Foner on Black Confederates

This year I am using Eric Foner’s textbook, Give Me Liberty: An American History for my AP classes in American history. The book is wonderful as it includes a healthy dose of social history in addition to the more traditional narrative. The maps are well done and the book is beautifully illustrated. Of course, none of this matters if it is not well written. Luckily, Foner paid careful attention to ensuring that the narrative reads like a story rather than the standard dry and boring approach with a few clever metaphors sprinkled through. Here is Foner on the controversy surrounding black Confederates:

The growing shortage of white manpower eventually led Confederate authorities to a decision no one could have foreseen when the war began: they authorized the arming of slaves to fight for the South. As early as September 1863, a Mississippi newspaper had argued for freeing and enlisting able-bodied black men. “Let them,” it wrote, “be declared free, placed in the ranks, and told to fight for their homes and country.” But many slaveholders fiercely resisted this idea, and initially, the Confederate Senate rejected it. Not until March 1865, after Robert E. Lee had endorsed the plan, did the Confederate Congress authorize the arming of slaves.

The war ended before the recruitment of black soldier actually began. But the Confederate army did employ numerous blacks, nearly all of them slaves, as laborers. This later led to some confusion over whether blacks actually fought for the Confederacy–apart froma handful who “passed” for white, none in fact did. But the South’s decision to raise black troops illustrates how the war undermined not only slavery, but the proslavery ideology. “The day you make soldiers of them is the beginning ofthe end of the revolution,” delcared Howell Cobb, a Georgia planter and politician. “If slaves make good soldiers, our whole theory of slavery is wrong.”

This is the first textbook that I’ve seen that addresses this issue head-on. It’s not clear to me whether Foner’s decision to include it was based on purely historical considerations or due to the continued controversy surrounding this issue. What I like about Foner’s short interpretation is that the issue is not simply whether blacks fought or not, but what the debate tells us about the contradictions within Confederate ideology.

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