The Myth of Black Confederates Versus the Truth About Black Yankees

One of the more regrettable aspects of the continuing obsession with the Black Confederate Myth is that we risk overlooking how African Americans helped win the war for the Union … and in the process secured their freedom.  Rather than struggle over the question, “Who freed the slaves?”, we might well want to discuss how African Americans, free and enslaved, contributed to Union victory.  After all, that’s a far better documented story; it assumes that blacks exercised agency in helping to shape the course of events in various ways, including but not limited to military service as soldiers.  One can do this, after all, and also tell the story of the struggle blacks faced in their efforts to combat racism and secure equal rights and equal treatment from white northerners, a way to acknowledge that racism was national, not regional.

To start that discussion, I ask you what five books you would suggest someone wanting to know more about this story ought to read first.

25 thoughts on “The Myth of Black Confederates Versus the Truth About Black Yankees

  1. James F. Epperson June 16, 2011 / 12:52 pm

    Trudeau’s book (Like Men of War) would be my first choice, but I am not sure I can get five while sitting in my office at work. Cornish’s The Sable Arm is also good, but old. Army Life in a Black Regiment (Higginson) makes three.

  2. Matt McKeon June 16, 2011 / 2:45 pm

    Forged in Battle, by Joseph Glathaar(sp?)

  3. Bob Pollock June 16, 2011 / 3:11 pm

    Well, here’s three:
    Redkey, “Grand Army of Black Men”
    Smith (ed.) “Black Soldiers in Blue”
    Glatthaar, “Forged in Battle”

  4. Jimmy Price June 16, 2011 / 4:29 pm

    1. Been in the Storm So Long: The Aftermath of Slavery by Leon F. Litwack
    2. Black Soldiers in Blue: African American Troops in the Civil War Era, edited by John David Smith
    3. The Sable Arm: Negro Troops in the Union Army, 1861-1865 by Dudley Taylor Cornish
    4. Freedom: A Documentary History of Emancipation 1861-1867, Series II: The Black Military Experience edited by Ira Berlin, Joseph P. Reidy, & Leslie S. Rowland
    5. After the Glory: The Struggles of Black Civil War Veterans by Donald R. Shaffer

  5. James F. Epperson June 16, 2011 / 6:32 pm

    I should have remembered “Forged in Battle.” Too busy creating haiku on Facebook, I guess 😦

  6. Ray O'Hara June 16, 2011 / 7:41 pm

    The movie Glory has made the 54th Massachusetts the most famous and well known regiment of the war.

  7. Stephen Graham June 16, 2011 / 9:53 pm

    Reid’s Freedom for Themselves is directly applicable. I’d like to recommend Tomblin’s Bluejackets and Contrabands: African Americans and the Union Navy but there’d be caveats about repetitiveness and lack of focus. Dobak’s Black Regulars would be a good supplement.

  8. Lyle Smith June 17, 2011 / 8:29 am

    I’d recommend “The Guns of Port Hudson, Louisiana” vol. 2. It’s probably the definitive work on Port Hudson and provides a whole chapter on the Louisiana Native Guards that participated in the siege and made an assault there (with probably the definitive take on the assault that was made). This assault happened a couple of months before the assault the 54th Mass. made outside Charleston, and consisted of two regiments of black soldiers attacking unsupported.

    Some of these soldiers, ad free black men, had actually been mustered in to service as Confederate militia prior to New Orleans being taken (some of them were even slave owners), but that unit became the 1st Louisiana Native Guard once Gen. Benjamin Butler encouraged and organized their enlistment into the Federal army.

  9. Matt Gallman June 17, 2011 / 9:11 am

    I’d agree with most of the titles listed above

    Gooding’s letters are good

    The collection of essays on the 54th Massachusetts (HOPE AND GLORY) has some great pieces

    Reidy’s essay in the new collection edited by Susannah Ural on black soldiers and citizenship is superb

    McPherson’s old book on black soldiers is still valuable

    Barbara Gannon’s new book on black veterans is key

    Blight on Frederick Douglass is really valuable

    (I have an essay on black soldiers, using Olustee as the lens, that tries to get at the diversity of the black military experience)

    If someone who knew nothing said they wanted to read five things by historians I think I’d say:
    (1) Trudeau for a decent narrative
    (2) “The Black MIlitary Experience” (essay by Berlin et al)
    (3) Glatthaar
    (4) Reidy’s essay noted above
    (5) Jim Horton’s essay in HOPE AND GLORY

    If that person wanted to read original documents I’d say
    (1) The Black Military Experience (the documents)
    (2) Gooding’s letters
    (3) Emilio’s book
    (4) Redkey’s collection of letters
    (5) Higginson

  10. Matt Gallman June 17, 2011 / 9:20 am

    Not in the top five, but definitely worth a look: Stephen Ochs, A Black Patriot And A White Priest: Andre Cailloux And Claude Paschal Maistre in Civil War New Orleans.

    Cailloux’s history is really interesting

  11. TF Smith June 17, 2011 / 9:21 am

    Well said.

    The military side is/has been pretty well covered, so – along with a good biography of Douglas – what are the four best works on the civilian side of the cause?

  12. TF Smith June 17, 2011 / 9:32 am

    One other point, along these lines – When it comes to the BCM and its promulgators, It is also probably worth considering RN Current’s case in “Lincoln’s Loyalists” that along with the roughly 200,000 AAs who served in the US Army and USN during the (and were split between free men and formerly enslaved, of course) that some 100,000 “white” southerners served in the US forces…which puts the Lost Cause in a very different light.


  13. Kevin June 17, 2011 / 11:59 am

    These are all wonderful suggestions. I would also suggest Honor in Command, ed. by Keith Wilson. It’s a collection of Lt. Freeman s. Bowley’s service in the 30th USCT and it’s one of the most valuable accounts by a white officer.

  14. so much for the myth idea !! dream on. June 17, 2011 / 5:07 pm

    (See this link)

    • so much for expecting to not be censored June 17, 2011 / 7:36 pm

      nothing like having my comments deleted but then the truth hurts.

      • so much for expecting to not be censored June 17, 2011 / 7:43 pm

        ok i saw you moved them and reposted. I apologise. Thank you for your willingness to hear the view.

  15. Michael Furlan June 17, 2011 / 6:50 pm

    1. Bell Irvin Wiley, “Southern Negroes 1861-1865”
    2. Gary B. Mills, “The Forgotten People, Cane River’s Creoles of Color”
    3. James M. McPherson, “The Struggle for Equality”
    4. James G. Hollandsworth, Jr. “The Louisiana Native Guards”
    5. Ervin L. Jordan, Jr. “Black Confederates and Afro-Yankees in Civil War Virginia
    X. And a good bad example, Charles Kelly Barrow, J.H. Segars and R.B. Rosenburg, “Forgotten Confederates, An Anthology about Black Confederates.”

    I believe Wiley’s book is the oldest one mentioned so far, published in 1938, is a good place to start. Mills book will demolish the concept of such a thing as a “black” Confederate (define black first). McPherson’s book was developed from his doctoral dissertation. (His previously mentioned book is titled “The Negro’s Civil War). Hollandsworth is included as an alternative source for some mentioned above. Jordan’s book is not liked by some, but I found it fair and useful. And the bad example, is there to show everybody how not to do it.

    • Andy Hall June 17, 2011 / 7:31 pm

      Charles H. Wesley published an article in the July 1919 issue of The Journal of Negro History (vol. 4, no. 3, pp. 239-253), “The Employment of Negroes as Soldiers in the Confederate Army.” It is often cited by the BCS crowd as a published, peer-reviewed source affirming the existence of Confederate African American soldiers, under arms. The manuscript is much more wide-ranging than the title suggests, encompassing the employment of African Americans in a variety of different roles in support of the Confederate during the war. It covers the conscription of black men into labor gangs, digging trenches and setting up fortifications, early proposals for the arming of slaves, and the extended, rancorous debate surrounding the Confederacy’s eleventh-hour decision accept African American men as soldiers, during the final days of the war.

      But while lots of people have been citing Wesley’s 1919 manuscript, not many seem to be actually quoting from it. That may be because, when you get down into the text itself, the documentation of BCS is tenuous. His coverage of the subject is brief, encompassing just two paragraphs that together make up about 1½ pages of the 15-page manuscript. There’s no substantive discussion or analysis; it’s simply a listing of mentions in contemporary newspapers, several of which are themselves drawn from an unreferenced secondary source, the second volume of Horace Greeley’s The American Conflict, published in 1866, which is itself little more than a listing on contemporary news items, with no follow-up at all.

      I like WIley’s book, too, although it contains a lot of casual bigotry and language that’s ugly to modern ears. (I reads like it was written by a white Southerner in the Jim Crow South, which it was.) Still, it lays the foundation for much work that’s come since.

      • Spelunker February 11, 2015 / 5:23 am

        I found this manuscript to be a pretty interesting read. Thanks for sharing. I learn a great day from this blog and all of the commentors here as well.

        It’s pretty clear that the case for the Black Confederate Soldier is set upon a foundation of quicksand.

  16. so much for expecting to not be censored June 17, 2011 / 7:40 pm

    you censored my examples from official UNION records, which i expected. You are so intellectualy DISHONEST. How pathetic.

    • Brooks D. Simpson June 17, 2011 / 8:06 pm

      For the unsuspecting, this poster subsequently remarked, “ok i saw you moved them and reposted. I apologise. Thank you for your willingness to hear the view,” adding elsewhere, “I appreciate your not censoring. If you are a seeker of the truth, then let the facts be presented and people can decide. Otherwise it is just a propaganda effort. You are to be commended for being intellectually honest.”

  17. Matt Gallman June 17, 2011 / 8:55 pm

    Back to the topic of African American men who fought during the Civil War (ie Union soldiers)

    The scholarship is growing, but it is still fairly thin

    Question Where should scholars go next in examining the soldiers of the USCT? What topics should we engage?

    • Stephen Graham June 17, 2011 / 9:49 pm

      The next place to go is not to cover the USCT or those in the Navy, but those who were civilian employees of the Army, Navy and other arms of the government.

  18. John Cummings June 18, 2011 / 12:45 am

    Robert Beecham’s “As If It Were Glory” is well worth adding to the list.

  19. Kevin June 18, 2011 / 3:25 am

    I also highly recommend Stepehen Ash’s Firebrand of Liberty: The Story of Two Black Regiments That Changed the Course of the Civil War (Norton 2008).

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