograph of the t-shirt.

      • Larry Cebula Jun 10, 2010

        You could also do searches for “Weary Clyburn” or the Frederick Douglass quote and so on. I suspect that the origins of the myth are going to be found in newsletters and small magazines that will not be digitally researchable. This is an important question.

        • Kevin Levin Jun 10, 2010

          Larry,

          I think you are probably right, but that’s one of the nice things about having an online presence. It is going to to put me in touch with a network of folks who may be able to dig this stuff up. I am really looking forward to this project.

  • John Hennessy Jun 10, 2010

    Kevin, the scant serious attention given this topic highlights how important your upcoming work is. The relentless practice of good history will, over time, win out in the intellectual marketplace (though never in the marketplace’s back alleys). I think we’re seeing that now in other areas of Civil War history, and I hope your work on black Confederates has the same effect. Though, no doubt, proving a negative is a considerable challenge.

    • Kevin Levin Jun 10, 2010

      Hey John,

      I am looking forward to getting started. One thing I don’t want to get bogged down with is trying to prove a negative. The approach will be to set it up by providing a framework to understanding how the war challenged the master-slave relationship and to detail the various ways in which free and enslaved blacks were utilized by the Confederate government. From there I want to explore how stories of loyal black slaves morphed into more recent claims about black Confederate soldiers. In that sense it will be a study of Civil War memory, but I also want to critique the kinds of evidence that is used to make some of these wild claims, specifically the pension records. I am in touch with a very helpful archivist in Union County, NC who has sent me a number of pension records for Confederate slaves. I also want to take on some of more high profile figures like Weary Clyburn, John Venable, and Silas Chandler. What does a careful reading of the primary sources tell us about the experiences of these individuals? A big chunk of the book will explore the cultural and political apsects of this debate. Perhaps I will approach it along the lines of “Confederates in the Attic.” We shall see.

      It will definitely sell well. :D

  • Joyce Jun 10, 2010

    I am glad I ran upon this post. I am a proud Southerner and I am also African-American. I am VERY interested in this subject, but when brought up, or asked, I usually get negative answers. I truly believe that this should in fact be apart of African-American history. From my own research, I have found that many blacks served in the confederacy, and NOT against their will. Blacks in the South have a looooooooog history, and have contributed MANY things to our southern culture, but so many are blinded by the lies that were told about the CW. These black soldiers fought and died for a cause, and I believe that they should be honored. No matter what/who the war was really about.

    That’s my take.

    BTW, where can I get that shirt!? lol

    • Kevin Levin Jun 10, 2010

      Joyce,

      I don’t know what research you’ve done, but I assure you there is no evidence that would support your assertions. In fact, the Confederate government was very clear that they would not accept black Southerners into the army. The Confederate government did impress slaves for support roles, but they functioned as laborers and not soldiers. You should take some time to browse what I’ve written on the subject.

      I agree with you that African Americans are an important part of the story of the history of the Confederacy, but it is not as soldiers. You may want to pick up a copy of Bruce Levine’s book, _Confederate Emancipation_, which is a great place to start if you are interested in the fierce debate over whether to arm blacks in the Confederacy. Thanks for taking the time to write.

  • Jarret Ruminski Jun 10, 2010

    I would suggest Joyce also check out Stephanie McCurry’s new book to see what black southerners thought about the Confederate government’s attempt to impress them as laborers. They did not appreciate it.

    • Kevin Levin Jun 10, 2010

      That would be an understatement, Jarret. I just finished the book.

  • Bryan Cheeseboro Jun 24, 2011

    Kevin,
    Interesting to ask this question. I’ve suspected for a long time that had it not been for Glory, the Black Confederate Debate would be few and far between. And I feel that Black Confederates is the only kind of multicultural history some people can accept. I would not be surprised at all if some of the people who ask “why do we have to have a Black History Month?” are the same ones who preach that 90,000 or more Blacks served the Confederacy as volunteer soldiers.

    I first heard about Black Confederates in 1990, when Glory came out (actually, back in 1980, I saw the picture of Andrew and Silas Chandler). I was- and still am- very interested in the subject. But I wanted to know as much as I could about how a black man ended up as a soldier in the Confederate Army. I have no problem believing that somewhere in those four years of war, some individual black men, for whatever reasons, fired shots in anger at Yankee soldiers. But for me, that’s as far as it goes. I don’t believe 90,000. And whatever the numbers, I don’t believe they were cheerful southern patriots. Gary Gallagher was right when he called Black Confederates “statistically insignificant” to the outcome of the war. The south lost with them; and they could have lost without them.

    I’m glad to hear you are working on a book to understand the real role of blacks in the Confederate military. I feel that story is an important, overlooked story that needs to be told. I don’t think the Confederate army could have survived without their labor. But it’s so funny when I watch Ron Maxwell’s Gettysburg and see the Rebels in the field with no black camp servants whatsoever. But he does so much to minimize slavery in his Civil War films, so go figure.

    • Kevin Levin Jun 24, 2011

      Thanks for the comment, Bryan. I think the story of how the Confederate army utilized slaves and how that decision challenged the master-slave relationship is so much more interesting than the silly narrative of large numbers of loyal black soldiers. It stands in contradiction to everything we know about slavery and the Confederate war effort.

    • Andy Hall Jun 24, 2011

      But it’s so funny when I watch Ron Maxwell’s Gettysburg and see the Rebels in the field with no black camp servants whatsoever.

      His Gods and Generals includes a couple of African American men in the early scenes where Southern volunteers are marching off to enlist. They’re mixed in with the white men marching through the town, but later, in an overhead shot, are shown hanging around behind the white men, who’ve been drawn up in company formation. It implies happy, enthusiastic volunteers, but stops just short of depicting them as soldiers. The better-known scene with Jackson hiring a black man as cook has a much more explicit “faithful servant” vibe.

      No idea what’s in the newly-released “director’s cut” of the movie, but at least one True Southron is upset that John Wilkes Booth is “portrayed in an extremely negative light.

      • Kevin Levin Jun 24, 2011

        And here is a deleted scene from G&G: http://cwmemory.com/2009/12/12/he-my-boss-not-my-massa/

        • Andy Hall Jun 24, 2011

          Yeah, I’m with Larry on that one. He (1) takes the body home, (2) gets to go north, and (3) doesn’t have to run away. Everyone wins!

      • Bryan Cheeseboro Jun 24, 2011

        I was very glad to see those depictions in Gods & Generals. I guess I’ve always thought they were not included because directors thougth the audience would get confused.

  • Bryan Cheeseboro Nov 22, 2011

    I’ve long suspected that the Black Confederate Myth (capitalized to refer specifically to the idea that significant numbers of Black men fought as soldiers in the Confederate army) was the antithetical response to the movie “Glory,” as well as things like Black History Month and multicultural educational curriculums. I have little doubt that many who ask why we have to have a Black History Month are those who proclaim long and loud that 90,000 Blacks fought for the Confederacy as willing soldiers.

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