Staking Out a Position on Confederate Slaves

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.

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9 comments… add one
  • Robert Moore Aug 29, 2008 @ 10:53

    Hi Kevin,

    Thanks for the clarification. Ultimately, the material behind this made for a good quick post for the day.



  • Kevin Levin Aug 29, 2008 @ 10:17

    Hi Robert, — Nice to hear from you and thanks for your comment. I am so sorry for the mix-up re: the link to your blog. My intention was to send people to your blog for clarification on these matters rather than as someone who endorses such an interpretation. Thanks again for pointing this out and I promise to be more careful in the future.

    I’ve learned quite a bit about the issue of Confederate slaves/black Confederates from you.

  • Robert Moore Aug 29, 2008 @ 9:36


    I’m been a little slow in getting back to this, but I finally have the chance…

    You say (and link to my blog) that “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 don’t think that you accurately represent my thoughts on this. I did indicate my belief that pension records can be a means of supporting military service. However, just as in the case of trying to pin-down individual motivations, pension records need to be examined and considered on a case-by-case basis. I do not say that simply because a pension record exist… viola!… a soldier you have! However, I do think you are a bit quick to discredit the value of the pension records. There is tremendous value in the records (Confederate and Union) and I have found that information (and in rare cases, I have actually seen pieces of diaries affixed to records) in the records has filled-in where the military records left a mystery. I have also found where the pension system may have been manipulated by a few Confederate veterans for their benefit (said veterans having been conscripts and joining together to testify on each others behalf to get pensions).

    As for “dedication of grave markers registered by state agencies as the V.A.” providing sufficient evidence for doing so… you make it sound like I endorse the tail wagging the dog, which I do not. Just because a V.A. headstone for a supposed “Black Confederate” exist, does not make it so. Again, it goes back to the quality of research behind making said headstone exist. Regretfully, the Dept. of Veterans Affairs in their contracting with another agency, is pretty much leaving it up to the person filling-in the application to provide solid data to support having a stone made (in all, it can be some rather flimsy support to make it happen). Also, I’m not sure what you mean by “state agencies?” There are no state agencies involved. The Veteran Administration (aka Dept. of Veterans Affairs) headstones is a Federal agency.

    Lastly, the Confederate pension system in Virginia was an interesting set-up. In regard to Virginia Confederate pensions, there was not a central agency known as the “pension board.” Rather, a board existed within each county. At first these boards were made-up of Confederate veterans who could be (and, in my experience, were) very discriminating in regard to the pension applications received. In time, and as veterans died-off, the seats were filled by people other than veterans… and, in my experience, that is where the potential for misrepresenting the nature of a soldier’s service really started to get out of hand.

    On another note, though I have seen Virginia military records for a Black Confederate, I have yet to see a veteran’s pension submitted by a supposed “black Confederate” from Virginia. I do not believe that the “Servants” Pensions submitted under the legislation from the 1920s is qualification for a “soldier’s” headstone (and I’m pretty sure that wasn’t the intent of Virginia legislation). I’d be curious to see if any pensions from the earlier legislation (I think there were actually five different legislative changes to Confederate pensions in Virginia, the first being around 1888) made for veterans actually exist for Black Confederates.

    Again, I think the link that you make to my site simply misrepresents what I actually believe. Certainly, I don’t mind if you leave it. In fact, it may be good that you do so that I can make clarification on the particular post to which you link.

    Best, Robert Moore

  • Craig Aug 3, 2008 @ 23:20

    I saw Andrew Ward recently on The Daily Show discussing his latest book, The Slave’s War, with host Jon Stewart. Haven’t seen the book yet, but did read Ward’s previous work on Fort Pillow. Apparently, The Slave’s War consists primarily of transcribed interviews of former slaves about their memories of the Civil War that were conducted as part of the WPA federal writer’s project during the Depression. Most of those interviewed were thus at least seventy years old and their memories of slavery were usually childhood memories as only those more than ninety years old at the time of the interviews would have had adult memories of slavery. Stewart seemed more concerned about being funny than he was about giving Ward a chance to explain the nature and methodology of the work, but it seemed to me like something that could be an indispensable resource for examining some of the issues you’ve raised.

  • Kevin Levin Aug 2, 2008 @ 6:21

    Elisabeth, — Thanks for the comment, but I don’t know why you insist on attributing an opinion to me which I do not subscribe to. I do not have a copy of your book, and as I noted before, unfortunately, I do not have time to read it.

    I actually agree with you re: the role of good historical fiction.

  • Elisabeth Payne Rosen Aug 2, 2008 @ 1:31

    “My point in suggesting that we need to situate our analysis of the master-slave relationship during the war within the broader context of the antebellum period was meant to give us a clearer idea of how the conflict forced white southerners to rethink/renegotiate how they would maintain their slave populations.” (KL)

    This is the very subject of my novel, HALLAM’S WAR.

    Once again, I submit the notion you have thus far found resistible: that good fiction, when based as much as possible on primary sources but then letting the imagination* proceed from there, may bring to the table a crucial aspect of the “truth” you clearly are seeking.
    (*Utterly different from memory, I think you will concede, and fiction openly separates it out.)

    P.S. If you still have your copy of the bound galleys, you might turn to page 273 for a glimpse of slaves brought along as servants by their masters and the (imagined) impact their presence would have had on the enlisted men around them.

  • Mark Shapiro Aug 1, 2008 @ 15:57

    Hi Kevin,
    Great post! You make a point that I want to expand on just a bit, because it is a tremendously important part of good and accurate historical research. You mentioned staying away from post-war sources as much as possible and this is a most salient point. One can never underestimate the effect that retrospection will have on the thoughts, speeches and writings of those involved in a historical moment, thus, as responsible historians we must strive to find the primary sources and the data as close to the moments in question as possible to formulate our conclusions.
    Unfortunately, this was not the approach followed by ex-officers, politicians, and historians on both sides in the decades following the war. Just look at Gen Pope’s essay on 2nd Manassas in “Battles and Leaders of the Civil War”, Jefferson Davis’ comments on slavery’s role in secession before and after the war, or the multi-volume “Southern Historical Society Papers” These texts are rife with statements collected and recorded after the war and are clearly built around an agenda that was most distinct from that which was present before and during the war. These documents propagated into influential texts by Foote, Freeman, and others, and these inaccurate statements and revised agendas took root. Now, we are left nearly 150 years later not only trying to piece together what really happened, but fixing the extensive damage that these misperceptions wrought.
    Now we have a responsibility as historians to be faithful to primary data as we do our research. What we find may be disappointing, painful, surprising, but our own opinions of the findings are not as important as providing a clear and correct interpretation of the data.

  • Kevin Levin Aug 1, 2008 @ 14:50

    Jarret, — You make some excellent points. How easily we forget that the war presented white southerners with the challenge of how to maintain the obedience of their slave populations. In fact, as anyone knows who bothers to read the Confederate Constitution, one of its primary functions was to maintain the existence of slavery. As an extension of that government it was the job of the army to enforce the law. You are correct in pointing out that we need to look broadly at the armies operating in the Western theatre where Federal forces operated freely and came to occupy large swaths of land by the middle of the war. My point in suggesting that we need to situate our analysis of the master-slave relationship during the war within the broader context of the antebellum period was meant to give us a clearer idea of how the conflict forced white southerners to rethink/renegotiate how they would to maintain their slave populations.

    In short, our analysis must proceed with an eye to figuring out how slavery would be maintained throughout the war. Bruce Levine notes that even the decision to offer emancipation to slaves in exchange for their enlistment was meant to maintain slavery rather than as a first step towards general emancipation.

  • Jarret Aug 1, 2008 @ 12:34

    Hi Kevin,

    Great essay on some important topics. I have a thought on another point that should be raised on this topic: The issue of slave control during the war. Studies by Drew Faust, Steve Hahn, Ben Wynne and and upcoming book by Stephanie McCurry (which she previewd at the Philadelphia conference in June), have firmly established that the wartime Confederacy had a very difficult time keeping slaves from running away, either to Union lines or simply off the farms in general. How do people pushing a “Black Confederate” stance explain this? In my own early research on pre- and wartime Mississippi, I am finding more and more accounts of planter AND yeomen discontent with the Confederate government regarding the issue of “unruly slaves.” I think that too often the gaze is focused on the Army of Northern Virginia at the expense of the Western theatre, but in Mississippi and Tennessee especially, the occupying Union forces and discontent with the Confederate government’s inability to control southerners’ slave property (the ability to so being the Confederacy’s founding principle) offers historians much to contemplate regarding the direct link between racial control and the Confederate nation. Just thought I’d throw that out. Keep up the good work.

    – Jarret

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