Professional Historians and the Black Confederate Myth: Part Two

Professional historians differ as to how to respond when confronted with the Black Confederate Myth.  After all, they’ve already acknowledged that the Confederates made use of enslaved blacks in support of Confederate military operations, and they are willing to concede that there may have been a handful of people classified as African American who enlisted (or were conscripted) into Confederate military service as soldiers.

Beyond that, however, historians disagree as to how to address these claims.  Some historians discuss these issues in writing about larger issues, as Bruce Levine did in his Confederate Emancipation (2005).  Others may agree with Matt Gallman, who has shared his opinions here and elsewhere.  Some folks, including Kevin Levin and Andy Hall, take dead aim at these assertions and have confronted some of the claims that are fundamental to the case crafted by proponents of the Black Confederate Myth.  Finally, there are people like me.  I contest the logic of the BCM and challenge any implications that can be drawn about larger issues from fragmentary evidence.  For example, I assume that if there were all those black Confederates hoisting rifles for the Army of Northern Virginia, Robert E. Lee would have pointed this out when he advocated enlisting blacks in 1865.  Moreover, the vast majority of blacks who showed up in armies wearing uniforms and shouldering sidearms were wearing the blue uniform of the United States Colored Troops or United States volunteers, as in the case of the famed 54th Massachusetts.  We misrepresent the nature of black military service by highlighting scattered cases in the Confederate army when there’s more than enough evidence of African American contributions to the Union war effort … the effort that in the end explicitly promised them the best way to gain freedom for all enslaved African Americans.

I don’t expect (and don’t advocate) most or even many professional historians to do as I have.  We each make our own choices, and if some people don’t care for the choices I make, that’s really their problem, because as a rule I don’t tell them what to do.  However, turnabout is fair play, and, as these folks seem intent on telling folks what they should do and shouldn’t do, they should have to listen in turn to what I have to say.

I believe that the best way for professional historians to address these issues raised by the BCM is by refocusing attention on the experience of southern blacks, free and enslaved, during the American Civil War, and to remind us how that conflict destroyed the institution that white southerners sought to protect through secession and war.  Furthermore, they need to integrate that story with what we know about slavery, the South, and blacks, enslaved and free, prior to the war as well as what happened in the wake of emancipation and during Reconstruction.  For example, we know that free blacks were coming under increased scrutiny in the years leading to the conflict.  Cannot one see that some blacks in the public eye, especially in urban areas, might have continued to put on the mask of support that they had been wearing for some time?  After all, “puttin’ on Old Massa” was not limited to the enslaved.  Black resistance and black identity had to be exercised with care given the circumstances.  Masters knew that if they encouraged family relationships that the resulting ties would restrain those blacks thinking of escape.  If anything, the war gave some blacks (especially males) a chance to travel far from the plantation and enter a zone of violence, chaos, and disorder where the opportunity for freedom beckoned.

We are well aware that masters who presumed loyalty on the part of their own slaves were often sorely disappointed to discover that their slaves were just waiting for a chance to escape, and that for years they had done what they could to carve out a space of their own.  Stephen Hahn and Stephanie McCurry’s recent work builds on previous scholarship on how blacks dealt with the events and opportunities presented by war; Armstead Robinson and others looked at how the war eroded the chains of enslavement.  The documents published by The Freedom and Southern Society Project also shed light on this process.  In short, there’s plenty of evidence to show that blacks acted in their own best interests, and always with an eye of the prize of freedom.  Sure, there are stories of house servants protecting white families and the like, but those accounts are outweighed by the diaries of bitter masters who learned that they had been deceived (and had been deceiving themselves) when it came to their slaves.

Finally, if we look at Reconstruction, we look in vain for blacks who rejected the opportunities offered by freedom to go where they wanted to go, to do what they wanted to do, and to reunite with family and friends.  And we see how whites in the South responded to those assertions of freedom … long before Republicans set forth a policy of reconstruction.  Could someone show me a single case where a black man was spared becoming a victim of violence when someone recognized that he was a Confederate veteran?  After all, you would think that white southerners who served alongside all those black Confederates would spare them when it came to committing terrorist acts.

In short, there’s plenty of information out there to challenge the narrative put forth by proponents of the Black Confederate Myth.  What astonishes me is that we aren’t bringing that scholarship to bear on this issue in decisive fashion.  No, you aren’t going to convince proponents of the BCM of anything, because that argument in the end is not grounded in  history, but in a need to believe certain things in order to justify other beliefs and actions.  But you are going to make sure that, for all this talk about memory, that we remember that the Civil War destroyed slavery in the reUnited States, and that black people, free and enslaved, played a large role in that process and in the defeat of the Confederacy.  Tell that story, and tell it time and time again.  That’s the best way for professional historians to counter these claims: by reminding everyone, including students as well as the general public, of that basic truth, a truth that renders ridiculous the entire BCM.

And … please do it with some of the same zeal I see when some folks chide people for responding to proponents of the BCM.


7 thoughts on “Professional Historians and the Black Confederate Myth: Part Two

  1. Robert Gudmestad June 20, 2011 / 8:41 am

    I am a faculty member at a public university who teaches the Civil War on a regular basis. In fact, during this summer session, one student asserted that African Americans fought in large numbers for the Confederacy. We discussed the reasons for that belief in the wider context of beliefs about the war itself. It is my experience that people who tend to minimize the importance of the Confederate defense of slavery tend to inflate the number of Black Confederates. Those students who believe the war was fundamentally about the future of slavery in the United States tend to believe that few Blacks (free or enslaved) fought for the Confederacy. I also try to make parallels to the American Revolution, where African Americans fought for liberty — their own. Something like an estimated 80% of African Americans who fought in the Revolution fought FOR the British because they believed that gave them the best opportunity for personal freedom. The vast majority of African Americans fought for the Union during the Civil War for essentially the same reason.

  2. Lyle Smith June 20, 2011 / 9:04 am

    The Confederacy also didn’t allow or want the very small community of slave owning free blacks to participate in the defense of the Confederacy as combatants. Maybe if the Confederates had tried to seriously defend New Orleans and actually armed the free black militia they had there there would have been black Confederates, but they didn’t.

  3. Margaret Blough June 20, 2011 / 9:58 am

    I think it is essential not just to respond but to proactively get information out there. I don’t mean this for the sake of the die hard Black Confederate true believer. Short of a conversion experience greater than that which turned Saul of Tarsus into St. Paul, that’s not going to happen. It is important for the sake of all the people with whom they come in contact to have ready access to clear, available information to counteract them. They shouldn’t be underestimated. They are fluent in their use of the social media. Many know how to couch their myths in the language and form of scholarship & how to tell people what they want to hear. In a culture in which “to google” has become a verb, I don’t want this faux history to be all that comes up when someone does a search.

  4. TF Smith June 20, 2011 / 9:59 am

    Very well said.

  5. Matt Gallman June 20, 2011 / 1:31 pm

    All sorts of interesting points here.
    I suppose that there are separate issues here. One is essentially “what should professional historians write about?” That is a question that comes down to personal choice somehow filtered through the lens of professional considerations. That is, not all questions are understood to be equally “interesting” by editors, program committees, dissertation committees etc. We can have interesting conversations about the main topics that are worth new investigation (such as themes concerning the history of black Union soldiers, which came up on this blog a few days ago).

    Another issue is really about how – if at all – the professional historian should engage in public discourse surrounding topics in history, in an effort to help shape the public’s understanding of history. That is related to the first issue, but not really the same, When and how should these professional historians try to “correct” what folks think?

    On this whole “BCM” thing, I find the discussions interesting and strange. There seems to me some (near) consensus here (ie this blog) that we are talking about a myth. That is, there were not black Confederate soldiers in any sort of serious numbers, and nearly all of us agree on that point. So, how does the professional historian serve the interests of the “public good” on this matter? I agree with those who believe that the continued focus on this myth by a handful of people tends to suck some of the oxygen out of the room, limiting other useful historic discourse. I have no way to measure this, but I do not think that there are many people who actually believe that there were tens of thousands of black Confederate soldiers. And I believe that those few people who believe that are not sensible and I don’t feel any responsibility to try to correct their feelings.

    I also agree with those who feel that extended attention to the beliefs of a handful of people who aren’t going to believe you anyways is probably counterproductive, and does in find lend some unintentionally legitimacy to their beliefs.

    But on that front, I think that in this particular corner of the universe it is a positive thing that the discourse has shifted the term from “Black Confederate Debate” to “Black Confederate Myth,” That seems to me to be a good thing because the person who glances at a title is getting a clear message that we are talking about a myth and not a reality. [Aside I was going to point out that on his blog Kevin had changed the title of his resource section to “Black Confederate Myth” but I just went there and I see that I am wrong. Did I imagine that change, or did he change it back?]

    In sum, I think that folks can do whatever they want and all power to them, but if you ask me about the public good and discourse on Civil War era history I would say that the larger goals are better served by talking about the actions and beliefs of actual AFrican Americans, rather than devoting so much energy to talking about imaginary people (even while trying to demonstrate that they didn’t exist.) PERSONALLY, I think that the discussion about black Union soldiers from a few days ago was more interesting and more “valuable” for those reasons.

    One last thought I really do suspect that there are two “myths” here The one myth is that there were substantial numbers of blacks who took up arms for the Confederacy, The other myth is that there are a substantial number of people who believe the first myth. [although that is little more than a guess]

    • Kevin June 21, 2011 / 2:48 am

      Hi Matt,

      Just to clarify, I’ve referred to the topic of BCS as a myth from the very beginning. Yes, on occasion I’ve referred to a debate or discussion, but I’ve been consistent all along. I think you are placing too much emphasis on blog titles. Anyone who takes the time to read my posts knows where I stand.

  6. Mike Furlan June 20, 2011 / 3:28 pm

    I believe James Fallows was trying to make the same point:

    “Lies and truthiness.

    The regular journalistic reflex is to correct error by applying fact and logic. In moot-court competition, this pays off. In much of the rest of life, it does not. On being told “You’re wrong,” some people will say “Thanks for the correction!” Most will say “Go to hell.”

    . . .

    “Maybe the answer to a flawed narrative is a different narrative. You change the story.” Which is what, he said, Jon Stewart and Stephen Colbert have done. They don’t “fact-check” Fox News, or try to rebut it directly, or fight on its own terms. They change the story not by distorting reality—their strength is their reliance on fact—or creating a fictitious narrative, but by presenting the facts in a way that makes them register in a way they hadn’t before. ”

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