Once again I want to take the opportunity to thank all of you who have contributed to the discussion concerning Confederate slaves/Black Confederates over the past two weeks. I’ve learned quite a bit from reading Pete Carmichael’s essay and especially from those of you who have left such interesting comments on various posts. This has given me the opportunity to both modify and clarify certain positions on this important subject. Since much of what I’ve had to say has appeared on this blog and in the comments section of other blogs I thought it might be helpful to spend a few minutes to explain where I am at this point.
First and foremost I want to thank Pete for clarifying the language that I believe ought to be utilized in this discussion. Peter’s reference to Confederate slaves, as opposed to the more general label of black Confederates, is a crucial distinction which ought to become commonplace in this debate. After all we are talking about the master-slave relationship. Any analysis of this relationship must take place as part of a broader discussion of antebellum slavery. A broader narrative that places the war within the broader context of the antebellum South will hopefully provide us with a better understanding of how the war changed, both positively and negatively, the life of slaves who accompanied their owners to war. We also need to know how the presence of slaves in camp and on the battlefield altered the perceptions of white southerners.
I am hopeful that we can arrive at a sophisticated interpretation of both black and white perspectives, but it is going to be difficult. Peter’s essay is just a start and he is the first to admit that interpreting the available evidence is a “walk on the slippery rocks.” The situation is made worse by the fact that the wartime evidence that would help us to better understand the perspective of the Confederate slave is lacking, which leaves us with the challenge of how to interpret the letters and diaries of white Southerners. Those of you who were dissatisfied with Peter’s analysis will need to spend a great deal of time with the same archival collections if there is any hope of offering a competing explanation. Quickly written responses to blog posts or armchair analysis of how groups of individuals must have viewed the war are poor substitutes for time well spent in the archives followed by much thought. I dare say that careful consideration of recent studies of the master-slave relationship during the antebellum period is also a prerequisite for understanding its evolution throughout the war.
One final note on your research project: stay away from postwar sources as much as possible. This is not to suggest that there is a conspiracy afoot or that those who chose to speak out at various times were intentionally dishonest, but to remind us that we are often influenced by external factors that have little to do with historical accuracy. I’ve found this to be the case in my own research on the Crater and historical memory. If I had been in attendance at the 1937 Crater reenactment in Petersburg I would have left without any knowledge that a division of USCTs had been present during the battle even though they figured prominently in numerous wartime accounts written by Confederates. This is not to suggest that postwar accounts ought to be discarded entirely, but to keep the focus as much as possible on how whites and black perceived one another during the war itself and not through the lens of Jim Crow.
As for those elusive black Confederates who were officially enlisted as soldiers in Confederate ranks I suggest that the search continue. I assume there are a few out there as has already been demonstrated, but I seriously doubt there are enough to make any broad generalizations about the loyalty and devotion of black soldiers to the Confederacy. However many there are out there it must be demonstrated with evidence from the war itself and not from postwar sources such as letters, photographs, and pension records. This must be carried out on a case-by-case basis so if you are truly interested get yourself into the archives immediately. No one knows more about the the Army of Northern Virginia than Bob Krick and he has come across between 20-30 non-white enlisted men out of an analysis of 100,000 service records.
The last issue that I want to briefly tackle is the question of whether it is justified to commemorate the Confederate slave for services rendered to the army. This discussion is wrapped up in the broader question of whether slaves ought to be considered soldiers and by extension honored as such by groups like the SCV or even by their own descendants. A few people have suggested that postwar sources such as pension records or even the dedication of grave markers registered by state agencies such as the V.A. provide sufficient evidence for doing so. First, I think there is a crucial distinction that must be maintained here and that is between what was the case during the war and how various groups chose to remember the war. For the purposes of understanding the war itself I see very little relevance to how individuals, organizations, and government agencies at various times following the war chose to characterize the presence of slaves while with the army. For example, the fact that pensions were given to slaves here in Virginia in the 1920s tells me nothing about the slaves official status in the army or whether the slave was viewed as a soldier by his owner or by other whites in the army. It does tell me something about how the Pension Bureau chose to view the situation, and for purposes of public memory that may even be quite interesting. We could inquire into why the Pension Bureau chose to acknowledge the presence of slaves as soldiers in the 1920s as opposed to the 1870s and how they went about doing so. In the end, the fact that the Confederate government debated whether or not to recruit slaves into the army tells us much about how they were perceived. For the Confederate government slaves were not allowed to be recruited as soldiers until the last few weeks of the war and, even then, only a small handful did so. The heated debate on whether slaves could be soldiers challenged fundamental assumptions about the nature of slavery itself and of deeply embedded racial assumptions. I want to know more about that. In my research on the Crater it is clear that Confederates did not consider USCTs to be soldiers; rather, they were perceived as slaves engaged in rebellion, and as the wartime record clearly shows they were treated as such.
The same point can be made about the SCV’s commemorations of slaves such as Weary Clyburn. If they have evidence that Clyburn or any other individual of his status exhibited the virtues commonly associated with soldierhood and choose to view the slave as such, well, so be it. From my perspective, however, I have only learned something about how the SCV views slaves and very little about the war. I would say the very same thing about the descendants of these individuals. It was pointed out that I have yet to interview the descendants of black slaves, which is true, but if I did it would not be necessarily to better understand the war itself, but about how a certain family has come to interpret their past. Don’t get me wrong, as someone who is very interested in memory this is a very interesting question, but is ultimately a different kind of focus and one not geared to the war itself. The question of the status of slaves during the war is not about how we feel about it, but about what we can know through the available historical record.
Ultimately, what stands out to me is how little we know about this subject.