Gone With the Wind’s Black Confederates… I Mean Loyal Slaves

I am putting the finishing touches on my presentation for tomorrow evening at the Western Virginia Historical Society in Roanoke.  One of the points that I want to stress is that the black Confederate reference is relatively new to our cultural lexicon.  As I’ve suggested before, references to hundreds or even thousands of loyal slaves serving as soldiers in the Confederate army can be traced to the period following the movie, Glory in 1989.  Despite the insistence on the part of a small, but vocal group black Confederate soldiers simply did not exist in our collective memory until recently.  We have already discussed the case of the Confederate monument at Arlington, which was dedicated in 1914 [and here].  Primary source material related to the dedication ceremony as well as early histories of the site clearly references the image of the black man following soldiers into battle as a body servant (slave).  To insist otherwise is to engage in presentism.

It may be helpful to consider a scene in Gone With the Wind that features just the kind of image that is so often misrepresented today.  During the evacuation of Atlanta and amidst all of the confusion of Federal shells and runaway carriages Scarlett happens upon former slaves from Tara, including “Big Sam”.  He reassures Scarlett: “[T]he Confederacy needs it, so we is going to dig for the South…. [D]on’t worry we’ll stop them Yankees.”

Let’s put aside for now the overt imagery to loyal slaves that is pervasive throughout the movie.  What is worth pointing out is that no one describes these men as soldiers and it is unlikely that moviegoers would have made this assumption as well.  They would have viewed these men simply as loyal slaves to the South.  More specifically, it looks like these men functioned as slaves impressed by the Confederate government.

In the hands of the careless they are whatever you want them to be.

Searching for Black Confederates: The Civil War’s Most Persistent Myth

“Levin’s study is the first of its kind to blueprint and then debunk the mythology of enslaved African Americans who allegedly served voluntarily in behalf of the Confederacy.”–Journal of Southern History

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11 comments… add one
  • Colin Woodward Apr 26, 2011 @ 3:34

    We also need to be very careful about the term “loyal” slave, since it’s a phrase that only had meaning for white southerners. A slave who seemed happy to be digging ditches for the Confederacy one minute could be fleeing to the Yankee lines the next.

    • Margaret D. Blough Apr 26, 2011 @ 9:48

      It’s amazing how many whites from slave-owing families (when they weren’t worrying about being ravaged and/or murdered in their beds by their happy slaves) actually believed the slavery as a positive good propaganda about how happy and content in their lot their slaves were. There are letters and diaries in which these whites, particularly the women, record their shock, hurt, and outrage to find out that their supposedly happy slaves took off as soon as there were Union troops nearby.

      • Will Hickox Apr 26, 2011 @ 10:20

        I think it was Eugene Genovese in “Roll Jordan Roll” who cited accounts demonstrating that those slaves who seemed to be the happiest and best-cared for were often the ones who ran off to the Yankees.

  • Woodrowfan Apr 25, 2011 @ 17:12

    since the men in the scene pictured above have picks and shovels and not rifles and swords I’d say laborer rather than soldier…

  • Chrisitne Smith Apr 25, 2011 @ 14:00

    I don’t mean to correct you Kevin, but I just watched this part of the movie with my students, and I think Big Sam says they are going to dig for the “South”. Which would perhaps make it even more applicable to their being soldiers. I may have said this before, but the names of black servants who died at Camp Morton are listed by their first names on the monuments to the states at the burial plot at Crown Hill Cemetery. Evidently someone here/there must have considered them “soldiers” worthy of having their names listed. I would be anxious to learn of their capture, etc. Those unknowns intrigue me.

    • Kevin Levin Apr 25, 2011 @ 14:03

      I think you are right, but that doesn’t change the interpretation. Digging for the South sounds like a loyal slave rather than a soldier. That would fit more neatly into how Americans remembered slavery and race relations in the 1930s.

    • Bob Huddleston Apr 25, 2011 @ 17:38

      No last name? Hardly a soldier then. Only slaves did not have last names.

      • Bennet Young Apr 26, 2011 @ 13:14

        Really! So to you any grave marked “unkown” could not be a soldier either?

        • Will Stoutamire Apr 26, 2011 @ 20:06

          A grave marked “unknown” would be marked as such because a soldier was… unknown. You are putting words in Mr. Huddleston’s mouth.

          What he is trying to point out, I believe, is that the black Confederate soldier narrative relies upon, in part, a redefining of the relationship between white Southerners and black Southerners. To counter the narrative that slavery motivated secession, supporters of BCS contend that white Southerners actually considered their black “comrades” to be brothers-in-arms – worthy of service/sacrifice in the Confederate military and of participation in UCV ceremonies post-war. Had this been the case, might white Confederates have done their fellow “soldiers” the courtesy of memorializing their full name, representative of their status as equals, rather than their first name only (as apparently is the case here), representative as their true status as slaves?

  • Will Hickox Apr 25, 2011 @ 12:20

    In “Founding Myths,” Ray Raphael mentions that 19th century illustrations of Molly Pitcher are often used in books to depict–and ultimately to verify–her apocryphal heroics during the Revolution. It is chilling to imagine scholars in future decades, at a greater distance in time from the actual events, using scenes from GWTW to prove the existence of black Confederates.

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