Henry Louis Gates and Black Confederates (Redux)

Yesterday Henry Louis Gates published an extensive piece on the process that led to the recruitment of African-American soldiers during the Civil War at The Root. It’s well worth reading. As I was perusing the piece I wondered whether Gates would use the occasion to discuss the controversy surrounding black Confederate soldiers.

I wasn’t disappointed.

Douglass also argued for reciprocity, North and South. As the war unfolded in real time, Douglass repeated the claim he was hearing in the Northern presses that the Confederate army was arming slaves to fight off the Union’s all-white armies. He warned that unless Lincoln gave rebel slaves a better reason to switch sides, they would likely go along, the North would lose and black people would remain in chains. “It is now pretty well established,” Douglass wrote in his Monthly in September 1861, a few weeks after the first Battle of Bull Run, “that there are at the present moment many colored men in the Confederate army doing duty not only as cooks, servants and laborers, but as real soldiers, having muskets on their shoulders, and bullets in their pockets, ready to shoot down loyal troops, and do all that soldiers may to destroy the Federal Government and build up that of the traitors and rebels … If a bad cause can do this,” Douglass asked, “why should a good cause be less wisely conducted?”

There is no evidence, however, that the Confederacy was widely arming slaves at this point, or, indeed, that it ever widely armed them. As Blight reminded me, Douglass may have been writing more as a wartime propagandist than battlefield fact-finder. However, there is evidence that some blacks did fight for the Confederacy. In fact, two rebel slaves appeared on the cover of Harper’s Weekly on Jan. 10, 1863 (as seen here), and even more importantly, in General Sherman’s meeting with 20 black ministers in Savannah on Jan. 12, 1865, their representative, the Rev. Garrison Frazier, 67, specifically stated that “two black men [had] left with the Rebels because they had taken an active part for the Rebels” in the war.” I find it quite confounding that some historians are reluctant even to entertain the possibility that some black people, no matter how twisted their logic, would decide to ally their best interests with the Confederacy—particularly free Negroes who owned slaves. After all, black people are just as complex as any other human being. To deny this possibility of what today we would call “race betrayal” is, frankly, to deny the very complexity of the African-American people.

The first paragraph seems straightforward enough. Douglass did indeed use these early reports of black soldiers to spur the United States Congress to action. In fact, we now have a wonderful book by Glenn David Brasher that explores these reports in the context of the Union army’s advance up the Virginia Peninsula in the spring and early summer of 1862 and their eventual influence on Union policy toward slaves and recruitment.

Unfortunately, the second paragraph quickly veers right off the road. First, it reflects some of the comments that were directed at me a few years back at a talk at Harvard given by John Stauffer on the subject. I don’t know a single professional historian who denies that a few free African Americans may have been able to enlist as soldiers in the Confederate army at some point during the war before the Confederate Congress authorized enlistment at the very end. Gates fails to identify a single historian, though he did mention James McPherson at the Harvard talk as someone who is uncomfortable for reasons that go beyond mere evidence. Nonsense. The point about “complexity” was hammered home as well during the Harvard talk, though I still fail to see its relevance. Again, no one denies that African Americans are complex, but why should we allow such an obvious statement of fact to steer what ought to be a much more careful process?

Granted, this is not an essay on the black Confederate soldier, but what I find most disturbing is the evidence put forward by Gates.

The famous image of “two black slaves” in Harper’s is flimsy at best. There are all kinds of questions that need to be addressed from their legal status to what, in fact, these two men were doing assuming that the image itself is accurate. The reference to Garrison Frazier sits on an even flimsier footing. What does “active part” in the Confederate war effort even mean?  With all due respect, this is just sloppy history. It would be one thing if a random reader cited the evidence in this way, but a Harvard scholar and public figure like Gates carries much more weight. [Note: A few years ago Gates cited a talk with none other than Earl Ijames that made it into the footnotes of an edited book on Lincoln. It came up during an interview I did for The Takeaway.]

I would love to see Professor Gates take on this subject more directly. While the frequency of these “sightings” has apparently diminished over the past year it remains wildly misunderstood by the general public. The History Detectives recent episode on the Chandler tintype, which is by far the most popular image of a so-called black Confederate soldier, helped a great deal. Gates could easily build on this by exploring the subject more broadly. How did the Confederacy utilize African Americans during the war? What does the best scholarship tell us about the existence of black Confederate soldiers? I am a big fan of Gates’s documentaries and I have no doubt that such a focus would be popular and controversial.

And, Professor Gates, if you are reading, I am happy to help as I live just across the river.

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12 thoughts on “Henry Louis Gates and Black Confederates (Redux)

    1. Kevin Levin Post author

      Thanks, Patrick. Make sure to check in tomorrow as I have a special post just for you. Happy New Year!

      Reply
  1. Andy Hall

    Professor Gates is, I think, swinging from one overly-simplistic understanding of Douglass’ essay to another when he says, “as Blight reminded me, Douglass may have been writing more as a wartime propagandist than battlefield fact-finder.” It’s hard to imagine anyone who knows much about Douglass would ever assume he was a “battlefield fact-finder” — Rochester, New York is a very long way from Manassas — but it’s also wrong to dismiss it as simple propaganda, with the inference that Douglass was either intentionally misrepresenting the situation, or was indifferent to the truth of the matter. Certainly Douglass was explicitly agitating for a change in U.S. policy, to allow African American men to enlist as soldiers, but he had good reason to believe at the time that the Confederacy already had large numbers of slaves under arms, because in the late summer of 1861, it was being reported over and over again in northern newspapers. In retrospect it wasn’t true, but Douglass (and everyone else) had good reason to believe it at the time.

    As for the well-known Harper’s Weekly illustration, it’s interesting and useful as a media piece, given that the paper devoted a lot of space and illustrator’s time to it. Reports of Confederate forces using African American soldiers popped up regularly in the Northern press, almost all of it very vague and unverifiable. These mentions often end (as does this one) with a call to respond by enlisting African American troops in the Union army. Like Douglass’ essay, it sounds like reporting, but is explicitly advocating a change in military policy, as well (my emphasis):

    REBEL NEGRO PICKETS.
    So much has been said about the wickedness of using the negroes [sic.] on our side in the present war, that we have thought it worth while to reproduce on this page a sketch sent us from Fredericksburg by our artist, Mr. Theodore R. Davis, which is a faithful representation of what was seen by one of our officers through his field-glass, while on outpost duty at that place. As the picture shows, it represents two full-blooded negroes, fully armed, and serving as pickets in the rebel army. It has long been known to military men that the insurgents affect no scruples about the employment of their slaves in any capacity in which they may be found useful. Yet there are people here at the North who affect to be horrified at the enrollment of negroes into regiments. Let us hope that the President will not be deterred by any squeamish scruples of the kind from garrisoning the Southern forts with fighting men of any color that can be obtained.

    As historical documentation of the actual use of African Americans as soldiers by the Confederacy, this well-known example has the same limitations as the newspaper stories Douglass read. It’s based on a description by an unidentified observer on an unknown date at an unknown location. Neither the unit of the observer nor the pickets is known. We have no idea what description the observer gave to artist Davis, who was not himself a witness to this. The image has lots of detail, but how much of that was provided by the witness and how much was added by the artist, is impossible to know. The only thing that sets this apart from other, similar reports, is that there’s a picture that goes along with it, but it’s treated as though it’s photographic evidence of the practice. It’s not.

    Reply
  2. M.D. Blough

    The problem for me has never been that there might be some Blacks in the South, enslaved or free, who might cooperate or even actively support the Confederates for a wide potential range of motivations including personal advantage or sheer fear (read any account of what happened when Southern whites feared that a slave revolt was being planned and you realize how justified that fear was). What many of those who currently want to wildly inflate the numbers can’t or won’t seem to wrap their heads around is that the issue wasn’t what Blacks did or didn’t want to do. They were living in a white supremacy power structure that not only didn’t care what Blacks wanted to do but really didn’t want to accept that they even were capable of making informed decisions as to their fate. As Howell Cobb wrote CSA Secretary of War Seddon in early 1865 (from Andy Hall’s Dead Confederates blog): “The proposition to make soldiers of our slaves is the most pernicious idea that has been suggested since the war began. It is to me a source of deep mortification and regret to see the name of that good and great man and soldier, General R. E. Lee, given as authority for such a policy. My first hour of despondency will be the one in which that policy shall be adopted. You cannot make soldiers of slaves, nor slaves of soldiers. The moment you resort to negro [sic.] soldiers your white soldiers will be lost to you; and one secret of the favor With which the proposition is received in portions of the Army is the hope that when negroes go into the Army they will be permitted to retire. It is simply a proposition to fight the balance of the war with negro troops. You can’t keep white and black troops together, and you can’t trust negroes by themselves. It is difficult to get negroes enough for the purpose indicated in the President’s message, much less enough for an Army. Use all the negroes you can get, for all the purposes for which you need them, but don’t arm them. The day you make soldiers of them is the beginning of the end of the revolution. If slaves make good soldiers our whole theory of slavery is wrong — but they won’t make soldiers. As a class they are wanting in every qualification of a soldier. Better by far to yield to the demands of England and France and abolish slavery and thereby purchase their aid, than resort to this policy, which leads as certainly to ruin and subjugation as it is adopted; you want more soldiers, and hence the proposition to take negroes into the Army. Before resorting to it, at least try every reasonable mode of getting white soldiers. I do not entertain a doubt that you can, by the volunteering policy, get more men into the service than you can arm. I have more fears about arms than about men, For Heaven’s sake, try it before you fill with gloom and despondency the hearts of many of our truest and most devoted men, by resort to the suicidal policy of arming our slaves.”

    Reply
  3. BKarr

    Kevin -

    If the following is true, may I ask a question?

    “I don’t know a single professional historian who denies that a few free African Americans may have been able to enlist as soldiers in the Confederate army at some point during the war before the Confederate Congress authorized enlistment at the very end.”

    Can you, as a professional historian who claims an expertise on this topic, identify – by name – a few of those free African Americans who you would readily and unequivocally accept as Confederate soldiers?

    I mean this in all seriousness because, assuming you can name them, it’d be nice to know on which *specific* cases historians are generally in agreement about. Even if it is only a few.

    If you cannot though, then I do believe Professor Gates’ original point has been validated.

    Reply
    1. Kevin Levin Post author

      I suspect that those few who managed to slip in passed as white. We know this because there are accounts of soldiers being forced after their racial identity was discovered. For years now I’ve posed the challenge to identify a single wartime Confederate account that acknowledged the existence of black soldiers. As of today not a single account.

      Reply
      1. BKarr

        Then surely you can identify the names of a few of those who passed as white and successfully entered service, or entered it by some – really any – other means. Even just one or two.

        Otherwise you seem to be lending more credence to Professor Gates’ comment than you care to admit:

        “I find it quite confounding that some historians are reluctant even to entertain the possibility that some black people, no matter how twisted their logic, would decide to ally their best interests with the Confederacy”

        Reply
        1. Kevin Levin Post author

          Thanks for the follow up. I think we are talking past one another here. One of the fundamental problems that is often lost is that the Confederate government did not authorize the enlistment of black soldiers until a few weeks before the end of the war in April 1865.

          The Gates reference that you cite is vague because it implies attitudes that extend beyond the question of soldiers. We know, for instance, that some free blacks in Petersburg, Virginia declared their support for the Confederacy at the beginning of the war. They likely viewed it as a way to protect what little holdings they possessed. In that sense the comment is not controversial at all.

          Reply
  4. Julian

    well if there is historic moving picture imagery – it may as well be true – we all know the authority lent by the screen – here are some potential black confederates – perhaps ;-) – but it is interesting to see this theme played for laughs in the 1930s and who knows what seeds it planted

    Reply

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