Dealing with the aftermath of the American Civil War, especially the topic of memory, a student of the conflict inevitably encounters the myth of the faithful slave. Slaves that allegedly stood by their owners on the battlefield or plantation, serving the Confederate cause with as much dedication as the white people around them.
Like all effective myths, the faithful slave in the Civil War contains a kernel of truth. No responsible scholar denies that some slaves existed who exhibited loyalty to their owners and by extension to the Confederacy. The cottage industry on the web that has created out of thin air multitudes of black Confederate soldiers is merely the latest variation of this myth. The irony being that neo-Confederates assign their faithful African Americans a more active role than did the Confederates of old–armed soldiers. This change is a backhanded testament to the advances of black Americans since World War II that has made implausible giving them any lesser role in the myth.
But then again no responsible scholar would assert that loyalty toward slaveholders and the Confederate cause was the main sentiment among African Americans in the South during the Civil War. When given a chance to act freely on their own sentiments, slaves mostly commonly went against their owners and the Confederacy. Whether it be running away to Union lines, assisting escaped Yankee POWs, joining the Union army, or simply malingering in the fields many ways existed for slaves to show how they really felt about their own owners and the Confederacy.
After the Civil War, white Southern propagandists pretended most blacks had not acted so and made much of the so-called faithful slave. One of the interesting things of researching this blog has been seeing this myth of the faithful slave taking shape in the early days of the war. Certainly, slaveholders and white Southerners in general were of two minds about African Americans at that moment in time. As this blog and scholars like Justin Behrend have so recently reminded us, there existed a strong undercurrent of fear in the white South concerning slaves early in the war that sometimes boiled over into repressive violence. Still, there also were white Southerners that believed if guided properly slaves could become Confederate patriots. And as shown in an earlier edition of Civil War Emancipation it was even argued that under the right circumstances slaves were fit for armed service in the Confederate army. Given the stories of slaves fighting for the Confederacy at First Bull Run, it is possible that certain slaveholders actually acted on this conceit.
The myth of the faithful slave also made its way into the southern press early in the Civil War. A good example comes from Richmond’s Daily Dispatch, which as was common at the time reprinted interesting stories from other newspapers. On October 24, 1861, it reprinted a short item from a Louisiana newspaper, the West Baton Rouge Sugar Planter, which had appeared there October 7 under the title, “Lo! The Poor Slave.” It read:
One of the committee appointed to collect the blankets, &c., in this parish, for the volunteers, says that in his tour he received several from slaves, and that, too, without hesitation or without being asked, the new blankets given them by their masters for winter use. Are not such donations more patriotic than those of the richest white men? As soon as this fact became known, the ‘”poor, down-trodden slaves”’ were doubly compensated for their temporary deprivation.
So in the early in the Civil War, even as slaves started fleeing to Union lines in the hope of gaining their freedom, some white Southerners began to try to convince themselves black Southerners were on their side. Future events would prove this usually was not the case, but the myth of the faithful slave persisted and blossomed in Confederate memory after the war and has re-blossomed more recently in neo-Confederate memory. Such is the utility of myths.