I try in this blog to stick to its topic—the coming of freedom for the slaves in the American Civil War. Admittedly, I occasionally write on other subjects because I feel the compulsion to share my thoughts on them. I’ve written on the Civil War in Arizona (where I live). I’ve defended online higher education (where I work). And I’ve reviewed the new 9/11 Museum in New York City (which I visited last summer). But I’ve made a point of mainly discussing events in the history of emancipation in American Civil War, especially as their turn has come around in the sesquicentennial.
I have particularly avoided the recurrent hot button topics that dominate the Civil War blogosphere these days, especially the activities and misadventures of contemporary Neo-Confederates (the so-called “Southern Heritage Community”), and whether and to what degree African Americans served under arms in the Confederate Army. I happily leave that subject matter to fine bloggers like Brooks Simpson at Crossroads, Kevin Levin at Civil War Memory, Andy Hall at Dead Confederates, and (more recently) Megan Kate Nelson at Historista, (who has single handedly turned “freaking out” into a Civil War blogger meme), as well as an assortment of other blogs and bloggers that I keep an eye on.
Admittedly, I have dabbled in the black Confederate issue a few times in this blog (see here, here, here, and here) when it had some relevance to emancipation in the Civil War, especially nearer the start of the sesquicentennial in remembering possible informal black participation the early battles of the conflict. That is, before either army had a chance to formalize fully its rules and organizational arrangements, it appears there might have been some leeway for the unofficial participation of a few African Americans under arms for the Confederacy (and the Union). Still, one needs to be skeptical of such accounts as they were often second-hand or worse before they entered print, and anyone with any experience in mid-19th century newspapers and public records understands that such sources were less reliably factually than they are regarded today (especially the newspapers, which during the Civil War were still largely the creatures of political organizations and operated more for advocacy than the objective reporting of facts).
Certainly, there are enough snippets of blacks under arms for Confederacy early in the Civil War (and later on) that it is hard to dismiss them outright. As in any human social system, Civil War armies included, weird exceptions might appear, although given the nature of nineteenth-century sources it is always hard to take them at face value. Did some African Americans ever serve under arms for the Confederacy? It cannot be ruled out completely, but if so they were the exceptions that proved the rule that white Southern ideology was dead set against arming black men for service in the Confederate Army. It went against the white supremacy that was the raison d’etre of the Confederacy. Certainly, there were individual advocates for the idea of armed black Confederate solders early in the conflict, as I have discussed, and Patrick Cleburne’s famous January 1864 proposal. But if there were significant numbers of African Americans under Confederate arms by early 1864, why is Cleburne making a proposal to open the army to them and why doesn’t he cite these existing black Confederate soldiers in making his case for African-American troops in the Army of Tennessee? And why was there a heated debate about black enlistment in the Confederate Congress in the dying weeks of the Confederacy, when some white Southerners evidently overcame their prejudices just enough to approve the idea as a last desperate measure to stave off final defeat?
In any case, the question scholars should be asking is why this issue cannot be put to rest? To use Megan Kate Nelson’s meme, why are scholarly bloggers on the American Civil War repeatedly condemned to “freak out” from time to time over black Confederates? Why can provocateurs like John Stauffer use the issue (repeatedly) to draw attention to themselves? Why has this myth that substantial numbers of African Americans fought for the Confederacy gained such cultural power in the early 21st-century United States? Why are responsible scholars unable to say, “Enough already” and move on to more productive issues? And if we cannot say “enough already” why can’t we shift the debate to analyzing the cultural power of the myth? Much the same way professional historians refused to enter the morass of who shot John F. Kennedy, but instead analyzed the cultural power of the various conspiracy theories. That is the modest proposal this scholar and blogger would like to make regarding “black Confederates” since it is obvious that the power to suppress this myth is beyond academia’s power. So maybe we need to be asking why it has that power? And not freak out. Enough already.