Show Don’t Tell: Black Confederates

I just received the latest issue of North and South (Vol. 12, No. 3) and anticipated the negative responses to Bruce Levine’s recent piece on the myth of black Confederates.  The responses are typical in their tendency to go for the personal/political jugular of the author in addition to the ever ready individual sighting accounts of black Confederates.  The letters seem to have been written in response to editor Keith Poulter’s claim that we can put the idea of large numbers of Confederates to rest.  He is absolutely right about that.  Unfortunately, the "arguments" contained in these letters betray very little understanding of how historical research and interpretation is done.  The authors are clearly upset that Levine comes down strongly against the idea that their existed black units in the Confederate army, but apart from offering weak criticisms of his actual argument they offer nothing in the way of positive evidence to the contrary.  All we get are the standard sightings accounts without any analysis or thought that evidence needs to be confirmed along with vague references to lost evidence or poorly constructed analogies. 

I will believe anything about the past so long as the interpretation meets certain standards established by the professional community.  In other words, the explanation must include reliable evidence and the analysis must be able to withstand relevant counter-arguments.  If you believe that there were large numbers of black Confederate in the army or if you believe that Levine’s argument is incomplete or simply wrong than get out there and do the research.  Present your findings in a reputable publishing outlet and lets have a discussion.  Poulter has extended an invitation to one writer who claims to have found 2,000 black soldiers from Virginia alone.  I am confident that the article will be rejected if the research is shoddy, but if it does make it to the pages of North and South than we will be able to have a discussion about the findings.

Until then stop whining and complaining that the best research out there doesn’t fulfill your fantasies about the shape of the past.  Take a step back and ask yourself why you so desperately need this particular story to be true?  Why is that white men tend to be the ones who are so emotionally connected to this story?  I’ve said it before that there were thousands of black men with Confederate forces, but this doesn’t necessarily mean that they were serving in the same capacity as white men.  Nor does it reflect a level of allegiance to the Confederate cause that usually accompanies such suggestions.  Let’s do the research to better understand why black men were with the army and how their presence shaped the social and racial hierarchy.  Historian Peter Carmichael has recently revealed that his next project will address some of these questions:

My next book project, “Black Rebels,” will explore the experience of slaves who served Confederate soldiers. This unique master-slave relationship within Southern armies has never been examined by scholars, and to date the subject has only drawn the interest of those who write in the romantic tradition of the Lost Cause. My intention to focus on the master-slave relationship will allow me to examine the traditional subjects of living conditions and resistance. But I also intend to explore uncharted territory such as: how the shared experience of battle reconfigured the master slave relationship, what were the symbolic uses of the “camp servant” in Confederate propaganda, how did lower class whites in the army view slaves, and were camp servants a source of division in the white ranks? This project is in keeping with my interest in the construction and exertion of power in the Old South and the Confederacy.

Historian Charles Brooks ["The Social and Cultural Dynamics of Soldiering in Hood’s Texas Brigade" Journal of Southern History 67 (August 2001): 535-72] has recently written about the way the army shaped how white men from various social backgrounds related to one another.  Surely there is much to be explored along racial lines. 

3 comments… add one
  • Kevin Levin Oct 2, 2007 @ 2:28

    Warren — You are absolutely correct in your suggestion. We do know much more about black veterans and the challenges they faced in the G.A.R. around the country during the postwar years. Check out Sutart McConnell’s _Glorious Contentment: The Grand Army of the Republic, 1865-1900_ (UNC Press, 1992) and Donald Scaffer’s _After the Glory: The Struggles of Black Civil War Veterans_ (University of Kansas Press, 2004).

  • Warren Oct 2, 2007 @ 0:44

    There must be some intersting research waiting to be done by anyone looking in to how black veterans where treated in the south. Did any of these supposed black confederates qualify for pensions, for instance?

    In a similar vein, how did black veterans from the U.S. Army get treated if they travelled (or in some cases, returned) to the south? I understand the G.A.R. accepted black veterans, but I don’t know what happened in the Confederates veteran’s organisations……

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