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And another thing…

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My wife asked the other day why I seemed so interested recently in the self-evident absurdity of “Black Confederates.” The short, pragmatic answer is that I’m teaching a course on the US Civil War era this fall, and I plan to spend no small amount of time exploring some of the popular fantasies that continue to shape public conversation about the war. The even shorter answer is that I continue to read Kevin Levin’s blog, Civil War Memory, which is an essential stop for anyone concerned with how we teach and think about the history and historiography of that horrific conflict.

Kevin has an interesting guest post from Peter Carmichael of West Virginia University, who writes about the ambivalent depictions of camp servants who participated in the war, not as “Black Confederates” but as enslaved men whose presence on the battlefield both ratified and undermined white assumptions about race and servitude.

There were camp servants who picked up a musket in battle or rescued a wounded white soldier, but these acts were not patriotic expressions of Confederate loyalty as wartime Southerners and Lost Cause advocates have claimed. Patriotism is a purely voluntary act. The presence of coercion in slavery, moreover, creates an insurmountable challenge for those who want to describe slaves as Confederate heroes. In reality, many Confederate slaves capitalized upon the masters’ need for black political action to demonstrate a sense of self-worth that they had long repressed. While Confederate slaves successfully challenged popular conceptions of what it meant to be a black man, these “victories” did not earn them the public recognition they sought, nor did it insulate them from the brutality of an institution that was even more unpredictable and volatile within the setting of a Southern rebel army than it was on the plantation.

The whole post is worth looking at. One of Carmichael’s most helpful observations is that the presence of slaves on the battlefield was an essential prosthesis for Southern white masculinity. To be able to command blacks as camp laborers — performing, among other things, “woman’s work” as cooks and laundrymen — would obviously have had practical as well as ideological value for Confederates with the means to supply them, but Carmichael also explores how enslaved laborers provided white soldiers with useful foils against which they could celebrate their own battlefield bravery. As in peacetime, the war provided slaveholders and advocates of a slaveholding society with the means to insist that enslaved men were not, in fact, Men.

Carmichael also tries to read against the grain of historical evidence to evaluate how camp servants might have experienced the war. Here, too, there’s a lot to think about, particularly the reminder that the war stoked expectations and demands among enslaved people that would have been disastrous for the future of slavery even if the Confederacy had somehow managed to survive in tact and independent. I’m reminded of Sen. Alexander Stephens’ warning, not long before he became Jefferson Davis’ vice president, that slavery would be more secure within the Union than outside of it.

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  • billofwrites

    you are probably already aware of edward jones’ acclaimed novel “the known world,” a fictional treatment of blacks who owned and worked black slaves on their property.
    if not, an interesting secondary source of info.

  • Hi Dave, — Thanks for the kind words. I encourage your readers to read Carmichael’s guest post on this highly charged issue. As I mentioned the author is more than willing to respond to questions so feel free to leave a comment. Thanks again Dave.

  • Davidwonk

    I have a Masters from the Kennedy School, a lot of experience, etc., but even I was fooled by this neo-confederate slop a few years ago. I read “April 1865” because it seemed interesting. I was treated to a 300-page, very carefully-nuanced apology for the federacy, including a stirring chapter on how the south was about to arm hundreds of thousands of loyal slaves to fight the yankee invaders in the war’s final months, but–gosh!–just ran out of time before they could.
    I remember shuddering to think that so many people would read this junk and be even less able than me to evaluate its veracity.

  • David, — Actually the Confederacy did authorize the enlistment of slaves in the final weeks. A small unit was trained and even marched through Richmond, but the war ended before they could be utilized in the field. This only happened after a vigorous debate; the fact that it only happened in the final days tells us more about the desperation on the part of Confederate officials rather than in a firm belief in the loyalty of their slaves. If you are interested in this issue I highly recommend Bruce Levine’s _Confederate Emancipation_ (Oxford University Press).

  • geo

    Susie King Taylor’s memoir about her time with the 33rd USCT is a good example of how enslaved people saw their work for the Union troops.
    http://books.google.com/books?id=v3-cyYKvZr8C&dq=Susie+King+Taylor&pg=PP1&ots=VxW00Fy0_P&sig=iDUuNJbjDx5OX1PNKcosb5nRRGE&hl=en&sa=X&oi=book_result&resnum=4&ct=result
    (It also works well as an assigned book for undergrads.)

  • witless chum

    “I encourage your readers to read Carmichael’s guest post on this highly charged issue.”
    This is probably giving the people who push this stuff a bit too much credit for good faith and rationality, no?

  • BC

    If I recall correctly, the powers-that-be in the Confederacy wanted to enlist slaves to fight using the inducement that they would be free once the fight was over. This inducement met with a lot of resistance from the white establishment, which had as its basic tenet that slavery was good for the blacks and for the whites, so using freedom as an inducement undermined the entire rationale of slavery. I first came across this in Bruce Catton’s very good series on the Civil War.

  • rea

    If I recall correctly, the powers-that-be in the Confederacy wanted to enlist slaves to fight using the inducement that they would be free once the fight was over.
    Not exactly true.
    Patrick Cleburne proposed that and was rewarded by never advancing past divisional command. He hardly counts as the “powers-that-be”–proposing abolition assured that he never became one of the powers-that-be . . .

  • jon

    I knew a black Nazi. Apparently anything can happen. He was crazy, but still.
    There were lots of other armies over the course of human history that contained or relied upon slaves. Some of whom fought very well. Conscription is a lot like slavery, writ small.
    The real problem is pointing to slaves in the CSA army as a means to justify the secession and to suggest that the South was greatly concerned with the well being of slaves.

  • Matt T.

    My wife…
    Man, “Americanneocon” is gonna be so disappointed.

  • Anonymous

    I don’t think one can reasonably describe “April 1865” as an apology for the Confederacy. It simply pointed out, among other things, that General Lee’s decision to not go off into the hills and engage in long-term guerrilla warfare was an honorable decision, and one which spared both the North and South much pain and hardship. “April 1865” is a book worth reading, and one which reminds us that things could have gone much better after the Civil War (had Lincoln lived) or even worse (had the South gone into large-scale continued insurrection).

  • matthew mckeon

    Bruce Levine’s excellent “Confederate Emancipation” details the various proposals to arm blacks to fight for the Confederacy.
    They varied widely, and as Kevin notes, didn’t bear fruit. What is disturbing about most of them is most of them tried to both limit the number of bondspeople freed and that “freedom” for these hypothetical veterans was envisioned as extremely curtailed, a quasi slavery.
    In short, the horse of Confederate emancipation didn’t get out of the gate, and the race was fixed anyhow.

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