As you might imagine my inbox has been flooded over the past few weeks by people interested in sharing their research on black Confederates. These messages usually open with the bold claim that the conclusions in my new book are fundamentally flawed. Turns out, there were plenty of black men serving as soldiers in the Confederate army.
You may or may not be surprised to hear that I have spent very little time reviewing what turn out to be long lists—some of them literally copied and pasted from one another—of supposed black Confederates. These lists include cooks, musicians, impressed slaves working on earthworks, body servants, and even a few listed in muster rolls as privates.
The problem with this approach is that these lists are formulated with very little attention to historical interpretation. It’s a kind of “gotcha history” designed to make an incredibly narrow point that ultimately has very little to do with the project that culminated in my new book.
I didn’t go looking for black soldiers because the Confederacy remained consistent from the spring of 1861 until the final weeks in March 1865 in maintaining that this war was to be a white man’s war with the goal of defending slavery and white supremacy.
As I have pointed out numerous times, no one engaged in the slave enlistment debates of 1864-65, regardless of their position, argued that black men were already serving as soldiers in the army. Entire regiments published statements on this issue and not one mentioned that black men were already present as soldiers. General Robert E. Lee didn’t bring it up or anyone in the highest echelons of the military. No one in the Confederate Congress was aware of the presence of black soldiers.
The goal of the first two chapters on the war are focused specifically on how real Confederates viewed the tens of thousands of black men who were present in the army performing a wide range of roles. That is what takes my research from a collection of individual sources and raises it to the level of a full-blow historical interpretation. You can disagree with it, but you are going to need to do more than put together a list of random sources. What’s need is the interpretation, which arises out of a set of questions you hope to answer in the process.
This takes time. While I have been researching and writing blog posts going back to 2008 the actual writing of this book began in 2015. I worked closely with a small group of writers here in Boston, including Civil War historians that included Nina Silber, Heather Cox Richardson, and Megan Kate Nelson. They critiqued the first two chapters by pointing out places that needed work from the kinds of sources I had collected to my own interpretation of those sources.
I had fellow blogger Andy Hall and historian Colin Woodward, whose book Marching Masters was indispensable to my own thinking, read through these chapters and they also provided thorough critiques.
Finally, the review process at UNC Press demanded a thorough vetting that included two anonymous Civil War historians. They also pushed back and forced me to revisit numerous places in the book that needed work.
My point is not to place my work on a pedestal or to suggest that it is beyond criticism. Far from it. History is always undergoing revision as we pose new questions that lead to new interpretations and discover new evidence.
I am happy to engage in debate/discussion about the place of free and enslaved blacks in Confederate armies, but first read the book. Try to get a sense of the questions that guided me through the first two chapters on the war itself, the interpretation I lay out and the evidence used to support it.