Yesterday I posted on the Civil War Memory Facebook page an NPR interview with Noah Andre Trudeau that focused on Robert E. Lee and recent commemorative events of the Civil War. I didn’t listen to it straight through so I missed this little gem of a comment on black Confederates. It’s a bit disappointing given his work on black Civil War soldiers that I used throughout the research phase of my Crater study.
This is from Jim in Birmingham: I’ll celebrate my ancestors in north Alabama who joined the First Alabama Cavalry USA and fought the slaveholders in Alabama and served with Sherman on the march to the sea.
And Andy Trudeau, that reminds us: This is not a simple conflict.
Mr. TRUDEAU: No. There are so many complex threads involved here. You cannot say something never happened. And right now, I’m a little concerned that there’s a polarization and that there’s groups that claim it was only about states’ rights. There’s another group that’s saying that it’s absurd to think that a Southern African-American would even consider doing anything to support the Confederacy. And they just block any effort to make mention of that, when, in fact, I don’t think you can deny that some of that happened. We’re talking small numbers, but clearly, this is a very complex community. There are bonds of intertwining trust and friendship between black and white that carry forward into the war. And it’s not unusual, I think, especially in some small units, to find African-Americans serving with their white – I guess you’d have to call them their masters. But it happened – not a lot, but it happened.
It’s difficult to know where to begin with this brief comment. First off, I can’t discern whether Trudeau is referring to slaves or soldiers; this confusion is all too common in this debate. If he is referring to slaves than we are talking about large numbers that were present with Confederate armies throughout the war. Kent Masterson Brown suggests that Lee’s Army of Northern Virginia included thousands of servants and impressed men in the summer of 1863, who performed an array of jobs. As for “bonds of intertwining trust” I think it is safe to say that we are on much shakier ground. I have no doubt that the war probably brought master and slave together in close contact and I have no doubt that certain bonds were formed. The problem for any historian researching this, however, is that there is almost nothing available to help fill in the blanks. It should come as no surprise that I have yet to see a wartime account from a slave that references how he felt about his master while in the army. Working on my article on Silas and Andrew Chandler it is easy to imagine the two conversing about how much they miss being away from loved ones, but I don’t have access to one shred of evidence that might help me to better understand Silas’s perspective. If Trudeau is referring to soldiers than he is simply misinformed, which is unfortunate. I would have him talk to Robert K. Krick about the presence of black soldiers in Lee’s army.
What Trudeau and most everyone else who enters this debate forgets are the legal “bonds” that defined the master-slave relationship through the war. Somehow what gets left out of this discussion is the fact that the armies reflected and functioned as an extension of a slave society at war. I would love to ask Mr. Trudeau and others whether they believe that “intertwining trust and friendship” defined slave life before the war. If not, then why are we so quick to assume it during the war?
There are two fundamental points that must be acknowledged before entering this debate about black Confederate soldiers. White Southerners understood that their slave population represented an important wartime asset if they could be successfully mobilized. At the same time, it became clear early on that slaves did not support the Confederate war effort; at least this much is indicated by the many reports from around the South of increased tension between master and slave in light of what the latter viewed as a war that could lead to their freedom. As the war progressed these fears increased among slaveholders and the slaves themselves became more agitated as Union armies moved closer. At the same time slaveowners resisted every effort on the part of the Confederate government to impress their slaves into service and they did so based on their rights as property owners. They did not want the Confederate government threatening their sovereign control and they viewed such attempts as a clear sign of a government that had overstepped its constitutional bounds. Both of these crucial points are explored in great detail by Stephanie McCurry in her book, Confederate Reckoning: Power and Politics in the Civil War South. One of McCurry’s most important points concerning the debate about the recruitment of slaves as soldiers is that it came out of an explicit acknowledgment on the part of Confederate officials that they could not expect slave support without acknowledging these individuals as political agents. In other words, that the government took steps to recruit a few men at the tail end of the war, with promises of freedom, must be understood as a fundamental failure in terms of the assumptions that defined the master-slave relationship before the war.
Somehow, we’ve got to move beyond the naive and overly simplistic understanding of the master-slave relationship at war that has now shown up on NPR.