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searching for black confederates

10 february 2021

I sometimes see claims that there were lots of black soldiers in the Confederate army. These claims are both factually untrue (there simply weren't, except for a handful recruited as a desperation measure late in the Civil War) and absurd on the face of it: Confederate war aims were not about arming and empowering African Americans. But the claims will not go away. And as Kevin Levin argues in his illuminating book Searching for Black Confederates, the myth began not that long ago, part of an apologist project to show the Confederacy as racially harmonious and the War as about anything but slavery.

Quite a bit of Levin's argument concerns photographic evidence. There are images of African Americans in Confederate uniforms: ergo, for the apologists, black people fought for the Confederacy. But while "pics or it didn't happen" may be valid, pics don't always mean that it did. Pictures can generate fake news even if unretouched, because they don't really speak for themselves. Not that there's always conscious lying going on. "Photographs and other representations such as monuments that depict black men in uniform," says Levin, "are simply misinterpreted" much of the time (136). Those misinterpretations become verbal formulas and gain the patina of fact after much handling, and then get pressed into the service of larger misrepresentations.

Black people sometimes wore rebel uniforms, Levin explains, because they were the enslaved "body servants" of soldiers. Some may also have worn them as costumes in photographers' studios. Uniforms made them identifiably attached to the army, but far from the enthusiastic peers of whites imagined in neo-Confederate ideology. One might as well argue that slaves in a quarry at Mauthausen were part of the Wehrmacht.

Yet slaves have agency too, and serving Confederates was transformative for many. Enslaved servants earned money by working for other soldiers (though their masters skimmed off much of it); they saw a great army dependent on their labor and grew more conscious of that labor's value; above all, they saw opportunities for escape to the North. When they did not take those opportunities, Levin observes, it was less out of loyalty to their owners than because those owners held hostages: their enslaved relatives back home. Levin begins to tell some of their stories, but more remain to be unearthed as filtered through the correspondence of their masters, and subsequently reimagined.

Levin does address the few actual black soldiers who began training for Confederate units in the last weeks of the war (none of whom saw action). Debate over this measure in 1864-65 was intense – and tellingly, none of that debate cited any black soldiers already serving. In the years after the war, as Levin shows, some states extended pensions to blacks who served Confederate soldiers: Mississippi took the lead in doing so and was followed by other Deep South states into the 20th century, just as most pensioners were reaching old age and dying. Yet such pensions were for enslaved service as personal attendants, not for military duty – despite the fact that servants came under fire at times and shared other hazards of camp life, like disease.

Most of the enslaved people who worked for the Confederate war effort were not as fortunate as these servant-pensioners, and have been doubly elided by history. Skilled workers like cooks could be privileged, some being free Southern blacks before the war, but they are more obscure than the personal servants of white soldiers who left archival traces. Still more obscured are the large numbers of impressed slaves, taken from one master to serve another, to build fortifications and other war infrastructure. They inspired no narratives of bonding between man and manservant, and were eligible for no pensions. Their stories are as hard to tell as those of field hands, or of any people at hard labor in any slave society. Yet the Confederates could not have waged war without them.

The Lost Cause ideology saw this system as happy and harmonious; a century after a war now out of living memory, revisionist neo-Confederates saw something more: the willing participation of thousands of black people in the fight to defend "Dixie," their peculiar multiracial homeland. There is a kernel of truth in this nonsense. Early in the war, free African Americans in Louisiana formed the Native Guard and volunteered for Confederate service. White Louisianans did not want their help, and they were soon forced to disband. Over 100 years later, descendants of these whites romanticized the notion that black and white fought together to save the South – but it simply didn't happen.

Neo-Confederate vaunting of black loyalty to the slave system reached such a wave in the Internet era that the more white-supremacist reaches of the movement reacted in backlash: like their forbears who rejected the Native Guard, these latter-day rebels rejected the idea that blacks could or would have been fit companions in the struggle.

But the myth lingers, sometimes finding black allies. Frederick Douglass is often quoted to the effect that blacks served in the rebel ranks; but it seems that Douglass was engaging in his own kind of fake journalism, amplifying rumors in order to spur the Union into recruiting African Americans. Much later, Henry Louis Gates seems to have embraced the alternative history of the black-Confederate myth, for reasons less clear. And all along, some black people attended Confederate reunions or nowadays participate in re-enactments on the Grey side: re-enactments mostly of things that never happened, but re-enactments are always more about the present than the past. Some black people are just interested in their ancestors' experience and want to explore it via re-creation.

You can find a few people who will take almost any position. The overwhelming position of those who have studied any of the evidence is that no African Americans served in the combat ranks of the Confederacy, however many were forced into ancillary service. But a vocal minority continues to insist that blacks did fight for the Confederate flag, supposedly because they preferred the freedom of slavery to the oppression of freedom. A large number of people still adamantly refuse, 150 years later, to admit that their ancestors' cause was evil.

Levin, Kevin M. Searching for Black Confederates: The Civil War's most persistent myth. Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 2019. E 585 .A35L48