Oh Lordy, another piece of bollocks

Yet more nonsense about slavery and the Confederacy:

Black Confederates: exploding America’s most persistent myth

Set up a straw man, fail even to burn that down, then proclaim the New History.

“For many people, that is evidence of black Confederate soldiers,” Kevin Levin told an audience at the National Archives in Washington last month. “But it’s not. In fact, no one was confused during the dedication that this was in fact a body servant.”

In other words, an enslaved man.

The American civil war has never been in short supply of myths, but Levin describes black Confederates as the “most persistent”. Hundreds of articles, organisations and websites rewrite history by asserting that between 500 and 100,000 free and enslaved African Americans volunteered as soldiers in an army fighting to preserve slavery.

Just because it is counterintuitive does not make it true. In the wake of Donald Trump’s election and the white nationalist protest in Charlottesville, Virginia, where a statue of the Confederate general Robert E Lee still stands, the issue resonates beyond the halls of academia.

Levin, a historian, educator and author of the blog civil war memory, has been writing on the subject since 2008.

The straw man – that there were black confederate soldiers shows that the South was right.

The supposed disproof – there were slaves that whities brought along to take care of them in camp.

The disproof has the obvious merit of being correct, in that there were camp slaves.

But that there were camp slaves does not mean there were no black volunteers who fought for the Confederacy. It’s not a disproof that is.

The matter wasn’t so, err, black and white. Not all blacks in the South were slaves. Rather more importantly, not all slave owners in the South were white. There were indeed black slave owners. Actually, the first person to actually own a full on chattel slave in the US was black.

That slaves fought for slavery may or may not be true. That some blacks fought for the Confederacy – voluntarily – is true. Just as it’s also true that some blacks owned black slaves.

7 comments on “Oh Lordy, another piece of bollocks

  1. Agreed that the issue is not black-and-white. While “fighting against slavery” was the theme that motivated Northerners, what the war was about was, from the North’s point of view, that some states were in insurrection; and from the South’s point of view, that a new nation was being invaded (to end its self-governance and drag it back into a Union where its farming interests were continually outvoted in Congress). I am sure that blacks and whites fought to defend the Confederate States of America against “foreign” invasion and forcible imposition of policy from without. The possibility that I might make out better if my nation loses the war had to be set against seeing familiar black and white faces become casualties of battle.

  2. ‘free and enslaved African Americans volunteered as soldiers in an army fighting to preserve slavery.’

    Professor Levin is a dick. They fought for Southern independence from the Union. A history professor must know that. Hence, Levin is liar. Lincoln didn’t introduce the slavery schtick until two years into the war.

    “While “fighting against slavery” was the theme that motivated Northerners”

    They weren’t motivated. The New York Draft Riots were because they DIDN’T want to fight against slavery. Not that they were for it; they just didn’t care to risk dying to fight against it. It wasn’t important to them.

  3. Amongst the Confederate government, there was discussion in 1864 about arming blacks. The idea was that those blacks who volunteered would be granted their freedom upon victory and that they could earn the freedom of their wives and children. At this stage of the war, there was a severe shortage of manpower.

    The idea was firmly rejected when initially proposed but in 1865, when Robert E Lee asked again it was accepted but I don’t know if any troops were raised nor whether they fought. By then Sherman’s march to the sea had happened, the confederacy was divided in three, and Grants troops lay siege to Richmond deep into Virginia. Every black would have known that a Union victory meant an end to slavery, so I doubt many (if any) volunteered.

    Whilst it’s true that free blacks could and did own slaves, they were not equal citizens to white southerners. Free blacks were allowed to join certain local militia (Louisiana AFAIK) but I have a vague recollection that none of them saw service

  4. Gamecock,

    Unless you can provide some decent links I’m going with Levin’s view of history:

    More than 150 years after the end of the Civil War, scores of websites, articles, and organizations repeat claims that anywhere between 500 and 100,000 free and enslaved African Americans fought willingly as soldiers in the Confederate army. But as Kevin M. Levin argues in this carefully researched book, such claims would have shocked anyone who served in the army during the war itself. Levin explains that imprecise contemporary accounts, poorly understood primary-source material, and other misrepresentations helped fuel the rise of the black Confederate myth. Moreover, Levin shows that belief in the existence of black Confederate soldiers largely originated in the 1970s, a period that witnessed both a significant shift in how Americans remembered the Civil War and a rising backlash against African Americans’ gains in civil rights and other realms.
    Levin also investigates the roles that African Americans actually performed in the Confederate army, including personal body servants and forced laborers. He demonstrates that regardless of the dangers these men faced in camp, on the march, and on the battlefield, their legal status remained unchanged. Even long after the guns fell silent, Confederate veterans and other writers remembered these men as former slaves and not as soldiers, an important reminder that how the war is remembered often runs counter to history.

    This whole podcast series is a good listen but you can here Levin and other’s discuss the topic in this episode where they discuss the case of Silas Chandler whose portrait appeared on the US Antiques Roadshow:

    JH: Antiques Roadshow is a program on PBS where people bring in their most treasured items to be appraised by experts… hoping to learn that their family heirloom is worth thousands of dollars… think of it like a big pawn shop… on television.

    In a 2009 episode of the show… the black Confederate myth took center stage.. a man brought in an old photograph of a white Confederate soldier seated next to a black man in a Confederate uniform….

    ANTIQUES ROADSHOW: The gentleman on the left is Andrew Martin Chandler my Great-great-grandfather the gentleman on the right is Silas Chandler, his slave, or as we’ve always called him, manservant.

    JH: The appraiser tried to give context here… mentioning that it wasn’t unusual for a Confederate officer to go to the frontlines attended by what he called a “manservant.”

    And while the descendant on the air makes it clear that his ancestor owned Silas…he also describes the two men in weirdly modern terms… like they were friends.

    ANTIQUES ROADSHOW: They’re about the same age, joined the Confederate Army when Andrew was 16, Silas was 17 and they fought in four battles together

    The men grew up together, they worked the fields together, and continued to live closely throughout the rest of their lives.

    CK: But there was one family watching the segment who knew that Silas didn’t enlist willingly… and wasn’t Andrew’s friend…

    MYRA CHANDLER SAMPSON: I was on the phone talking with my sister and her daughter was flipping through the channels and she started screaming, “The slave, the slave, our great grandfather.” And my sister said, “Oh, turn on Antique Roadshow. they’re talking about Silas.”

    CK: That’s Myra Chandler Sampson… the great-grand-daughter of Silas Chandler, the enslaved man in the photo

    And in this episode they discuss the idea that it was really about secession and not slavery:

    CK: And if you ever have any doubt about this stuff, you need to look at the Articles of Secession. Because this is where Confederates tell us exactly what they thought, in their own words.

    JH: South Carolina wrote that it was was leaving because of quote, “an increasing hostility on the part of the non-slaveholding States to the institution of slavery.”

    CK: Mississippi said, “Our position is thoroughly identified with the institution of slavery– the greatest material interest of the world. “

    JH: Virginia said they were cutting out because of quote, “the oppression of the Southern Slaveholding States.”

    CK: And Texas wrote in their declaration that they were leaving because governments North and South were quote, “established exclusively by the white race, and that the African race [was] rightfully held and regarded as an inferior and dependent race.”

    JH: Georgia’s declaration of secession has 123 sentences in it; 35 have the word slavery. Guess how many talk about states rights. Zero.

  5. ”The matter wasn’t so, err, black and white.”

    When it comes to some issues we are no longer allowed a nuanced debate. American South confederates were all evil slave owning monsters and their descendants should hang their heads in shame for the rest of time and anything associated with them is racist etc.
    As an aside would recommend the album White Mansions from 1978 a series of songs about the war from the confederate side.

  6. “Victors get to write the history books”

    > Lost Cause the title of an 1866 book by the Virginian author and journalist Edward A. Pollard.
    > 1881 publication of The Rise and Fall of the Confederate Government by Jefferson Davis,
    > United Daughters of the Confederacy is an American association of Southern women established in 1894 which promoted the creation of the vast majority of monuments to southern “heroes”. Other activities include spreading the “truth” such as providing textbooks for schools.
    > Birth of a Nation by D. W. Griffith was a landmark film depicting events during and after the civil war. It was shown in the White House and much praised by President Wilson
    > Thomas Dixon novels from which the above sprang
    > Gone With The Wind – probably one of the top ten best known films ever

    From a cultural aspect the South has clearly been blessed with rather more than it’s fair share of sympathetic coverage during the first 100 years post the civil war. Even Buster Keaton’s most famous film, The General 1926 shows him as a Confederate sympathiser. Isn’t it odd that he picked the plucky south. That doesn’t sound like being pro-Confederate was frowned upon in that era.

    In the modern era we get a handful of pro Union films such as Glory, but the most famous civil war film of all Gettysburg (and it’s prequel) go out of their way to try be even handed. As does the well regarded multipart history series by Ken Burns.

    I’m left wondering what merit-worthy films or books showed the Union side point of view during the same era as Birth of a Nation to Gone With The Wind. I can only think of the Red Badge of Courage.

    The “victor writes the history books” is rather unconvincing

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