I think this is a question that anyone interested in this subject eventually has to come around to. For the moment let’s set aside H.K. Edgerton and the very small number of African Americans who have involved themselves in this movement. When you get right down to it, this is a subject that whites, who are mainly associated with Southern heritage groups are interested in promoting. You don’t find black Americans celebrating the participation of freed and enslaved blacks in the Confederate army as part of Emancipation Day celebrations at the turn of the twentieth century and you will be hard pressed to find references to these individuals during the 1960s, at a time when the African American community had rediscovered its Civil War past as part of the broader Civil Rights Movement.
You don’t even find whites highlighting the sacrifices of black Confederate soldiers until relatively recently. What you will find are plenty of ceremonies, monuments, and markers to the “faithful slave” that dot the landscape in parts of the South. As I pointed out in a previous post the subject of black Confederates can be traced to the late 1980s- early 90s and I suspect in reaction to the success of the movie, Glory. Why did the black community of Petersburg not recognize Richard Poplar before five years ago or even Weary Clyburn. [Note: The evidence suggests that Poplar may have indeed served as a soldier, but I still have some questions about the documentation.] What about the rest of the ceremonies that have taken place over the past few years? Why are whites the ones who get so enraged when I write about this subject and question the veracity of claims made about these men? Apart from one comment by H.K. Edgerton I have never heard from an African American who was upset with me for addressing this issue or believed that I was somehow denigrating the Southern past. As some of you know I am currently co-authoring an article with a descendant of Silas Chandler, who is one of the most visible black Confederates. It turns out that almost nothing about the popular account is right.
I guess we could explain this new direction in Southern history as one of whites coming to the rescue of African Americans in revealing a history that was somehow forgotten or even intentionally ignored. No doubt, that is a comforting explanation. Unfortunately, it’s a bit more complicated. Perhaps the fact that the Confederate government and military explicitly denied the right of free and enslaved blacks the right to serve as soldiers has something to do with this. That would leave us with the question of why whites are so interested in black Confederates. Of course, I think I know the answer to this question.
Hi! Holt Collier was a member of my family. I want to know why all this information about his life keep popping up? People are selling books, t-shirts and all kinds of stuff. How can we put a stop to this?
Question: What is the Source of the image (wooden negro boy statue/flag holder) in the posting?
I, for one, would like to see the rolls of those who ‘Enlisted’ into the confederate army that were black!
Were they fair skinned and used this opportunity to make some money and get from under the whip?
Were they dark skinned and used this opportunity to buy their way out of slavery?
In other words, it would take documented proof and numbers comparable to the USCT to convince this African Ancestored Family Historian that such a group, called the black confederates, ever existed.
Never mind the C.S.A.’s attempts at recruitment near the close of the war.
If there are any descendants of the so-called descendants of black confederates; you need to step up and quell this debate! In the meantime, consider this:
Confederate States of America’s Plan to Put Slaves in the Trenches.
It is posted on my blog at http://bit.ly/90hb8F
There are documents to support that the ‘black confederates’ never existed! It is a modern day construct – and needs to be shot down! By African Americans and whites alike!
“Guided by the Ancestors”
George, try checking the facts like NB Forrest unit with 45 of his slaves , black CSA prisoners from Gettysburg, reunions years later with Black veterans, descriptions from Union soldiers and pension records. Blacks fought for the only land & people they knew, free or slave! Check out the facts on many websites, you will see the facts & proof!
You would do well to read Bruce Levine’s book, _Confederate Emancipation_. The pension records you speak of were for slaves and not soldiers. Black prisoners taken at Gettysburg were impressed slaves and personal servants of officers. Read Kent M. Brown’s _Retreat From Gettysburg_. Please provide a wartime letter from a black Confederate soldier that confirms your claim as to why they fought.
I would also like to see the Muster Rolls for Bedford Forrest’s slaves, showing their position in the PACS.
Margaret, it strikes me that the “Slavery was a bad thing/My great-great-granddaddy fought for the Confederacy/
My great-great-granddaddy was a good man” line of thinking you identify is more of a secondary effect. The Lost Cause/neo-Confederate narrative has always served political and social functions. Whatever Northerners may have thought about slavery before the Civil War, by the end of it slavery had come to be seen by most of them as flat-out evil. For former Confederates to rehabilitate themselves and re-establish white supremacy in their society in the absence of slavery, they had to distance themselves from the moral and political taint of slavery.And over the many decades since then, Lost Cause ideology became a justification for segregation and conservative/authoritarian politics and even a part of conservative whites’ religion.
Not many of us today know who our great-great-grandparents even were. And outside of what may be left of what anthropologists call the “tri-racial isolate” groups (the stereotypical “inbred hillbilly” communities), the idea of needing to defend the honor of the family clan back several generations just doesn’t compute for most Americans any more. In any case, if we want to “honor the memory of our ancestors,” it’s hard to see how we show them any honor by making up pretty lies about who they were, what they believed and what they did.
And while some people may view it this way, it’s hard for me to take seriously the idea that any adult is unable to distinguish between the goals and causes of a war and the personal integrity of the soldiers who fought in it. Especially with conscript soldiers, of which the Confederacy had many. I find it hard to take such family-honor considerations as anything but sentimental justifications when it comes to dealing with why people support a pseudohistorical Lost Cause ideology.
Bruce, I agree with most all of this. But “making up pretty lies about who they were, what they believed and what they did” — or more accurately, building up an imagined history and personalities for long-dead ancestors about whom next-to-nothing can actually be documented — goes on all the time. It’s part-and-parcel of the way the defenders of “Southern heritage” integrate their own, personal, family history with the larger themes of the Lost Cause. You don’t have talk to any of those folks long before they volunteer that their ancestors never owned slaves (or if they did, they voluntarily manumitted them before they were forced to), and that their ancestors fought entirely and exclusively to defend their homes and principles of liberty. As Kevin has very effectively pointed out previously, most of us — and that includes me — don’t know the first damn thing about who our ancestors were as people, and why they fought. But for those so inclined, that void of factual information only provides an opportunity to fill in the blanks with an imagined narrative that reinforces the descendant’s desire to have a brave and noble veteran to honor.
(I should probably mention that, in my view, the people who do this very often don’t realize it; they don’t consciously decide, “today I’m gonna make up some cool stories about my great-great-granddaddy.” It’s much more subtle and gradual than that.)
Finally, you wrote:
The problem is not that they’re unable to; it’s that they’re unwilling to, which is a far greater obstacle to overcome — indeed, probably an impossible one in most case.
Andy, you’re right about people doing that all the time. And who wouldn’t want to “edit” their family biographies a bit? 🙂 My point there was just another way of pointing out the hokiness of Lost Cause claims that they’re just “honoring their ancestors” in some value-free way. Some, of course, don’t even try to pretend they are being value-free.
Bruce-I can’t agree with you there. Ever since I got involved in the Longtreet Memorial Fund in the mid-1990s, I ‘ve gotten to know a lot of Southerners, particularly North Carolinians and Georgians, and family, including family honor, is, culturally very important to them. I’ve taken my syllogism totally from things people have told me. I can understand it. You know the infamous James Carville crack about Pennsylvania being Philadelphia and Pittsburgh and in the middle is Alabama. Well, I was born and raised in southwest “Alabama”. My parents were a bid oddball for the region (for starters my mother’s parents were Scottish immigrants). I knew a lot of people who really didn’t know quite how to deal with someone if they couldn’t place them in a local family line. I think there are considerable number of Confederate descendents who, while they don’t buy into all of the moonshine and magnolias of the Lost Cause, still aren’t comfortable with acknowledging the role of slavery in causing the war.
As for the Lost Cause v. modern Confederate Heritage. In hardcore, extreme (Brag Bowling of the Virginia SCV for instance) Confederate heritage advocates it’s a direct link. To me, the ideological partner of the Lost Cause is the post WW I German stab-in-the back explanation of Germany’s defeat in WW I. I usually don’t discuss this because it all too often ends up trying to calm someone down while explaining that you are NOT calling their great-great-granddaddy a Nazi (in any event, the Nazi’s didn’t create the stab in the back theory; they simply exploited it). In both cases, you have a group of people who saw themselves as culturally and militarily superior to their neighbors and embarked on a military undertaking against them that the aggressors believed would meet either with no or ineffectual resistance because of what they believe were the cultural, etc. inferiority of their enemies. Instead of the victory that they believe was assured, they instead found themselves catastrophically defeated. This created two of the biggest cases of cognitive dissonance in history and humans HATE cognitive dissonance. The first signs of historical revisionism actually started appearing before the war ended. Also, the Peculiar Institution as they knew it was collapsing around their ears, so they energetically started constructing a new Peculiar Institution, lacking only the auction block (I’m not including chains, because they remained in the Southern prison system)
Oh, there’s definitely a similarity between the Lost Cause myth of the Confederacy and the post-“Great War” stab-in-the-back theory of German revanchists. William Faulkner talked in the context of literature how the losing side in a war is more likely to analyze it, because the winning side mostly doesn’t feel there’s anything to explain. They won. It’s the losers who feel the impulse to explain.
I like the way you put your syllogism, Margaret. I think you’re just more-generous minded about it than I’m inclined to be. It’s probably your Yankee upbringing in Pennsylvania. I grew up in rural Mississippi and am not so willing to give Lost Causers the benefit of the doubt.
But you’re right that a lot of people who are not segregationists – until recently, I used the term neosegregationists, but I’ve decided lately that it’s that the “oldo” version never really went away – are reluctant to say that slavery was central to causing the war. Lots and lots of people were taught the Lost Cause version in school, even outside the South. The “reconciliationist” version of the Civil War held that the whole thing was a sad mixup among the white folks. Fanatical slaveowners and fanatical abolitionists got all worked up and failed to make the necessary compromises to avoid war, and therefore it was “fanaticism” and “failure of statesmanship” or whatever that caused it. The use of Lost Cause pseudohistory in conservative Christian homeschooling now is passing on the bogus history to new generations.
John Kennedy’s “Profiles in Courage” was heavily influenced by such interpretations of the war and Reconstruction, especially his chapter on the odious Senator from my native state, LQC Lamar. Kennedy’s experiences as President with characters like George Wallace and especially Ross Barnett made him start to rethink his assumptions on that score.
I think Barnett was probably the more important force in changing the Kennedy’s perspective. I think they were thoroughly familiar with Wallace’s type & his need to pander to his base, but most people today have no idea how incredibly dangerous and violent the desegregation of Old Miss was. People died and the death toll could have been much higher. If it had not been for the truly awe-inspiring courage of the U.S. Marshals, I truly doubt if Meredith would have survived; this is what then Atty. General Robert F. Kennedy said:
>>I think last night was the worst night I ever spent….
…[The deputies] were out there with instructions not to fire. They were fired on, they were hit, things were thrown at them. It was an extremely dangerous situation. …
… And I think it was that close. If the tear gas hadn’t arrived in that last five minutes, and if these men hadn’t remained true to their orders and instructions, if they had lost their heads and started firing at the crowd, you would have had immense bloodshed, and I think it would have been a very tragic situation. …
So to hear these reports that were coming in to the President and to myself all last night – when the situation with the state police having deserted the situation, and these men standing up there with courage and ability and great bravery – that was a very moving period in my life.
— Attorney General Robert F. Kennedy, October 1, 1962
I hope this wasn't too OT, Kevin.
I think it’s primarily a matter of sneering at African-Americans. Holocaust deniers don’t expect to convince Jews that the Shoah didn’t happen. But because it represents a major traumatic event in the history of the Jewish people and the Jewish religion, ridiculing it is mainly a way of sneering at the victims and their descendants and those who honor their memory.
Neo-Confederates pretending to honor black history by making up lies about “black Confederates” plays a similar role. Fitting within the dogma of denying that the Confederacy had anything at all to do with slavery or white supremacy or white racism, it’s a way of expressing contempt for African-Americans who celebrate and honor Emancipation.
Kevin, until I came across your site, I never heard much about black Confederate soldiers. The most I had heard were offhand comments at best, but nothing worth taking seriously. You are probably the biggest promoter of the topic right now and you are white. What does that mean?
Good point. I am indeed a white male. I’m not quite sure what you mean by “promoter of the topic” but I assume you mean to say that I spend a lot of time discussing it. That is definitely the case. I’ve said numerous times that I am interested in both the question of how the war challenged the master-slave relationship as well as the evolution of the “black Confederate” narrative. I have absolutely nothing at stake in this issue despite those who believe that I am on some kind of crusade against all things Southern. Like others I want to better understand the roles that freed and enslaved blacks played in the Confederate army. I’m sure you speak for many people in pointing out the relative obscurity of this subject.
I do not know if obscure is the word. Maybe more like a topic that is only whispered like a rumor in any circles I have encountered.
As for your original question, without any real sociological data, the basis for the whole question is flawed. You mentioned H. K. Edgerton and the “the very small number of African Americans” interested in the topic. Yet, that does not tell us much on how many white versus black historians have embraced this topic. You are probably the best person to provide this sort of data. Then we could compare those stats to white/black historians in America. We might be able to find data on white/black civil war historians. Then we can determine if they are proportional in any way or if there is truly an unbalanced interest.
Otherwise, we are all working on what we recall, which can always be flawed. For example, after 16 trips to battlefields in the past year, I would conclude that whites overwhelmingly represent the interest in the Civil War with probably less than 5% blacks. However, I did not really try to count or record anything, so I am relying on my memory, which is shoddy and incomplete. I cannot make an accurate conclusion on the number and certainly not the motivation of any group of people.
I certainly did not mean to suggest anything scientific in my post. That said, I feel pretty comfortable with my observation based on my experience with this issue over the past few years. Your point, however, is well taken.
Scott, my experience is a little different. The Black Confederate meme is not taken seriously among professional or academic historians, because the research behind it has no real substance — it’s almost all a pastiche of random newspaper clippings, out-of-context quotes, ambiguous pension records and photos of (often unidentified) elderly African American men at old veterans’ reunions. But it’s definitely a building phenomenon, one that seems about to break wide open into the general public’s understanding of the war, particularly through pending works like the Patrick Cleburne movie, Ann DeWitt’s book for kids, and Professor Gates’ involvement.
This isn’t chance; it’s the culmination of a very focused, concerted effort to bring it to the fore. I first encountered the Black Confederate legend over a decade ago, from a friend of mine in the SCV. The local camps was having a speaker come to present on the topic, and even then the assertion of “tens of thousands” of black Confederate soldiers was being thrown around. Since then, the meme of Black Confederate soldiers has become a constant drumbeat with self-described defenders of Southern heritage, for reasons discussed elsewhere in this thread. Many SCV camps host what Kevin refers to as cut-and-paste websites outlining the “evidence” for Black Confederates” (here and here and here and here, and there’s at least one SCV camps named for one.
The SCV members I’ve dealt with personally are sincere and well-intended, but while they can often recite reams of information on their particular ancestor’s unit or the battles he fought in, their understanding of the larger context of the war and the social/political/economic structure of the South during the war and after is no better than any random person on the street — which is to say, pretty damned awful. They are — again, in my personal experience — highly susceptible to anyone with academic-sounding credentials spouting off all manner of bad information. When you combine that with the warm-and-fuzzy appeal of the Black Confederates — how could the Confederacy have been about slavery when so many slaves took up arms themselves to defend it? — it’s easy to see how how rank-and-file defenders of Southern heritage have bought into this entirely.
My only regret is that I didn’t get in on the ground floor of this, and invest in Black Confederate futures when I had the chance. If I had, I’d be commenting from Aruba.
Andy-My experience is very similar to yours.
Andy, I read through those links and learned about Holt Collier, Creed Holland, and Amos Rucker. Then there was the conspiracy by the North to destroy all records of black soldiers. I even saw some black members of the SCV. If all this stuff is one big conspiracy by Southerners to fabricate a phenomenon in history, then it would help if there was a counter effort that addressed each of these items case by case to explain why they are BS, fabricated, or whatever. Holt Collier was NOT a Confederate soldier, because of X, Y, and Z.
I have been down this road. After reading Patrick J. Buchanan’s book on the Second World War, I found a series of misquotes, mistakes, and flat out lies all geared toward an agenda. I went on a crusade to try to correct them all, but burnt out about halfway through. What I found was that people do not “consider the source.” If someone presents a lot of footnotes, then people will buy into it unless you get down in the mud and refute the claims.
I agree. But how does one “get down into the mud” on this issue? In the case of Black Confederates, it’s difficult or impossible to prove a negative. Without getting into specific cases, it’s easy to say, “here’s a pension record that proves John Doe was a Black Confederate.” It’s very difficult to get much traction by (correctly) replying that such records are unreliable and don’t say anything definitive about Doe’s status fifty years before. The listening audience doesn’t have the background to sort out what’s a reliable source and what’s not, and why. But some of us try.
I think I should probably restate my position on Black Confederates, BTW, since I haven’t lately. I’m what one might call a highly-skeptical agnostic on the subject. African Americans served in many support capacities, and I don’t doubt that on a number of occasions, some small number of these men may have taken up arms when the unit to which they were attached was in a tight spot. But there needs to be more than an occasional anecdote or document from decades later to document their status as soldiers at the time.
I think Michael Lynch came close to it last year when he made the analogy with female Civil War soldiers. Did women serve as soldiers during the war? Yes, strictly speaking, a number of women disguised themselves as men and enlisted, and were dismissed when found out. And one woman in Richmond actually received a nominal commission from the CS government as a captain to allow her to continue operating a military hospital. But did women serve as soldiers during the war? No, neither the Federal or Confederate government enlisted women as soldiers. I suspect a somewhat similar dynamic may apply with Black Confederates, inasmuch as the (very rare) exceptions prove the larger rule.
Andy, I would suggest for the pension records issue to simply demonstrate, where possible, the inaccuracy of pension records. Explain how many tried to game the system to get pensions, provide examples of where pension fraud was prosecuted, point out the various ways people tried to get pensions to which they were not entitled and conclude that you can’t take the pension records at face value.
As I’ve noted before, I think the biggest issue with determining whether “black confederates” exist or do not exist in any kind of numbers is simply the lack of an accepted definition between the various historians who take up the subject. I tried to pin Kevin down on his definition and he acknowledged it’s a problem. Until there’s a definition that is agreed upon, you’re going to have people proving their cases using their definitions – exactly how you described with female soldiers.
Whether or not the federal or confederate governments officially recruited or condoned the use of women or blacks shouldn’t be the point – if there were black men who fought for the Confederacy or women who fought for either side, they deserve to be recognized and not called imaginary, even if it was an aberration and not officially condoned.
Historians have written about this, Brian. I’ve linked to this before and I definitely suggest taking a look at it: http://mshistory.k12.ms.us/articles/289/black-confederate-pensioners-after-the-civil-war In addition, historian Robert Moore has also touched on this subject: http://cenantua.wordpress.com/2008/08/30/no-need-for-%E2%80%9Cinterpretation%E2%80%9D-when-the-facts-were-made-clear-some-90-years-ago/ and http://cenantua.wordpress.com/2008/08/29/more-on-headstones-pensions-and-black-confederates/
No one is arguing that Southern blacks do not deserve to be recognized for what they did during the Civil War. The issue for me is that we acknowledge them in a way that does not distort the past. In the case of recent ceremonies for slaves such as Weary Clyburn the SCV recognized him as a soldier, which he wasn’t.
Yes, but the fuzziness of definition seems to exist mainly on the other side of the argument, with those advocating for this or that person to be considered a “soldier,” based on a photograph or a pension record or a family’s oral history. Time and again we’ve seen slaves who accompanied their masters into the service being presented as willing volunteers, who went to war not by threat of coercion or legal obligation, but by simple patriotism and loyalty. These men went to war, shared hardships and (willingly or not) made real contributions to the South’s war effort, but they were not considered co-equal soldiers, recognized as such by their peers in the ranks. In my experience, Kevin, Robert Moore and others who continually hammer at this have been quite consistent: give us documentary evidence that these men were considered soldiers at the time, by men who served wit them in the field. Show us the same documentation that is routine, taken for granted, for white soldiers. That never seems to happen.
You are absolutely right. The biggest problem with this issue is the lack of any kind of discipline when it comes to providing evidence. I’ve been consistent from the beginning in my expectation that individual cases be properly documented. One of the fundamental problems with the pension is that they were issued by individual states and not in the name of the Confederacy. They reflect the political power structure and race relations when they were issued. You’ve been an incredible help with fielding these questions. I appreciate it.
To my mind, the problem is not with the term “Black Confederate,” but the non-use of the term “Confederate slave.” The term “black Confederate” is interpreted by so many in so many ways, the term is becoming practically useless.
Here’s what we know for sure:
• CSA Sec of War Seddon stated in no uncertain terms that “Our position with the North and before the world will not allow the employment as armed soldiers of negroes.”
• The CSA impressed tens of thousands of slaves into labor.
• Hundreds to thousands of slaves were put into service as cooks, manservants, musicians.
So, we know for a fact that tens of thousands of slaves served under the subjugation of their masters for the CSA. Why not call them Confederate slaves, unless we KNOW FOR A FACT THEY WERE SOLDIERS?
In another forum, I gave a number of reasons for distinguishing between Black Confederates and noncombatants Confederate slaves and freemen. (The term black noncombatants is used by historian By James G. Hollandsworth, Jr. in his article “Looking for Bob: Black Confederate Pensioners
After the Civil War”, which is here: http://mdah.state.ms.us/pubs/pensioners.pdf )
This is long, but it might be of interest for this discussion:
I think that calling these men Black Confederate Soldiers is wrong. I prefer to use the term noncombatant Confederate Slaves or Freemen. So for example, I would use language such as “there were as many as 60,000-90,000 noncombatant Confederate Slaves or Freemen who served the Confederate Army.”
There are 5 advantages to this wording. First, it’s a factual description. Although the designation of these men as soldiers in disputable, there is no disputing the fact that they were slaves or freeman, or that the use of these men as combatants wasn’t authorized until March 1865. In the cases where these men are known to have been soldiers – men who were signed up with the expectation that when called, they would fight, kill, and die – then the soldier designation is appropriate; the blacks who were brought in in 1864 do not meet that qualification.
Second, it provides information concerning whether or not these men served under bondage, which is vital information. As we know, there are people on the internet who are saying that, because these men “soldiers”… and since we all know that soldiers are people who fight and die for their country or cause… therefore, these Black Confederate Soldiers willingly and specifically fought for the cause of the Confederacy.
This is wrong. For one, they didn’t “fight”; they were noncombatants. But also, these men did not act out of “loyalty for the Southern cause” as some say; they served because they were ordered to do so by their masters. Who knows what these men would have done, if not for the fact that they were under the subjugation of their masters.
(Actually, we can make a good guess about what they would have done. During the war, tens of thousands of black men fled the CSA to join the Union army, hundreds of thousands of blacks (contrabands) fled when Union troops hit the scene. This included numerous manservants who served masters in the CSA army – see the book “Confederate Emancipation”.)
We can help prevent these disingenuous claims by factually identifying these men as noncombatant Confederate Slaves or Freemen.
Third, this language synchs-up with the language used Confederates themselves. Imagine the chagrin on someone who sees Jefferson Davis’s comment in November 1864 that “we might need to use slaves as soldiers in the future”: and then looking at claims that the CSA had black (slave/freeman) soldiers in February 1864.
We can avoid this “WTF” moment. By saying that men signed up were noncombatant Confederate slaves/freemen, readers can understand that while these men in service to the army, they were not fighters, but served in a support role.
(It may also align with what actual Confederate soldiers were thinking. For his book Reluctant Rebels, historian Kenneth Noe says spent seven years reading thousands of Confederate soldiers letters, and he didn’t find one writer who described “black Confederate” soldiers in action.)
Fourth, it aids in our understanding of the use of these men from a military standpoint. By identifying them as noncombatant Slaves and Freemen, readers immediately know that these men were not available as “effective forces.” That distintcion was important for the military men of the War era, and I would imagine it’s useful information today.
Finally: Equating noncombatant Confederate Slaves or Freemen with actual Confederate soldiers makes it seem like the level of duty and sacrifice for both men was the same, and that is simply untrue. Ultimately, identifying Confederate slaves as soldiers-when they were not expected to pay the ultimate price for their county-does dishonor to those who were expected – and did pay – that price.
NOW WAIT! I’m not saying that the service provided by the Confederate Slaves or Freemen was minor or of little consequence to the CSA. The value of their service to the CSA should not be dismissed. And I do realize that, by being on the battlefield, the lives of these men were at risk, and some may have perished under the circumstances.
But again, they weren’t expected to fight, kill, or die… soldiers were. And out of respect for those who did operate under that expectation, I don’t think the term “soldier” should be applied to slave and freemen who were not combatants. The term should be reserved exclusively for those who were expected, as said earlier, to pay the ultimate price, or did in fact fight.
“It’s very difficult to get much traction by (correctly) replying that such records are unreliable and don’t say anything definitive about Doe’s status fifty years before. The listening audience doesn’t have the background to sort out what’s a reliable source and what’s not, and why. But some of us try.”
Andy – yes, but it’s even more complex than reliable versus unreliable sources. There is this mistaken notion about sources that they “speak for themselves.” no source, no document, “speaks for itself.” Sources always have to be put into context, interpreted and analyzed, for us to understand what they are and what they can tell us. I think it was you who gave us a great example with your description of pension applications, how they were used and evaluated over time, and how the larger social context would influence how they might be filled out.
For me the irony is that those who push the idea of “black Confederates” the hardest, and willingly distort our understanding of the roles and experiences of blacks with the Confederate armies in service of their own agenda, are the first to scream about “political correctness” and presentism. What could be more “politically correct” for their politics than an imagined category of blacks loyally fighting alongside whites for the same values and motives they project onto their own noble ancestors?
I think you’re very much correct in connecting it to the “faithful slave” theme. Assuming the faithful slave passed from acceptability in most public forums, the black Confederate narrative seems to be a replacement that has essentially the same function in supporting the same argument.
Recent discussion about the scathing 1907 Mosby letter talking about George L. Christian sparked a little curiosity over the context of what so angered Mosby. Looking at a book published that same year by Christian and Hunter McGuire, you can really see some early signs of how the faithful slave narrative is closely connected to the black Confederate narrative (pp 182-183):
Or, just search Google Books for:
The Confederate Cause and Conduct in the War Between the States (1907)
Thanks for the reference.
There has long been a “slavery isn’t/wasn’t that bad” school that claimed owners were humane, the slaves benefited from it, etc, etc. I think this is simply a new twist, basically “if slavery was so bad, why did the slaves fight to protect the system too?”
What I find interesting is that it took until the late 20th century for this narrative about black Confederates to really gain traction. If it were true, if black Confederates (specifically armed black soldiers) really were common why didn’t Confederate partisans use that as an example earlier? I’ve read a lot of stories in “Confederate Veteran” magazine written by the vets themselves, and never came across any descriptions of armed black Confederate soldiers, free or slave. Now it seems as if we suddenly have examples (dubiously sourced and half researched, if at all) coming out of the woodwork. Why now?
My suspicion is that the very idea would have seemed ludicrous originally because the racist narrative about African-Americans used to be that they were cowards and did not make good soldiers. The certainly was a common excuse you heard for not using black troops in both World Wars, regardless of how well the segregated units really performed. Think of the common roles played by black characters in pre WWII movies such as Buckwheat in the “Our Gang” shorts. When confronted by danger he shivers, turns white, his hair stands straight up. That image would fit perfectly with some of the stories in “Confederate Veteran” magazine of how blacks would act as soldiers.
By the late 20th century that narrative no longer worked. African-American soldiers from privates to Colin Powell are now seen as normal, unremarkable. What would have been funny in 1930 (hah hah hah, a black man in a Confederate uniform!) no longer seems automatically funny. As a result the neo-Confederates can promote the idea as part of their larger “The South Was Right About Everything” campaign.
Margaret, That is about as perfectly succinct as it gets. Kudos.
Kevin- I think a lot of it comes out of a false syllogism (although I may be sneaking a couple of extra premises in):
Slavery was a bad thing
My great-great-granddaddy fought for the Confederacy
My great-great-granddaddy was a good man.
Good men do not fight for bad things
Therefore slavery was not responsible for the Civil War
Finding “black confederates” reinforces this denial of the fact that, as U.S. Grant recognized about his enemies, good men CAN fight for bad causes. It also diverts from the reality. it had little or nothing to do with whether or not Southern blacks enslaved or free supported the Confederacy. Approximately, 200,000 fought for the Union and, let’s face it, “Well,, MOST of us haven’t bought or sold any of you in decades” is not much of a recruiting slogan. Blacks, as Lincoln recognized, enlisted for their own motives, which were to fight for their right to be treated as citizens of the only home they’d ever known and for freedom.. The difference between North and South was not prejudice which was wide-spread. It was that slavery was so central to Southern society that, as Howell Cobb recognized, under the Southern slavery as a positive good rationale, if slaves could make good soldiers then the fundamental premise of Southern slavery was exposed as false.
This, yes. This sums up nicely the entire mindset of the Southern heritage machine, although I believe most who promote it never articulate it, even to themselves, in such clear terms. It’s a way of rationalizing the cognitive dissonance that comes from wanting to honor an ancestor’s military service, while at the same time knowing that that man’s service was on behalf of a nation established to preserve and expand human chattel bondage.
Love the syllogism, Margaret …