Searching For Black Confederates

Silas Chandler

Co-authored article with Myra Chandler Sampson

Regular readers of this blog are all too familiar with the frequency of posts on the hot topic of black Confederates.  It is safe to say that the largest number of posts on this blog have been devoted to the subject and collectively constitute what I hope is a helpful resource for those who are trying to wade through the morass that defines this divisive topic and public debate.  With so much attention focused on this subject it may be difficult for readers to know where to begin.  This page is meant to serve as a road map to help readers to better understand the evolution of my own thought about this subject and offer advice on where to go for credible information.  I should point out that my writing on this subject is not meant or intended as an authoritative or final word on the subject.  I’ve used this blog to ask questions and to offer some of my own ideas about various aspects of the subject and on how others have approached the subject.

You will find a wide range of posts on this issue, but all of them revolve around a basic assumption that this subject is part of a broader discussion of slavery and race relations during the Civil War.  Most of the posts on this site can be found under a category heading, titled, “black Confederates.” [Keep in mind that you are reading them in the reverse order in which they were published.]  I suggest that you begin with my two earliest posts on the subject in which I begin to sketch out my own interest in the subject in response to the publication of Bruce Levine’s book, Confederate Emancipation [Part 1 and Part 2 and here].  One of the biggest problems is the lack of any consensus on language and how to describe the presence of free and enslaved blacks in Confederate armies.  In my view we must begin by assuming that blacks were not soldiers based both on the refusal on the part of the Confederate government as well as the almost complete lack of wartime evidence (enlistment papers/muster rolls, etc.)

I’ve also written extensively about individual black Confederates.  No story has been more distorted than that of Silas Chandler, who is the subject of one of the most famous wartime photographs.  In 2012 I co-authored an article on Silas with Myra Chandler Sampson, who is his great great granddaughter.  the article appeared in the magazine’s 50th anniversary issue.  You will also find multiple posts about Weary Clyburn [Click here for a 9-part post on Clyburn and the SCV] and John Venable of North Carolina.  Both of these individuals have been the subject of a great deal of debate on this blog owing to the controversial work of archivist, Earl Ijames of the North Carolina Museum of History.  A great deal of the misinformation about this subject can be traced to the United Daughters of the Confederacy and Sons of Confederate Veterans.  Click here for a recent article by Bruce Levine on their efforts to distort this history.

The number of posts referencing black Confederates in the news is much too large, but here are a few which should give you some sense of how these stories are being distorted [Integrated Richmond Howitzers, discovery of black Confederates in North Carolina and Tennessee].  I also try to stay on top of new publications and films on the subject.  One of the most anticipated is a new graphic novel about Patrick Cleburne and black Confederates [and here] and more recently I discovered a children’s book on the subject by Ann DeWitt and Kevin Weeks.

Resources

Anyone interested in this subject must wade through a great deal of misinformation both online and in print.  Online sources are the most notorious because this is now where most people are going to gather information and satisfy their curiosity.  Many of the websites that you will come across include the same standard accounts and a careful perusal will reveal a certain amount of cut and paste.  References to legitimate historians as endorsing the presence of thousands of black Confederate soldiers can be found, including Ed Bearss.  Some of the most popular sites can be found here, here, here and here.  You will notice an almost complete failure to cite sources, include proper analysis or identify individuals in photographs.  I highly recommend that you consider sites that have some kind of institutional affiliation such as a college or university and make sure that you can identify the author of a site as properly credentialed to discuss the subject.  Remember, anyone can build a website.  Other names to watch out for online include Bill Vallante, who relies heavily on WPA slave narratives and a confident dismissal of anything that smacks of scholarship.  Click here for a wonderful example of the cut and paste method accompanied by little to no analysis as well as a response to my own writing on the subject. One of the best examples of reliable online scholarship can be found at Andy Hall’s Dead Confederates, which includes profiles of individual slaves, postwar reunions involving former slaves and analysis of contemporary reports of black Confederate soldiers.

One of the most common mistakes that you will find on these websites is the reference to pensions as evidence of service as a soldier in the Confederate army.  Most former Confederate states issued pensions to slaves, who accompanied their masters to war or were impressed between 1880 and 1930.  These sources should not be interpreted as evidence of soldiers.  See James G. Hollandsworth’s excellent online essay for more on this aspect of the debate.

Printed sources are just as problematic, though there are plenty of reliable studies that I will point out.  Once again, it is important to note that the availability of a book or other printed source does not guarantee good scholarship.  Even the National Park Service has made mistakes.  The black Confederate library is filled with studies written by individuals with questionable credentials and many of these books have not gone through any kind of peer review.  A few of the more popular titles in this area that are equally problematic include:

You will find references to all of these books on this blog, including the two titles by Pelican Press.

Unfortunately, these titles, as well as the broader debate, reduce the discussion down to nonsensical questions of how many slaves “served” in the Confederate army as well as wild claims about the loyalty of slaves to the Confederate cause.  What is missing is thoughtful analysis and questions and a consideration of the broader historical context.  The best place to begin is with Bruce Levine’s book, Confederate Emancipation: Southern Plans to Free and Arm Slaves During the Civil War (Oxford University Press, 2007).  [Click here for a recent lecture on the subject by Levine.]  I also recommend Robert F. Durden’s earlier study on this debate, which is still in print as well as Paul Escott’s recent study, “What Shall We Do With the Negro”: Lincoln, White Racism, and Civil War America (University of Virginia Press, 2009).  For a very thoughtful/analytical study of the debate to arm slaves in the Confederacy, within the broader discussion of slave impressment, see Stephanie McCurry’s, Confederate Reckoning: Power and Politics in the Civil War South (Harvard University Press, 2010).  McCurry argues that slaveowners resisted every step on the part of the Confederate government to impress and later recruit slaves into the army.

One of the areas that is lacking is in our understanding of how the war challenged and shaped the master-slave relationship.  The oversight is a direct result of our obsession with the question of numbers and an overall failure to properly distinguish between black Confederate soldiers (of which there were very, very few), slaves, and free blacks, who performed certain support roles for the army.  Start with Peter Carmichael’s guest post and conference paper, “‘We Were Men': The Ambiguous Place of Confederate Slaves in Confederate Armies.”  Carmichael explores a number of entry points that are worth further analysis.  In addition, there is Joseph Glatthaar’s, General Lee’s Army: From Victory to Collapse (Free Press, 2009), which includes an entire chapter on the roles that slaves played in the armies.  Ervin Jordan’s book, Black Confederates and Afro-Virginians in Civil War Virginia (University of Virginia Press, 1995) gets bandied around quite a bit in this debate and while I have problems with different sections it is well worth reading.  Although somewhat dated, James H. Brewer’s The Confederate Negro: Virginia’s Craftsmen and Military Laborers, 1861-65 (University of Alabama Press, 2007 [reissue]) also sheds light on the subject.  Charles T. Mohr explores the master-slave dynamic in Georgia in On the Threshold of Freedom: Masters and Slaves in Civil War Georgia (Louisiana State University Press, 2001).  Finally, I recommend my own short article on camp servants, which appeared in the Spring 2013 issue of The Civil War Monitor.