Moving Beyond the Question of Black Confederates

One of this blog’s readers fired off an email the other day in response to my interview with Richard Stewart.  The content of the email was in response to some remarks made by Stewart about the “service” of black Southerners in Confederate ranks.  Here is just a brief segment from the email:

I was wondering if Mr. Stewart’s comments in regards to black Confederates affected your perspective on the subject at all?….If so, how has this affected your own interpretations in regards to ‘highly-debated’ subjects such as black Confederates? In other words – have you gone ‘the other way’ at all by accepting things that may have been previously rejected by yourself? I’m just curious.

Given previous posts on this subject I think this is a reasonable question.  When I was in graduate school in philosophy my professors encouraged me to think long and hard about the content and form of the question to be posed.  It makes sense as the quality of any potential answer is directly related to the sophistication of the question posed.  We need a little of this in the context of the “debate” about black Confederates.  The question has been played out and anyone with a modicum of analytical ability should be able to acknowledge it.  So, what is needed?

We need to understand the complex and changing relationship between Southern whites and blacks throughout the war.  We need local studies that help us piece together the influence of region, economy, geography, demographics, along with the changing nature of the war itself.  Most importantly, we need to move away from the overly naive language of loyalty and faithfulness to a perspective that considers the myriad ways in which the lives of blacks and whites intersected and the various factors that motivated Southern blacks to make the decisions they made.  Notice that the author of the email frames the question as a mutually exclusive choice of going one way or the other.  If we frame the question in terms of a mutually exclusive choice than our responses will be confined in terms of both range and depth.

I am currently reading through A. Wilson Greene’s new study of Petersburg in preparation for a review which will appear in the journal Civil War History.  One of the things that I like about the book is that Greene spends a great deal of time analyzing how the war shaped the region’s black population.  In doing so he steers clear of making generalizations about their loyalty.  Part of the problem is that historians have very little to work with in terms of cataloging the motivations behind different decisions.  And unfortunately many of the people engaged in this debate, especially those arguing in the affirmative, are interested in reaffirming their own insecurities about the Confederate past.  In other words, the presence of black Confederates provides sufficient evidence that secession and the Confederate war effort had nothing to do with an attempt to uphold or maintain the “peculiar institution.”

If we are serious about better understanding race relations before, during, and following the war we have to be willing to pose more sophisticated questions.  I actually don’t find anything necessarily morally repugnant to the idea of black Confederates (whatever it might in fact mean), but in the end the arguments are flimsy at best.  Consider the typical approach to the positive claim which can be seen here on a web page from the Petersburg Express.  That the authors of this web page believe this suffices as an argument for the existence of substantial numbers of black Confederates is laughable at best.  There is no analysis of evidence or any attempt at providing background or context for the printed sources or images.  The evidence shows what the authors choose to see, which maybe the case for anyone engaged in interpretation; however, there must at least be an attempt to discount competing interpretations and that is rarely present in such accounts.

Again, the interesting question is not whether black Southerners were loyal to the Confederacy or “served” in its ranks in substantial numbers.  What we need to know is how enslaved and free blacks responded to the war, and we need to understand this apart from what makes us feel comfortable because in the end it’s not about us.

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

“Levin’s study is the first of its kind to blueprint and then debunk the mythology of enslaved African Americans who allegedly served voluntarily in behalf of the Confederacy.”–Journal of Southern History

Purchase your copy today!

2 comments… add one
  • Michael Aubrecht Jul 20, 2007 @ 11:19

    Thank you for addressing my question Kevin. As you and I have discussed privately, I find myself going through a “growth-spurt,” in regards to my own interpretation of the Civil War. This in turn is forcing me to widen my studies, and incorporate more racial and political diversity into my work. As a result, I find myself discovering things that I may not have before. These newfound ‘acknowledgements’ in turn have affected my own perspective on the subject. I think that’s what I meant when I posed my query in regards to your own feelings about black Confederates, as Mr. Stewart’s comments appeared in your post to be somewhat of an ‘unexpected’ response. I now see what you were going for. Thanks for sharing.

  • Marc Ferguson Jul 19, 2007 @ 22:41

    I find your comments very astute and helpful. I believe that among the things we need to question is how we use the term “black” when examining the decisions and actions of non-whites in the South during the war. Merely by framing the discussion as being about “black Confederates” leads into all kinds of false dichotomies and misleading assumptions, in my opinion.

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