Greatest Hits From Civil Warriors: So What? An Observation on the Debate over Black Confederates

(This essay originally appeared on Civil Warriors on November 8, 2010; it appears here slightly revised)

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 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.

16 thoughts on “Greatest Hits From Civil Warriors: So What? An Observation on the Debate over Black Confederates

  1. Lyle Smith February 9, 2011 / 7:26 am

    Professor, per this statement “After all, as they were slaves, the issue of volition and choice is moot. By definitions, slaves have no freedom to choose. ”

    Overwhelmingly true generally, but couldn’t a slave master have given their slaves the right to choose to come along or not? Were all slave masters the same in how they treated slaves? Every single slave owning Confederate soldier who had a chattel with them made that chattel come along?

    • Andy Hall February 9, 2011 / 8:04 am

      There’s a strong argument to be made that even when offered a “choice,” enslaved people didn’t actually have real freedom to choose against the master’s explicit or implied wishes. Remember that coercion does not necessarily imply physical force or direct threat.

      • Lyle Smith February 9, 2011 / 11:40 am


        Ultimately that’s the case. Slaves were forced to be slaves. However, within the institution itself, there were clearly some slave owners who gave their slaves more leeway than others.

        The aggregate, macro story of forced servitude in the Confederate military is entirely true, I think… but the myriad, micro/individual stories I can see where some slave might have wanted to go on an “adventure” with his master or his master’s son. Or maybe the master respected a certain slave enough to let them choose for themselves if they wanted to accompany their master or not.

        I’m being picayune about it, I guess.

      • Brooks D. Simpson February 9, 2011 / 12:37 pm

        I’m sure there are individual stories that are somehow misrepresented as the whole story. Moreover, one can also see where a slave might want to go to the front, where in the chaos of battle or the confusion of a march, that slave might glimpse a chance to escape. I don’t think they would have shared that with the master or the master’s family, however, and we’re well aware of the game played between slave and master … in which slaves said what they thought masters wanted to hear, and masters differed on how much stock they put in what they heard.

  2. Mark February 9, 2011 / 7:32 am

    So what?

    The entire reason these guys make up (or follow) these absurdities about black soldiers fighting for the confederacy is to cover IT ALL UP

    The real story of the Civil War is one of cowardice and cruelty. If the Southern apologist and myth makers can define the question as “Did blacks fight for the South” look at the questions they run away from, like their soldiers ran from Sherman?

    1) How young were the women Lee tortured?
    2) Why did Lee sell white looking babies, for higher prices than he sold the black looking babies?
    3) Why the religious fantatics in the South defend the torture of slave youths, including females?
    4) Who fathered Lee’s mulatto and white looking slave girls?
    5) Why did Davis go on a speaking tour in summer of 1864 to beg deserters to return? Why did Davis say 2/3 of his soldiers had deserted?
    6) Since Lee had girls as young as 13 tortured during peace time, what on earth did he have done to the grown male slaves he had build the RIchmond defenses in war time?
    7) Why is there a cover up about Davis running away in a dress? The real story is, he not only was in the dress, but running away from his wife and children, leaving them defenseless.
    8) Why did the Southern leaders issue Five Ultimatums — all about the spread of slavery, against the will of the people and states involved?

    See – there are many questions about the cowardice, cruelty and religous lunacy of the Southern leaders and soldiers. For 150 years myth makers have pumped up a horrid, shabby, cowardly story and tried to make it appear otherwise.

    By focusing on absurdities, they can avoid the actual history.

    • Andy Hall February 9, 2011 / 8:00 am

      Trying to get yourself banned from another blog, I see.

    • Brooks D. Simpson February 9, 2011 / 11:10 am

      I look forward to your answers to the questions you pose.

  3. Mark February 9, 2011 / 9:34 am

    Hmn. Another Mark here I see. If this keeps up I’ll have to add an initial to distinguish myself from the other Mark. Isn’t the Davis in a dress stuff a myth? Or at least a falsehood made to slander Davis? I’ve never even heard about mulatto slaves of Lee or torture.

    • Brooks D. Simpson February 9, 2011 / 11:09 am

      The initial idea may be a good one. 🙂

      The Davis in a dress tale is a myth. As for the other allegations, the poster in question has made them before, but I’ve never seen documentary evidence in support of them. Like “Border Ruffian,” that poster makes the rounds of blogs. Each represents a point of view. So long as they remain civil, I have no problem with their posting responses.

  4. BorderRuffian February 9, 2011 / 10:24 am

    “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”

    The blog presents a booklet written by Hilary A. Herbert. It is his personal interpretation of the monument. The artist’s intentions are unknown.

    • Andy Hall February 9, 2011 / 10:46 am

      The blog presents a booklet written by Hilary A. Herbert. The blog presents a booklet written by Hilary A. Herbert. It is his personal interpretation of the monument.

      You neglected to mention that (1) Hillary Herbert was the chairwoman of the UDC monument committee that organized, planned and commissioned the work, (2) the “booklet” was the official commemorative booklet published by the UDC for the monument’s dedication, and (3) the interpretation of the figure as a “faithful negro body-servant following his young master” is not mine, but that published by the UDC. Readers are welcome to click through and read both my post and the original booklet it’s drawn from, and decide for themselves.

      If you have original and verifiable source to cite that say otherwise, please share them, Otherwise, you’re just tossing out pure speculation that gets us no closer to an actual answer.

      • Brooks D. Simpson February 9, 2011 / 11:07 am

        I view “Border Ruffian” and “Mark” the intense anti-Reb as two sides of the same coin. So long as each of them is civil, they can post responses.

      • Mike Musick February 9, 2011 / 12:52 pm

        As a footnote to Andy Hall’s comment, Hilary Abner Herbert (1834-1919) was the (male) colonel of the 8th Alabama Infantry, CSA, during the war, and later served as Grover Cleveland’s Secretary of the Navy.

      • Brooks D. Simpson February 9, 2011 / 1:06 pm

        For Hilary A. Herbert, see this sketch. For another of Herbert’s writings, one that illustrates his perspective on public events during his life, read this book.

  5. Commodore Perry February 10, 2011 / 6:44 am

    I really want to hear them answer the “so what” in their own words, but I’m not holding my breath. The first thing that comes to mind is that there is a much broader understanding of the CW now than before, and many people now ask what it was like for blacks in the South. Stories of black Confederates help answer that question, and I think it appropriate to tell them IF THEY ARE TRUE. Obviously, having one or two stories about a few individuals should be noted as such- exceptions to the rule, which seems to be the case, and not evidence that oh so many black Confederates existed.

    But these stories can be more than answers to the “what was it like” question, and they can serve as evidence not for scores of black Confederates but for other themes of the CW. Not saying that I agree or disagree with any of the following, but some possibilities that cross my mind as answers to your “so what” question:
    -So some Southern whites were willing to include blacks more than we think
    -So the South was actually more side-by-side integrated than the North
    -So at least some whites want independence more than they valued slavery
    -So some Southern blacks felt the South was their home to honorably defend, too

    All of the above potential points really support other themes we hear about the CW era and are not quite new and fresh in and of themselves. That doesn’t make the evidence and anecdotes, if true, any less important, but it does suggest that they’re much better served within their own themes than as broad-brush answers to “what was it like for blacks in the South”.

    Of course, the stories about black Confederates are not typically used as support for other points, but are separated into books like you mention in your post about “Entangled in Freedom”. The likely answer as to why this clumping is done is that it’s a response to virulent the anti-South crowd who claim it impossible for any white in the CW-era South to have had a conscience or logical train of thought even once in their lives, but I would hope that analysis such as your post here would steer the stories of black Confederates, if true, back to the overall themes of the CW, at least until we uncover multitudes of evidence to the contrary, since such stories are much more useful this way than as their own genre.

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