Henry Louis Gates is Still Confused About Black Confederates

I’ve written a number of posts on this blog as well as in my new book about Dr. Henry Louis Gates’s confusion about the black Confederate myth. In this webinar sponsored by PBS Education he managed to confuse it even further.

Dr. Gates is still referencing his colleague John Stauffer’s piece in The Root, which is fundamentally flawed, but it is his understanding of basic facts and poor primary source analysis that I find appalling. You can listen for yourself beginning at the 55:00 minute mark.

At one point he references this well known illustration from Harper’s Weekly as vague evidence for the existence of these men.

This is the level of interpretation that you find on SCV websites and Facebook pages devoted to perpetuating this myth.

Later he offers a vague comment about the Louisiana Native Guard as somehow briefly serving the Confederacy. He isn’t sure whether the Confederate government officially recruited black men into the army at the very end of the war.

But what troubles me more than anything else is his insistence that historians disagree on this issue. THEY DO NOT! I don’t know a single reputable historian who believes that black men served as soldiers before March 1865.

Dr. Gates needs to do better with educators, who certainly see him as an authority figure on these matters. In the future I wish he would just admit that he doesn’t know enough about the subject and end it.

21 comments… add one
  • CliosFanBoy Feb 9, 2020 @ 3:00

    Gates always struck me as a contrarian. If a vast majority of scholars say BC’s are a myth, the more he’ll insist they’re real.

    • Kevin Levin Feb 9, 2020 @ 3:11

      One of the things that Gates likes to point out is that African American history is complex and that that they occupy many spaces in history. The black Confederate narrative easily fits into this view, but it does so at the expense of any attempt to do serious research.

  • Brian Reynolds Feb 6, 2020 @ 14:42

    As it stands, the Union used 180,000 AA soldiers and 20,000 AA sailors. AA Union soldiers fought in 40 major engagements and about 450 other skirmishes, where 16 AA received medals of honor. In contrast, no AA units fought for the Confederacy.

    On 23 March 1865, Confederate President, Jefferson Davis issued a general order declining to accept any slaves as soldiers without their own consent and their owners’ consent to their freedom. However, the war ended two and a half weeks later, and no engagements never transpired. The fact is, the Confederates refused to arm slaves, because it undermined their reason for succession altogether – the continuation of slavery.

  • Jerry McKenzie Feb 4, 2020 @ 20:46

    There were many people that lived in the CSA but many were just “confederates” due to their address, not because of their politics or loyalty to the Union. Just ask the 200,000 white “confederates” plus their families that volunteered for and supported the Union.

    • John R Parrish Feb 6, 2020 @ 8:17

      My point being, that slaves, free blacks, mixed race etc. wouldn’t have “citizenship” therefore…

      • Andersonh1 Feb 7, 2020 @ 7:26

        Being a Confederate simply by virtue of geography is, I think, a fair point. But I would say that could entail either citizenship or permanent residency. For example, would slaves living in the United States be considered “American”? They were not citizens. But for those who were born in the United States, who lived their entire lives and then died there, what else could they be? Was a slave who lived his entire life in South Carolina a South Carolinian, regardless of the lack of citizenship? Geographically, if nothing else, what else could they be?

        I think there is a tendency sometimes to look at Confederates simply as an ideological movement, and to only assign the “Confederate” label to those who embraced it, but the Confederate States were also meant to be a republic, a nation, with a government and territory and borders, so it’s not quite as simple as just an ideology.

        • Kevin Levin Feb 7, 2020 @ 8:54

          I think there is a tendency sometimes to look at Confederates simply as an ideological movement, and to only assign the “Confederate” label to those who embraced it, but the Confederate States were also meant to be a republic, a nation, with a government and territory and borders, so it’s not quite as simple as just an ideology.

          Right, because its origins had everything to do with a commitment to the ideology of slavery and white supremacy. That’s exactly what the vice-president stated in his “Cornerstone” speech.

          • John R Parrish Feb 7, 2020 @ 13:01

            So refreshing to hear the white New England historians educating the black man…
            Dr.Gates doesn’t support the divisive narratives you or the “lost cause” keep spewing.

            • Kevin Levin Feb 7, 2020 @ 13:05

              Wow! Looks like you have some issues to work through.

              I have written extensively as to the concerns I have with Dr. Gate’s understanding of this subject. I have written about it on this blog as well as in my new book. I would be happy to talk about that, but it doesn’t sound like you are very serious. Good day.

  • John R Parrish Feb 4, 2020 @ 15:20

    Although I usually don’t support all of your narratives regarding succession, My feelings are that one would need to be a citizen of the Confederacy in order to be considered a “confederate”

  • Algernon Ward Jr. Feb 4, 2020 @ 13:08

    I believe Dr. Gates would accept the ample documentation that would refute the Black Confederate Soldier myth if one makes the effort to share it with him.

    • Kevin Levin Feb 4, 2020 @ 13:17

      At this point he could have easily sought out the truth. This is not rocket science.

      • paineite Feb 4, 2020 @ 19:00

        My thought exactly, Kevin. Gates is pulling down millions right now. I’d be SURPRISED if he gives a rip. I’d be relieved to find I’m wrong …

  • Andersonh1 Feb 4, 2020 @ 12:14

    There were black and mixed-race soldiers in multiple Louisiana parishes, a Creole unit that was authorized in the city and county of Mobile in late 1862 (the one that was rejected for service in the PACS), and at least one small black unit in Pensacola early in the war. The Louisiana units took an oath to uphold the Constitution of their state and of the Confederate States. All of these men were obviously Confederate by virtue of the states they enlisted to fight for, and particularly given the oath they took, regardless of the fact that they were in various state military units and not enlisted in the federal military.

    In any case, I find your definition of a “black Confederate” as an armed, enlisted soldier in the Confederate army to be too narrow. There were Confederate civilians. One did not have to be in the military to be a Confederate.

    • Kevin Levin Feb 4, 2020 @ 12:17

      A number of militia units were raised in various places that offered to fight for the Confederacy. None of them were accepted. I am sorry you don’t approave of my definitions. You should take that up with the history that Confederates left us on this issue.

      • Mike Furlan Feb 5, 2020 @ 15:49

        There had been black men fighting as soldiers on this continent for hundreds of years, The remarkable thing is the both the Union and the Confederacy refused to use black troops at the outset of the War.

        It is this “dog that didn’t bark” that explains a lot.

        • Kevin Levin Feb 5, 2020 @ 16:29

          You are absolutely right and this is a point that I try to remember to make at every talk.

    • Mike Furlan Feb 5, 2020 @ 15:41

      “All of these men were obviously Confederate”

      So, I’m a Navy SEAL then, since as you would argue the Navy has no business saying who and who is not allowed to join. I just recited the SEAL Creed, and I’m in.


      But really, I’m not a SEAL because I do not meet the mental, physical, moral and training standards that the Navy sets.

      The men you speak of were not CSA soldiers because they did not meet the requirement of being “white.”

      • Kevin Levin Feb 5, 2020 @ 16:31

        If you want to know was and who was not a Confederate soldier just look at the relevant archival sources. They were very clear about this throughout the war, which is why the question of whether to recruit slaves as soldiers in 1864-65 was so divisive.

  • Beth Kruse Feb 4, 2020 @ 11:10

    I was on that webinar & posted an abbreviated version of this post. Trouble is the messages scrolled so fast, I don’t think anyone saw it.

    • Kevin Levin Feb 4, 2020 @ 11:13

      Hi Beth,

      Thanks for doing that. I noticed a couple of comments and Amazon sold a couple of copies that day so I suspect that a few people saw it.

      It’s so sad. I have a great deal of respect for Dr. Gates. His series on Reconstruction is wonderful, but his response on this issue has been and continues to be inexcusable.

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