Lights…Camera…Action & Black Confederates

This coming Friday I am scheduled to spend the day with a film crew from Eastern Carolina University, which is producing a documentary on the subject of “black Confederates.”  I am excited about my first foray into the world of film and just a little apprehensive about how my commentary will be used.  Still, I do think it is an opportunity that I can’t pass up given that my next book project will be a study of memory and black Confederates.  The filming will be done at my home and we plan on spending about 4-5 hours discussing the subject.

I am going to put together some information sheets that I can refer to during the interview.  My overall goal is first and foremost to help the audience to properly frame the discussion around the correct terms.  This is a discussion about how the Confederate war effort altered the institution of slavery and not one about soldiers.  We need to use the correct terminology.  As anyone who is familiar with the primary evidence can tell you any examples of black southerners who actually served as soldiers are incredibly rare and therefore constitute and exception to this framework.  As I’ve pointed out over the years this is not a problem confined to the general public, but even among those who work as public historians such Earl Ijames of the North Carolina Museum of History.

And if Ijames wasn’t disturbing enough for you than have a look at this essay written by Bernhard Thuersam, who is the director of the Cape Fear Historical Institute in Wilmington, North Carolina.  The essay is a rough survey of the role of black soldiers in the Revolution, War of 1812, and Civil War.  I am not going to sum up the entire article.  I neither have the time nor the patience.  On top of some of the same old pieces of evidence that appear in every article/website on the subject consider the following:

  • In 1860, there were approximately 4 million blacks both free and slave in the United States and the vast majority either fought for or supported the American Confederacy, with the number of opposing US Colored Troops amounting to only a little over 186,000 men.  Of the latter, it is questionable whether they were freely recruited or were impressed into service to replace Northern white soldiers who sought substitutes.
  • In 1861, many free black companies were formed throughout the South with a Lynchburg newspaper commenting on the enlistment of 75 free blacks to fight for the defense of the State, concluding with “three cheers for the patriotic Negroes of Lynchburg!”
  • The “Richmond Howitzers” who saw action at First Manassas in 1861 were an integrated artillery unit and at least two regiments, one free and one slave, fought in the battle.
  • It is estimated that between 50,000 to 65,000 blacks fought as combatants in Confederate forces and nearly all on an unofficial basis.

There are no references for any of these claims other than a selective bibliography at the end.  Needless to say that this is another example of the sloppy thinking and research that can be found online and in other publications about the subject. The section on the recruitment of blacks into the Union army and the broader history of USCTs is just as bad.  [If you are interested in this subject, I highly recommend Joseph Glatthaar’s Forged in Battle: The Civil War Alliance of Black Soldiers and White Officers, which I am reading right now.]

So, yes I am looking forward to the filming on Friday.

[Image: Boston Herald, 1862]

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14 comments… add one
  • K.P. Marshall Apr 16, 2011 @ 21:29

    I see in the blog post that in your description of Ijames position on whether USCT members were volunteers or were impressed that italics are used. Kevin are those yours or his? The accounts of the day that refer to African Americans being forced from plantations and into the Army are legion. Just curious as to your thoughts on this.

  • Dan Wright Jul 6, 2010 @ 14:57

    Can you post the rest of the Boston Herald article in the photo?
    I’m curious about the “sources entitled to credit” line.

    • Kevin Levin Jul 6, 2010 @ 15:12

      Hi Dan,

      One of my readers discovered it on Ebay. Unfortunately, that’s all I have.

  • Jimmy Price Jul 6, 2010 @ 13:58


    I especially like the bit about the Richmond Howitzers being an integrated unit. This guy must also ascribe to the idea that the Confederacy was a tolerant, multinational utopia.

    I wonder if he has any firsthand accounts of the African American members of the Richmond Howitzers at New Market Heights?

    I can’t imagine the betrayal they must have felt at seeing their misguided brethren fighting for that overrated “freedom” stuff…

    • Kevin Levin Jul 6, 2010 @ 14:29

      I would say it’s pretty funny but for the fact that he no doubt has an audience.

    • Tom Jul 6, 2010 @ 16:49

      I’m kind of curious about this integrated Richmond Howitzers deal.

      In his book “Four Years Under Marse Robert,” Robert Stiles describes the men in the unit: “The composition of the three companies was very similar; that is, all of them were made up largely of young business men and clerks of the highest grade and best character from the city of Richmond, but included also a number of country boys, for the most part of excellent families, with a very considerable infusion of college-bred men, for it was strikingly true that in 1861 the flower of our educated youth gravitated toward the artillery.”

      The full text of the book is available here:

      I searched it for the keywords “black,” “slave,” and “negro” and saw nothing about the unit being integrated or blacks serving as soldiers. At one point (page 77) he mentions a working party of two hundred “negroes” working on fortifications being driven by a Federal bombardment. At one point he mentions an encounter with a USCT picket, and later on Stiles mention that Lee was in favor of the Confederacy’s last-ditch effort to enlist slaves. He also mentions the men in the unit with their “slave attendants.”

      Two companies of the Richmond Howitzers joined the Second VA Artillery Regiment, I’m not sure what unit the other company ended up with. Someone with access or the time ought check some of the Compiled Service Records for that unit. History of the Richmond Howitzers here:

      I really didn’t think I’d find anything in that book and wanted to dismiss the claim about the Richmond Howitzers with a wave of my hand. But I guess it is our duty to check on these claims, since the people making them apparently aren’t.

      • Kevin Levin Jul 6, 2010 @ 16:53

        Hi Tom,

        I have no idea where he is getting his information beyond some of the specific references to titles later in the essay as well as the works cited at the end. As far as I know the comment about the Richmond Howitzers is absolute nonsense.

  • Larry Cebula Jul 6, 2010 @ 10:50

    Rehearse your soundbites, as they may be all of your argument that makes it to the final product.

    And thanks for that link to the Cape Fear Historical Institute. Looks to be another redoubt in the Lost Cause fortifications. I see that they sponsored a “Lincoln Reconsidered” conference! As you know I work with some teachers in a TAH grant project down there and I will be forwarding them this blog post.

    • Andy Hall Jul 6, 2010 @ 13:45

      I’d second that about getting down pat a few short, concise sound bites. I had an interview once, and talked to the interviewer on camera for almost an hour. In the end, it was reduced to maybe four, six-second clips. It turned out OK, but complex, extended arguments that work well in print or at the podium don’t transfer well to the on-screen medium.

      Unless you can do a crazy-good Shelby Foote impression. Then you can talk as long as you want.

    • K.P. Marshall Apr 16, 2011 @ 22:15

      Mr. Cebula I find it odd that you would object to a conference entitled “Lincoln Revisited”. Is it perhaps that the conclusions of a conference like this would be directly at odds with the Parson Weems like drivel that passes as history written about Mr. Lincoln? I think that greater study of what he did and the consequences of it are very valid today. Lincoln was either a saint who freed servants out of the goodness of his Messiah like heart and didn’t really want to fight the war but was drug into it by “rebels” who wanted to destroy the US. He really didn’t mean to suspend Habeas Corpus, stifle the free press, limit freedom of assembly, political speech, or sanction infamous behavior by his Generals..Or he waged an aggressive war against a sovereign nation without one shred of constitutional basis and he knew and approved of the ,unheard of in the 19th Century, manner in which the war was prosecuted. It has to be one or the other. If not then It reminds me of the people who in one breath said Mr. Bush was an idiot and in the next that he was some kind of an evil mastermind. The long and short of it is that we must be consistent. It cannot be ok to “revisit” and draw conclusions from let’s say Genl. Mahone’s troops at the Crater but be ridiculous to even ask questions that the answers to may point out that the myth of Mr. Lincoln and his image as a Messiah like figure are grossly inaccurate. Your thoughts Sir?

  • Andy Hall Jul 6, 2010 @ 8:26

    What do you expect from the Cape Fear Historical Institute? It’s chairman is your old friend Clyde Wilson, contributing editor to Southern Partisan and co-founder of the League of the South.

    • Kevin Levin Jul 6, 2010 @ 8:36

      I didn’t even notice that. That’s one hell of a line-up. They’ve got a business consultant, poet, and nuclear engineer on their team. 😀

      • Ken Noe Jul 6, 2010 @ 8:46

        Mr. Thuersam, I believe, is the Chairman of the North Carolina League of the South.

        • Kevin Levin Jul 6, 2010 @ 8:48

          Now that is interesting given that he is a native New Yorker.

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