So What? An Observation on the Debate over Black Confederates

It’s been interesting to follow the renewed interest in the debate over black Confederates at conferences, on television, in the newspapers, and especially the blogosphere, where Kevin’s Levin’s Civil War Memory offers a cyber-battleground where sides clash.  Suffice it to say that interested parties would be well advised to start there, not primarily because of Kevin’s own position on the issue, but because of the information and links one might glean from the site.  Kevin has long debated other people on this issue, and it has become identified in part with him to the point that he’s been asked to write a book-length manuscript about it.   If nothing else, his blog suggests the power of blogging to place oneself in the middle of a debate and establishing a reputation, and that’s something well worth considering for others seeking to get a word in.  It’s really an amazing story.

That said, the debate over black Confederates at times threatens to suck the oxygen out of the room, in large part because rarely do we discover any new information.  That’s why I was enormously pleased when Andy Hall did some digging into finding out about the artist’s intention in including black representations on the Confederate monument at Arlington National Cemetery, disproving the notion that it was a representation of a black Confederate soldier.  I recommend Andy’s blog, Dead Confederates, for this and other issues.

I could at this point raise all sorts of questions about black Confederate soldiers.  If they existed, why did they escape Robert E. Lee’s notice?  Indeed, why do we find it so difficult to find mention of them in the letters, diaries, and recollections of white Confederates?  If blacks fought in Confederate ranks throughout the war, why was there such a debate about their military service in 1864-65?  What record do we have of the political activity of black Confederate soldiers during Reconstruction?  Did they join the KKK or any other white supremacist terrorist organizations?  Did the KKK make sure to spare black Confederates?  Did black Confederates participate as Democrats during Reconstruction and redemption?  Were they excluded from Jim Crow legislation?

But I digress.  Rather, I’d like to pose a simple question, one that I think gets to the heart of the matter:

So what?

That’s right, so what?  Let’s stipulate, for the sake of argument, that black slaves served in the Confederate army, not just as officers’ servants, cooks, teamsters, and the like, but also as combat soldiers who fought for the Confederacy in large numbers.  So what?  After all, as they were slaves, the issue of volition and choice is moot.  By definitions, slaves have no freedom to choose.  So what would their service tell us about the larger issues of why secession happened (can’t wait to see the literature on black fire-eaters and secession), why the war happened, and what motivated the soldiers of both sides to fight?

Or is someone going to tell me that black Confederates were free people of color?  Yes, I know all about the Louisiana Native Guards.  Did the Confederates accept their offer of service?  What happened to them?  Did they not soon trade in their uniforms for ones of Union blue?  But surely there were other free blacks in the Confederacy.  Oh, that’s right, there was an effort to crack down on free blacks in the 1850s as untrustworthy and dangerous.  So how could they seek service in the Confederate army, and why on earth would whites who were suspicious of them now willingly arm them?

But I digress again.  Back to the question of the moment … so what?

It is in the answer to this question that we begin to understand why this debate is so intense.  It isn’t a debate about the presence of blacks as cooks, teamsters, ditch-diggers, and servants–that’s acknowledged.  It is presently a debate over the presence of blacks as combat soldiers in significant numbers, but it need not be, because even that’s not the real issue here.  The real issue is (once one concedes the presence of these thousands of black Confederate combat soldiers for the sake of argument) what that tells us about the Civil War.  Were these supposed soldiers there to fight for their continued enslavement, including the sexual exploitation of their women and the shattering of their family bonds, as well as a life of physical and mental abuse and depriving them by law of the fruits of their own labor and any human rights?  Were they fighting to lay Alexander H. Stephens’s cornerstone of a government and society based upon inequality?  Unless one is going to argue that white Confederates were liars when they spoke of a social and political order erected to protect and promote an economic system and a way of life firmly founded upon the enslavement of fellow human beings of African American descent, you would have to say yes.

And so is that what you want me to believe?  That blacks fought to preserve a social, political, and economic order that enslaved them?  Well, prove it.  In fact, show me anything that bears on the issue of motivation, and tell me what it should tell us about the larger issues of the war.  But don’t tell me that somehow the supposed presence of enslaved blacks in Confederate ranks proves that the Civil War wasn’t somehow about slavery.  Prove that, too.  In short, answer the question, “So what?”

Then we can have a meaningful conversation.

Comments (12) to “So What? An Observation on the Debate over Black Confederates”

  1. “But don’t tell me that somehow the supposed presence of enslaved blacks in Confederate ranks proves that the Civil War wasn’t somehow about slavery.  Prove that, too.”

    But isn’t that their point, that the existence of “black Confederates,” fighting for their “homes and country,” IS the proof?

  2. And so you would have to prove that. How hard could that be? :)

  3. “That blacks fought to preserve a social, political, and economic order that enslaved them?”

    Well, that’s one part of that side of the argument. The other part actually holds my interest much more… the descendants of Confederate soldiers who want to do what most Confederate soldiers wouldn’t do… salute “their service” by giving them the title “soldier”. I can’t help but find that somewhat curious and contradictory to the “they were right” argument.”

  4. Well, that’s strange. My comment vanished.

    Oh well. More or less, what I just wrote at length about was the other part of the argument from “that side of the fence”… that there are some descendants of Confederates who are trying to do what most Confederate soldiers refused to do… call those who “served” (and that being the majority without arms), “soldiers”. Of course, the odd part of this is that, well… the “they were right” argument begins to show flaws in the very words of those who advance the meaning of “Black Confederates”.

  5. You also might think that, had in fact large numbers of African-Americans served in the Confederate army, that Democratic politicians in the north would have seized on the issue in some way to attack the Lincoln administration and its policies.

  6. I doubt very many blacks fought in Confederate ranks, if at all. To try to prove this is a side track to what many believe is the main issue and problem in discussing the Civil War; that of the ‘evil’ South and the ‘Utopian and egalitarian’ North. It is a good question, though, to ask if there were any blacks that would have fought for the Confederacy, or at least for the white families that owned them, for those white families that had them nurse maid their children, and trusted that they would not murder their women and children when they left home to fight. Intersting ‘what if’.

  7. Brett, I’ve not come across the “evil South” versus “Utopian and egalitarian North” argument … except among folks who would prefer us to see a “virtuous, culturally diverse South fighting for the right of self-determination” versus a “racist, hypocritical, empire-building, led by an evil dictator North.”

    As black women would have nursed babies, no, I haven’t seen any claims of black Confederate women soldiers. But I do note that the CSA’s conscription legislation included a draft exemption for families with 20+ slaves. Why was that?

  8. The ‘Evil’ South/’Utopian and egalitarian’ North version is alive and well in most public schools. I also did not imply that black women would fight, just that blacks were entrusted with taking care of children. The phrase, “virtuous, culturally diverse South fighting for the right of self-determination” may be a bit of a stretch. While there were planters who dodged the ‘draft’ (nothing new under the sun), there were many that left home with only women to carry on. Additionally, the vast majority of Southerners never owned slaves. I am also under no self-imposed delusions that the slave owner-slave relationship even approached ‘family’. The fact that there are no accounts of wide spread retaliation on the part of slaves does raise the question of the relationships between owners and slaves. Could there have been ‘attachments’ that would have prompted blacks to serve in the Confederacy? I do like…“racist, hypocritical, empire-building, led by an evil dictator North.” That is good.

  9. Given the number of planters who expressed surprise and outrage at the behavior of their slaves when freedom came (see James Roark, MASTERS WITHOUT SLAVES), I think you might want to explore what happened at the moment of emancipation. And, as you mentioned breast-feeding, unless there’s something you know no one else does, it’s safe to say that the blacks in question were women. A rather healthy percentage of white southern families did own slaves or benefited from slavery … and, of course, not all white southerners supported the Confederacy. A good book on how slaveholders persuaded nonslaveholders to support secession is Stephanie’s McCurry’s CONFEDERATE RECKONING. As for widespread retaliation … I think joining the Union army served as one way for blacks to retaliate. And as for black slaves sometimes being family … that’s certainly true in a biological sense.

  10. I am curious as to your source of information as to what’s being taught in most public schools. I hear this assertion made all the time in certain corners, but I’ve never seen evidence to support it. As you’ve repeated the claim, what’s your evidence?

  11. <> Public school educator in various capacities for the last 26 years. <> I am well aware that this was done by women. I have four boys, all nursed by my wife. Obviously, it was the black males. The sentence was not phrased as well as it could have been. <> I doubt it. Slaves were too expensive. <> Definitely. <> How was the South able to maintain support for so long, if it did not have support from the population?
    Anyway, I will defer to you and thank you for the info. I am just starting to study the Civil War, and am fascinated that as a country we still discuss, question, and even debate it.

  12. Is it a debate if one side has no facts or arguments? Photographs, orders of battle, unit rosters, OR, memoirs, correspondence, diaries, journals – find all of these missing Confederates. And why the Confederate government’s visceral reaction to Pat Cleburne’s proposal when all he was doing was formalizing the existing arrangements? Ethan touches on a telling point – it looks as though a lot of folks at the time simply passed on war-changing facts here….