At the Heart of the Black Confederate Narrative

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“Press Forward, Men!” by Bradley Schmehl

Here is a very, very rough excerpt from the introduction to Searching for Black Confederates in History and Memory:

At one level the fight over the black Confederate narrative is about whether slavery deserves a central place in our nation’s collective memory of the Civil War’s causes, its progress, and consequences.  Indeed, the timing of the introduction of the black Confederate narrative in the mid-1970s corresponds to a dramatic shift in our scholarly and popular understanding of the roles that African Americans played in bringing about their own emancipation and the end of slavery in 1865.  A renewed interest in black agency through a close study of fugitive slaves and black Union soldiers challenged the Lost Cause assumption that the loyalty of the black southern population was never seriously in doubt.   For modern day Lost Cause adherents, however, this development represented nothing less than a seismic crack in an interpretive foundation that made it easy to discuss the Confederacy and even front line soldiers without having to wade into the tough questions of slavery and race.

In effect, the black Confederate narrative dismantled these new interpretations not by denying slavery’s place or the importance of race, but by offering a counter-narrative that located the Confederacy itself at the center of progressive race relations and emancipation itself.  The presence of large numbers of black soldiers and loyal slaves outlines a picture in sharp contrast to a racially segregated United States army and provides evidence that slavery was nearing its end based on internal factors rather than outside pressure.  Finally, it reaffirms the belief that the Reconstruction policies of the “Radical Republicans” were, in the words of William H. Dunning, a “serious mistake.”

16 comments… add one

  • Michael Douglas Sep 28, 2011

    How do the loyal slave and black Confederate narratives square with the post-war repression and terror of the Jim Crow south? Why were these erstwhile African allies turned on so bitterly?

    • Kevin Levin Sep 28, 2011

      It’s a great question, Michael, and one that I’ve posed on this site before. I think it goes with out saying that it doesn’t square with the reality of Jim Crow. Unfortunately, most black Confederate supporters don’t think that far ahead because their interest is confined to the Civil War – Reconstruction Era. For many of these people everything before and after is a blur since Confederate history is often reduced to or equated with Southern history.

    • Andy Hall Sep 28, 2011

      Michael, the “faithful slave” narrative runs vibrantly through Southern literature in the late 19th and early 20th century. Lots and lots of articles about loyal body servants turn up in the Confederate Veteran magazine. These accounts, as well as the presence of these men at Confederate reunions, don’t really challenge Jim Crow at all, because these men are depicted and publicly recognized as re-affirming the pre-war status quo. (The phrase “old time Negro” or similar turns up a lot in such accounts.) They are praised for their loyalty to “their white folks,” but always in a way that reinforces the traditional racial structure in the South.

      That’s the key to understanding the BCS phenomenon for me — it’s a continuation of the century-plus old “faithful slave” meme, updated for modern ears.

      • Kevin Levin Sep 28, 2011

        Oh, I completely agree, Andy. In fact, I’ve got an entire chapter devoted to this period. Just to be clear, I was addressing the much narrower question of how proponents of this myth respond to the legal and physical constraints of Jim Crow.

        • Michael Douglas Sep 28, 2011

          Thanks gentlemen. I guess I should have actually asked how the BCS proponents reconcile these issues. I think it’s obvious to anyone who looks at it even halfway critically that something is amiss.

          • Kevin Levin Sep 28, 2011

            That’s actually the question is was trying to answer. :-)

  • Andy Hall Sep 28, 2011

    The painting is, “Press Forward, Men!” by Bradley Schmehl.

    http://www.delawarerivergallery.com/artists/schmehl/order_schmehl_pressforwardmen.htm

    • Kevin Levin Sep 28, 2011

      Thanks, Andy. I was actually looking for another image by him, which I just located.

      • London John Oct 3, 2011

        This picture appears to show Confederates who have just overrun a Union postion and are advancing to top right while captured Union soldiers are moved towards the viewer. So the black guy in a blue jacket in front of the CBF could be one of those, altho I suppose a mixed Union unit wouldn’t be historically accurate.

  • Virginia S. Wood Sep 28, 2011

    “. . . the black Confederate narrative dismantled these new interpretations not by denying slavery’s place or the importance of race, but by offering a counter-narrative that located the Confederacy itself at the center of progressive race relations and emancipation itself. ”

    Yes!

    In the South I grew up in (1950s-1960s), my elders constantly reiterated that (1) the South treated its Negroes better than the North did, always had, and (2) “our” African-Americans were appreciative of that fact. To hear them tell it, that great mass exodus of Blacks to the north ended in 99% of them coming back South again after they realized just how good they’d had it here.

    None of the old folk could have tolerated the idea of Black Confederate soldiers, but rather the popular mythology at that time focused on minimizing the ills of slavery and inventing an emotional bond between Africans and their owners, to wit, whites “took care” of “their” Blacks and they in turn loved the white families who owned them. So there were apocryphal (one assumes) stories of slaves protecting Southern white womanhood from Yankees who would rape them and put them to the sword (before, of course, stealing the family silver).

    Publication of “The Help” has reignited that conversation (domestic employment in the first 100-125 years after the war being only a new form of slavery, with the slaves’ cabins on the other side of the tracks rather than in the back yard).

    • TF Smith Sep 28, 2011

      How do the BCSers deal with minor items of history like the Celia case in Missouri?

      • Kevin Levin Sep 29, 2011

        Anomaly?

  • Rob Baker Sep 30, 2011

    “In effect, the black Confederate narrative dismantled these new interpretations not by denying slavery’s place or the importance of race, but by offering a counter-narrative that located the Confederacy itself at the center of progressive race relations and emancipation itself.”

    They also use this approach to attack/insult anyone that disagrees with the narrative by calling them a bigot or racist.

    • Kevin Levin Sep 30, 2011

      And what did you expect from a certain select crowd? :-)

      • Rob Baker Sep 30, 2011

        Sweet Tea and Southern Hospitality???? lol

  • London John Oct 3, 2011

    “the presence of these men at Confederate reunions”. This refers to former “faithful slaves”, right? Do you know how the white veterans behaved towards them? I’ve read that Forrest’s personal attendant stayed with him after the war (presumably now getting paid) and other confederate veterans dealt with this by pretending he was white. I don’t imagine that was the case for most FS’s at reunions? Would it be the case that they could pick up a few dollars by turning up?

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