This coming Friday I am scheduled to spend the day with a film crew from Eastern Carolina University, which is producing a documentary on the subject of “black Confederates.” I am excited about my first foray into the world of film and just a little apprehensive about how my commentary will be used. Still, I do think it is an opportunity that I can’t pass up given that my next book project will be a study of memory and black Confederates. The filming will be done at my home and we plan on spending about 4-5 hours discussing the subject.
I am going to put together some information sheets that I can refer to during the interview. My overall goal is first and foremost to help the audience to properly frame the discussion around the correct terms. This is a discussion about how the Confederate war effort altered the institution of slavery and not one about soldiers. We need to use the correct terminology. As anyone who is familiar with the primary evidence can tell you any examples of black southerners who actually served as soldiers are incredibly rare and therefore constitute and exception to this framework. As I’ve pointed out over the years this is not a problem confined to the general public, but even among those who work as public historians such Earl Ijames of the North Carolina Museum of History.
And if Ijames wasn’t disturbing enough for you than have a look at this essay written by Bernhard Thuersam, who is the director of the Cape Fear Historical Institute in Wilmington, North Carolina. The essay is a rough survey of the role of black soldiers in the Revolution, War of 1812, and Civil War. I am not going to sum up the entire article. I neither have the time nor the patience. On top of some of the same old pieces of evidence that appear in every article/website on the subject consider the following:
In 1860, there were approximately 4 million blacks both free and slave in the United States and the vast majority either fought for or supported the American Confederacy, with the number of opposing US Colored Troops amounting to only a little over 186,000 men. Of the latter, it is questionable whether they were freely recruited or were impressed into service to replace Northern white soldiers who sought substitutes.
In 1861, many free black companies were formed throughout the South with a Lynchburg newspaper commenting on the enlistment of 75 free blacks to fight for the defense of the State, concluding with “three cheers for the patriotic Negroes of Lynchburg!”
The “Richmond Howitzers” who saw action at First Manassas in 1861 were an integrated artillery unit and at least two regiments, one free and one slave, fought in the battle.
It is estimated that between 50,000 to 65,000 blacks fought as combatants in Confederate forces and nearly all on an unofficial basis.
There are no references for any of these claims other than a selective bibliography at the end. Needless to say that this is another example of the sloppy thinking and research that can be found online and in other publications about the subject. The section on the recruitment of blacks into the Union army and the broader history of USCTs is just as bad. [If you are interested in this subject, I highly recommend Joseph Glatthaar’s Forged in Battle: The Civil War Alliance of Black Soldiers and White Officers, which I am reading right now.]
So, yes I am looking forward to the filming on Friday.