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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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