Searching for Black Confederates: The Civil War’s Most Persistent Myth

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Winner of The Eugene Feit Award for Excellence in Civil War Scholarship, The New York Military Affairs Symposium

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

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

Levin has made a significant contribution to the scholarship on the American Civil War and with this volume secures his place as one our most important memory scholars.—Kelly Mezurek, H-Net

Provides an important corrective to a thriving, albeit bogus, subtopic of Civil War history, which claims that some African Americans willingly fought for the Confederacy. . . . [and] comprehensively dismantles the associated “Lost Cause” narrative.—Choice

Levin’s book emphasizes how history and “fake history” can be wielded as a weapon creating a treacherous and caustic environment that tears at the painful scars still left unhealed from slavery, oppression and rebellion. Soon after the Civil War, Frederick Douglass felt the United States was losing the peace as a new historical memory was created recasting honorific rebels. Levin’s careful and persuasive account demonstrates that while the war is over, the battles over its memory continue.—Smithsonian Magazine

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

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

Levin’s objective in Searching for Black Confederates is to inoculate the public against the “myth”—to make readers aware of the often-purposeful distortions and agendas that underlie it.Virginia Magazine of History & Biography

Kevin Levin writes well, and he has definitely done his homework. He presents a strong case debunking the myth of black Confederate soldiersJournal of America’s Military Past

This book is a major contribution to any Civil War bookshelf. . . . [Levin] reveals how [the] story of black Confederates bolstered romantic views of the loyal, happy slaves (slavery wasn’t so bad after all) and countered the “slavery caused the war” narrative in so doing. . . . Levin’s authoritative voice will serve to counter such noxious fake history for years to come.—Journal of African American History