How to Discuss *Searching for Black Confederates*

Start by reading it.

I am happy to see that the book is shipping to those of you who pre-ordered it online. Though the official publication date is September 9, I expect that you will see it on bookshelves beforehand.

It is encouraging to see people excited about finally having the opportunity to read and discuss it.

My concern is that for whatever reasons some people are getting ahead of themselves. I am not surprised that the members of Civil War Talk are now deep in discussion following a posted review by Pat Young, who actually read the book. I am incredibly encouraged by the interest and I would love to take part in a serious discussion. Unfortunately, very few people have bothered to read the book.

Most people can’t get beyond the narrow question of whether slaves and free blacks fought as soldiers in the Confederate army. This is the wrong question to ask. I begin by exploring how enslaved labor was utilized by the Confederacy. It assumes that real Confederates understood the need for black labor and by the tail end of the war the possibility that they may need to be recruited into the army as soldiers.

From there I explore how real former Confederates and others remembered the presence of slaves and free blacks during the war. I bring to bear a great deal of evidence from newspapers, veterans reunions, monument dedications, etc. Again, we need to begin by taking seriously how the very people who experienced the war and engaged with former slaves after the war framed this issue. Only on the rarest of occasions did I find references to slaves as soldiers. You don’t build an interpretation on such accounts.

In short, you can’t read the archival record from the turn of the twentieth century and not acknowledge a wide discrepancy between how they remembered the involvement of African Americans in the Confederate war effort and today.

And please stop referring to John Stauffer’s article at The Root. It is problematic on a number of levels, least of which is his failure to explain how he arrived at a number claiming somewhere between 3-6,000 black soldiers. I responded to it in detail here and you can read about Stauffer in the book as well. This would have been a revelation to anyone involved in the slave enlistment debate in 1864-65.

I’ve said before that I do not believe that my book is the last word on this subject. In fact, it is my hope that it leads to additional research. I still have a number of questions that I was unable to answer during the course of research and writing.

Go ahead and disagree with specific claims. Help me and others to better understand what I believe to be a really important subject, but at least have the discussion in good faith.

Read the book.

About the author: Thank you for taking the time to read this post. What next? Scroll down and join the discussion in the comments section. Looking for more Civil War content? You can follow me on Twitter. Check out my forthcoming book, Searching For Black Confederates: The Civil War’s Most Persistent Myth, which is the first book-length analysis of the black Confederate myth ever published. Pre-order your copy today.

55 comments… add one
  • Patrick Young Aug 22, 2019 @ 4:19

    My review of your book originally appeared on my The Reconstruction Era Blog.

    I posted a shortened version of my review of your book on Civil War Talk with some trepidation. Recent upheavals on the site led to the departure of many members, and some of the most prominent commenters who remained include those who see Black Confederates as a key element of the modern Confederate Heritage doctrine.

    I expected to receive comments from white men outraged that you failed to recognize every African American held to bondage whose coerced labor aided the Confederate war effort as a “Black Confederate.” I expected many “What about…” posts. I also knew that some folks would simply not understand what the word “Myth” in your title means. I was not disappointed.

    I am sorry that some of the comments include personal attacks on you.

    I note that while a few dozen people have commented, more than 3,000 people have viewed the review. I don’t assume that the opinions of the professionally outraged defenders of the honor of the Confederacy represent the opinions of most readers at Civil War Talk. I just think that with the ascendancy of the aggressive guardians Confederate Heritage at the site, others feel reluctant to raise their voices.

    The original version of the review, without editing by the moderators of Civil War Talk, appears on my Reconstruction Era Blog. It may be found here:

    https://thereconstructionera.com/book-review-searching-for-black-confederates-by-kevin-levin/

    At the conclusion of the full version of the review I wrote:

    I knew a slave once. She was a Jew held by the Nazis. This did not make her a “Nazi Jew.” It just made her an enslaved woman whose labor was owned by her enemies but whose spirit was free to hate those who placed shackles on her limbs.

    • Kevin Levin Aug 22, 2019 @ 5:03

      Hi Pat,

      I am certainly not blaming you for anything. I greatly appreciate you taking the time to review and share it on Amazon as well as Civil War Talk. I should have linked to your website as well. This post focused on CWT, but you will not be surprised to hear that I am seeing the same kinds of responses elsewhere. Of course, I am not surprised. Guess I wish I could find a way to engage with some of these people, but I suspect it would be a waste of time given that they haven’t read it.

      • Patrick Young Aug 23, 2019 @ 13:46

        Oh, I definitely did not think you were blaming me. I enjoyed the book and thought that it was worthy of an intelligent discussion on CWT. I think a year ago that is what it would have received.

        I also don’t think that some of the members of CWT know what a book review is or what the reviewer’s function entails.

        On the other hand, the review has been viewed over 4,000 times on CWT. The original, and longer, version on my The Reconstruction Blog has been viewed about 700 times. The comments on my blog, with one exception have been respectful.

        I will also note, for a few of my detractors, that I did not receive a review copy, I paid for my book. It can be obtained immediately on Kindle. No excuse not to read it if you are interested in the subject.

        I understand that not everyone will agree with Mr. Levin, or with my review of his book, but it is best to do so from a position of knowledge rather than one of invincible ignorance.

        • Kevin Levin Aug 23, 2019 @ 13:48

          Well said and thanks again, Pat.

    • Andy Hall Aug 22, 2019 @ 6:08

      “I note that while a few dozen people have commented, more than 3,000 people have viewed the review. I don’t assume that the opinions of the professionally outraged defenders of the honor of the Confederacy represent the opinions of most readers at Civil War Talk. I just think that with the ascendancy of the aggressive guardians Confederate Heritage at the site, others feel reluctant to raise their voices.”

      I’ve backed off a lot from CWT lately, both because of the entirely arbitrary banning of several fellow members I like and respect, and also because the same small handful of people constantly make the same bad-faith arguments about the same topics (“Black Confederates,” legality of secession, etc.) ad infinitum, ad nauseum. On the other hand, I don’t think they’re fooling anyone but themselves.

      • MaryDee Aug 23, 2019 @ 12:56

        Like Andy Hall, I’ve backed away from CWT and for exactly the same reasons. I do check it occasionally, although I don’t log in or post, which is how I found Pat Young’s review. The plethora of critical comments there (as many here have pointed out, from those who haven’t read the book and say they aren’t going to) just reinforces my determination to stay away. In the meantime, I’m ordering the book and looking forward to reading it!

        • Kevin Levin Aug 23, 2019 @ 13:19

          Thanks so much for taking a chance on it. I hope you enjoy it.

        • Patrick Young Aug 23, 2019 @ 13:48

          It is a shame Mary. I always enjoyed your company there.

        • jgoodguy Aug 24, 2019 @ 6:25

          FWIW we are trying to have a civil Civil War Forum at https://www.jggscivilwartalk.online/index.php

          • Kevin Levin Aug 24, 2019 @ 6:51

            Thanks for the link. I am happy to entertain questions about the book on this post.

          • MaryDee Aug 24, 2019 @ 14:18

            Hi, jgoodguy! I tried to sign up but foiled by very blurry and dark Captcha photos. So I’ll just lurk!

            • jgoodguy Aug 24, 2019 @ 17:21

              Sorry to hear that. I hate Captchas, myself. It is supposed to stop robot signups, but I am not sure the security is worth the hassle. You are more than welcome to lurk. You can email me a desired member name and I can sigh you up from the admin panel. Thanks for trying.

  • Rob Wick Aug 22, 2019 @ 11:06

    Though the official publication date is September 9, I expect that you will see it on bookshelves beforehand.

    It’s already in our system as being available.

    Best
    Rob

    • Kevin Levin Aug 22, 2019 @ 11:23

      Thanks for the update.

      • Rob Wick Aug 25, 2019 @ 15:40

        I know the publisher has little if any say where the book is placed in a store, but I noticed in our system your book will be in the African-American Studies section instead of the Civil War. That seems kind of odd to me.

        Best
        Rob

        • Kevin Levin Aug 25, 2019 @ 16:09

          That’s interesting. Ideally it should be shelved there and in US History.

  • Terrance Yount Aug 22, 2019 @ 23:45

    Amazon notified me yesterday my copy has been shipped. I had a chance to read the sample ebook on Amazon. I’m very much looking forward to reading the rest of the book. Very interesting so far.

    • Kevin Levin Aug 23, 2019 @ 1:30

      Glad to hear the book is in transit.

  • Mike Furlan Aug 23, 2019 @ 11:44

    I pre ordered the book from Barnes and Noble in April. I went to check and found out they had cancelled the order. So I reordered it, it was $7 cheaper now.

    • Kevin Levin Aug 23, 2019 @ 12:20

      Glad to hear it and thanks for ordering the book.

      • Neil Hamilton Aug 23, 2019 @ 15:40

        Kevin,

        I have invited a few members of CivilWarTalk to come to this particular discussion about your book, as they claim to have real evidence that would call into question some of your conclusions about black confederates and who they really were.

        One has a thread on the forum that contains nothing but period newspaper articles from the period that mention slaves and free blacks supporting the Confederacy. Another lists sources such as pensions and muster rolls that show some blacks as soldiers along with another that shows extensive period records of some blacks in Confederate military service.

        The reason I mention this is because, although I have invited such members to come to this site with questions for you on your book, I haven’t, as yet, had any takers. Now and inviteone member has asked me to extend an invitation to you to come to the CivilWarTalk forum, on the thread that is discussing your book and invite questions and debate there.

        Felt like you ought to know.

        Sincerely,
        Neil Hamilton
        PS I will be buying your book when it becomes available here at my local bookstore.

        • Kevin Levin Aug 23, 2019 @ 19:09

          Hi Neil,

          I am happy to entertain questions here. I’ve been following the thread over at Civil War Talk. Thanks for taking a chance on the book.

        • jgoodguy Aug 24, 2019 @ 6:55

          FWIW here is a spreadsheet of CSRs and pension recorded submitted as ‘Black Confederates’ from CWT. I was agnostic on the definition of ‘Black Confederate’ to see the variety of viewpoints. https://docs.google.com/spreadsheets/d/1lMwLryB3saMN0WhqrplSev1hjTVOuqL_g7BmTXURVEE/edit?usp=sharing

          In defense of many of those posters, there is no official definition of ‘Black Confederate’ Old records are problematical. The CSA gave the non military rank of private to cooks and other non military positions for accounting purposes for example. Are white appearing, but with African American ancestry ‘Black Confederates’? I am the point of disregarding any proof except period photos of candidates in CSA gray shooting at Union soldiers.

          • Kevin Levin Aug 24, 2019 @ 7:19

            Thank you, but I think we need to set some expectations. My job is not to go through lists and interpret documents for other people. I have no idea how this information was compiled and from what sources the information was pulled.

            If people have questions about my book I am happy to respond.

            Thanks again.

            • jgoodguy Aug 24, 2019 @ 9:41

              It was not directed at you Kevin. I should have prefaced the comment better. It is just a general comment at how slippery the notion of ‘Black Confederate’ is to some people. It was complied by folks with an agenda to maximize the number of Black Confederates and and lay folks can read it to see how hard folks try do do that.

              • Kevin Levin Aug 24, 2019 @ 9:59

                No worries. I wish people would understand that the “black Confederate” is a misnomer. Very few people ever referred to free and enslaved blacks as “black Confederates.” They were body servants, impressed slaves, free blacks hired to perform specific roles and in the final few weeks a small handful were recruited as soldiers. The terminology we employ is absolutely critical, but you must begin by appreciating the language that real Confederates employed and why.

          • Andy Hall Aug 27, 2019 @ 6:59

            In defense of many of those posters, there is no official definition of ‘Black Confederate.’

            The odious Kirk Lyons said we should forget about military connections of any sort. By that standard, of course, there were MILLIONS!

            • Kevin Levin Aug 27, 2019 @ 7:10

              Right. And it goes without saying that we’ve left the realm of historical inquiry altogether. I am still amazed at the resistance of some to understanding the status of free and enslaved blacks in the army from the perspective of real Confederates and not what we choose to believe. These are the very same people who accuse others of engaging in revisionism/presentism.

  • Neil Hamilton Aug 23, 2019 @ 17:54

    Kevin,

    Any chance of you coming over to the CivilWarTalk forum and answer some questions and view some members sources on the thread that discusses your book there?

    Sincerely,
    Neil Hamilton

  • Shoshana Bee Aug 23, 2019 @ 20:22

    It seems like a fair deal would be “I will read your evidence, if you read mine”.

    It would probably save a lot of explaining on the part of the author of the book (ie his conclusions/point of view) if the people who wish to challenge it, actually read the book, first. Just sayin’

    • Neil Hamilton Aug 24, 2019 @ 4:04

      Shoshanna Bee,

      Agreed.

      Now I’ll see if any of the members who has question’s about Kevin’s book, will come here and actually ask them.

      Sincerely,
      Neil Hamilton

    • Mike Furlan Aug 25, 2019 @ 11:10

      “I will read your evidence, if you read mine”

      Except it isn’t evidence, but “alternative facts.”

      “They don’t want reasoned debate, they just want it their way. But they’re running on emotion not knowledge, and when confronted with knowledge they reject it, excoriate it, because it makes them feel small.”

      From the essay, “The Lunatics Have Taken Over the Asylum”, and the want you to know that they are in charge.

      https://ritholtz.com/2019/08/the-lunatics-have-taken-over-the-asylum/

      The “debate” isn’t about “Blacks” or “Confederates” but about “owing the libs.” A contradiction rather than an argument.

      Personally I will enjoy reading the product of Kevin’s hard work. But I do not think it will change any minds.

      • Shoshana Bee Aug 25, 2019 @ 17:31

        “I will read your evidence, if you read mine”

        “Except it isn’t evidence, but “alternative facts.”

        I hear you. I was trying to be a bit diplomatic, rather than bluntly stating how ridiculous it came across to expect Kevin to look at these research threads, whilst at the same time, facing insults & accusations about his book that none of them has read.

        • jgoodguy Aug 27, 2019 @ 5:59

          That is a good point. In my online experience since the 1980s, too many people feel their opinion without much effort is better than years of research. Then after much effort to rebut by the researcher, they come back with a slightly different hoping IMHO to wear the person doing the work down.to the point that they give up and give the opinions the last word.

          This is one reason that I understand blogs are better. The blogger gets to present his case without a whole bunch of being interrupted by more or less clueless people responding to a post in a board/forum. Then and only then the blogger can invite.the general public.

  • jgoodguy Aug 24, 2019 @ 6:41

    I may have to break a lifelong rule and buy a new book.

    • Kevin Levin Aug 24, 2019 @ 6:51

      Rules were meant to be broken. 🙂

  • Matt McKeon Aug 24, 2019 @ 15:50

    Will definitely read the book.

    • Kevin Levin Aug 24, 2019 @ 16:53

      Thanks, Matt.

    • MaryDee Aug 25, 2019 @ 11:01

      Ordered the book yesterday. UNC Press has it for $10 less than amazon currently quotes! I’m looking forward to reading it!

      • CliosFanBoy Aug 26, 2019 @ 15:58

        And according to the email I just got from Amazon, my expected delivery date is now between” Tuesday, October 1, 2019 – Saturday, November 2, 2019>” eek.

        • Kevin Levin Aug 26, 2019 @ 16:29

          Sorry to hear that. I think Amazon may have temporarily sold out, but I suspect you will get it well beforehand. Thanks for your patience. Sales have been very brisk and you are not the only one who has received such an email.

  • Neil Hamilton Aug 26, 2019 @ 10:41

    Kevin,

    As I said before, there are a few folks who have questions concerning your book and the sources you used in it. We have one member here at CWT that does nothing but list period newspaper reports with the topic of blacks supporting the Confederate cause (Black Southerners and the Confederate Cause–What the newspapers said: 1861-1865.)

    He takes no stand one way or the other, he merely list the articles. Now, my question to you is, did you use any period newspaper articles as sources in your book when writing/researching it and do you list such in your new book and how much “weight” do you give such period articles?

    Thanks,
    Neil Hamilton

    • Kevin Levin Aug 26, 2019 @ 11:11

      Hi Neil,

      Thanks for the question. I make extensive use of newspaper articles throughout the chapters on the war and immediate postwar period. Newspapers are an indispensable source, but like all source they must be interpreted alongside other evidence and within the broader historical context. Many people routinely refer to articles in Northern newspapers, especially during the spring/summer of 1862 when the two armies were in close contact on the Virginia Peninsula. Now remember Confederate armies included thousands of enslaved men performing a wide range of roles. They dug earthworks, transported supplies and functioned as body servants for Confederate officers. It should comes as no surprise that some of these men were observed by Union soldiers and others. While many of these observations are framed as black soldiers what you will not find are Confederate newspapers at the time that confirm these observations. In fact, Confederates throughout the war vehemently denied that they were employing black men as soldiers. Many were offended at the mere suggestion of it.

      The other thing to keep in mind is that some Northern newspapers had a political agenda, including Frederick Douglass’s North Star, which regularly included such articles. Douglass was attempting to convince Lincoln to recruit black men into the US army. By publishing these articles Douglass was sending a message to Lincoln that either black men can be utilized by Confederates or embraced by the US.

      The upshot is that newspaper articles much be properly interpreted. Taking an article as sufficient evidence that black men fought as soldiers is irresponsible. Specific claims of numbers, some as high as regiments, must be followed up by the researcher. Unfortunately, that rarely happens in these discussions.

      Final point: Confederates openly debated throughout 1864 and 1865 about enlisting slaves as soldiers. In my ten years of research I have yet to find a single account from anyone involved in this debate, regardless of their position on the issue, who claimed that black men were already fighting as soldiers. It was a step in a new direction and if you people bothered to read the debate record they would understand why.

      Hope that helps. Feel free to follow up.

      • London John Aug 27, 2019 @ 1:33

        I think that’s a very important point – that northern observers unfamiliar with slave society didn’t understand what they were seeing. I believe that not all slaveowner’s sons in the CSA were commissioned, and if such a son was serving in the ranks his father would naturally send a personal slave to carry out his military chores, including carrying his rifle on the march. It would be natural for such a slave to be dressed in as near to a confederate uniform as most actual confederate privates wore. He would look just like a black confederate soldier to anyone who didn’t know better.

      • Neil Hamilton Aug 29, 2019 @ 9:29

        Kevin,

        Thank you for your reply above and your explanation in using period newspaper articles as sources in your book.

        Another question concerning period sources, if I may. Sometimes at my forum, pension records and muster rolls are sometimes advanced as proof of Black Confederates. Some of these records indicate some black servants were wounded in action while in service with Confederate forces.

        Did you have occasion to view such records and use them when writing your book and how do you view such sources as reliable sources in awarding the title of Black Confederate to any person who is afforded such a title?

        Sincerely,
        Neil Hamilton

        • Kevin Levin Aug 29, 2019 @ 9:37

          I include an entire chapter on pensions in the book.

          • Neil Hamilton Aug 29, 2019 @ 11:57

            Kevin,

            Thank you for your patience and for taking the time to view and answer my questions on your book. I am waiting to purchase a copy as soon as it becomes available at my local Barnes and Noble bookstore.

            I wish you every success and I hope it makes all who read it, THINK and do their own research on this topic instead of relying on “heritage” myths and legends and the gigantic excuse that somehow slavery had nothing to do with the Civil War..

            Sincerely,
            Unionblue

    • Mike Furlan Aug 26, 2019 @ 16:47

      Hi Neil, What you mention, “period newspaper reports with the topic of black supporting the Confederate cause” says absolutely nothing about the existence of African American troops enrolled as soldiers in the Confederate States Army.

      There could have been Southern Black men who spent the entire war shooting at Yankees, but the only people who could grant them the status of soldier were the leadership of the CSA. And their opinion is clear. Until the very end of the war there were no Black Confederate Soldiers.

      Kinda like saying the sky is blue, grass is green, and get an answer of not it isn’t look over there that rock is gray.

      The unavoidable fact is that every other nation in the Americas used Black troops. The English, French, Spanish, and as far as I can tell all of the nations created out of the Spanish Empire. The lone exception were the Americans, North and South, who delayed it as long as they could. The South until it was too late.

      That is the remarkable thing, not that there were black men who decided that they might improve their individual lot by throwing in with the local power.

      • London John Aug 31, 2019 @ 6:13

        “every other nation in the Americas used Black troops. The English, French, Spanish, and as far as I can tell all of the nations created out of the Spanish Empire.” Well, yes, up to a point. Surely Black troops fought on both sides in the War of American Independence, although more on the British side (which included Black regulars from elsewhere as well as locally-recruited volunteers). Some veterans of both sides were re-enslaved after the war. The British were trying to appeal to the slaves of Patriot owners with promises of “British Liberty”, while keeping Loyalist slaveowners loyal, and in spite of Britain’s slave colonies in the West Indies being of vital importance. During the French Revolutionary war British commanders in the West Indies were forbidden to recruit Black soldiers, due to the influence of the sugar planters on the British government.
        Quite an interesting comparison with US and Confederate policies IMO is the Brazilian army during the Paraguayan war (1864-70). Most of the private soldiers were Afro-Brazilians. Not only did large numbers of free Blacks and escaped slaves volunteer, but the Brazilian government bought large numbers of slaves to use as soldiers, and a White man who was called up could send a slave in his place.

        • Mike Furlan Aug 31, 2019 @ 11:29

          “Well, yes, up to a point.”

          We have many, many examples of black soldiers in the Americas over hundreds of years, and then in 1861, both North and South refuse to recruit black troops.

          That is what stands out to me. The USA was unique in it’s attachment to White Supremacy.

    • msb Aug 27, 2019 @ 1:42

      Bruce Levine certainly did in “Confederate Emancipation”. And Kevin has answered for himself.

  • Rob Wick Aug 31, 2019 @ 16:14

    Nice article in Slate, Kevin.

    Best
    Rob

  • Kelly Ray Sep 8, 2019 @ 12:33

    I read your interview on Slate.com, and can’t wait to get your book! Sounds wonderful! BTW, your discussion about camp slaves attending veteran reunions was interesting. I’m curious, did you find evidence of camp slaves developing significant friendships among themselves, which may have been a motivating factor in attending the reunions in order to reconnect with other camp slaves?

    • Kevin Levin Sep 8, 2019 @ 12:52

      Hi Kelly,

      Thanks for the question. Camp slaves who attended reunions were always fed and housed together for the duration of the event so you can imagine that they formed pretty tight bonds. Some of the men that I talk about in the book attended numerous reunions and would have certainly established a relationship.

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