The Future of Black Confederates in 1860

One of the texts that I recently finished reading is Edmund Ruffin’s Anticipations of the Future To Serve As Lessons For the Present Time (1860). Most of you know Ruffin as the fire-eating secessionist, who took his own life in 1865, but before the war he was a prolific author and publisher of the Farmers’ Register.

In Anticipations, Ruffin imagines a war between the free and slave states that follows the election of William H. Seward in 1864. The book is instructive on a number of fronts, but I want to briefly address his discussion of how the slave states utilized slave labor during a war, which resulted in Southern independence. First, Ruffin imagines an invasion of Kentucky – which in this story the state seceded – made up of both fugitive slaves and white soldiers and led by abolitionist general Owen Brown, the son of John Brown. The paternalism of southern slaveowners as well as the lack of military skill among the black soldiers doomed the invasion from the beginning, according to Ruffin. Many of the black soldiers deserted or were captured. Some of those who fell in the latter category volunteered to execute captured white soldiers.

In short, slaves made poor soldiers and they certainly wouldn’t turn on their former slaveholders. Southern paternalism remained intact.

Ruffin’s depiction of black manhood and martial skill failed to anticipate the service of USCTs during the Civil War, but his anticipation of how slaves would be utilized by the Confederacy proved to be prescient. Ruffin offers the following observation in explaining the success of the slave states in Anticipations.

A number of points stand out. First, slaves never presented a threat to the war effort or race relations in the South. More importantly, Ruffin imagines a war that involves the mobilization of the slave population to assist with wartime projects that allow for the largest number of white southerners to serve as front line soldiers. Ruffin maintains a strict distinction between whites, who embody a “better character, and material for military service” and blacks who are suitable for physical labor. In short, the war did not disrupt slavery or the racial hierarchy.

But the other thing that is worth acknowledging is that Ruffin found no need to imagine a southern war for independence that united blacks and whites on the battlefield as soldiers. Perhaps it would be more accurate to suggest that in 1860 he simply could not envision such a scenario.

In a sense, Ruffin’s anticipation of the future use of slaves during the war reflects how Confederate veterans and other southern writers imagined (or remembered) the war throughout the postwar period. Very few, if any, Confederate veterans and writers imagined blacks used as soldiers, apart from when discussing the late authorization for slave recruitment in March 1865. Like Ruffin’s Anticipations, postwar accounts assumed a racialized understanding of the battlefield and a strict distinction between the virtues of white soldiers and black inferiority.

As I have said more than once, actual Confederates would be dumbfounded by many of the claims made about black Confederates today.

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“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

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12 comments… add one
  • Forester Apr 12, 2017 @ 18:26

    Kevin, remember my ancestor who took his slave to war with him? I just found his 1928 pension document, and there is something interesting on page 2.

    The forms were made for white soldiers, not slaves. The word “enlisted” is deliberately CROSSED OUT and replaced with “went and served his master, S.J. Forester,” written in the margin.

    I knew what the pension document said from a published volume of NC troops at William & Mary, but I never realized they wrote it in by hand. That’s very specific and intentional.

    They went out of their way to specify that Jeff was NOT a soldier. Quite telling, since the pensions are supposed to prove that Black Confederates were recognized as legitimate soldiers.

    • Kevin Levin Apr 13, 2017 @ 1:54

      Thanks for sending this along. This was standard practice.

      • Forester Apr 13, 2017 @ 7:10

        Crossing out the printed text and writing in slave status was done often?? I had no idea. I must confess, I was a little shocked by it. The fact that they altered a form by hand is what really threw me. I assumed this was unique when I saw it.

        I can’t even see why it mattered 63 years later, except to serve a racial agenda.

        • Kevin Levin Apr 13, 2017 @ 7:47

          Have to go back and double check, but I believe Confederate veterans and slaves (body servants) used the same form.

  • Msb Apr 11, 2017 @ 0:40

    As George Rable wrote in a book I really liked (IIRC, Women and crisis of Southern nationalism), slave holders were “virtuosos of self-deception”. And at the time, of course, Howell Cobb said that “if slaves would make good soldiers, our whole theory of slavery is wrong”.

  • bob carey Apr 10, 2017 @ 12:32

    I think that this passage of Ruffin’s suggest that his opinion of the “vile Yankee race” is on the same level as his opinion of the people enslaved in the South, in fact it might be lower.

  • Jimmy Dick Apr 9, 2017 @ 15:33

    I don’t think many of the secessionists could accept the very thought of armed black soldiers fighting effectively because it conflicted with what they had been told for decades; that black men couldn’t fight and were inferior to whites. The evidence was pretty clear that black men could fight. The Continental Army at Yorktown consisted of close to 25% of the armed men being black. Black men fought well in the Revolution.

    No, the white supremacist ideology of that era blinded the white supremacists to reality. Following the war, that reality stared them in the face and ignited 150 years and counting of terrorism in support of white supremacy. In my opinion Ruffin couldn’t accept a postwar world in which his ideology would not be the dominant view and blew his brains out instead.

    • Kevin Levin Apr 9, 2017 @ 15:36

      Speaking of the Revolution, this book was just published as part of a series edited by Gregory Urwin. Looks interesting.

    • London John Apr 17, 2017 @ 7:13

      “Black men fought well in the Revolution.”. Yes. On both sides.

  • Forester Apr 9, 2017 @ 15:27

    Damn, that’s a good post. I thought I knew a lot about Ruffin, but I’ve never seen this passage from him. I will be spending some time with the primary source document you linked.

    Thanks a lot!

  • rarerootbeer Apr 9, 2017 @ 15:24

    The Confederacy did utilize the Blacks in the South to build the fortifications and work to supply the food to the White Southern soldiers on the “fronts”. The Southern cultural racist “cancer” blinded them to
    the use of Southern Blacks, underestimated the use of Northern Blacks and their racial hatred led to murder of Northern Blacks and Northern Whites on the battlefield. Because of their legacy of rape and murder
    the American Southern soldier and those too weak, old, or young back on the home front fed their fear and ignorance. Poorly educated, fed, and clothed the Southerner ignoring the fact that the Southern rich and used themselved to be ground down by the Northern military machine. They made up a Southern motivation of honor and home, when in fact the war was not necessary and the Southern soldier, while well fought died in vain.

    • Kevin Levin Apr 9, 2017 @ 15:27

      Thanks for the comment, but I don’t understand the point you are making in response to this post.

      The Confederacy did utilize the Blacks in the South to build the fortifications and work to supply the food to the White Southern soldiers on the “fronts”.

      Yes, I know. That’s pointed out in the post.

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