Skip Gates Skips Scholarship When It Comes to Black Confederates

Start at the 7:00 mark for the highlight.

Oh my. Kevin Levin offers a detailed response.

I see no reason to waste my time answering someone who simply hasn’t done the work required to enter into this discussion responsibly. I’ve already written about Stauffer’s piece and the discussion it sparked (and the failure of people to deal with these issues) here, here, here, and here.

It’s time to peddle this claptrap elsewhere.



7 thoughts on “Skip Gates Skips Scholarship When It Comes to Black Confederates

  1. Peter S. Carmichael February 19, 2015 / 7:10 am

    I am surprised by the sloppiness of Eric Foner when he speaks of black Southerners serving in the Confederacy. Using the label black Southerners is misleading, and a roadblock to thoughtful debate. When we use the term black Confederate we are almost always referring to slaves. Using the termConfederate slaves is preferable and essential to understanding the decisive role that coercion played in fixing slaves within the ranks of Southern armies. I am sure that others have made this obvious point, possibly on this blog or on Kevin’s Civil War Memory site. When we refer to slaves as Confederate slaves, we can liberate ourselves from the incessant counting of African Americans who wore the gray. To some, sheer numbers offers indisputable evidence of loyalty for the master or the nation or both. Such reasoning allows some to deny the role of physical and psychological coercion in slavery. I think we can all agree that plenty of slaves were in the ranks of Confederates armies. What was the exact number? Who knows? And why does it dominate our discussions when so much about the Confederate slave experience has not been properly researched?

    Regardless of the numbers we do know that every slave in the army was forced to do a range of jobs. Rarely did a slave carry a gun in battle–wartime testimony from Confederates is is clear on this point. Regardless of the forced duty in the army we should all agree that Confederate slaves had little to no choice in the matter. Being a slave or even free black in a Confederate army meant waking up every day and seeing thousands of white men carrying guns. My hunch is that choices were more than just a little constrained for a person of color in the ranks!

    Here is a thought: Let’s put aside the numbers game and open the inquiry into the unique power relations between master and slave that existed in the Confederate military: let’s explore the paradoxical place of the Confederate slave in Southern discourse,and why not research the role of the Confederate slave as the absent patriarch between Confederate soldier and home front; what about the emotional expressions between master and the personal body slave; what about the material culture related to Confederate slaves, and finally how did theConfederate slave function as an entrepreneur in the ranks. I highly recommend Colin Woodward’s Marching Masters, which addresses many of these questions. It is a fine piece of scholarship based upon serious archival work.

    • Joshism February 19, 2015 / 9:04 am

      “To some, sheer numbers offers indisputable evidence of loyalty for the master or the nation or both. Such reasoning allows some to deny the role of physical and psychological coercion in slavery.”

      I have long wondered how much loyalty of slaves to their masters amounts to little more than Stockholm Syndrome? Not to mention the historical track record of those of low social standing, white and black, to throw unity to the winds clawing for some shred of being just a little higher on the totem pole than your fellows (i.e. it doesn’t matter how low you are so long as someone else is lower – see also poor whites behavior toward poor blacks, as well as each race’s treatment of each other).

      • John Foskett February 19, 2015 / 4:03 pm

        Good points. In addition, the more you drill down to individual cases, the more likely you’ll get random results. Slave A may have been inculcated by his master with spin about Yankee depravity and bought it. Slave B could have been given a line of cow flops about being free once the dirty Yankees were beaten. Slave C, having been a captive his entire life, may have identified with his master (perhaps a form of Stockholm Syndrome). Slave D may have feared the uncertainties and challenges of freedom more than “the devil he knew”. Slave E may have been in that margin of error crowd who just preferred being a slave, or had a good enough “system” on his plantation that he was okay with it. But if you zoom back out to larger numbers, I think the safe assumption is that there was a very small percentage who willingly took up – oops, I was about to say “arms” – tools for the CSA. The number who tried to align themselves with/follow Union troops when the “invasion” came speaks for itself. As has been demonstrated most of the time throughout history, freedom has a powerful ring to it – especially once you became acquainted with it in some way. “Year of Jubilo!”

  2. John Foskett February 19, 2015 / 8:48 am

    Well said, in short. I do see the issue as uncomplicated in one sense. Referring to “black Confederates” who “served” the CSA war effort is little different to me from characterizing slave labor in the 19391945 years as “slavic workers” who “served” the Third Reich war effort. Both are true in a hypertechnical sense and both are completely misleading for folks who aren’t knowledgeable in this stuff.

  3. kevlvn February 19, 2015 / 9:01 am

    All good points, Pete. I recommend that people read your SHA essay, which was published on my blog a few years ago:

    As I pointed out on my post about the Gates/Foner conversation, the central character in the Parks’s play was never presented as a soldier. He was a personal servant of the colonel. No attempt was made to suggest otherwise. Both Gates and Foner missed a wonderful opportunity to talk about the master-slave relationship at war. Sign.

  4. Joshism February 19, 2015 / 9:12 am

    I’m certainly no expert on the “Black Confederates” debate, but it occurs to me to ask:

    Did any Union soldier ever write in their diary or in a letter home to say they fought black Confederates? I’d think charging or being charged by a regiment of musket-wielding Negros in butternut would have been something to talk about.

    Likewise, did any Confederate soldier write about making a charge along with an armed black regiment, or even seeing an armed black regiment marching as part of a Confederate army? Again, this seems like something that would have been talked about.

    On other other hand, a Confederate army marching along with an unarmed company of black men who were used for cooking, cutting firewood, and digging trenches would be unremarkable (regardless of how they were dressed) since black manual labor was standard fare in the South.

    • Al Mackey February 19, 2015 / 3:39 pm

      There are a few instances of Union soldiers writing about African-Americans in confederate ranks. But these soldiers were in the confusion of battle at the time and at best had a glimpse of a figure whose face could have been blackened by gunpowder, whose skin could be darker due to sun exposure, or any of a number of explanations. And if they did see African-Americans, such as in Alfred Bellard’s Gone for a Soldier, they don’t know the circumstances that put that man in that position.

      What I find most decisive is that thus far I’ve seen no instance of a confederate soldier writing that he had black comrades in the ranks. If there were thousands of so-called “black confederates,” why was Patrick Cleburne’s proposal to arm blacks such a controversy? Why is it that when Robert E. Lee was asked his opinion his response wasn’t, “What are you talking about? We already have black soldiers!” Confederate sources are noticeably lacking in corroboration for the existence of black soldiers among the confederates except for the last month of the war when a couple companies of black soldiers were organized in Richmond.

      With the exception of those two companies, the documentation we have from confederate sources is for slaves of white confederate soldiers.

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