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.