Black Confederates at the ASALH

This morning I learned that I will be speaking on the subject of black Confederates at the annual meeting of the Association for the Study of African American Life and History, which will take place in Richmond in October.  Thanks to National Park Service Ranger, Emmanuel Dabney, for putting together an excellent panel that will offer different perspectives on this subject.  Proponents of this myth, who rush to cite Ervin Jordan as a supporter, ought to carefully read his session description.

It ought to be a well-attended session and the discussion will, no doubt, be entertaining.  The conference as a whole promises to be quite interesting given that the theme is the Civil War and the Sesquicentennial.  We don’t have a specific time for the session, but I will be sure to pass it on as more information becomes available.

Session Title: “Black Confederates in the Civil War: History, Myth, Memory, and Make-Believe”

Session Description: Most African-American assistance to the Confederate States of America was involuntary and most were never armed, uniformed, fed, and paid as soldiers. However, in the last twenty years a small number of vocal people have created memories which feature swarms of armed African-Americans fighting to defend the Confederacy’s territory. This panel will help to analyze the historical truth of Black participation in relation to the Confederacy’s wartime goals. Renee Ingram provides an important overview of the legislation enacted by the Confederate Congress which reflects the manner in which the Southern government used free and enslaved African Americans. Professor Ervin L. Jordan, Jr. offers insight regarding the experience of Black Virginians in relationship with the Confederate and Virginia State Governments. Dr. Jaime Martinez critically evaluates North Carolina government’s impressment of enslaved people, the conditions of those particular slaves, and the feelings of North Carolina slaveholders regarding impressments. Kevin Levin contributes a case study which examines how one African-American, Silas Chandler actually experienced the war and how public memory has manipulated and misrepresented his past principally through the internet. This panel connects directly to recent academic and public debates about the means in which African-Americans supported and resisted the Confederacy’s political and military goals during the Civil War.

Moderator: Emmanuel Dabney

Panelist: E. Renee Ingram
Panel title: “In View of a Great Want of Labor: A Legislative History of African American Conscription in the Confederacy”

Description of panel: This panel analyzes how the General Assembly of Virginia and the Confederate Congress used African Americans, free and enslaved, to meet the Confederacy’s agricultural, military, and technological demands. By using letters, newspaper advertisements, and documents produced by the Confederate Bureau of Conscription, Renee Ingram will provide an important review of the principal manners in which the Confederate government exploited free and enslaved laborers to defend and maintain their nascent, but doomed government.

Panelist: Jaime Martinez
Panel title: “Slave Impressment in Confederate North Carolina”

Description of panel: The Virginia and North Carolina state legislatures in the fall of 1862 began impressing slaves for government work. As the Confederate Congress also passed legislation to impress slave laborers for Confederate service, scores of impressed slaves in North Carolina worked for the Engineer Bureau, digging trenches and building fortifications around the major cities, rivers, ports, and railroad lines of the two states. Enslaved laborers complained about their conditions and slaveholders objected to slave impressment for both practical and ideological reasons. Jaime Martinez tackles slave impressments in North Carolina and evaluates the merging of wartime necessity as well as the longstanding Southern concerns of paternalism, economics, and reforming the institution of slavery.

Panelist: Kevin M. Levin
Panel title: “Searching for Black Confederates in History and Memory: The Case of Silas Chandler”

Description of panel: The subject of black Confederates is one of the most divisive and misunderstood subjects within the field of Civil War history. The recent scandal involving a fourth grade Virginia history textbook that included a reference to the service of thousands of black Confederate soldiers is not only a reflection of how pervasive this particular narrative has become, but it also demonstrates the challenges and dangers of using the Web as a research tool. This talk will present an overview of how the Confederate government utilized both slave labor and free blacks as well as an analysis of the black Confederate narrative. In doing so, we will look closely at the life of Silas Chandler, who is one of the most popular black Confederates on the Web.

Panelist: Ervin L. Jordan, Jr.
Panel title: African-Americans in Confederate Virginia

Description of panel: Drawing on a multitude of sources, Ervin L. Jordan traces Black Virginians’ military and civilian support and participation with state and Confederate military aims. He includes the enslaved and free black population. The review of these people’s motives is ambiguous as some who supported the Confederacy, some of them publicly, likely in an effort to ingratiate themselves with white Confederate supporters. Scores of others were engaged in compulsory support of the South. Like the others, Jordan finds that a considerable number of Black Virginians support for the Confederacy was lip service or manual and support labor, not armed military service. Legislation passed in March 1865, which supported arming Blacks as Confederate soldiers though principally only Blacks in the Richmond area heard about it. Jordan will help provide evidence of the Richmond hospital battalions formed in the final weeks of the war composed of African-Americans the principal formation of Black Confederate troops.

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30 comments… add one
  • Tom Mackie Jun 2, 2011 @ 5:46

    You have me hooked to get back to Richmond. I have been a AASLH institutional member for many years and try to attend when in my area. This sounds like a worthwhile program. A large number of our students follow this idea.

    • Kevin Levin Jun 2, 2011 @ 6:23

      Hi Tom,

      This will be my first AASLH meeting and I am very much looking forward to it. The session should be pretty interesting.

  • Bennet Young May 31, 2011 @ 11:27

    Seems to be staged to have only one conclusion. Where is the balance?

    • Kevin Levin May 31, 2011 @ 11:28

      Perhaps you can explain what a proper balance would look like.

      • Bennet Young May 31, 2011 @ 14:11

        Oh..maybe some one who says there were Black Confederates, I am sure they could have found somebody.

        • Kevin Levin May 31, 2011 @ 14:22

          Thanks for getting back to me. I have said from the outset that there is evidence that a few black men managed to serve in Confederate ranks. In fact, I don’t know anyone who denies this. They were – based on all of the available evidence – an exception. One of the reasons we know they exist is because of the evidence of them being forced out of the army once their identities were revealed. I would love to find primary sources to help tell this small minority’s story. That is unlikely to happen.

          Actually, I think we have a nice collection of panelists, who are looking at different aspects of the subject.

        • Andy Hall May 31, 2011 @ 14:35

          Ervin Jordan is on the panel; his book is one cited on virtually every “black Confederate” website that claims large numbers of African Americans served as soldiers in the Confederate army. If he’s not a strong enough advocate for your position, then perhaps it’s a position that needs re-examination, and y’all should reconsider whether his work actually supports your claims.

          • Kevin Levin May 31, 2011 @ 14:41

            The problem, of course, is that few of the advocates for the myth of large/loyal numbers have actually read the book. Unfortunately, Jordan has on occasion made a few claims that have have been taken completely out of context. A close reading of his book would prevent most people from claiming Jordan as some sort of ally.

          • Bennet Young May 31, 2011 @ 18:21

            Andy, I do not remember stating my position, you have just assumed what it might be. I do think that some people draw too srtict a definination of soldier. It did not have the same constraints or official record keeping like there is now. Also many records were lost or destroyed. I have white ancestors who were Confederate soldiers but no paperwork remains. I agree that there is a difference between a Confederate Soldier and just a Confederate, ie Judah Benjamin was not a soldier, but he was certainly a Jewish Confederate.
            Did not Fredrick Douglas claim that there were hundreds of “negro” severing as real soliers in the Confederate Army, was he just blowing smoke to get the Union to enlist blacks?

            • Andy Hall May 31, 2011 @ 19:41

              Frederick Douglass — if you’re going to cite the man, please spell his name right — did make such a claim in an 1861 issue of his newsletter, but offered no specifics, and there’s no way of knowing on what he based that claim. He simply said, “it is now pretty well established that. . . .” Since he lived in upstate New York, and (IIRC) was also traveling in Canada in the weeks prior to the publication of that newsletter, he presumably was repeating something he’d read or heard elsewhere. I have no reason to believe he was intentionally misrepresenting reality, but the essay in which he wrote that was explicitly arguing for the enlistment of African Americans in the U.S. army, and reports of Confederates doing the same would — whether he felt sure of them or not — be just the sort of argument to help make his case.

              Now, back to my question (and regardless of your own position on the matter) — why would Ervin Jordan, whose book is commonly cited as an academic source verifying the existence of large numbers of BCS, not be considered a suitable advocate for that claim?

            • Brooks D. Simpson May 31, 2011 @ 20:14

              Basically Douglass was blowing smoke when he talked about blacks serving as soldiers in the Confederate forces, in that his remarks alluded to a handful of reports that have been rather carefully gone over.

              People today who use the definition of soldier employed at the time don’t buy into the notion of many blacks serving as Confederate soldiers, which is why we see those folks who propagate the myth of thousands of blacks serving with Confederate forces try to erode those definitions to count many non-soldiers as somehow “soldiers.” I would think we’d agree that to impose an ahistorical definition would be a form of presentism and poor scholarly practice.

              I’ve also heard about all these records being lost or destroyed, and yet I’ve seen really good records for white soldiers. Any reason why the lost/destroyed records would be so disproportionately about blacks in military service?

              My understanding is that Judah Benjamin was a free man who chose to join the Confederacy. Slavery involves a denial of choice. It seems to me that there’s a reason why fugitive slaves went toward Union lines. Did any go to Confederate lines?

            • Kevin Levin Jun 1, 2011 @ 2:14


              Actually, the historical record is quite specific as to who could be a soldier in Confederate ranks. In both the Union and Confederate armies military service was equated with the idea of the citizen soldier, which had a rich history going back to the Revolution.

              Which records are you referring to that were supposedly burned? Do you have any evidence that these sources would add anything to this discussion? Such an argument could be used to prove practically anything. Judah Benjamin was a citizen of the Confederacy and not a soldier.

              I don’t know how long you’ve been reading this blog, but we’ve been through much of the ground that your comments raise, including Douglass’s early comment. You may want to start with this page to get a sense of where I am on the subject: Thanks for taking the time to read and comment.

            • Margaret D. Blough Jun 1, 2011 @ 4:07

              Mr. Young-Your remark about Judah Benjamin is a non sequitur. The primary dividing line in the antebellum South and the Confederacy was race, not religion. Anti-semitism was very real but it did not prevent Benjamin from being elected to the U.S. Senate from Louisiana in 1852.


        • EarthTone May 31, 2011 @ 14:40

          Oh..maybe some one who says there were Black Confederates, I am sure they could have found somebody.

          Well, there are lots of people who say lots of things… but that doesn’t mean that what they say is justified by evidence or reason.

          I guess this is a question for another post, but, are there any leading scholars who
          believe in “Black Confederates”?… where belief in Black Confederates means a belief in the existence of a “large” number of Black Confederate soldiers, for example?

          PS, I attended a presentation given by Earl Ijames on the subject of BC earlier this year. Interestingly, he avoided the term “Black Confederate Soldiers.” In fact, in the Q&A after his presentation, he noted (volunteered) that he did not use the term in his talk.

          I am getting the impression that some folks are starting to be careful about how they use the “s” (soldier) word in the context of what they call “Black Confederates”…

          • Kevin Levin May 31, 2011 @ 14:42

            You asked: “I guess this is a question for another post, but, are there any leading scholars who believe in “Black Confederates”?… where belief in Black Confederates means a belief in the existence of a “large” number of Black Confederate soldiers, for example?”

            Answer: NO

          • Andy Hall May 31, 2011 @ 14:54

            I am getting the impression that some folks are starting to be careful about how they use the “s” (soldier) word in the context of what they call “Black Confederates”…

            I get that sense, too. The more pushback over the loosely-bandied term “soldier” they get, the more I seem to hear shrill insistence that “definitions don’t matter,” vague arguments about “service,” and references to something termed a “black Southern loyalist.”

            • Kevin Levin May 31, 2011 @ 15:03

              In the end, the myth makers are much more interested in claims of loyalty than they are of defending notions of military service as soldiers. The title is irrelevant and purely instrumental.

  • TF Smith May 28, 2011 @ 18:17

    Sounds like a great session; any plans for video recording and posting somewhere? Be a nice resource for a US survey.

    • Kevin Levin May 29, 2011 @ 1:08

      I will look into it. Perhaps C-SPAN will be present.

      • TF Smith May 30, 2011 @ 10:49

        Glad to hear it; no point in reinventing the wheel if someone else has a good one at hand…

  • Emmanuel Dabney May 28, 2011 @ 12:28

    I must thank ALL participants for responding to my request to participate. I really think that we will have an important conversation about this matter.

    The conversation is important to me as my maternal grandfather’s family through his mother and father ancestors were enslaved, free, and large slaveholders. My maternal grandmother’s family were poor whites until 1870 and beyond. Anyway, so I look forward to continuing this conversation and others at the conference.

    I’m personally hoping that my other separate paper will be accepted; but that’s another topic. 🙂

    Thanks Kevin and Renee, Ervin, and Jaime.

    • Kevin Levin May 28, 2011 @ 12:38

      Thanks again for asking me to participate. It’s going to be a dynamite session.

    • Margaret D. Blough May 28, 2011 @ 22:59

      I am really looking forward to the annual meeting. One of the best things about being retired is having the freedom to go to such events without worrying about blowing my leave balance.

      I have a technical question, is the Amtrak station at 1500 East Main Street in Richmond the closest one to the meeting site? The other Richmond station is on Staples Mill Road. Thanks.

      • Kevin Levin May 29, 2011 @ 1:07

        I believe the one on Main Street is the closest.

      • Emmanuel Dabney May 29, 2011 @ 2:40

        Ms. Blough,

        It is the closest. It is just a few blocks from the convention center. The Main Street Station is also a stunning building finished in 1901. You will have to tear yourself away from the splendor of the structure.

  • Andy Hall May 28, 2011 @ 10:23

    It will be interesting to see if Professor Jordan addresses directly the way his book has been used by various heritage groups. I hope he does. As you’ve suggested, many folks who cite it don’t seem overly familiar with its actual content. His analysis is far more subtle and complex than the folks who routinely toss out his name seem to be interested in understanding.

    • Kevin Levin May 28, 2011 @ 11:46

      I certainly hope someone will ask that question.

  • Margaret D. Blough May 28, 2011 @ 8:16

    Kevin-Thanks for letting me know about it. I just joined the Society and I’ll register during the early bird period. Maybe we’ll finally get to introduce ourselves in person (Don’t worry. I’m not stalking you. Considering the subject matter, I’d go even if you weren’t going.)

    • Kevin Levin May 28, 2011 @ 8:24

      I am really looking forward t meeting you. See you in October. 🙂

      • James F. Epperson Jun 2, 2011 @ 7:12

        Margaret is good people, Kevin. As far as I know, the cane she carries is *not* a sword-cane 😉

        I wish I could be there, but if I do any October traveling it will be to my 40th high school reunion.

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