Where Historians Stand on Black Confederates

One of the points that I tried to make in my radio interview yesterday morning was that while there is a vibrant and often heated discussion about the existence and loyalty of black Confederates this is simply not true within the scholarly community.  Academic historians have studied this issue closely and have done extensive work on how the Confederate government and military attempted to utilize its slave population.  There is a rich literature on various aspects of this subject that can be accessed by those, who are sincerely interested in learning more.

If you want a thorough summary of where historians stand on this issue I highly recommend Jaime Amanda Martinez’s recent entry on the subject at Encyclopedia Virginia – part of the Virginia Foundation for the HumanitiesMartinez teaches at the University of North Carolina at Pembroke and is currently working on a book-length manuscript on slave impressment, which is crucial to understanding this subject.  At the bottom of the entry you will find a short list of essential readings.  I would only add Stephanie McCurry’s, Confederate Reckoning: Power and Politics in the Civil War South, which includes a though-provoking chapter on the steps that slaveholders took to resist impressment of their property for wartime purposes.

We have a choice.  We can remain preoccupied with questions of numbers and emotional pleas that slaves wished to remain enslaved or we can set aside these simplistic assumptions that tell us more about our own values and look for more interesting questions and analysis.

Searching for Black Confederates: The Civil War’s Most Persistent Myth

“Levin’s study is the first of its kind to blueprint and then debunk the mythology of enslaved African Americans who allegedly served voluntarily in behalf of the Confederacy.”–Journal of Southern History

Purchase your copy today!

4 comments… add one
  • Margaret D. Blough Apr 14, 2011 @ 13:49

    There are so many aspects of slavery that still have not made their way into general knowledge. Until I read Frederic Bancroft’s “Slave-Trading in the Old South”, I had no idea of the economic and social importance of the leasing of slaves by their owners and I didn’t know a lot about the use of slaves as collateral on loans and other debts and forced slave sales as the result of debt collection and/or disbursement of estates. As I understand it, even if Thomas Jefferson had wanted to free more of his slaves in his will (he freed only a few), and I don’t know that he did, he couldn’t have since many of them were collateral for his very substantial debts. Slave leasing also had social implications, including giving whites who could not afford to buy a slave the experience of having one, even short term.

    • Rob in CT Apr 15, 2011 @ 9:44

      One of the things that I picked up from “The Battle Cry of Freedom” that I hadn’t fully realized before was the extent to which Southern wealth was tied up in slaves. I mean, I had some idea that the Southern economy was based on slavery and needed it to function (as constructed), but I guess I never realized the degree to which most of the wealth was tied down in… human capital, so to speak.

      • Brendan Wolfe Apr 15, 2011 @ 14:51

        To your point, Rob, about one’s wealth being tied down in human capital, there is this passage from Henry Wiencek’s excellent book on George Washington and slavery. Here the author describes the research a modern-day descendant of Washington’s has done on the family:

        “Larry found the ‘Inventory and Apraisement of the personal Estate of William A. Washington deceased,’ submitted to the Westmoreland County Court in October 1811. It listed all his property, from a $100 cherry bedstead to a coffee pot worth 25 cents. The combined value of his personal property and livestock came to a little over $5,000. Then the assessors counted the slaves. They listed ninety-five people by name, giving their ages and values. In some cases the assessors listed the people by family units, such as Spencer, age 25, his wife charity, age 30, and their two children Warner, age 6, and Billy, 2. The most valuable slave was the plantation’s blacksmith, named Daniel, who was worth $600. The value of all the slaves came to about $21,800.”

        Henry doesn’t dwell on this, but it’s worth saying again: The combined value of all his personal property and livestock came to a little over $5,000. The value of his slaves came to more than four times that — or about $21,800.

Leave a Reply to Brendan WolfeCancel reply

Your email address will not be published.