Michigan War Studies Review
Reviews, surveys, original essays, and commentary in the field of military studies.
4 Aug. 2020
Review by Robert Colby, Christopher Newport University
Searching for Black Confederates: The Civil War's Most Persistent Myth
By Kevin M. Levin
Chapel Hill: Univ. of North Carolina Press, 2019. Pp. 228. ISBN 978–1–4696–5326–6.
Descriptors: Volume 2020, 19th Century, US Civil War Print Version

Over the last twenty years, scholars have chronicled the shifting memories of the American Civil War, from the political attitudes of its veterans to its monumental and social legacies. In Searching for Black Confederates, historian Kevin M. Levin[1] singles out a peculiarly intractable piece of that memory: the steadfast belief that many African Americans not only willingly fought for the Confederate States of America (CSA), but did so on equal terms with their white counterparts. Armed with a wide range of sources, from wartime correspondence to contemporary periodicals and pension materials, as well as the output of a sizeable subculture dedicated to defending the Confederacy's honor, Levin traces the origin and evolution of stories about these supposed soldiers.

The notion of "black Confederates," Levin argues, reflects a longstanding effort to elide slavery's role in the Civil War and replace it with a fiction of racial comity. Dependent on Black labor to fight their war and facing widespread Black resistance to slavery, Rebels seized upon stories in which enslaved people's valor and devotion to their enslavers led them to fight for the Confederacy. Online communities have recently rekindled these tales to dissemble the Confederacy's ties to slaveholding. The author analyzes the myriad uses to which both white and Black Southerners have put the idea of African Americans in gray to shape our understanding of America's defining conflict.

Levin's opening chapters detail the wartime roots of the myth of the Black Confederate. As is often the case, it emerged from a warped version of the truth. As Confederates fought for their independence, they dragooned slaves and free people of color into building fortifications, staffing hospitals, and working as teamsters, among a vast array of tasks essential to the Rebel war effort. Sometimes they did so at the behest of the Confederate government, but mostly it was individual enslavers who forced their human chattel to become camp slaves who cooked, cleaned, and otherwise cared for them. The omnipresence of these laborers convinced many observers that the Confederacy had indeed won over many African Americans to its side.

These impressed slaves often found themselves on battlefields and sometimes even in combat. Moments when camp slaves rescued or succored their wounded or dying masters demonstrated their personal bravery and the complex relations between the enslaved and enslavers. The implications of this were problematic for Confederates. As Levin notes,

Southern men believed that the battlefield was a testing ground on which they were expected to demonstrate their manhood to their comrades, family, and community. The presence of camp slaves on the field of battle tested these assumptions. Confederates remained deeply ambivalent when confronted with stories about slave heroics that potentially collapsed this crucial distinction between master and slave. (39)

White Southerners cited such acts of heroism as proof of enslaved people's loyalty to their masters, thereby reinforcing the racial order for which Confederates fought and counterbalancing enslaved people's widespread defection from both their enslavers and their republic.

While some commentators touted this as putative evidence of Black men willingly fighting on the Confederacy's behalf, Levin stresses that Confederates themselves never shared this view. Indeed, until the war's final months, Confederates monolithically refused to allow African Americans to fight for the fledgling nation's independence, something that would, as one Confederate general noted, "ruin the efficacy of our Army and involve our cause in ruin and disgrace" (60).

The implications of Black enlistment were, moreover, profoundly unacceptable in a nation founded on racial subordination. As the southern Democrat politician-turned-general Howell Cobb put it, "If slaves will make good soldiers our whole theory of slavery is wrong" (61). That the Confederacy did, ultimately, turn to enslaved soldiers, Levin persuasively shows, bespoke their utter desperation; even facing the total ruin of their cause, most Rebels steadfastly resisted employing Black soldiers. The government, moreover, approved the idea so late in the war as to render it virtually null. Widespread opposition at all levels of Confederate society thwarted the enrollment of any significant number of African Americans in the Confederate army.

At the Civil War's end, virtually no Confederates believed that enslaved or free Black people had served in their army. But, for Southerners intent upon defending their racial hierarchy, tales of enslaved people's wartime loyalty helped mask the vast alterations the war had wrought in Black-white relations. They also bolstered the nascent "Lost Cause" narrative that denied slavery's centrality to the conflict, while highlighting Confederate soldiers' valor in fighting an unwinnable war. As Reconstruction fell to white Southerners' intransigence and organized violence, these narratives offered models of the comity-through-submission that Jim Crow's advocates claimed would produce an ideal political, social, and economic order.

After the war, Confederate reunions gave veterans a chance to perform the Lost Cause mythos, and former camp slaves often welcomed a chance to play their part. Assuming the meager roles that racial retrenchment had reserved for them, they reinforced racial stereotypes through antics like singing "plantation" songs or toting chickens. These men thus laid claim to a reciprocal relationship with the white power structure—a choice that offered some remuneration at a moment when Black men's economic opportunities were severely curtailed. Indeed, ca. 2,800 formerly enslaved people secured state pensions by emphasizing their status as loyal camp slaves. As Levin pointedly notes, these pensions neither recognized nor compensated them as soldiers; indeed, those who cast themselves as veterans were roundly rejected. The pensions, offered at a post-World War I moment when the status quo came under threat from returning Black veterans,

reinforced the tenets of the Lost Cause narrative of the war for a new generation of white Southerners and sent a powerful political message to the black community that limited government financial assistance depended entirely on their compliance with the racial status quo and their loyalty to the Democratic Party…. [F]ormer camp slaves not only used the Lost Cause to further their own agenda, but also unwittingly contributed to the eventual myth that turned them into Confederate soldiers. (102)

Accounts of Black service during the war and the pensions offered to former camp slaves were grist for the mill of those Southerners who contrived the myth of the Black Confederate. The mid-twentieth-century successes of the civil rights movement, as well as new scholarship and popular media challenging Lost Cause narratives and highlighting African American soldiers' contributions to the Union's triumph provided the impetus for this counternarrative. Throughout the 1970s and 80s, apologists conjured Black support for the CSA from the aforementioned fragments; the myth's precise trajectory remains murky, but, by the 1990s, proponents of the Lost Cause were still claiming that thousands of African Americans had fought for the Confederacy.

As the author shows, the internet has proved to be fertile ground for the Black Confederate mythology. Devotees of the cause are able to aggregate, interpret, and spread "evidence" in a space free of oversight or attention to context. Thus, for example, an image purporting to show Black men in Confederate gray can instantaneously reach a credulous audience. Articles, pictures, pension records, and public art never meant to imbue the enslaved with the honor of military service are now adduced to propagate a widespread myth of African Americans soldiering on behalf of the CSA. Uncritical films like Gods and Generals[2] and even state-approved textbooks have perpetuated the myth, even against the headwinds of the Civil War's sesquicentennial, which, Levin suggests, actually accelerated Lost Cause adherents' efforts to preserve their favored narrative.

There are places in the author's fluent and succinct account where non-specialist readers might welcome further discussion of the evidence he presents. For instance, one wishes for a fuller explanation of wartime press reports of significant numbers of Black Rebels—including one by Frederick Douglass himself—given the weight the Lost Cause community lends them. The same goes for Levin's discussion of the Louisiana Native Guard, in which free Black men offered their services to the Confederacy "to protect their property and social rank" (45). Levin notes that the state of Louisiana rejected this unit on explicitly racial grounds, but moves a bit too quickly over the outsized role it plays in the mythos.

Kevin M. Levin's straightforward, timely study of the tale of African American Confederates has illuminated a baffling corner of Civil War memory. His deep familiarity with current debates over the war's meaning makes Searching for Black Confederates essential reading for anyone wishing to reckon with the place of race and slavery in the American past.

[1] His previous work includes Remembering the Battle of the Crater: War as Murder (Lexington: U Pr of Kentucky, 2012).

[2] Dir. Ronald F. Maxwell (2003).

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