The most recent issue of The Civil War Monitor contains a letter-to-the-editor about a recent essay of mine on Confederate camp servants [Spring 2013]. From Mr. John H. Whitfield:
While the article was enlightening on the issue of enslaved Africans who were wartime “body servants,” it presented a rather narrow view of the panoply of roles in which the enslaved were critical to the Rebel war effort. For instance, the impressment of slaves, authorized throughout the Confederacy in 1862, sent countless men to construct earthworks at various strategic locations.
Mr. Whitfield is absolutely spot on regarding the place of enslaved blacks in the Confederate war effort. There are a number of excellent studies that examine these various roles, including books by Glenn David Brasher,Joseph Glatthaar, and Bruce Levine. Those of you with an interest in this topic will definitely want to check out Jaime Martinez’s forthcoming book, Confederate Slave Impressment in the Upper South, which will be out with UNC Press in December. Continue reading
Black Confederate Fashion by H.K. Edgerton
A few months ago I had a conversation with Alan Levinovitz, who teaches at James Madison University. As a new member of the community there were a number of things that struck Alan as strange and begging for explanation. At the top of the list is the local Dixie Outfitters store in Harrisonburg, Virginia. Alan asked if I could provide some context for the store’s presence and stock, especially those H.K. Edgerton t-shirts. The inquiry was in preparation for an article he was planning for the Los Angeles Review of Books.
The article is now online, which I highly recommend. A few of my comments about the myth of the black Confederate made it into the piece.
“People don’t believe in the black Confederate narrative because they’re crazy,” explains historian Kevin Levin. “They believe it because they read it. It’s on a website that looks professional, has all the bells and whistles, and includes images, primary sources of all kinds. How could it not be true?”
Levin’s long-running blog, Civil War Memory, is on the front lines in a battle between established historians and a vocal minority who insist that most academics are biased liberals bent on slandering the South. Dixie Outfitters is a part of this minority, and its company website includes a history section with over eighty links to information about black Confederates.
Read the rest of the essay here.
Update: Well, you heard it here first. Tripp Lewis of the Virginia Flaggers declares that Matthew Heimbach is a “good guy.”
The Virginia Flaggers are still intent on placing a large Confederate flag off of Interstate 95 near Richmond, Virginia by the end of September. The Richmond media has interviewed Susan Hathaway and others about their goals in placing the flag in such a prominent place and their preferred interpretation of the Confederate flag. What the major news channels have not done, however, is look into the membership of the Flaggers and whether their talk of Confederate heritage reflects the broader values of the Richmond community.
Thanks to Brooks Simpson (and here) and Andy Hall we are learning more about individual members (or individuals who are claimed as members by the Flaggers) such as Matthew Heimbach. Susan Hathaway and the rest of the Flaggers have gone on record attacking prominent members of Richmond’s history and museum community for their supposed Confederate heritage betrayals. The Virginia Flaggers should be held accountable to the very same standard. Richmonders should ask themselves whether Matthew Heimbach’s view of Confederate heritage represents their own. Continue reading
General Patrick Cleburne’s plan to arm slaves is often highlighted as an enlightened vision of racial progress in the Confederacy, which proves that slavery was incidental to the formation and maintenance of the Confederate nation. As David T. Gleeson explains in his new book, The Green and the Gray: The Irish in the Confederate States of America (University of North Carolina Press, 2013), it’s a bit more complicated.
Cleburne may have been naive about the possibility of emancipation, but not in the importance of slave labor to the Confederacy. Cleburne’s vision was for black soldiers, not black citizens in the Confederacy. On the contrary, their “emancipation” was to be a limited one. While family relationships would be legalized, “wise legislation” would be needed to “compel [former slaves]. . . to labor for a living.” Somewhat ironically, Cleburne drew on the Irish experience he had fled from, concluding in one letter that “writing a man ‘free’ does not make him so, as the history of the Irish laborer shows.” Cleburne understood clearly then that the subordination of blacks would be a key element of the independent Confederacy that he continued to fight for with such gusto. Through his proposal, he believed that “we can control the negroes. . . and they will still be our laborers as much as they now are; and, to all intents and purposes will be our servants, at less cost than now.” To let the North win and the Confederacy be destroyed would, instead, lead to the dreaded racial “equality and amalgamation.” (p. 96)
That’s a pretty straightforward explanation of Cleburne’s proposal, but it got me thinking.
Just how different was the plan to enlist black soldiers in the United States army? Of course the crucial distinction is that freedom in the North was guaranteed by 1865 for all African Americans while Cleburne’s proposal called for a very limited emancipation. However, while African Americans clearly viewed military service as a stepping stone toward increased civil rights, it was certainly far from the majority view in the United States. Certainly, many white Northerners entertained some of the apocalyptic visions of their Southern neighbors regarding the political and social consequences of emancipation. There was nothing inevitable about the passage of the Reconstruction Amendments and we know the sad story of their enforcement throughout much of the country by the end of the nineteenth century.
Just as Cleburne hoped that the Confederacy would be able to maintain a strict racial hierarchy indefinitely even through the disruption caused by military service, it could be argued that much of the history of this country during the postwar period, in part, was a struggle to come to terms with the tension between emancipation/military service and a very deep commitment to white supremacy. Just a thought.