Friday, September 24, 2010

Bruce Levine - The Myth of Black Confederates

Bruce Levine is the J. G. Randall Distinguished Professor of History at the University of Illinois, Urbana-Champaign. He has published three books on the era of the Civil War. The first, entitled The Spirit of 1848: German Immigrants, Labor Conflict, and the Coming of Civil War (Illinois, 1992), examines immigrants' reactions to slavery and the sectional conflict in America. The second, entitled Half Slave and Half Free: The Roots of Civil War (Hill & Wang,1992; revised 2005), explores the social, economic, and political causes of the war. The third, Confederate Emancipation: Southern Plans to Free and Arm Slaves during the Civil War (Oxford, 2005), analyzes the Confederacy's desperate, last-minute attempt to win the war by enlisting and emancipating its own slaves. Confederate Emancipation received the Peter Seaborg Award for Civil War Scholarship and was named by the Washington Post as one of the year’s ten best books. Levine’s next book describes the destruction of slavery and the South's slave-based society during the Civil War.

Dr. Levine began by stating that “one of the most energetically propagated of all Civil War myths” is the myth that large numbers blacks served in the Confederates army. According to this myth between 10,000 and 100,000 African Americans served in the Rebel army. Those who make these claims do so to back up their idea that most blacks supported the southern Confederacy, according to Dr. Levine.

Levine surveyed the reality of those African Americans who found themselves supporting the Confederate war effort and stated that their cases were well known in academia.

They were not, however, soldiers. Not until March of 1865 did the Confederate government consider arming their slaves.

Levine gives many examples of soldiers and citizens who pushed for black enlistment and were harshly rebuffed by the Jefferson Davis administration. He asserted that Confederates were stubborn on this issue because they were fighting to preserve slavery both in theory and practice. To let African Americans serve in the military would undermine their views that blacks were inferior. They were also afraid that if they banded blacks together it would offer them the perfect opportunity to escape. He cited John Beauchamp Jones as stating that there were no blacks serving in the Confederate army.

Levine then reviewed Davis’s decision to arm blacks late in the war and the firestorm of controversy that it caused. He said that those black recruits who were raised were kept under close supervision at Confederate prisons!

He concluded by mentioning a quote from one Confederate that large numbers of black soldiers serving in the Rebel army was a “species of madness.”

Recommended Reading:

Kevin M. Levin. Searching For Black Confederates in History and Memory (forthcoming).

Bruce Levine. Confederate Emancipation: Southern Plans to Free and Arm Slaves during the Civil War. New York: Oxford University Press, 2005.

Bruce Levine. “Black Confederates and Neo-Confederates: In Search of a Usable Past” in James and Lois Horton, eds. Race, Slavery and Public History: The Tough Stuff of American Memory. Ed. New York: The New Press, 2006.

9 comments:

  1. "According to this myth between 10,000 and 100,000 African Americans served in the Rebel army."

    So what is Mr. Levine saying here?
    That some number between 1 and 9,999 is NOT a myth???

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  2. I believe that Dr. Levine was saying that 10-100,000 is the favorite estimate touted by advocates of the Black Confederate myth. I apologize if that wasn’t made clear in my post.

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  3. I enjoyed the entire event but I thought this speaker in particular did an excellent job in a less than ten minutes of skewering the suggestion of large forces of black Confederates. I particularly thought his comment regarding the crucial moments of debate at the war's end not including allusion to previous experience, positive or negative, of black service as a damning argument for those who suggest this is the case. I know US forces in eastern NC when told to recruit and arm blacks in May 1863 did just that - state it had been tried (in Elizabeth City) but that it did not work well.

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  4. Not a myth. The problem is this hang-up with military service. Any Black, slave or free, a subject of a Southern state, who did his job, remained loyal, did not run off can be considered a "Black Confederate" (even if his service is compelled) in this way there are far more than 100,000 Black Confederates. That is my definition. Descendants of these Black Confederates have every right to be proud of their ancestors service to the South. Remember that white conscripts, North & South, were nothing more than compelled government slaves.

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  5. RE: "Any Black, slave or free, a subject of a Southern state, who did his job, remained loyal, did not run off can be considered a "Black Confederate" (even if his service is compelled) in this way there are far more than 100,000 Black Confederates."

    This is a case where preciseness of language makes all the difference. It's vital that things are properly stated.

    Using the above logic, Jews in WWII-era German labor camps can be considered "Jewish Nazis." I don’t think anyone today would consider that an appropriate way to describe those Jews’ “service.” (NOTE: I am NOT saying that the Confederacy was as bad or equal to the WWII German regime. I am just using this as an example of how the wording is problematic.)

    There is something to be said for people being loyal citizens. But African Americans in the South – free or slave -were NOT citizens. They were property. They had no more allegiance to a Confederate state than did a horse or a cow.

    The point about citizenship is what distinguishes slaves from whites who were drafted. Conscripts served as a duty of citizenship. Blacks were NOT citizens. Whatever they did was done as part of their bondage.

    Let's call these men what they were: Confederate slaves. This is how they were identified at the time. Nobody in the 1860s called these men "Black Confederates."

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  6. Get ahold of HK Edgerton at the SLRC in Abbyville SC and ask him, his opinion and references to Black Confederates.If you cannot find HK, I have his Cell phone number!
    Pickett

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  7. Confederates were nothing like Nazis, don't make that comparison. Slavery was evil, and the slave ships were just like the holocaust but the Confederacy was not a part of the slave ships (nor were most of the world by that time). There were probably a few thousand free men of color who fought with Confederates (there are recorded instances, but not 100s of 1000s). The Civil War was not solely over slavery. The North didn't care about abolition until 1862.

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  8. kdl wrote:

    > Any Black, slave or free, a subject of a
    > Southern state, who did his job, remained
    > loyal, did not run off can be considered a
    > "Black Confederate" (even if his service is
    > compelled) in this way there are far more
    > than 100,000 Black Confederates. That is my
    > definition.

    kdl, your definition doesn't matter. It's irrelevant, just as mine and Jimmy's and H. K. Edgertons' are. There's only one definition of "soldier" that matters in this discussion, and that's the definition of "solider" as it was understood and put into practice by the Confederate government and military from 1861 to 1865. And by that definition, the claims so often made for there being thousands -- or "far more than 100,000 Black Confederates," as you claim -- are ludicrous.

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  9. By that logic any draftee who did not actual fight was not a soldier? For ever man in the field it takes 11 in the rear to keep him there, I know many a Vietnam veteran who then did not serve!

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