Setting the Record Straight on Black Confederates (sort of)

This morning I was interviewed on The Takeaway Radio Show by John Hockenberry and Celesete Headlee on the subject of black Confederates.  It was a productive interview and I am pleased that the producers decided to follow up yesterday’s show by addressing some of the more problematic claims made as well as broader misconceptions.

Unfortunately, the time went by way too fast.   I would have been happy to listen to any number of people on this issue, but of course, I am pleased that they asked me to join them this morning.  For additional reading, I highly recommend Bruce Levine’s, Confederate Emancipation: Southern Plans to Free and Arm Slaves during the Civil War and Stephanie McCurry’s, Confederate Reckoning: Power and Politics in the Civil War South.  You may also want to take a look at my Black Confederate Resources page, which provides an overview of what I’ve written on the subject on this blog.  You will also find a great deal of commentary on this site about Earl Ijames, who was mentioned in the course of the interview.  Click here for the post on Ijames and Henry L. Gates.

27 thoughts on “Setting the Record Straight on Black Confederates (sort of)

  1. Ta-Nehisi Coates

    Hey Kevin, thanks for doing this. I really wish they had been as probing yesterday, as they were today. I was sorry to hear that Henry Louis Gates has endorsed this notion. Either way, I’m glad they revisited it. It deserves much more time, and unfortunately, a listener could easily conclude that there is some serious historical debate to be had.

    Reply
    1. Kevin Levin Post author

      Thanks again for recommending me and for linking to my site yesterday. I was surprised that they brought up Gates and I have no idea how they came across that specific reference. As I pointed out the reference is located in an endnote and the book has nothing directly to do with the subject. I hope that listeners take to heart my point that this is not really a debate at all within the scholarly community. The other point that I wish I had the time to make is that the question of numbers and individual accounts is reflective of a fundamental misunderstanding of the broader subject itself. In the end this is a story about slavery and how the Confederate government/military struggled to maintain during wartime.

      Reply
  2. Frank

    Now this is amusing. Based on that interview, you are clearly flaunting the “expert, professional historian” line to bolster an argument before a mass audience. Does this mean you won’t be retreating into the “informal” character of the blogging medium anymore when your assertions get challenged?

    Or does your “expert” hat only come out in times of convenience, as has been suggested in the past?

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    1. Kevin Levin Post author

      The producers of the show decided how to introduce me. Perhaps you should take up this issue with them. Do you take issue with anything that I stated in the interview? If not, then perhaps you should find something else to do today.

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      1. Frank

        Actually Kevin, throughout the interview you repeatedly invoked the term “professional historians” to bolster your position, and at one point even asserted there was no debate among them. If the show is to be faulted for introducing you that way, you are AT MINIMUM complicit in running with it as your own.

        The question now though is how long will your newfound “expertise” last. In other words, will you keep the “expert” hat on? Or will you shed it at first convenience, as you have in the past, when it suddenly becomes useful again to invoke the “informal” nature of this blog as others scrutinize and challenge your arguments?

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        1. Kevin Levin Post author

          Frank,

          I am really sorry that you are so obsessed with this issue. You reference my claim about the lack of a debate within the scholarly community. Can you point to one?

          Thanks again for your commitment to this issue, but you have already had your opportunity on a previous post to state your opinion on this issue. This is your final comment unless you want to respond to the subject at hand.

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    2. Andy Hall

      Frank, may respectfully suggest that if you spent as much time looking for inconsistencies and contradictions in the primary source evidence for BCS, as you do with Kevin personally, you’d find it’s quite a complex story that doesn’t fit easily into a simple narrative?

      Reply
      1. Kevin Levin Post author

        As far as I can tell, Frank has no interest in the subject. I cut him off rather than allow him to hijack this post.

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        1. Frank

          Actually, Kevin, I am very interested as to how one could assert that there is no real debate about the “Black Confederate” issue among “serious scholars,” despite the fact that Henry Louis Gates – a highly reputable Harvard academic and published Civil War scholar – acknowledged, at minimum, we should take it seriously.

          Your answer to Gates on the radio was rather lacking. It consisted of downplaying the significance of his take on account of it appearing in a footnote in his Lincoln biography (which has at least as much to do with the subject as, oh, say a book about the Battle of the Crater) and attacking him for daring to talk to Earl Ijames (who you seem to be – dare I say it? – “obsessed” with), only to revert back to your original line about how no “professional” scholars take the issue seriously. Well guess what. Gates is such a scholar and he takes it seriously, regardless of whether you like his sources or willingness to listen to Ijames’ arguments. And that means there is indeed room to discuss it among “professional historians,” whether you choose to be wearing that hat for yourself at the moment or not.

          Reply
          1. Kevin Levin Post author

            Of course my answer re: Gates was lacking. Did you notice that the entire interview was five minutes and that I couldn’t even complete my final response?

            It should be clear as to what I mean re: a lack of debate. This discussion is taking place on various websites that lack any kind of quality control as opposed to peer-reviewed journals. Historians who have studied the Confederate military experience have not found sufficient evidence to substantiate the claims made by the pro-black Confederate camp. The relationship between black and white southerners in the army has been properly understood and analyzed as an extension of slavery. I recommend that you read Levine’s and McCurry’s books on the subject and get back to me.

            Gates is a serious scholar, but he has not published anything on this subject so that he happened to talk to Ijames is irrelevant because he has not published anything either.

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            1. Frank

              “Gates is a serious scholar, but he has not published anything on this subject so that he happened to talk to Ijames is irrelevant because he has not published anything either”

              Actually, he’s published more on it than you have, Kevin. Even if it’s only a footnote, it’s still a footnote in an academic-quality biography of Abraham Lincoln. But that brings me back to my earlier criticism – you shouldn’t attack other people for a standard that you yourself cannot meet.

              It’s also highly misleading of you & others here to present the “black confederate” debate as if it were nothing more than a modern internet-age invention. It’s been a matter of scholarly discussion since way back in 1919, when the pioneering black historian Charles Wesley (look him up – the American Historical Association named one of their most distinguished book awards after him) wrote this peer reviewed article on the subject: http://www.jstor.org/pss/2713776

              Reply
              1. Kevin Levin Post author

                Yes, Gates has published a footnote in a book about Lincoln.

                I have consistently referenced the work of scholars whose research is relevant to this subject. I can critique the claims of anyone I want re: their expertise on this issue. We’ve established that I have not yet published anything substantial on this subject. Yet, I am called upon to comment on this subject by the media and in this case I was recommended by someone that I highly respect. If you have an issue with that I suggest you take it up with the relevant parties.

                Most of it is an internet phenomenon as I have suggested. I am quite familiar with Wesley’s article on the subject and if you bothered to read it you would notice that his focus is very different from the modern debate. The article is well worth reading and I can point to others published at the time by other black scholars.

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                1. Frank

                  Oh, I’ve “bothered” to read the Wesley article and, contrary to your suggestion, it has many strong parallels with the current debate. Allow me to quote from it:

                  “Before the outbreak of the war and the beginning of actual hostilities, the local authorities throughout the South had permitted the enrollment for military service of organizations formed of free Negroes, although no action had been taken or suggested by the Confederate Government. It is said that some of these troops remained in the service of the Confederacy during the period of the war, but that they did not take part in any important engagements.”

                  “An observer in Charleston at the outbreak of the war noted the preparation for war, and called particular attention to “the thousand Negroes who, so far from inclining to insurrections, were grinning from ear to ear at the prospect of shooting the Yankees.”‘ In the same city, one of the daily papers stated that on January 2, 150 free colored men had gratuitously offered their services to hasten the work of throwing up redoubts along the coast.’ At Nashville, Tennessee, April, 1861, a company of free Negroes offered their services to the Confederate Government and at Memphis a recruiting office was opened.’ The Legislature of Tennessee authorized Governor Harris, on June 28,1861, to receive into the State military service all male persons of color between the ages of fifteen and fifty. These soldiers would receive eight dollars a month with clothing and rations. The sheriff of each county was required to re- port the names of these persons and in case the number of persons tendering their services was not sufficient to meet the needs of the county, the sheriff was empowered to impress as many persons as were needed.”

                  “Under the guidance of the local authorities, thousands of Negroes were enlisted in the State Militias and in the Confederate Army. They served with satisfaction, but there is no evidence that they took part in any important battles. The Confederate Government at first could not bring itself to acknowledge the right or the ability of the man who had been a slave to serve with the white man as a soldier.”

                  There may be noted typical instances of the presence of Negroes in the State Militia. In Louisiana, the Adjutant- General’s Office of the Louisiana Militia issued an order stating that “the Governor and the Commander-in-Chief relying implicitly upon the loyalty of the free colored population of the city and State, for the protection of their homes, their property and for southern rights, from the pollution of a ruthless invader, and believing that the military organization which existed prior to February 15, 1862, and elicited praise and respect for the patriotic motives which prompted it, should exist for and during the war, calls upon them to maintain their organization and hold themselves prepared for such orders as may be transmitted to them.”

                  Now you are certainly free to challenge Wesley’s sources and conclusions, but the parallels to the modern debate are definitely present. There is also little doubt that his article included a lengthy discussion of blacks used in a soldier capacity in addition to laborers and servants – mostly, as the aforementioned excerpts indicate, state militia units at the outset of the war which were separate and apart from the enlistment policies of the regular army.

                  I’ve also looked at the work of later “scholars whose research is relevant to this subject.” In 250 pages, Levine’s book references the 1919 Wesley article all of once (p. 151), and not to address or refute its content in any meaningful way but rather as a dry historiography discussion about its relation to the much-maligned “Dunning School.” Sorry, but that’s a tad underwhelming for what is supposed to be the foremost “professional historian’s” account of this issue.

                  Reply
                  1. Kevin Levin Post author

                    Very good, Frank.

                    The accounts of enthusiastic African Americans is well known. I assume you have taken the time to follow up these accounts and have located the units and individuals in question in the Confederate army? My problem with Wesley is that he does not explore these accounts in any great detail. Take a look at Will Greene’s recent study of Petersburg, Virginia, which contained a significant free black population in 1860. He also located accounts that demonstrate an interest in taking part, but he was unable to come to terms with why based on the available evidence.

                    What exactly do you think Levine missed in his brief reference to Wesley given that these accounts are widely known? Levine’s criticism of Wesley is that he concluded that the evidence reflected slave loyalty. Do you believe that Wesley’s analysis justifies such a conclusion?

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                    1. Frank

                      “I assume you have taken the time to follow up these accounts and have located the units and individuals in question in the Confederate army?”

                      Arthur Bergeron already did that in an article for “Louisianians in the Civil War” (University of Missouri Press, 2002), providing a history of the free black creoles in Louisiana who formed a Confederate state militia unit before the fall of New Orleans (contrary to popular belief, and one that Wesley unfortunately inherited in his article, they were NOT synonymous with the union’s Louisiana Native Guard. A small number of them flipped sides and joined that unit after the capture of New Orleans, but they were separate entities. The Union command did, however, put out claims that the entire militia company had switched sides as part of the war propaganda).

                      Bergeron’s article is very thorough – even to the point of tracing about 15 of these soldiers as they dispersed into other Confederate units later in the war.

                      So yes – at least one of Wesley’s examples has been located and thoroughly documented since 1919 by a “professional historian” on a “peer reviewed academic press” – your stated criteria. And even though it came out several years prior, Bergeron’s article is not even cited once in Levine, which suggests a shoddy review of the existing literature.

                    2. Kevin Levin Post author

                      It is indeed a very thorough treatment of the these men and one that needs to be repeated on a much broader scale. As you know the racial dynamic in Louisiana was unique for the South. Bergerson does not draw conclusions about their patriotism or loyalty to the Confederacy. Some expressed patriotism to their state while others worried about the consequences of emancipation on their status as freemen. In fact, he clearly demonstrates the tenuousness of their situation in their units. He mentions that one was forced out of his unit after his racial identity was revealed.

                      What I like about Bergeron’s piece is that he forces us to confront how the war affected the social status of free mulattoes in Louisiana as well as the need to move beyond some of the generalization re: the men who served in the Native Guard. Here is a link to the Bergeron article in Civil War History if anyone is interested:

                      As you know, Levine’s book is not about these men. It is about the debate that took place in the Confederacy over the enlistment of slaves and not about the few free blacks in Louisiana that found their way into the ranks.

                    3. Frank

                      Bergeron is important because it puts a rest to the myth that there was no such thing as a “black confederate” simply because the CSA government policy prevented their enlistment until 1865. They simply existed on the state level where state policy was different from the national one, as was the case in Louisiana. And Bergeron shows when one of those state units disbanded, several of its members went on to attach themselves with and fight for other units.

                      Were they few in number? Yes. And were these units discriminated against compared to white units? Also yes. But the point is they also existed despite the fact that some people call them a “myth.” I also think it is fair to fault Levine for not including Bergeron because his book was ultimately about the CSA government’s last ditch black enlistment program in 1865, and the Louisiana creoles is one of the more noteworthy (and probably the largest) example of precedents. Levine certainly talks about cases where the Confederate government rebuffed offers from the states to raise a unit of free blacks, so you’d think the most notable instance where the unit was actually raised would be important to include.

                    4. Kevin Levin Post author

                      First, I have never denied that there may have been a few exceptions to consider nor do I know of anyone else who is serious about this subject who has denied it. The problem is that there is a vocal minority who insist that there were substantial numbers and that their service reflected loyalty to the Confederate cause.

                      As I said, Louisiana is interesting because of its racial dynamic, but arguably it is unique for the South. Your point about Levine is well taken and perhaps justified. Of course, there are still a number of unanswered questions about the presence of these men in the ranks and I am the first person to call for further research. That said, the Confederate government did not actively enlist free and enslaved blacks during the Civil War. In fact, the evidence suggests that they took steps to ensure that these men did not serve.

                      I still stand by the statements that I made this morning. The kinds of claims that are made by this small group, which populate the internet are a recent phenomenon. We would be much better off if these people shared your sincere interest in the subject and took the time to read Levine and Bergeron.

                    5. Margaret D. Blough

                      Louisiana was not just arguably unique; it WAS unique. The racial fault lines there were established during its time as a French & Spanish colony. Unlike the bulk of the US, particularly what we consider the upper South, white men of the planter class tended to acknowledge and make provision for their offspring by black women, including enslaved black women. That provision often included freeing the offspring. Ira Berlin goes into this a lot in “Slaves Without Masters” about free blacks in the antebellum South. Emancipation of unrelated enslaved people, especially on natural rights philosophical grounds, was almost unknown in Louisiana. The freed offspring and their descendents got their status and privileges (generally far above the enslaved blacks but somewhat less than the whites) from and related to the whites, on whose whims that status and those priviliges depended, not to enslaved blacks (this produced real problems after slavery ended and the free blacks found themselves lumped together with the newly freed former slaves). This included the raising of militia among the antebellum free blacks of Louisiana. The pattern held true at the start of the Civil War but the Confederate government showed zero interest in availing themselves of these men in combat. The Native Guards then refused orders to accompany the Confederate garrison when it abandoned New Orleans to Union capture.

                      Frank, the existence of the Louisiana situation is well-known and frequently discussed, but it is truly the exception that proves the rule. The slavery as a positive good dogma that dominated Southern advocacy of slavery from about 1820 on required, in a culture in which military service was honored and had extremely high status, that someone whose “destiny” was to be enslaved was not capable of being a combat soldier. The vehemence of the resistance to the last ditch effort to enlist blacks in the Confederate armies was based on that belief. When faced with the argument that allowing such enlistment was the only way to save Confederate independence, they were fully prepared to face defeat rather than abandon the principle.

                    6. Kevin Levin Post author

                      Margaret,

                      Thanks for calling me on that, Margaret. We also have lost all sense that service in the army – regardless of whether it was the Union or Confederacy – hinged on their understanding of the citizen soldier. This tradition went back to the Revolution and implied a responsibility to the state. Slaves, of course, were not soldiers.

                    7. Carl W. Roden

                      Guess that includes all the slaves who served in the American Revolution, the War of 1812 and the ones in the Mexican War as well? Just because you disapprove of the cause they served under does not give anyone the right to determine who and what they were or what their motives were.
                      They may not have been soldiers on paper, but the men in gray they served with sure didn’t question it when they grabbed up a musket and fired it at the Yankees did they? Nor did they turn these men away after the war at UCV conventions either. It takes more than government sanction to define the character of a man…and that is the point of the whole argument that you fail to grasp, or choose to overlook.

                    8. Kevin Levin Post author

                      Carl,

                      Please show me one wartime letter from a Confederate soldier that supports the claim made in this comment. Until you provide a quote and proper reference further comments from you will be unnecessary. Put up or shut up.

                    9. Jonathan Dresner

                      the men in gray they served with sure didn’t question it when they grabbed up a musket and fired it at the Yankees did they?

                      Not only didn’t they question it, they didn’t talk about it or write about it afterwards, either! That must be it.

            2. Rob Wick

              Kevin,

              The issue with Gates reminds me of something similar.

              On the back of James Swanson’s book “Manhunt” concerning the hunt for John Wilkes Booth, there are positive blurbs from James McPherson and John Hope Franklin, in what I think was an attempt by the publisher to add a scholarly imprimatur to Swanson’s book. Forgetting for a moment the usual worthlessness of jacket blurbs, while I could never begin to place myself in their league, and I have the utmost respect for the contribution both men have made to Lincoln studies, the Civil War, and African-American history, I would never consider either man a scholar or expert on Lincoln’s assassination. It seems the same would hold true with Gates where Black Confederates are concerned.

              Best
              Rob

              Reply
              1. Kevin Levin Post author

                It comes down to the simple fact that Gates has never published anything scholarly about the subject and neither has Ijames. It doesn’t really matter what Gates thinks of him in this context.

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  3. Joshua Brown

    Kevin: Thank you for your rigorous, precise, and concise discussion on The Takeaway this morning. I was appalled by the previous day’s program, which unfortunately is but one of a long line of recent sesquicentennial-related on-air public programs that have reiterated misinformation about the history of the war. I don’t know the origins of objections to expertise or scholarship, but it is interventions such as yours that understand and respect the importance of serious methodology and documentation that are truly a public service and I hope will gain some ground in popular venues.

    Reply
    1. Kevin Levin Post author

      Hi Joshua,

      I was concerned as well, but I give the producers of the show credit for making the effort to correct some of these misconceptions.

      Reply

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