Book Review: Searching for Black Confederates: The Civil War's Most Persistent Myth

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by Kevin M. Levin

Chapel Hill: The University of North Carolina Press, 2019. Pp. 240. Illus., notes, biblio., index. $30.00. ISBN: 1469653265

Those Elusive “Black Confederates”

Back in 2010 when I told a relative that I was starting a blog series on immigrants in the American Civil War, he told me that he had recently been surprised to learn that several thousand African Americans had served in the Confederate Army. “I guess the war wasn’t just about slavery,” he said.

In 2016, an older black reenactor was having a conversation with my fiancée that I happened upon. He was telling her about the suppressed story of Black Confederates. “They don’t want you to know that story,” he said.

Over the years, I have seen “Black Confederates” at the center of a school book controversy in Virginia where a textbook claimed that thousands of African Americans served with Robert E. Lee, and as a topic for heated debate on a prominent Civil War message board.

I always thought that the evidence against the claim that thousands of black men fought for the Confederacy was pretty overwhelming. First, Confederate law barred blacks from service until the final months of the war. Second, Confederate records before 1865 never refer to the presence of blacks as soldiers in the army. Third is the famous proposal by Irish-born Confederate General Patrick Cleburne’s 1864 petition to free potential fighting men and their families and then allow them to enlist.

Cleburne was a lawyer and his petition reads like a legal brief. Cleburne includes in this important document examples of instances when blacks had demonstrated that they can be as good soldiers as white men. Not a single example that he gives involves any blacks serving as Confederate soldiers. If there were Black Confederates, Cleburne would have included them in his proposal. He did not, leading me to believe they did not exist in Cleburne’s Confederacy.

The reaction by the Confederate President Jeff Davis to Cleburne was also telling. He did not write back to the general and inform him that black men were already serving in the army. Jeff Davis instead ordered the immediate suppression of Cleburne’s proposal.

In spite of what the laws of the Confederacy said, the “Black Confederate Myth” has been widely dispersed on the internet and elsewhere. As Kevin Levin points out in his engaging new book Searching for Black Confederates, real Confederates would have been surprised to find that their descendants believed that blacks served as soldiers in the Confederate Army. They knew that a couple of hundred blacks were recruited into the army in the last days of the war and that several thousand slaves and free black men worked as servants, porters, and teamsters for the Confederate military, but real Confederates knew that there were never Black Confederate soldiers filling the ranks as combat troops.

Kevin Levin traces the origins of the Black Confederate Myth to the 1970s. The Civil Rights Movement of the decade before made continued open adherence to white supremacy untenable for Confederate heritage groups like the Sons of Confederate Veterans (SCV) and prompted them to posit a de-racialized version of the Confederacy. The armed Confederate rebellion to preserve slavery was transformed into a Southern Rights Movement that had the interests of Black Southerners as much at heart as it did the rights of white slaveholders.

According to Levin, the Confederate Heritage folks:

“hoped to demonstrate that if free and enslaved black men fought in Confederate ranks, the war could not have been fought to abolish slavery. Stories of armed black men marching and fighting would make it easier for the descendants of Confederate soldiers and those who celebrate Confederate heritage to embrace their Lost Cause unapologetically without running the risk of being viewed as racially insensitive or worse.” (p. 4)

So, oddly enough, this peculiar institution of historical falsification came as a result of a desire by some descendants of white Confederates to retroactively transform their ancestors into racial egalitarians so that the descendants of enslaved people, supposedly believing that their own ancestors may have been Black Confederates, would embrace a Rainbow version of the Lost Cause! Or at least, and more promisingly, the Confederate Heritagers hoped that other whites, with a low interest in the Civil War, would allow them to continue to display Confederate Battle Flags and erect statues to Confederate heroes without thinking them racists.

While the myth was developed nearly a half-century ago to serve a specific function, many people today who believe in it, writes Levin, are completely unaware of its origins. One does not have to be a racist to believe the myth. School kids in Virginia have been taught it, and many people encounter it in Google searches while researching African American participation in the Civil War. The myth has even been repeated in museum exhibits and at National Park Service sites. Most people innocently encountering it don’t realize that for the first hundred years after the bombardment of Fort Sumter no one heard of Black Confederates.

Levin describes the active attempts to mislead the public about Black Confederates. One notorious example was the alteration of a photo of black Union soldiers into a fraudulent one of the same soldiers as Confederates!*

While some of the claims to the existence of Black Confederates have been nothing more than attempts to defraud the public, others have been based on misunderstanding of the historical record, particularly as it relates to Camp Slaves. These were slaves who were often brought with them by owners when they joined the Confederate Army. Officers and even privates used their slaves to cook, clean, and perform other menial tasks to make soldiering as much like home as possible. These men were sometimes given army surplus uniforms, the source of a small number of photos of slaves dressed in Confederate garb.

In addition to Camp Slaves, Levin writes:

“Tens of thousands of slaves were impressed by the government, often against the will of their owners, to help with the construction of earthworks around the cities of Richmond, Petersburg, and Atlanta. Slaves were also assigned to the construction and repair of rail lines and as workers in iron foundries and other factories producing war matériel. In service to the armies, thousands worked as teamsters, cooks, and musicians…. But critically, none of these roles included service on the battlefield as enlisted soldiers.” (p. 4)

After the war, Camp Slaves became a vital element of the Lost Cause narrative. The image of the faithful slave comforting his dying master was found in novels and popular illustrations. Former Camp Slaves were “mascots” at Confederate veteran reunions. Camp Slaves were often the objects of humor at these gatherings and a few played along with white expectations for subservience and minstrelsy.

Levin argues that in the 1970s, the Old’ Timey Camp Slave of the 1890s reunions became the heroic Black Confederate of the 1970s. The change in roles reflected the changing national view of race. Ken Burns’ Civil War series on PBS, the miniseries Roots, and the movie Glory, inspired a reconsideration of race in American history by the general public and the Sons of Confederate Veterans hoped to stake a claim to the Confederacy being a moral leader on race relations!

Levin’s book tells the real story of the Camp Slaves, describes the evolution of the fairytale of the Black Confederates, and looks at its impact on how Americans understand their history. The good news, writes Levin, is that by the time of the Civil War Sesquicentennial the Myth of the Black Confederate was in decline. The National Park Service, nearly all academics, and museum professionals thoroughly rejected the claims of the Rainbow Confederates.

I worry though that Americans today are more likely to study the Civil War online than in a college classroom or at a battlefield visitor center. Two years ago, when I was researching World War II, YouTube kept offering me videos of modern fringe political actors engaged in diatribes against people of color. I am guessing that the same irresponsible search results come up for high school students looking for information on African Americans during the war. Unlike me, these innocent teens may not have the faculty to distinguish scholarship from sham.

Overall, Levin’s book is a fine look at how limited evidence of an historical phenomenon can be transformed into a social media meme-worthy fake fact. It is a cautionary tale of the ability of a dedicated group of people with an agenda to change how hundreds of thousands of people view an historical event. It also shows the unscrupulousness of those willing to claim that a victim of slavery, one of the worst of all human rights abuses, was an armed defender of the system that enslaved himself and his family.

A final thought.

I knew a slave once. She was a Jew held by the Nazis. This did not make her a “Nazi Jew.” It just made her an enslaved woman whose labor was owned by her enemies but whose spirit was free to hate those who placed shackles on her limbs.

Note: Searching for Black Confederates is also available in several e-editions.

 

Our Reviewer: Patrick Young is Special Professor of Law at Hofstra University School of Law. He also heads the school's Immigration Law Clinic. He is the author of two ongoing blogs The Reconstruction Era, about African Americans, Emancipation, and Reconstruction in the aftermath of the Civil War, and The Immigrants' Civil War, both worthwhile reads for anyone interested in the Civil War and its aftermath. Prof. Young’s review was originally published on August 13, 2019, on The Reconstruction Era, and is used with the kind permission of the author.

 

StrategyPage reviews are published in cooperation with The New York Military Affairs Symposium

 

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Reviewer: Patrick Young   


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