“Black Confederates” is one of the most controversial ideas of the Civil War era and American memory more generally. Today, neo-Confederates claim that thousands of blacks loyally fought as soldiers for the South and that hundreds of thousands more served the Confederacy as laborers. These claims have become a staple among Southern heritage groups and are taught in some Southern schools. Their function is to purge the Confederacy from its association with slavery and redeem the white South from guilt over its past. In this they have been partly successful: according to a recent poll, 70% of white Southerners continue to believe that the Confederacy was motivated by states rights rather than slavery.
Academic historians, in reaction to these claims, have totally dismissed the idea that more than a handful of African Americans could have served as Confederate soldiers. To suggest otherwise, they say, is to engage in “a pattern of distortion, deception, and deceit” in the use of evidence.
But according to African Americans themselves, writing during the war, thousands of blacks did fight as soldiers for the South. In my presentation, I assess and contextualize the sources, examine case studies of blacks fighting for the Confederacy, and explain how and why it happened and how Northern black leaders understood this phenomenon. Along the way I reveal the richly diverse ways in which blacks acted on their understandings of freedom.
It goes without saying that I am looking forward to attending this event and you can expect a full report here at Civil War Memory. Still, I am not quite sure what to expect. I don’t want to put too much stock in an abstract, but who might Stauffer be referring to beyond Frederick Douglass’s widely quoted claim of blacks fighting in the Confederate army? And what does this fact about African American perceptions during the war have to do with recent assessments by academic historians as to the veracity of some of the more outlandish claims emanating from certain camps? We have seen plenty of cases of “distortion, deception, and deceit” – not to mention incompetence. Stay tuned.