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.