The Myth of Black Confederates. Enough Already.

Freaking Out

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 herehere, 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.

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About Donald R. Shaffer

Donald R. Shaffer is the author of _After the Glory: The Struggles of Black Civil War Veterans_ (Kansas, 2004), which won the Peter Seaborg Award for Civil War Scholarship in 2005. More recently he published (with Elizabeth Regosin), _Voices of Emancipation: Understanding Slavery, the Civil War, and Reconstruction through the U.S. Pension Bureau Files_ (2008). Dr. Shaffer teaches online exclusively (i.e., a virtual professor). He lives in Arizona and can be contacted at donald_shaffer@yahoo.com
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16 Responses to The Myth of Black Confederates. Enough Already.

  1. kbrown2225 says:

    Most of these “black confederate soldier” accounts come from Louisiana, which with its French background and the impact of the Napoleonic Code had a unique position in the South. Southern Louisiana, particularly New Orleans, had a somewhat prosperous group of free black and mixed race citizens.

    The Louisiana Native Guards, composed of black and mixed-race men from the New Orleans area, were formed but never accepted by the Confederate military. It is interesting to note that the same Louisiana Native Guards joined the Union forces after General Butler took New Orleans in 1862 (so their “loyalty” to the Confederacy can be seen for what it was).

    Additionally, some accounts of black Confederate soldiers have more to do with the Native Americans who fought with the Confederacy, some being of black or mixed race heritage.

    There is no doubt that a few blacks took up arms for the Confederacy, but the numbers are insignificant (maybe 3,000 men during the entire course of the war). Compare this to the 180,000 men who fought for the Union as members of the United States Colored Troops.

    Human nature is a funny thing, and the instances of black troops fighting for the Confederacy falls into the realm of aberration, and is not a historically significant development.

    Of course the purveyors of the “Lost Cause” have consistently tried to twist and inflate it into something of importance.

    Outstanding article!

    • Hi. Thanks for the kind words. I actually wrote for Disunion in the New York Times on the Louisiana Native Guards. The fascinating thing about that organization is that goodly number of its members later fought for the Union. They mainly wanted to be on the winning side and as mixed race people carve out a middle caste position for themselves in Louisiana.

  2. Mark Curran says:

    Another issue is — what is black? Lee owned white looking slaves, did you know that? According to Elizabeth Pryor’s book “Reading the Man” — he did. There were probably light toned “blacks” – — sons of slave owners and their slaves. Slave rape was common, according to a former slave quoted by Pryor.

    All that is moot, if you believe Jeff Davis own proclamation ordering all those with Negro blood put back on the slave status — FOREVER. They and their issue — in perpetuity. Issue, of course, meaning children. Hilariously, Davis said he issued that order “so there will be no misunderstanding in the future” He also expressed his desire to reunite the US — by “our force of arms” and have slavery in all states. People really should read some of Davis goofy statements, war ultimatums, and demands. Furthermore Davis declaration about how vile it was for Lincoln to use black troops is one of his most extreme rhetorical flourishes of the war. To think Confederacy under Davis had dark black troops fighting voluntarily and informed, it’s just goofy.

    However, the Confederacy did use blacks, and used them extensively at times. The earthworks around Richmond and Petersburg, so crucial to keeping Richmond and the Trafalgar iron works in CSA hands, was built by slave labor, under the direction and whip of Robert E Lee. If the South had won, there would likely today be tours of those earth works, with’s Lee picture proudly displayed. Richmond newspapers told of the slaves being put to use building those earthworks — and the requirement of each county to send in the appropriate number of slaves to do the work.

    The best place to learn what happened leading up to the Civil War is not books written later, or from “historians” — but from original sources, speeches, documents, wherein Southern leaders and newspapers bragged of things hardly whispered now.

  3. Matt Gallman says:

    Hi Don
    Here are a few thoughts that might just repeat what already has been said, but perhaps might help nudge the discussion in more useful directions.

    First (and this we all know), the appeal of the mythic Black Confederate in some quarters is clearly related to larger questions of black loyalty to the Confederacy. That is, if there is evidence of black men fighting for the Confederacy (not under duress) this seems to produce the conclusion that they somehow supported the Confederate cause. This, in turn, helps to destabilize the notion that the Confederate cause was about slavery. This surely seems to be why the BCM is so appealing in some quarters.

    But let me suggest, second, that in many discussions the terms of black decision-making are understood in simple binaries, framed by the notion that there were two sides to choose from and they (obviously) chose the Union cause. In fact, there does seem to be an assumption that African American support (and carrying arms) for the Union cause was the pretty obvious default position. That is, I think, an excessively simplistic framework and one which feeds into the BCM response.

    There might be some analytic virtue in looking at African Americans (in the North and in the South) as essentially populating a third political entity. They were not OF the Confederacy, but they were also certainly not uniformly OF the Union. Within the public discourse in the North (which I know best) there are many voices questioning what – if anything – blacks should do to support the northern cause, and under what terms.

    There is also, within this complex public discourse, lots of evidence of northerners (most famously F Douglass) repeating stories about how SOUTHERN blacks were fighting for the Confederacy, and others might follow. Rather than either accepting these stories as fact (Stauffer?) or interrogating them as problematic evidence, there is another path: The question becomes why did Douglass and others report these stories? In my view the answer is quite simple: Some portions of the African American community were engaged in an ongoing rhetorical battle with the Union about their possible support. The publishing of reports of black men fighting for the Confederacy, or others of black men who are “with” the Union army in noncombatant roles but are explicitly uninterested in supporting the Union cause, or others of southern black men who have been mistreated by Union soldiers and have lost their earlier enthusiasm for the Union cause, ALL speak to a larger question of public discourse: The goal is to underscore the point that perhaps the Union should not get too complacent about black support.

    In sum, there is – I think – value in understanding participants in this active black discourse as understanding themselves as “separate” from the two competing nations, although perhaps willing to lend support to one or the other depending on who made the best case. This especially puts the shreds of evidence Stauffer brings forward into a more useful context I think.

    Two final things:
    We all know that Frederick Douglass was a fascinating and important fellow. There is, I think, a false belief that he spoke for all free blacks (when clearly he didn’t). There is also a tendency to quote Douglass without chronological context, despite the fact that he changed his mind on many key issues

    Finally, I am not interested in a false divide (in this case) between “cultural” and “empirical” history, or between “traditional” and “new” sources. My own take on these topics is based on reading a pretty wide array of sources, aimed largely (but not exclusively) at black northern audiences. Those sources would include editorials, published letters, poetry and song, reprinted anecdotes, speeches, broadsides etc.

    Matt Gallman

  4. Hi Matt. Many thanks for your extended reply. The myth black Confederates, both soldiers and non-combatants, certainly does serve Neo-Confederates by downplaying slavery as a cause of the Civil War, and as I mention in my piece, obscuring the preservation of slavery as the Confederacy’s reason for being. However, I think its cultural utility goes deeper than that.

    I am struck by the difference in how actual Confederate veterans and modern Neo-Confederates remember the role of African Americans in the Civil War. In researching my book on black Union veterans, I sifted the pages of the Confederate Veteran periodical for mentions of African Americans. Black soldiers were notable there almost by their complete absence. Confederate veterans very rarely mentioned them and then only briefly and in passing. To the extent that African Americans in general were mentioned at all, the only noteworthy way was in the context of the so-called “faithful negroes.” Usually, the trustworthy black servant that followed his master or master’s son into the rebel army and stayed with him until he was killed or wounded, or until the end of the war. And never deserted to the Yankees because he knew his place and accepted it.

    Never, ever, do Confederate veterans (or other white Southerners for that matter) discuss blacks as soldiers in the Confederate ranks the same way that modern Neo-Confederates want to place them there retroactively. (Still more evidence they weren’t there.) So why do the modern Neo-Confederates need to have black Confederate soldiers? I would assert that although many Neo-Confederates are racist to one extent or another, they have imbibed and internalized to some extent, even though they would likely deny it, modern multiculturalism. At least to the point that they can culturally accept blacks as soldiers, something Confederate veterans would have considered anathema. So the Neo-Confederates’ idealized myth of the Confederacy includes black southern patriots in the Confederate Army’s ranks and not just as faithful servants.

    Any thoughts on this idea? (Anyone else please feel free to jump in here).

    Best,

    Don

    • Matt Gallman says:

      Don
      I really have few thoughts about the modern NeoConfederate phenomenon.
      It does seem that the desire to claim that there were black soldiers in the Confederate Army is a matter of attempting to claim a historic LOYALTY among slaves and ex-slaves (My contribution above notes that even where there is participation or contemplated participation that is not really proof of “loyalty.”)
      The absence of veterans recalling black confederate soldiers, like the absence of after-battle accounts describing them. and the absence of black Confederates in numbers found dead on the battlefields all seem to suggest that at some level the debate is just silly.
      I honestly do not know what the academic scholars who have weighed in recently are getting at.
      Matt

      • Hi Matt. Personally, despite his Harvard perch, I think John Stauffer is full of it. I’ve got no problem with English professors dabbling (or more) in History, but with all due respect to Jim Downs, like Brooks and Kevin, I find his historical analysis leaves something to be desired. How he got where he is professionally puzzles me. In any case, black Confederate soldiers isn’t the only historical terrain he’s barged into none to helpfully. No doubt you are aware of the trouble he’s been to Vicki Bynum. Stauffer’s motives and motivations puzzle me. I described him in my piece as a provocateur. That is, someone seeking to make waves for whatever reason. But that is just a guess. Any thoughts?

        Best,

        Don

  5. Pingback: Historians Freak Out About Freaking Out … Really … | Crossroads

  6. Matt Gallman says:

    Don:
    I confess that I find Stauffer’s essay puzzling.
    In the grand scheme of things I guess I think that these sorts of discussions are most fruitful when they start with a “fair” assessment of what the author intended to communicate. (Thus, my discomfort with some of the extreme responses to McPherson’s interview or to the Gallagher-Meier piece, since I felt that the criticisms were constructing a version of the historian(s) that they authors themselves would not accept.

    In that context Stauffer’s essay is just tricky. I know his work a bit, I have met him and heard him speak, I have even been the reader on one of his forthcoming pieces. All of that was first rate stuff. I am aware of the conflict with Bynum. I didn’t read it, but I imagine I would “side with” Bynum had I done so Still, I do not know what Stauffer is trying to say in that Roots piece, and I just have a very difficult time believing that he is trying to say what it appears he is saying.

    I had a similar feeling about Jim’s piece. He does good work. But when it comes to the specifics of his argument in that one blog entry, I just don’t see what he was saying. The larger point is fine (The history of African Americans cannot always be gleaned from sources constructed by or selected by whites.) But that observation does not lead to an alternative reading of the very specific evidence Stauffer was citing. So it is a bit baffling.

  7. BorderRuffian says:

    “…the power to suppress this myth is beyond academia’s power.”

    So *if* you had the power you would violate a person’s Constitutional right of free speech?

  8. Exactly WHEN did this myth of Black Confederates first begin?

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