What’s Wrong With the Black Confederate Debate?

Photoshopped image of Louisiana Native Guard

Brooks Simpson has chosen to wade into the mire that is the black Confederate “debate”.  In his most recent post he surveys a short list of the standard primary sources that have been used to prove the existence of black men in the Confederate army.  As Brooks notes, they are all problematic for any number of reasons, but at the end of post he offers the following:

But there does appear to be a pattern of distortion, deception, and deceit in the use of these pieces of evidence to make a case for the presence of African Americans in the Confederate army as willing participants in fighting for the cause of southern independence.

Why do you think that is?  What conclusions might we draw?  Could you explain why these examples are still used by people who claim a fidelity to historical accuracy?  After all, they offer no defense of their use of these examples in light of the information presented.  They simply continue to present the examples.

Deception is clearly involved in the case of the Photoshopped image of the Louisiana Native Guard, but the cut and paste references to Frederick Douglass, Lewis Steiner, Ed Bearrs, that populate so many websites beg for a different response.  I don’t even think that we need to fall back on the need to demonstrate that slavery was not central to the Confederate experience and the Civil War more generally.  In the end, what this reflects is an inability to engage in historical analysis.  I am going to sound like an elitist for saying this but so be it: Many of these people are simply not well read in the history of slavery, the social and cultural dynamic within the Confederate army, and the politics of the Confederate government.

Consider the following examples of how a few folks choose to define their terms:

“So what is the definition of a body servant?  A body servant is a gentleman’s gentleman.  These African-American men, whether freedmen or slaves, dedicated their lives to the service of men who in some form or fashion shaped the United States of America.  In 21st century vernacular the role is analogous to a position known as an executive assistant—a position today that requires a college Bachelors Degree or equivalent level experience.  Ask any salesman. You cannot secure an appointment with a senior executive without getting approval from his or her  executive assistant.” — Anne DeWitt

What is a black Confederate?

“A person of color whose heart and beliefs lie to the South. There are people who ask why Civil war headstones don’t stat that, the answer is the same reason modern day ones don’t. I would not count a minority who didn’t love the South for better or worse or during the war wanted to flee.” — Southern Heritage Preservation Group

“The definitions already offered as to what constitutes a black Confederate reflect my view: ANY person of color, that served the Confederate States in defense of their homeland – officially enlisted or not – if they in any way attempted to defend their Southern homeland against the illegal invaders (Union troops). I don’t know how you can be more definitive than that. Soldiers don’t just define those on the front lines (although there were many black Confederates in that position), they include all support troops as well. The guys on the front line could not perform their duties without those support troops. Those working in pistol factories as well, they were making the weapons for the front line personnel. That’s just common sense to me!” — Southern Heritage Preservation Group

“BLACK CONFEDERATES INCLUDE BUT ARE NOT LIMITED TO BLACK PEOPLE PAID PENSIONS BY SOUTHRON STATES AFTER THE WAR…….” — Southern Heritage Preservation Group

“(1) Any… slave or free Black Southerner who preformed a service for the Confederate Military and in doing so saw military action and actively took up arms in defense of the South, or the Confederate military (or any individual in it) at the risk of his own life against the Union invaders. (2) Any slave or free Black Southerner who wore the Confederate uniform and in doing so continued to preform whatever services with a Confederate regiment even beyond the requirements of their services (specifically in regards to a slave who continued to serve beyond the death of their white master with distinction).   (3) Any slave or free Black Southerner who was interred in a Union Prisoner of War camp, who endured the indignities and hardships of imprisonment and remained loyal to the Confederate cause of the South specifically, defying all attempts on the part of his captors to take the oath of loyalty to the Union.” — Southern Heritage Preservation Group

Most of these descriptions are so vague that they are meaningless.  What we have here is not a debate about whether free and enslaved blacks served as soldiers in the Confederate army.  The folks referenced above are not engaged in deception; rather, they simply do not understand the relevant history nor do they understand how to engage in historical analysis.

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Capturing the Horror of the Crater

Over the past few years I’ve seen a wide range of images of the battle of the Crater.  Once I tidy up a few loose ends in my Crater manuscript I am going to turn to making a decision about illustrations for the book.  I am planning to include images that give the reader a sense of the drastic changes that have taken place to the physical landscape as well as how various illustrators have come to terms with the battle itself.  Yesterday I spent some time in the Virginia Museum of Fine Arts, which features a wonderful exhibit of Civil War drawings from the Becker Collection.  The collection includes sketches of various aspects of camp life and battle that were done for Frank Leslie’s Illustrated Weekly.  Eventually, I came across, Andrew McCallum’s sketch of the Crater.  I’ve never seen the original so the longer I stared the more difficult it was to walk away.  The detail is incredible and he really does capture the horror of the battle.  This one stands a good chance of making it into the book.

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So You Want To Learn About the Civil War?

The Battle Between the Monitor and the Merrimack Xanthus Smith, c. 1880 (VHS)

Well, then head on over to the Virginia Historical Society for their new exhibit, An American Turning Point: The Civil War in Virginia.  I had a chance to sneak in for a few minutes today and it is well worth a visit.  It covers all of the important aspects of the war in Virginia and it does so with a wonderful selection of paintings, artifacts and interactive exhibits.  I am definitely going to have to go back and spend a bit more time. Most importantly, the museum offers a narrative of the war that reflects the best scholarship of the past few decades.   I will give you a sense of what I mean based on their printed guide:

Why Did the Civil War Happen? [Yes, slavery was crucial as a cause of secession & war.]

Slavery caused the war, but the war was not begun to free slaves.  The war had begun to determine whether the Confederate States of America would be allowed to break away as an independent nation, or whether the existing Union would survive.  Only later did the the conflict become one of liberation.  Why did the South want independence?  Southern wealth was mostly invested in slaves or slave-worked land.  Abraham Lincoln, newly elected president, led a party pledged to ban slavery in new states.

War or Murder? [Both Grant and Lee engaged in bloody assaults throughout the war.]

Throughout the war, both sides sought a single decisive victory long after it was clear that no such event was achievable…. Although Grant was called a butcher, Confederate losses, relative to the size of their army, were greater.

Men of Color To Arms? [Sorry, but no black Confederates prior to March 13, 1865.]

A few southern soldiers and civilians suggested as early as January 1864 that the Confederacy enlist slaves as soldiers, but most white southerners disagreed.  One Confederate politician noted that, “if slaves will make good soldiers [then] our whole theory is wrong.”  Desperate to avert defeat, the Confederacy authorized the enlistment of slaves on March 13, 1865, far too late to affect the outcome of the war.

Who Was the Traitor and Who the Patriot? [Virginians ought to remember their Confederates and Unionists.]

In 1861, pro-Union supporters defended the nation that had been created in 1776.  Pro-Confederates said they were exercising the right, enshrined in the Declaration of Independence, to “alter or abolish” unrepresentative and oppressive government.  Wherever a Virginian placed his or her loyalty–to the rebel nation of 1776 of the new rebel nation of 1861–he or she was a patriot to the eyes of some and a traitor to others.

How Did Slaves Support the Confederacy? [The Confederacy (including Virginia) went to war as a slaveholding society.]

Slaves and free blacks provided more labor than usual for Virginia farms when 89 percent of eligible white men served in Confederate armies.  Enslaved men were sometimes forced into service to build fortifications, women to serve as laundresses and cooks for troops in the field.  Fearful that they might lose their freedom if they failed to contribute to the war effort, free blacks often worked beside the slaves, for minimal wages.

Did the Civil War End At Appomattox? [We need to think about the war beyond Appomattox.]

Freedom as Confederate independence failed.  Defeat threatened to change white southern identity that had been based on racial supremacy.  Although black Virginians  were no longer enslaved, equality remained an unfulfilled goal for generations to come.

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Vanessa Williams’s Civil War

I don’t mind admitting that I am a sucker for the recent string of television shows that trace the family histories of our favorite celebrities.  They perform an important function within the muck and mire that is popular entertainment.  Most importantly, they present the study of history as an exciting process that often leads to meaningful self discovery.  This episode of “Who Do You Think You Are?” follows Vanessa Williams as she searches for information about her great-great grandfather, who served in the USCTs during the Civil War.  Williams also learns that an ancestor served in the Tennessee legislature in the 1880s and even introduced legislation mandating public education.  All in all we have here another strong emancipationist narrative of the Civil War and Reconstruction that has made it into our mainstream culture.

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Exploring Black Confederate Websites: Black Confederate Soldiers

For my second installment in this series I thought we would take a quick look at Ann DeWitt’s Black Confederate Soldiers site.  It’s one of the more recent sites to appear and it is growing in popularity.  Feel free to suggest websites that might be worth exploring at a later date. I apologize for the sound quality. I am still playing around with a couple of programs so hopefully things will improve.

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