A few of you have asked if I could put together an overview of the many posts that I’ve done on the subject of black Confederates. This is a start and it’s something that I will come back to to update and expand. This will hopefully answer common questions that new readers have about my own position on this subject as well as provide a reliable list of resources for further reading. You can find a link to this post in the navigation menu at the top of the page.
Regular readers of this blog are all too familiar with the frequency of posts on the hot topic of black Confederates. It is safe to say that the largest number of posts on this blog have been devoted to the subject and collectively constitute what I hope is a helpful resource for those who are trying to wade through the morass that defines this divisive topic and public debate. With so much attention focused on this subject it may be difficult for readers to know where to begin. This page is meant to serve as a road map to help readers to better understand the evolution of my own thought about this subject as well as advice on where to go for credible information and what to avoid. I should point out that my writing on this subject is not meant or intended as an authoritative or final word on the subject. I’ve used this blog to ask questions and to offer some of my own ideas about various aspects of the subject and on how others have approached the subject.
You will find a wide range of posts on this issue, but all of them revolve around a basic assumption that this subject is part of a broader discussion of slavery and race relations during the Civil War. Most of the posts on this site can be found under a category heading, titled, “black Confederates.” [Keep in mind that you are reading them in the reverse order in which they were published.] I suggest that you begin with my two earliest posts on the subject in which I begin to sketch out my own interest in the subject in response to the publication of Bruce Levine’s book, Confederate Emancipation [Part 1 and Part 2 and here]. One of the biggest problems is the lack of any consensus on language and how to describe the presence of free and enslaved blacks in Confederate armies. In my view we must begin by assuming that blacks were not soldiers based both on the refusal on the part of the Confederate government as well as the almost complete lack of wartime evidence (enlistment papers/muster rolls, etc.)
I’ve also written extensively about individual black Confederates. No story has been more distorted than that of Silas Chandler, who is the subject of one of the most famous wartime photographs. I am currently co-authoring an article about Silas with his great-granddaughter for publication in one of the popular Civil War magazines. You will also find multiple posts about Weary Clyburn [Click here for a 9-part post on Clyburn and the SCV] and John Venable of North Carolina. Both of these individuals have been the subject of a great deal of debate on this blog owing to the controversial work of archivist, Earl Ijames of the North Carolina Museum of History. A great deal of the misinformation about this subject can be traced to the United Daughters of the Confederacy and Sons of Confederate Veterans. Click here for a recent article by Bruce Levine on their efforts to distort this history.
The number of posts referencing black Confederates in the news is much too large, but here are a few which should give you some sense of how these stories are being distorted [Integrated Richmond Howitzers, discovery of black Confederates in North Carolina and Tennessee]. I also try to stay on top of new publications and films on the subject. One of the most anticipated is a new graphic novel about Patrick Cleburne and black Confederates [and here] and more recently I discovered a children’s book on the subject by Ann DeWitt and Kevin Weeks.
Anyone interested in this subject must wade through a great deal of misinformation both online and in print. Online sources are the most notorious because this is now where most people are going to gather information and satisfy their curiosity. Many of the websites that you will come across include the same standard accounts and a careful perusal will reveal a certain amount of cut and paste. References to legitimate historians as endorsing the presence of thousands of black Confederate soldiers can be found, including Ed Bearss. Some of the most popular sites can be found here, here, and here. You will notice an almost complete failure to cite sources, include proper analysis or identify individuals in photographs. I highly recommend that you consider sites that have some kind of institutional affiliation such as a college or university and make sure that you can identify the author of a site as properly credentialed to discuss the subject. Remember, anyone can build a website. Other names to watch out for Online include Bill Vallante, who relies heavily on WPA slave narratives and a confident dismissal of anything that smacks of scholarship. Click here for a wonderful example of the cut and paste method accompanied by little to no analysis as well as a response to my own writing on the subject.
Printed sources are just as problematic, though there are plenty of reliable studies that I will point out. Once again, it is important to note that the availability of a book does not guarantee good scholarship. The black Confederate library is filled with studies written by individuals with questionable credentials and many of these books have not gone through any kind of peer review. A few of the more popular titles in this area that are equally problematic include:
- Black Confederates by Charles Kelly Barrow, J.H. Segar, and R.B. Rosenburg (Pelican Press)
- Black Southerners in Confederate Armies by J.H. Segar and Kelly Barrow (Pelican Press)
- Forgotten Confederates: An Anthology About Black Southerners (Southern Heritage Press)
- The War Between the States: America’s Uncivil War [and here] by John J. Dwyer
- Black Southerners in Gray ed. Richard Rollins (Rank and File)
You will find references to all of these books on this blog, including the two titles by Pelican Press.
Unfortunately, these titles, as well as the broader debate, reduce the discussion down to nonsensical questions of how many slaves “served” in the Confederate army as well as wild claims about the loyalty of slaves to the Confederate cause. What is missing is thoughtful analysis and questions and a consideration of the broader historical context. The best place to begin is with Bruce Levine’s book, Confederate Emancipation: Southern Plans to Free and Arm Slaves During the Civil War (Oxford University Press, 2007). [Click here for a recent lecture on the subject by Levine.] I also recommend Robert F. Durden’s earlier study on this debate, which is still in print as well as Paul Escott’s recent study, “What Shall We Do With the Negro”: Lincoln, White Racism, and Civil War America (University of Virginia Press, 2009). For a very thoughtful/analytical study of the debate to arm slaves in the Confederacy, within the broader discussion of slave impressment, see Stephanie McCurry’s, Confederate Reckoning: Power and Politics in the Civil War South (Harvard University Press, 2010). McCurry argues convincingly that slaveowners resisted every step on the part of the Confederate government to impress and later recruit slaves into the army.
One of the areas that is lacking is in our understanding of how the war challenged and shaped the master-slave relationship. The oversight is a direct result of our obsession with the question of numbers and an overall failure to properly distinguish between black Confederate soldiers (of which there were very, very few), slaves, and free blacks, who performed certain support roles for the army. Start with Peter Carmichael’s guest post and conference paper, “‘We Were Men’: The Ambiguous Place of Confederate Slaves in Confederate Armies.” Carmichael explores a number of entry points that are worth further exploration. In addition, there is Joseph Glatthaar’s, General Lee’s Army: From Victory to Collapse (Free Press, 2009), which includes an entire chapter on the roles that slaves played in the armies. Ervin Jordan’s book, Black Confederates and Afro-Virginians in Civil War Virginia (University of Virginia Press, 1995) gets bandied around quite a bit in this debate and while I have problems with different sections it is well worth reading. Although somewhat dated, James H. Brewer’s The Confederate Negro: Virginia’s Craftsmen and Military Laborers, 1861-65 (University of Alabama Press, 2007 [reissue]) is well worth reading. Charles T. Mohr explores the master-slave dynamic in Georgia in On the Threshold of Freedom: Masters and Slaves in Civil War Georgia (Louisiana State University Press, 2001).
I hope this has been helpful.
“This Monstrous Proposition”: North Carolina and the Confederate Debate on Arming the Slaves
Below is a link to an interesting article. Even with the kingdom falling down all around them the slave masters could not give up their slaves.
Here’s an interesting example of how quotes on this issue morph – in the article linked above, Robert E. Lee is quoted as having said in 1864: “When you eliminate the Black Confederate Soldier, you’ve eliminated the history of the South.” This sounds improbable to me, so I googled the quote. This quote has indeed gone viral, and while it is frequently attributed to Lee, it is also attributed to a Dr. Leonard Haynes of Southern University. Hopefully we can teach our students to use the Internet more skillfully than those who set up these sites do.
I noticed it as well.
“Sounds improbable” is unduly generous. This fraudulent quote is part of the larger effort to disassociate the Confederacy in general, and Lee in particular, with the institution of slavery. Freeman minimized and sanitized Lee’s involvement with slaveholding, and today in Southern Heritage™ circles it’s taken as gospel that Lee was not only opposed to slavery, he actually bordered on being an abolitionist. Don’t you believe it.
I believe you posted a post or more on the 18 “black” confederates to be honored in Pulaski, Tn in Nov of 2009. I came across these photos tonight and thought I would share. The names of the 18 men are shown in the photos. Don’t know if they can be researched to determine their status in the rebel army.
I note they’ve disabled the comments feature on those images.
The shots of individual headstones are helpful, in that they include specific information (names, dates, units) that should help in tracing whatever record may exist. I don’t know if they’re VA-issued headstones, which are usually upright, but it’s also notable that these stones (1) commemorate men interred elsewhere, and (2) generally do not list the men’s military rank. Read into that what you will.
Four of the eighteen stones identify the men as being “staff” of an officer with the same surname, e.g.:
Gen. John C. Brown’s Staff
That’s a striking coincidence, non?
Thinking more about the fact that none of these stones mark an actual burial, it does suggest that placing them all together in a cemetery, with an elaborate dedication ceremony, has little or nothing to with honoring them as individuals, or marking their actual resting places, but instead reinforcing the idea that there were lots of Black Confederates — as in “why, there’s eighteen of them in this cemetery alone!”
Civil War News:
PULASKI, Tenn. — On Nov. 8 flags will fly, guns will fire a salute and cannon will roar in a ceremony and marker dedication for 18 black Confederates at Maplewood Cemetery in Pulaski.
Not everyone believes black men willingly served the Confederacy, but Cathy Gordon Wood, president of Giles County Chapter #257, United Daughters of the Confederacy, believes. One of these men she found received the Southern Cross of Honor.
She was checking on the county pension of a white Confederate soldier when she came across Ruffin Abernathy’s name with a “C” for colored, after it. Then she found 11 others who received pensions from Giles County.
She collected information about their regiments and pensions and last year requested U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs grave markers. The receipt of her applications was quickly followed by a phone call from a woman at the VA saying no markers would be sent because the men were slaves.
Wood begs to differ. “They went in and fought,” she says. On the front of their pension applications they listed their jobs as cooks, teamsters and body servants.
She didn’t think it was right that these men were denied markers, but, even with the help of U.S. Senators and Representatives and the NAACP, she couldn’t’ get the VA to budge.
She had hoped to honor the men during the Giles County bicentennial with a ceremony this past April during Confederate History Month, but that didn’t work out.
Instead she and supporters, including Gen. John C. Brown Camp #112, Sons of Confederate Veterans, raised money to buy markers. They held fundraisers, the most recent in September being a bike ride and silent auction. They needed $2,500 and have raised most of it.
Wood included another seven black men who died before the pensions went into effect or who didn’t have the assistance to apply, making a total of 18 veterans.
Officials at Maplewood Cemetery, a segregated cemetery, offered a plot for the markers — a section with unmarked graves that would not be used for burials. It is at the start of the cemetery’s black section where five of the 18 men are buried.
Here is an earlier post on Cathy Wood: http://cwmemory.com/2009/11/09/cathy-woods-black-confederates/
You seem to have overlooked this article in last week’s Style in Richmond:
Thanks for the link.
Kevin -Another very useful piece is Bruce Levine’s essay “In Search of a Usable Past” in _Slavery and Public History,” edited by James and Louise Horton. Levine shows some of the ways proponents of “black Confederates” have misused historical evidence, and offers some tentative ideas of how to approach the subject.
I agree. In fact, it is referenced in one of the links.
Excellent bibliography, Kevin. Thanks. I’m sure these sources amply cover it but, to me, one of the clearest sources is the reaction of not only of the Confederate government to Lincoln’s authorization of Black enlistment in the Union armies but the reaction of the Confederate rank-and-file to their encounters with Black Union soldiers and their white officers that is reported by former Confederates such as Porter Alexander. Confederates remained POWs in the North because Confederate authorities, including Robert E. Lee himself, refused to treat captured Union soldiers who were Black as POWs & thus eligible for parole & exchange.
Excellent point, Margaret. Keep in mind that this is a work-in-progress. The sources you mention are almost always ignored in this debate and you are right to note that they are essential in properly framing these questions.