Over the last several months I’ve noticed a rather peculiar twist to the discussion of blacks who accompanied Confederate military forces during the American Civil War. Historians have long known that enslaved blacks did in fact accompany Confederate forces and were impressed into service for the Confederacy, not as soldiers, but to dig trenches, work as teamsters, and perform other tasks in support of Confederate military operations. After all, the refugee blacks who entered Benjamin F. Butler’s lines in May 1861 had escaped from performing some of those tasks. Some historians were also familiar with the story of the Louisiana Native Guards, Patrick Cleburne’s proposal to enlist blacks, and the debate over enlisting slaves in the Confederacy in the winter of 1864-65, including Robert E. Lee’s support of that measure. We may now know more about those issues, but most historians were always aware of them.
Of course, proponents of the Black Confederate Myth go beyond that to say that blacks fought against Union forces, firing rifles, acting as sharpshooters and skirmishers, and manning artillery pieces; that they were in fact a combat element (not simply combat support or logistical support); that while a few enlistment papers survive, that the majority of them were destroyed or lost (in marked contrast to the survival of most records of white military service); and that postwar pensions serve as satisfactory evidence of their service. Indeed, they have looked to broaden 19th century definitions of soldiers and combatants beyond recognition, and, for a group that usually rails against presentism and political correctness, they have sought to blur the difference between present day definitions of soldiers and their functions with past definitions (since soldiers today drive trucks and serve as cooks, therefore slaves who were teamsters or cooked must be viewed as soldiers). It’s all about “service” now, regardless of how that discussion warps the historical record in the service (pun intended) of present agendas. As we’ve seen, they cite scattered references from Union sources to support their point, although it remains puzzling that Confederate sources don’t contain the same sort of evidence.
(Sidebar: Apparently silence selectively speaks when it comes to Confederate soldiers’ letters. While the relative lack of commentary about the defense of slavery as a motivation for Confederate soldiers to fight is a subject of debate, those people who explain away that silence as not bearing on motivation (“it was assumed”) highlight the lack of evidence in Confederate letters about black soldiers and combat service as evidence that it didn’t happen, while those who say that the relative silence on slavery in those letters proves that “it wasn’t about slavery” because it’s not mentioned do not apply that same reasoning to the silence on black military activity).
There is no debate, therefore, on the fact that enslaved blacks accompanied Confederate forces and worked in a number of support capacities. There is some discussion about whether blacks were formally enlisted in the Confederate army as soldiers and what that means, but even proponents of that argument can produce only a handful of documents in support of that claim, just as there is sparse documentation about women serving as soldiers (a topic that some professional historians treat with far more respect: why is that?). Proponents of the BCM simply haven’t produced any evidence that suggests that we are not talking about a rather small number of people. That the lack of evidence does not deter them is suggestive that something else is going on here. And that’s the key to this whole debate: what does this all mean? So what?
I’d argue that the answers to these questions is what gives the debate its passion and its importance to those who participate in these never-ending discussions. Indeed, that should be obvious. Ask any proponent of the notion that large numbers of blacks willingly served in the Confederate forces as de facto or de jure soldiers why that matters, and, if they have the courage and candor to respond, most of them will sooner or later declare that the underlying theme is that the Confederacy wasn’t about slavery, but a defense of home and kin and a quest for independence from a tyrannical government. In turn, what sparks people to challenge the BCM is an underlying concern that proponents of this view are looking to subvert a slavery-centered narrative of the war that reminds us of the central role slavery played in the South, national politics, secession, and war.
You would think professional historians would be sympathetic to those folks who challenge the BCM. After all, at present nearly the entire profession is enamored with the notion of Civil War memory and embraces David W. Blight’s argument on how white southerners succeeded (with the help of many white northerners) to obscure and even erase for a time the notion that the war was a war conducted in defense of the peculiar institution and who highlighted the centrality of race, slavery, emancipation, and freedom in constructing a narrative of the American Civil War. To my mind, people who battle the BCM are engaged in exactly the same fight … and yet it seems that at least some of the professional historians who laud the efforts of people who battled efforts to take slavery and race out of the story of the Civil War and replace it with a race-free reconciliationist perspective spend a great deal of time deriding the efforts of opponents of the BCM as somehow legitimatizing the very tale they seek to discredit in what is, after all, another battle over Civil War memory. “Just ignore these crackpots,” is the message I hear. “Your efforts to counter their claims gives them legitimacy and distracts from our own efforts to shape how we should remember the Civil War in our own conferences, talks, and occasional forays into blogging with various newspapers and the like. Let us educate the public, and please don’t serve as a distraction.”
That’s as nice as I can put it. Bull. it’s a bizarre and self-serving argument, fueled in part by people telling other people what to do and what to focus on. Professional historians would be ashamed to use the same argument when it comes to countering the claims of holocaust deniers, for example, or other human atrocities. We’re told that memory is as much about what we forget and what we remember, and it thus stands to reason that it is also shaped by what we fail to contest as well as what we contest. To celebrate the efforts of people who insisted that Americans not forget the centrality of race and slavery in the coming of the Civil War while deriding the efforts of those folks who actively counter proponents of the BCM, people with the same agenda of whitewashing American history, strikes me as more than bizarre. Moreover, people engaged in this struggle understand that the struggle for memory and historical understanding is no longer confined to the podium and the printing press: the internet has become a major resource for people looking to understand the past. Proponents of the BCM understand that all too well. Get your site on a search engine and you can shape the historical understanding of the general public.
Why professional historians don’t get this is hard to fathom. After all, we hear all the time about educators wailing about Wikipedia and the unfiltered nonsense on the net. History educators are now tasked with telling students how to use the internet responsibly as a tool for research and a resource of information. So you would think that these overburdened professionals, well aware of the new fields where discourse, the transmission of information, and education take place, and attuned to the importance of civic and historical literacy in the general public (why else the snickers about the flubs of leading politicians?) would welcome the help offered by researchers, professionally-trained historians, and even a few well-known scholars in combating these false renderings of our past. Oh, no. That distracts the public’s attention from their own message (which apparently they are having trouble delivering, but they don’t reflect on why that is). They presume to tell other people what they should be doing (this disease is not limited to possessors of a Ph.D.: indeed, some graduate students have been rather loud in recent discussions about what other people should do, and that brings up a problem in graduate education and the training of historians I’ll address before too long).
Well, folks, turnabout’s fair play. In part two I’ll tell you what I think professional historians ought to be doing with their time and energy when it comes to this issue. Let’s see how they take advice.