Below is the first paragraph from a short essay that I recently wrote about Confederate General Edward Porter Alexander and his slave/camp servant, Charley. You can read the rest of it at the History News Network.
The Confederate rank and file said goodbye to many things in and around Appomattox Court House in the days following the surrender of Robert E. Lee’s Army of Northern Virginia on April 9, 1865. Three days following the formal surrender Lee’s men were separated from the weapons they carried over the previous four years through Virginia, Maryland and Pennsylvania. The stacking of arms was the first stage in a painful realization that the cause for which they fought and sacrificed so much for was beyond reach. But of all the separations that took place, the most difficult were the final farewells amongst friends and comrades that took place either at Appomattox or along the roads those groups of men followed until each crossroads gradually brought each individual to a final destination.
A few weeks ago I was interviewed by Richmond Times-Dispatch writer, Katherine Calos, who is working on a series of articles to mark the end of the sesquicentennial in Richmond. We talked extensively about the debate in the Confederacy over the arming of slaves. I am always happy to do these interviews, but they come with the risk of being misquoted or left out entirely. Neither happened this time around.
Calos offers a pretty lengthy treatment of the subject, including a number of passages from local newspapers on the debate. I was asked to comment on the debate as well as the myth of the black Confederate soldier. Continue reading →
Last Saturday Megan Kate Nelson, my wife and I went to see Suzan Lori Parks’s three-act play, “Father Comes Home From the Wars.” I don’t want to give too much away about the plot beyond the fact that the central character is a slave, who at the beginning of the first act struggles with whether he is going to go off to war with his master/Confederate colonel. Oh, and the slave, whose name is Hero, is also donning a Confederate uniform.
Following the show we enjoyed a talkback with members of the cast. Unfortunately, we missed another post-production discussion the following day with Parks, along with Henry Louis Gates and Eric Foner. The discussion kicked off with some thoughts about the current debate about black Confederates.
On one level the focus of the discussion was unfortunate. At no time is Hero’s struggle about whether he can support or serve the Confederacy and the decision has nothing to do with him serving as a soldier. Rather, it serves as the foundation for his relationship with his master, which evolves significantly during the show. It’s confusing, in part, because Hero wears a uniform, but we know of a number of slaves, including, most famously, Silas Chandler, who were outfitted in military dress. The opening act offers an opportunity to explore the complexity of the master-slave relationship and not that of the relationship between slaves and the Confederacy. Continue reading →
We can now add Jim Downs to the list of historians who has decided to wade into the debate about the existence of black Confederate soldiers. Rather than directly engage Stauffer’s claims, however, Downs offers a meta-analysis of my response. He begins by mis-characterizing my own view by suggesting that I believe there were no black Confederate soldiers. I don’t believe that I have ever made such a statement.
The crux of his argument comes down to the following:
The problem of Levin’s criticism lies in its formulation. He is asking Stauffer to retrieve archival evidence from the 19th century that fits a 21st century definition of soldiers. He is asking Stauffer to practice historical research that privileges white, Confederate record-keeping over the ways that black people observed, wrote, and remembered the war. He is asking Stauffer to play according to the rules in which traditional historiography, often the purveyors of epistemic violence, define evidence and engage in archival collecting.
This is simply inaccurate. In fact, anyone who has spent any time reading this blog or the fewarticles that I’ve published is aware that I am interested primarily in what the concept of the citizen-soldier meant to Americans in the 1860s. More to the point, I am not asking John Stauffer to play by any specific set of rules beyond offering a reasonable interpretation of the evidence that he chose to emphasize. Continue reading →
At the center of this controversy is a question about the status of Civil War soldiers. Between 1861 and 1865 somewhere around 3 million Americans served in Union and Confederate ranks. These men have been the subject of serious historical inquiry for at least the last 60 years, going back to Bell Wiley’s Billy Yank and Johnny Reb. The most thorough studies of their recruitment, organization, experience while in the ranks, and eventual discharge is predicated on a thorough understanding of the relevant sources. There are enlistment papers, muster rolls, draft records, compiled service records, and pension records. Both armies were managed by a military and civilian bureaucracy that only adds to the challenge of researching the men on both sides, who volunteered or were drafted. Continue reading →