books

Searching For Black Confederates: The Civil War’s Most Persistent Myth The University of North Carolina Press, Fall 2019

More than 150 years after the end of the Civil War, scores of websites, articles, and organizations repeat claims that anywhere between 500 and 100,000 free and enslaved African Americans fought willingly as soldiers in the Confederate army. But as Kevin M. Levin argues in this carefully researched book, such claims would have shocked anyone who served in the army during the war itself. Levin explains that imprecise contemporary accounts, poorly understood primary-source material, and other misrepresentations helped fuel the rise of the black Confederate myth. Moreover, Levin shows that belief in the existence of black Confederate soldiers largely originated in the 1970s, a period that witnessed both a significant shift in how Americans remembered the Civil War and a rising backlash against African Americans’ gains in civil rights and other realms.

Levin also investigates the roles that African Americans actually performed in the Confederate army, including personal body servants and forced laborers. He demonstrates that regardless of the dangers these men faced in camp, on the march, and on the battlefield, their legal status remained unchanged. Even long after the guns fell silent, Confederate veterans and other writers remembered these men as former slaves and not as soldiers, an important reminder that how the war is remembered often runs counter to history.

Reviews

The pose one sees in photographs of Confederate soldiers with their seemingly loyal ‘camp slaves’ is in microcosm what the issue of ‘Black Confederates’ became in our own time–a ‘pose’ by neo-Confederates seeking legitimacy for their fool’s cause. Kevin Levin has provided this mythic problem what it dearly needs–a carefully researched and beautifully written history, first of wartime itself, then of the Lost Cause memorial period, and then of the Civil War sesquicentennial in which the question of blacks in gray would not die. Levin’s book needs to be widely read as a rich history drawing the life out of a lethal narrative of wish fulfillment.—David W. Blight, author of the Pulitzer-prize winning Frederick Douglass: Prophet of Freedom

To those who have embraced this myth, Levin’s book is a terrifying prospect, and for good reason. Searching for Black Confederates is a bracing corrective, a slender yet vital volume in the growing library of texts dedicated to dispelling white supremacist talking points.—The New Republic

Should be required reading for anyone interested in how Americans remember the Civil War. Acolytes of the Lost Cause will no doubt find little to like. But for anyone else, Levin’s powerful indictment should represent the death knell for Civil War’s most persistent myth.—America’s Civil War

When parents discover that their school children are learning about black Confederates, when history buffs read a display at a historic site that celebrates black Confederates, and when undergraduates encounter hagiographies of black Confederates online, they will now have a rigorous and trustworthy resource at their disposal to dismantle this dangerous and corrosive distortion of history.W. Fitzhugh Brundage, author of Civil Torture: An American Tradition

VERDICT Levin’s timely and telling account should be required reading for anyone who wants to understand the uses and abuses of history and the power and dangers of mythmaking.—Library Journal

Remembering the Battle of the Crater: War as Murder University Press of Kentucky [2012 (paperback, 2017)]

Crater

The Battle of the Crater is known as one of the Civil War’s bloodiest struggles—a Union loss with combined casualties of 5,000, many of whom were members of the United States Colored Troops (USCT) under Union Brigadier General Edward Ferrero. The battle was a violent clash of forces as Confederate soldiers fought for the first time against African American soldiers. After the Union lost the battle, these black soldiers were captured and subject both to extensive abuse and the threat of being returned to slavery in the South. Yet, despite their heroism and sacrifice, these men are often overlooked in public memory of the war.

In Remembering The Battle of the Crater: War as Murder, Kevin M. Levin analyzes the shared recollections of a battle that epitomizes the way Americans have chosen to remember, or in many cases forget, the presence of the USCT. The book focuses specifically on how the racial component of the war’s history was portrayed at various points during the 140 years following its conclusion, illuminating the social changes and challenges experienced by the nation as a whole. Remembering The Battle of the Crater gives the members of the USCT a newfound voice in history. University Press of Kentucky, 2012.

Reviews

In this stunning and well-researched book, Kevin Levin catches the new waves of the study of memory, black soldiers, and the darker underside of the Civil War as well as anyone has. That horrible day at the Crater in Petersburg, its brutal racial facts and legacies, all tangled in the weeds of Confederate Lost Cause lore, have never been exposed like this. Levin is both superb scholar and public historian, showing us a piece of the real war that does now get into the books, as well as into site interpretation.— David W. Blight, author of Race and Reunion: The Civil War in American Memory

Interpreting the Civil War at Museums and Historic Sites w/Rowman & Littlefield (2017)

Public historians working at museums and historic sites focused on the Civil War era are tasked with interpreting a period of history that remains deeply controversial. Many visitors have strong connections to historic sites such as battlefields and artifacts as well as harbor strong convictions about the cause of the war, its consequences and the importance of slavery. Interpreting the Civil War at Museums and Historic Sites surveys how museums and historic sites approached these challenges and others during the Civil War sesquicentennial (2011-2015). In doing so, this book offers museums and history professionals strategies to help shape conversations with local communities, develop exhibits and train interpreters. With the ongoing controversy surrounding the display of the Confederate battle flag and monuments, there has never been a more opportune moment to look critically at how the Civil War has been interpreted and why it continues to matter to so many Americans.

Reviews

Practitioners of history at Civil War sites and museums will delight in this book. Kevin Levin and his team of essayists provide most useful examples that will assist interpreters (and students) in making sense of the War and its legacies. Dwight T. Pitcaithley, Former Chief Historian, National Park Service

Kevin Levin has assembled an impressive cast of practicing public historians whose extensive experience in the field has translated into a series of engaging articles that will appeal to practitioners as well as to students of the Civil War.Peter S. Carmichael, Fluhrer Professor of History and director, Civil War Institute at Gettysburg College

By allowing practitioners’ voices to come through clearly in each chapter, Interpreting the Civil War builds a highly authentic product, and more importantly, provides a shining example of how collaboration among professionals at museums and historic sites is a vital component of strengthening the field.The Public Historian