Kevin M. Weeks is the coauthor of a children’s book, Entangled in Freedom: A Civil War Story. As the website says:
… this is an opportune time to discuss the views of your family or guardians as it relates to the American Civil War. Find out how the events between 1861 and 1865 shaped the lives of your family and/or community. Have an open and honest discussion on your views about slavery and why the United States of America and the Confederate States of America went to war. Do you and others agree or disagree that African-Americans served in the Confederate States Army during the War Between the States? Read Entangled In Freedom as a conversation starter.
The book certainly became a conversation starter on one blog.
Now comes news that Mr. Weeks might be developing a greater interest in the subjects of enslaved blacks serving in Confederate ranks. His coauthor, Ann DeWitt, has several recent posts on the subject. We hear again of the story of the 1st Louisiana Native Guards. You can learn more about Chaplain Louis Napoleon Nelson, who led Tennessee Confederate cavalrymen in prayer. There’s the tale of John Noland, who served as a scout for William Quantrill. As expected, you can find the story of Silas Chandler. One post explores the life of Burrell, a slave who accompanied his master into the Confederate army. Another is devoted to Jeff Shields, a slave who served as a cook in the Stonewall Brigade. And that’s just for starters, or so we are told.
I’m not quite sure what to make of these stories. Some of the individual accounts are quite interesting, but the larger point escapes me. So does a theme running through many of these accounts … a suggestion that, basically, slaves had much more choice and freedom than we assume, and that they forged close bonds with whites. Indeed, a particularly curious mind might well ask whether, if this was true, then what was so bad about slavery after all? Why didn’t more blacks seek to be enslaved? Why would any of them seek to escape from that lifestyle? Was slavery really a denial of self-determination, choice, or even freedom, if these accounts are to be believed? And what happened to these loyal servants during Reconstruction? Did they join the KKK to preserve the order under which they thrived? Such questions, ridiculous (or even offensive) as they might seem, flow naturally from these narratives.
Most studies of slavery suggest that enslaved blacks sought autonomy by carving their own space out of the sight of whites. These accounts suggest just the opposite. Now, one can offer reasons why enslaved blacks might have been willing to go to the front, especially if in so doing they did not abandon family matters. After all, the chances for freedom increased as one moved closer to the battlefront. And we need not discount that in certain cases, bonds of friendship and affection formed between masters and slaves. The question remains: do these stories really change our understanding of the American Civil War? Do they challenge the paramount role that slavery played in southern society? Do they even address the debate over secession? Do they come close to counterbalancing the stories of enslaved blacks seeking freedom and serving the Union cause? Are they attempts to paint the conditions of enslavement in such a way as to whitewash the evils of the peculiar institution?
In other words, Ms. DeWitt, why do Mr. Weeks and you tell these stories, which, as you know, have been told before?
All myths have some basis in fact, and that’s true in the case of so-called black Confederate soldiers (BCS). There are a some cases of slaves or freemen who fired shots at the Union army, and this is being used to create a greater and grander story about BCS.
A key question, which can’t be asked enough is, how many BCS were there? The best and most credible estimates are that the high end count of BCS is perhaps 3000 (with the low end in the hundreds). The high-end estimate would mean that 0.1% of negroes “fought” for the Confederate “cause.”
That small number leads us to say and ask certain things. For one, the BCS “experience,” to the extent it existed at all, is totally unrepresentative of the overall negro experience during the war, and offers no overarching insights regarding the negro’s behavior or intentions (such as the negro’s supposed “support” for the Confederacy). Second, we have to ask: if so many negroes wanted to serve the “Confederate cause,” then why did so few actually do so?
Meeks and DeWitt never address this. They present a number of anecdotes, and then ask people to draw larger conclusions from them. Their discussion is devoid of context, and I’ve found that lack of context is a common basis for bad history.
There’s an old expression that if something happens once, it’s an accident; if it happens twice, it’s a coincidence; if it happens three times, it’s a trend. Well, if BCS happened 0.1% of the time, I’d call that miraculous. Unfortunately for the Confederacy, the occurrence of a few miracles did not lead to its salvation… they needed a lot, lot more of them.
PS, It is starting to concern me that the BCS story gets so much airtime that, the stories of US Colored Troops, or the contrabands, or slaves who otherwise provided support for the Union army, are being suffocated for lack of oxygen. The fact that BCS get so much attention, while stories that are truly representative of black life during the War seem to get less attention, is very unfortunate. And I say this as someone who’s talked a lot about BCS in various forums. Hopefully, this situation will right itself as the sesquicentennial proceeds.
Great comment. If we had a time machine, and could go back and actually make a count, I suspect we’d find dozens of individuals who, through particular skill or preference, achieved something like equal status with white Confederate soldiers. (Holt Collier is a likely example of this.) But I think we’d also find that their status was not officially recognized, either. These men were, in practical terms, in a betwixt-and-between situation, neither fully recognized as soldiers but also clearly performing a more military role than typical body servants or cooks.
The case of the famous Bill Yopp is a good example of this. He was a slave who accompanied his white master, Thomas Yopp, when the latter joined as an officer, and Yopp served as a drummer with his master’s unit. But as Bell Irvin Wiley pointed out in Southern Negroes, 1861-1865, Yopp was first and foremost a personal body servant, who earned extra income (and his nickname) by running errands and doing odd jobs for other white soldiers. (And it should be noted that, unlike those who write about him as a BCS today, Wiley actually knew Bill Yopp personally.) Much is made of the fact that Yopp is buried with a Confederate headstone, provided by the men of the Confederate Home, but that was a recognition of Yopp’s work on their behalf, decades after the war. Yopp was well known locally in his own lifetime, but always framed in the context of the former slave who retained his loyalty to his master and the Confederacy after the passage of many decades— not as a soldier fighting on his own account. Yopp’s story is a complicated one, and it does neither his memory nor history a service to simplistically write him off as “Bill Yopp, Black Confederate Soldier.”
The problem for public education is as you describe — the prominence of BCS is exaggerated beyond all plausible historical significance, and it does indeed suck the air out of the room regarding the true (and still largely invisible to the public) experience of USCTs.
What makes it difficult to counter is that the vast majority of the “evidence” presented for BCS is so fragmentary that it’s entirely unverifiable. In the relatively few cases where individuals are identified as BCS, a close look at the primary sources available often reveals the BCS narrative being applied as based on misunderstood or misrepresented “evidence.” It really is a muddled mess, made harder by wild claims and shoddy “research.” I think there probably are needles in the haystack, but it doesn’t help to have the advocates of the BCS meme throwing handfuls of straw in one’s face, saying “lookee at this!”
Andy, those are great points, all.
A couple of historians have used the term “they come to this honestly” to describe some of the BCS storytellers, as I sometimes call them. In their minds, they have found “real evidence” of BCS, and anyone who argues against them is a “denier.”
I am beginning to think that challenging the BCS myth outright is the wrong way to deal with the storytellers rhetorically, because they consider such challenges equivalent to saying that there were no BCS at all. Of course, nobody is saying there were no BCS. But the storytellers frame it that way. And as long as they can say that at least one BCS exists, they feel they’ve “won” the argument.
One approach I’ve used is to point out that the number of BCS is numerically and statistically insignificant – Edward Ayers has used the word “trivial” – and that the very small numbers themselves teach us something. Of course, this is a more complex and nuanced discussion that the storytellers don’t want to engage in. But it may be insightful for the many people who see these back-and-forths concerning BCS, and wonder, “what the heck is all the fuss about?”
True, but it’s an academic argument that’s hard to make to a True Believer, because it’s all deeply, deeply personalized. The response you’ll get is, “Have you met H. K. Edgerton? Well I have, and his great-granddaddy is not trivial or insignificant!” And again, they walk away, certain that they’ve won the argument. You’ve been pwned.
Motives and intentions count for everything with most of these folks, to the exclusion of actual data and evidence. Facts and analysis are poor tools with which to challenge moral certitude.
I have often wondered how Lost Cause Traditionalist can explain how blacks were treated during Reconstruction in light of their claims of black confederates. It would seem that if black confederates existed like they claim there is a serious difference in how they were seen between then and now.