Ta-Nehisi Coates on the Confederate Slave Enlistment Debate

At the very beginning of his new collection of essays Ta-Nehisi Coates offers a few thoughts about the historical significance of the Confederate slave enlistment debate. According to Coates the debate itself reflects a deeply ingrained and long-standing “fear” that assumptions of black inferiority are unfounded.

The fear had precedent. Toward the end of the Civil War, having witnessed the effectiveness of the Union’s “colored troops,” a flailing Confederacy began considering an attempt to recruit blacks into its army. But in the nineteenth century, the idea of the soldier was heavily entwined with the notion of masculinity and citizenship. How could an army constituted to defend slavery, with all of its assumptions about black inferiority, turn around and declare that blacks were worthy of being invited into Confederate ranks? As it happened, they could not. “The day you make a soldier of them is the beginning of the end of our revolution,” observed Georgia politician Howell Cobb. “And if slaves seem good soldiers, then our whole theory of slavery is wrong.” There could be no win for white supremacy here. If blacks proved to be the cowards that “the whole theory of slavery” painted them as, the battle would literally be lost. But much worse, should they fight effectively–and prove themselves capable of “good Negro government”–then the larger would could never be won. (pp. xiv-xv)

Coates beautifully nails down the racial implications of the debate for a nation committed to creating a slaveholding republic around white supremacy, but I wish he had taken the argument further. It is true that the United States embraced black men to help to save the Union by 1863, but the same questions that paralyzed the Confederacy until the final weeks of the war were at the center of the debate in the United States.

Could black men fight effectively in the ranks and if they could what did that mean for assumptions of black masculinity and black inferiority held by the vast majority of white Americans? The United States took the plunge into arming blacks and as a result was forced to confront the very questions and fears that defeat saved Confederates from having to confront.

One of the things that I have come away with having read extensively among the primary sources related to the Confederate slave enlistment debate is that it must not be brushed aside as the final chapter in a failed slaveholders rebellion, but as part of a broader American conversation about race that we are still writing.

The *Cornerstone* of the Confederacy on the Verge of Defeat

Having just finished writing about the debate over slave enlistment that took place throughout the Confederacy by mid-1864 through March 1865, it is safe to say that I’ve read hundreds of letters, diary entries and op-eds that explored what white southerners took to be the dangers of arming their bondsmen. Even those who came out in favor of enlistment shared many of the fears expressed by the opposition. [click to continue…]

New to the Civil War Memory Library, 10/13

Edward L. Ayers, The Thin Light of Freedom: The Civil War and Emancipation in the Heart of America (W.W. Norton, 2017).

David Blight and Jim Downs eds., Beyond Freedom: Disrupting the History of Emancipation (University of Georgia Press, 2017).

Robert J. Cook, Civil War Memories: Contesting the Past in the United States Since 1865 (Johns Hopkins University Press, 2017).

Ron Chernow, Grant (Penguin Press, 2017).

Mitch Kachun, First Martyr of Liberty: Crispus Attucks in American Memory (Oxford University Press, 2017).

Tiya Miles, The Dawn of Detroit: The Chronicle of Slavery and Freedom in the City of the Straits (The New Press, 2017).

A Civil War Myth That Won’t Go Away

Today The Post & Courier in Charleston published my op-ed in response to Monday’s proposal from two South Carolina legislators, who would like to see a monument to black Confederates erected on the State House grounds in Columbia. For many of you there is nothing new in this piece, but I believe that it is important to respond to elected leaders who choose to mythologize the past to serve their own agenda. [click to continue…]

How Does *Searching For Black Confederates* End?

This morning I started writing with the intention of finishing a rough draft of the final chapter of my black Confederates book. The big question that I still needed to nail down was where exactly to end it. By mid-morning I had my answer.

News out of South Carolina revealed that two Republican state legislators proposed that a monument to African Americans who fought as soldiers for the Confederacy should be erected on the State House grounds in Columbia. It should come as no surprise that both men voted against the removal of the Confederate battle flag in 2015 and that they fully embrace the Lost Cause narrative of the war. Later in the day I did an interview with Newsweek about this story. [click to continue…]