Ngram Tracks Black Confederates and black Confederates

Google’s Ngram program, which allows you to search the frequency of a word or phrase within its Books archive, has received a great deal of attention since its recent release.  The teacher and researcher in me sees a great deal of potential [and here] in how this tool can be utilized, but Ngram has also been received with a great deal of skepticism [and here].  For now let’s have a little fun with this wonderful new tool.

Not too long ago I suggested that references to black Confederates is relatively new and I even pinpointed its usage to the period following the release of the movie, Glory, in 1n 1989.  Well, depending on how you read these results, I wasn’t too far off the mark in terms of a date, but my interpretation concerning the role of Hollywood is still up in the air.  Of course, this doesn’t tell us the full story; rather, it simply gives us a reading of the frequency of this particular reference.  [The results are case sensitive.]  Perhaps black Confederate soldiers were referred to differently in years past, but this would have to be demonstrated by close textual analysis – something that is rarely done in these circles.  For example, while many advocates of this narrative have referred to the Confederate monument in Arlington Cemetery as evidence of these men, Andy Hall has convincingly argued [and here] that the organizers of the monument, as well as speakers during the dedication cemetery, did not utilize this reference.  They viewed the images around the monument as faithful slaves and not as soldiers.

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7 comments… add one
  • pbinkley Dec 31, 2010 @ 11:30

    Thought I was on to something with this one, showing peaks for “Negro confederate” closely followed by “black confederate” in the mid-1960s and early 1970s. Something to do with the centennial of the Civil War coinciding with the civil rights movement, I thought. But if you click through to the actual results, they’re all psychology experiments with lines like “In some experimental groups, a Negro confederate was introduced. In other sessions a white confederate identified as a Jew was introduced, and in still other sessions, the very same confederate was introduced and identified as a gentile…”. Drat. So have the psychologists stopped using the word “confederate” since 1980, or have they stopped doing experimental investigations of attitudes to race?

    • Kevin Levin Dec 31, 2010 @ 12:17

      Hi Peter,

      Thanks for the comment. I actually came across a few of these references while writing about how Americans remembered USCTs in the 1960s. I never took the time to figure out the reference. It’s hard looking for something that doesn’t exist.

  • Allen Gathman Dec 20, 2010 @ 8:02

    If you search “Negro soldier” or “Negro soldiers”, you can get to a lot of book references from the 1860s. When I took a quick glance at a few of them, they were all about Union soldiers except a reference to the Negro Soldier bill in 1865. It would be interesting to take the time to wade through all of the references that Google brings up and see how many are about Confederate black troops.

    • Kevin Levin Dec 20, 2010 @ 8:18


      I searched for that one as well.

  • Dan Wright Dec 20, 2010 @ 5:07

    I can offer one bit of anectdotal evidence in support of the Ngram results.
    I grew up in the Shenandoah Valley of Virginia in the 1950s – 60s and had a steady diet of Lost Cause stories from family, community and schools. And I never heard of Black Confederates. Maybe I should have paid closer attention.

  • EarthTone Dec 20, 2010 @ 5:01

    Just a few things to note:
    • African Americans were not commonly referred to as “black” until the 1960s. The term “black” was used prior to then – a lot – but it came into popular use during the Civil Rights era. Prior to that, the terms “Negro” or “colored” were very common… those two terms are hardly ever used now (and some people today actually find the term “Negro” to be offensive).

    • For what it’s worth, when the Confederate Congress passed the law that allowed the slaves to be armed, it was called the Negro Soldier Act.

    • Ervin L. Jordan Jr’s book “Black Confederates and Afro-Yankees in Civil War Virginia” was published in 1995. I *think* this was one of the first books to use the term “Black Confederate” in its title.

    Having said the above, it’s clear that the use of the term “Black Confederate” really takes off after 1990, around the time of the movie “Glory.”

    I would add that the thing that makes the term “Black Confederate” so useful rhetorically for Confederate partisans is that it strips away the context that the persons in question were slaves. Thus the black persons it refers to can be designated as being “Confederate” or “for the Confederate cause” while the their status as slaves who were forced to serve the Confederacy (as opposed to choosing to fight for the cause) is not acknowledged. The term is a master stroke in the use of language (no pun intended).

    • Kevin Levin Dec 20, 2010 @ 5:07

      You are absolutely correct, which is basically the point I am making. The challenge for those who push this narrative has to be to explain/analyze the references that they believe point to these supposed black Confederate soldiers. I searched for a number of variations that take into account your very point, but came up with nothing.

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