Blacks in Gray or “Enough is Enough”

Civil War Culture, Lost Cause

I have to admit that I thought the publication of Bruce Levine’s Confederate Emancipation: Southern Plans to Free and Arm Slaves During the Civil War would generate a more intelligent discussion of this controversial and confusing issue.  Those hopes were certainly misplaced.  This debate, specifically points to the wide gulf between the goals of those interested in preserving a certain vision of the war and those who apply a more critical methodology to the evidence that is typically used to prove the willing participation of Southern blacks in various Confederate armies.  Aspects of this debate remind me of the debates surrounding U.F.O.’s and Alien Abduction.  It is much more interesting to analyze the messenger than the evidence provided, including his/her geographic, and economic/social background.  Those who believe in the veracity of these stories tend to collect individual accounts regardless of the origin of the stories, the accumulation of which is supposed to be considered a sufficient condition for drawing a specific conclusion.    So it is in the debate over Black-Confederates.

Bruce Levine does two things in his article, “In Search of a Usable Past: Neo-Confederates and Black Confederates” which is included in the edited volume Slavery and Public History.  (See two earlier posts on this book – here and here.)  First, he sketches the reasons behind the continued claims of Black Confederates and later provides a short overview of the actual debate that took place in the Confederacy (from the beginning of the war) over whether to recruit blacks into the army.  Those interested in a more complete account of the actual debate should read Confederate Emancipation.

What I like about the structure of Levine’s article is his decision not to take on Neo-Confederate claims of Black Confederates directly.  And the reason is because it is unproductive to do so.  Consider the standard approach to this debate.  Individual stories are cited as evidence of a certain conclusion, but there is almost always no critical discussion of the origin of the source or whether the account really implies only one conclusion.  For an example, check out the discussion on this topic over at Civil War Talk Forum.  (This is a great example of why I usually steer clear of on-line discussion groups.)  You will find the same lack of critical analysis in books that purport to demonstrate broad commitment to the Confederacy such as Black Southerners in Gray by H.C. Blackerby, The South Was Right! by James and Walther Kennedy and the edited collection Black Confederates. All of these books have been released by partisan presses which suggests that they did not go through any serious editing or review that is regularly carried out in more mainstream and university publishers.  These debates lack any attempt at analysis, but this is exactly what is missing from the debate.  Just consider the spectrum of supposed numbers of Black Confederates that were to have served: they range from 1,000 to 100,000.  More depressing, however, is the sloppiness that lay just behind this debate.  Finally, even if we can establish a certain number of blacks who “supported” the Confederacy one way or another we still need to know what this means.  Of course it does not necessarily follow that they were considered as officially serving in a Confederate army since we know that the final authorization did not take place until March 1865.  More on this later.

Levine sketches out the reasons behind these claims.  They all fall under the broader concern of those who wish to  vindicate the Confederacy and honor their own southern ancestors:

1. “Insisting on a massive black presence in southern armies aims to strengthen that assertion by demonstrating that African Americans identified with and were loyal to the Confederacy.  The southern war effort thereby comes to appear as the cause not merely of slave owners, nor even of southern whites more generally, but all southerners, white as black, free as well as slave.”  (190)  The point is important here.  The emphasis on loyal black southerners masks the further question of the extent of white loyalty to the Confederacy which is widely debated among academic historians. As we all know, not all Southern slave states joined the Confederacy.

2. “Painting the Confederate army as a sea of both white and black faces it is hoped, will convey a very different impression of the war’s significance.  Recruiting a sprinkling of black members to modern Confederate heritage or reenactor groups is useful in the same way.  ‘Obviously we’d like to have more black or minority members,’ Ben C. Sewell III then executive director of the Sons of Confederate Veterans, told one reporter,  ‘because the fact that we have minorities and welcome them deflects some of the criticism we seem to get’ when championing the official public veneration of Confederate symbols.’”  I still find it difficult to understand why blacks today align themselves with Southern Heritage organizations.  Consider the reasons provided by H.K. Edgerton.

3. “The claim of a massive black presence in southern armies is meant to accomplish something else as well: to demonstrate once and for all that the Confederacy did not stand and did not fight for slavery.  After all, the neo-Confederates ask, would so many blacks have so enthusiastically supported a war effort that was defined by such a goal?”  For many neo-Confederates this is a wonderful example of the split between the preservation of memory and critical historical analysis.  I will not belabor the point here except to suggest that scholarship over the past 30 years has demonstrated (and continues to show) the complex ways in which slavery shaped the nation and especially the South in the years leading up to and through the Civil War.  Perhaps what is needed is a distinction between why any one individual fought in the war and the reasons behind secession and the creation of the Confederate States of America. (190)

4. “The Black Confederates campaign also aims to reinforce a particular view of the postwar Reconstruction years.  Just as abolitionists are to blame for slavery’s survival into the 1860′s, so the North bears responsibility for subsequent conflicts between southern whites and blacks–and even for legalized segregation and Ku Klux Klan terror.” (193)

I would like to see proponents of the Black Confederate interpretation to address two issues.  The first is one that Levine raises and the second stems from my research on the Crater.  Levine clearly demonstrates the difficulties that General Patrick Cleburne and others who attempted to convince the government to recruit (on a limited basis) blacks into Confederate armies.  Almost no one, including Jefferson Davis, believed that this was a good idea.  In fact many argued that it would be a fatal blow to the Confederacy, including Howell Cobb who concluded that “If slaves make good soldiers our whole theory of slavery is wrong.”  I refer the reader to Levine’s chapters on this subject.  His analysis of the debate from December 1863, when Cleburne first proposed the idea, to the end of the war is well documented and provides a thorough analysis.

The other issue that I would like to see addressed is the reaction of Confederate soldiers to the presence of black Union soldiers at the Crater.  As I’ve shown in a number of publications (check out my recent article, “The Earth Seemed to Tremble” in America’s Civil War [May 2006]) white Southerners were not simply outraged that the Federal commanders had unleashed U.S.C.T.’s on the battlefield.  They were just as concerned about what it meant – nothing less than a leveling of their society.  Many soldiers understood and wrote clearly about their fears of what losing the war would mean to the racial hierarchy of the South.  It is not surprising then that during the postwar years, and increasingly during the Jim Crow era, white Southerners would distance themselves from the memory of black Federal soldiers in their public commemorations of the Crater.

Previous posts: Black Confederates, Black Confederates – Part 2, Eric Foner on Black Confederates, Black Confederates, Part 3, Blight on Levine.


Dimitri’s Imaginary Lost Cause


I’ve been reading Dimitri’s so-called analysis of historians who concentrate on interpreting the evolution of the Lost Cause movement and I find it humorous at best.  I say this as someone who has published more than one article on the Lost Cause in well-regarded academic journals and who is familiar with the historiography.  In both Part 1 and Part 2 the reader is introduced to the as-yet-to-be-defined "centennialist school" and commentators such as the writer Eric Hobsbawm and the philosopher Karl Popper.  Unfortunately, nowhere does the reader get an example from the literature or the historians who concentrate on this particular area of Civil War history.  Instead we get the following jibberish:

A close reading of the attacks on Lost Cause beliefs suggest a consistently
Hobsbawmian approach. The LC is seen as a manipulation; it apparently represents
the conscious invention of traditions; it offers a calculated shading of
history-as-truth; it seems intended to serve an alibi function for the modern
white South, etc. These are the commonest lines of argument one sees in anti-LC
polemic. I’m not suggesting that our critics of the LC are Hobsbawm readers but
rather that they are manifesting a universal analytic tendency toward conspiracy

I guess one way to attack an argument is to rely on the old strawman approach – throw in some generalizations and vague terminology and stir until you come up with what appears to be an informed analysis and give the reader the sense that the enemy has been vanquished.  The problem is that the literature on the Lost Cause is much too broad to characterize in such a way.  Does Dimitri really think that he can lump into this vague characterization historians such as Gaines Foster and Charles R. Wilson, W. Fitzhugh Brundage, and David Blight who take very different approaches to the study of the Lost Cause?  Instead of quoting extensively from Karl Popper why not try to lay out an argument by actually referring to a published study?  I’m more than happy to debate Popper or any other philosopher that is brought to bear on the study or writing of history.  But why is this necessary?  If you want to comment on Civil War history then do so.  I could go on, but what’s the point.  My guess – based on his posts – is that Dimitri isn’t sufficiently familiar with the literature anyway.   


Book Review and Response: Peter Carmichael

Civil War Historians

H-South has posted a review of Peter Carmichael’s The Last Generation: Young Virginians in Peace, War, and Reunion by Robert Tinkler.  Read Carmichael’s response to Tinkler followed by Tinkler’s response to Carmichael.

1 comment

Ken Burns


Episode 1: Prologue

Oliver Wendell Holmes – We have shared the incommunicable experiences of war.  We have felt, we still feel, the passion of life to its top.  In our youths, our hearts were touched with fire. 

Narrator – By the summer of 1861, Wilmer McLean had had enough.  Two great armies were converging on his farm, in what would be the first major battle of the Civil War – Bull Run or Manassas as the Confederates called it – would soon rage across the aging Virginians farm, a Union shell going so far as to explode in the summer kitchen.  Now, Mclean had moved his family away from Manassas and south and west of Richmond – out of harm’s way, he prayed, to a dusty crossroads called Appomattox Court House.  And it was there in his living room three and a half years later that Lee surrendered to Grant, and Wilmer McLean could rightfully say, "The war began in my front yard and ended in my front parlor."

A friend and fellow historian recently sent me the entire Ken Burns Civil War transcript.  Huh….what should I do with it?


Dwight T. Pitcaithley on Slavery and the NPS

Civil War Historians, Public History

No one has done more to advance the cause of historical interpretation of America’s Civil War battlefields than Dwight Pitcaithley.  I’ve heard him speak passionately about the importance of bringing the latest scholarship to bear on the way the National Park Service situates military analysis within the broader context of slavery and race and why it is important to do so.

I am interested in this question since my research on memory and the battle of the Crater uncovers the ways in which the presence of USCT and race were stricken from the historical record.  A few of my published articles have made it into the hands of park service guides at the Petersburg National Battlefield Park, and Chris Calkins (chief historian) has consistently supported my research endeavors.  With the Civil War Sesquicentennial just a few years away there is little doubt that this issue will continue to generate heated debate.  I hope that my work on one battlefield at least adds some relevant background to the discussion.  In his article “‘A Cosmic Threat”: The National Park Service Addresses the Causes of the American Civil War” which recently appeared in the edited volume, Slavery and Public History: The Tough Stuff of American Memory, (The New Press, 2006). Pitcaithley outlines the arguments both for and against addressing the role of slavery and race on the battlefield.

One of the most common arguments against addressing slavery is the claim that the NPS was not given the assignment to educate the public or the causes of the war.  One writer to the NPS declared: “Why and how these two armies got to that battlefield is irrelevant at the point of the battle. The only thing that matters at that point is WHAT happened and not why.  Allow the NPS to deal with the facts about the battle and leave the why to the educators.”  This is an all-too common argument, but what is striking is the arbitrary defining of “education” to include events on the battlefield and not any causal question of why there is fighting at all.  Pitcaithley reminds his readers that both the creation of the National Park Service in 1916 and legislation such as the 1935 Historic Sites Act and the National Historic Preservation Act of 1966 establish a mandate to educate the public in a way that goes beyond the movements of armies.  The obvious point here is that the U.S.S. Arizona Memorial, the Women’s Rights National Historical Park, site of the 1848 Women’s Rights Convention (Seneca Falls), Marsh, Billings, Rockefeller National Historical Park, and the Little Big Horn National Battlefield Park all provide its visitors with a broader causal overview of what happened.  Given this fact, it seems reasonable to suggest that the burden of showing why Civil War sites should be the exception to this rule is the job of the NPS’s detractors.

Pitcaithley does an excellent job tracing the origin of the reconciliation argument that so many opponents of this new mandate support.  As many of you know, veterans’ reunions and other forces at work in the late 19th century left an interpretation of the war that steered clear of more controversial issues such as slavery and secession and the way that slavery and race shaped the war itself.  The emphasis on shared values such as honor encouraged and made possible sectional reunion by the turn of the 20th century.  More importantly, and as Pitcaithley makes clear, this interpretive agenda supported “political agendas and became powerful vehicles for constructing personal as well as national identities.”  This is an important point, but I wish Pitcaithley had taken the argument one step further.  While he makes the obvious point that the “Lost Cause” interpretation was not void of a political and racial agenda he does not situate the NPS within the evolution or as a factor in the overall success of this view.  As I show in my own work on the battle of the Crater, by 1936 this deeply embedded Lost Cause view had become the standard interpretation of the battle.  Any acknowledgment of the role of USCT in the battle or the reaction of white Southerners had been almost entirely erased from national memory.  And this is the interpretation that the NPS adopted when they incorporated the Crater site into the Petersburg National Military Park in 1936.  It is not simply “politically correct” or to engage in “revisionist” history to acknowledge slavery and race at the Crater, it is historical necessity if the hope is to get the story right.

While Pitcaithley is at the forefront in this movement to revise the NPS’s interpretation, no one has done more to challenge it than the late Jerry Russell.  Russell’s favored arguments are easy to dispose of.  While his arguments appear to be more focused on the visitor’s time it is not difficult to surmise his motivation: “You only get so much of the visitors’ time if…if you add to the script, you must take something out of the script.  And what they are taking out is honor, honor to the battle, honor to the men.”  This is a weak argument, though one that is commonly employed.  First, there is an assumption that there is a mutually exclusive choice between honor and causation.  I’m not even sure it’s the job of the park service to convince its visitors of some moral conclusion surrounding the participants of the battle.  I wouldn’t dream of doing this in my classroom.  I’ve never visited Pearl Harbor, but my guess is that guides are quite capable of discussing the background to the attack without losing anything about what actually took place on the morning of December 7, 1941.  The most significant weakness with Russell’s argument is the assumption that introducing slavery and race somehow challenges the moral integrity of the individual soldier.  As I’ve stated before on this blog armies did not just fall out of the sky to engage in the kind of horrific violence that so many Civil War buffs find entertaining.  If I were to visit a battlefield in Vietnam (imagine for a moment that it was operated by the NPS) I would want to know a bit about why Americans were sent thousands of miles away to fight.  Does it follow that a discussion of “containment” and the “domino theory” imply that every American soldier fought in support of such a foreign policy?  Of course not.

As we approach the sesquicentennial the toughest challenge will be to more fully integrate the Civil War scholarship of the past 20 years into more casual settings.  This will be difficult because the goals of the academy, heritage association, and more common Civil War enthusiasts often diverge.  Many Civil War enthusiasts who are interested primarily in the battlefield are put off by discussions of race.  They find the discussion to be uncomfortable or simply don’t care.  And others, as discussed above, see the discussion as a threat to their preferred interpretation of the war.  I would point out that the discussion must center on the historical merits of the broader discussion and not simply on preference.

Finally, we need to revise our popular notions of historical revision.  This is particularly troubling within Civil War communities as much of these discussions take place in a broader political context.  Revisions are often seen as politically motivated.  It is incredibly discouraging to engage people who claim to be interested in the past who fail to see the importance of critical discourse and alternative interpretations as a way to advance our knowledge of the past.