(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:
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.