In March 1865, just weeks before the fall of Richmond that was to be the last act ahead of Appomattox, curious onlookers gathered in that city’s Capitol Square to take in a sight not only never before seen but hardly ever even
In Searching for Black Confederates: The Civil War’s Most Persistent Myth (2019), historian Kevin M. Levin brings thorough research and outstanding analytical skills to an engaging and very well-written study of how an entirely fictional, ahistorical notion not only found life, but also the oxygen to gain traction and somehow spawn an increasingly large if misguided audience. For those committed to history, Levin’s effort arrived not a moment too soon, as so many legitimate Civil War groups—on and off social networking—have come under assault by “Lost Cause” adherents who have weaponized debate with fantastical claims that lack evidence in the scholarship but are cleverly packaged and aggressively peddled to the uninformed. The aim is to sanitize history in an attempt to defend the Confederacy, shift the cause of secession from slavery to states’ rights, refashion their brand of slavery as benevolent, and reveal purported long suppressed “facts” allegedly erased by today’s “woke” mob eager to cast the south’s doomed quest to defend their liberty from northern aggression in a negative light. In this process, the concept of “Black Confederates” has turned into their most prominent and powerful meme, winning converts of not only the uninitiated but sometimes, unexpectedly, of those who should know better.
What has been dubbed the “Myth of the Lost Cause” was born of the smoldering ashes of the Confederacy. The south had been defeated; slavery not only outlawed but widely discredited. Many of the elite southern politicians who back in 1861 had proclaimed the Confederate States of America a “proud slave republic” after fostering secession because Lincoln’s Republicans would block their peculiar institution from the territories, now rewrote history to erase slavery as their chief grievance. Attention was instead refocused on “states’ rights,” which in prior decades had mostly served as euphemism for the right to own human beings as property. Still, the scholarly consensus has established that slavery was indeed the central cause of the war. As Gary Gallagher, one of today’s foremost Civil War historians, has urged: pay attention to what they said at the dawn of the war, not what they said when it was over. Of course, for those who promote the Lost Cause, it is just the opposite.
There are multiple prongs to the Lost Cause strategy. One holds slavery as a generally benign practice with deep roots to biblical times, along with a whiff of the popular antebellum trope that juxtaposed the enslaved with beleaguered New England mill workers, maintaining that the former lived better, more secure lives as property—and that they were content, even pleased, by their station in life. This theme was later exploited with much fanfare in the fiction and film of Gone with the Wind, with such memorable episodes as the enslaved Prissy screeching in terror that “De Yankees is comin!”—a cry that in real life would far more likely have been in celebration than distress.
But, as Levin reveals through careful research, the myth of black men in uniform fighting to defend the Confederacy did not emerge until the 1970s, as the actual treatment of African Americans—in slavery, in Jim Crow, as second-class citizens—became widely known to a much larger audience. This motivated Lost Cause proponents to not only further distance the southern cause from slavery, but to invent the idea that blacks actually laid down their lives to preserve it. In the internet age, this most conspicuously translated into memes featuring out-of-context photographs of black men clutching muskets and garbed in gray … the “Black Confederates” who bravely served to defend Dixie against marauding Yankees.
All of this seems counterintuitive, which is why it is remarkable that the belief not only caught on but has grown in popularity. In fact, some half million of the enslaved fled to Union lines over the course of the war. Two hundred thousand black men formed the ranks of the United States Colored Troops (USCT); ultimately a full ten percent of the Union Army was comprised of African Americans. If captured, blacks were returned to slavery or—all too frequently—murdered as they attempted to surrender at Fort Pillow, the Battle of the Crater, and elsewhere. That idea that African Americans would willingly fight for the Confederacy seems not only unlikely, but insane.
So what about those photographs of blacks in rebel uniforms? What is their provenance? To find out, Levin begins by exploring what life was like for white Confederates. In the process, he builds upon Colin Woodward’s brilliant 2014 study, Marching Masters: Slavery, Race, and the Confederate Army During the Civil War. Woodward challenged the popular assumption that while most rebels fought for southern independence, they remained largely agnostic about the politics of slavery, especially since only a minority were slaveowners themselves. Disputing this premise, Woodward argued that the peculiar institution was never some kind of abstract notion to the soldier in the ranks, since tens of thousands of blacks accompanied Confederate armies as “camp slaves” throughout the course of the war! (Many Civil War buffs are shocked to learn that Lee brought as many as six to ten thousand camp slaves with him on the Gettysburg campaign—this while indiscriminately scooping up any blacks encountered along the way, both fugitive and free.)
Levin skips the ideological debate at the heart of Woodward’s thesis while bringing focus to the omnipresence of the enslaved, whose role was entirely non-military, devoted instead to perform every kind of labor that would be part of the duties of soldiers on the other side. This included digging entrenchments, tending to sanitation, serving as teamsters, cooks, etc. Many were subject to impressment by the Confederate government to support the war effort, while others were the personal property of officers or enlisted men, body servants who accompanied their masters to the front. According to Levin, it turns out that some of the famous photographs of so-called Black Confederates were of these enslaved servants whom their owners dressed up for dramatic effect in the studio, decked out in a matching uniform with musket and sword—before even marching off to war. Once in camp, of course, these men would no longer be in costume: they were slaves, not soldiers.
After the war, legends persisted of loyal camp slaves who risked their lives under fire to tend to a wounded master or brought their bodies home for burial. While likely based upon actual events, the number of such occurrences was certainly overstated in Lost Cause lore that portrayed the enslaved as not only content to be chattel but even eager to assist those who held them as property. Also, as Reconstruction fell to Redemption, blacks in states of the former Confederacy who sought to enjoy rights guaranteed to them by the Fourteenth and Fifteenth Amendments were routinely terrorized and frequently murdered. For African Americans who faced potentially hostile circumstances, championing their roles as loyal camp slaves, real or imagined, translated into a survival mechanism. Meanwhile, whites who desperately wanted to remember that which was contrived or exaggerated zealously hawked such tales, later came to embrace them, and then finally enshrined them as incontrovertible truth, celebrated for decades hence at reunions where former camp slaves dutifully made appearances to act the part.
Still later, there was an intersection of such celebrity with financial reward, when southern states began to offer pensions for veterans and some provision was made for the most meritorious camp slaves. But, at the end of the day, these men remained slaves, not soldiers. Nevertheless, more than a full century hence, many of these pensioners were transformed into Black Confederates. And some of them people the memes of a now resurgent Lost Cause often inextricably entwined with today’s right-wing politics.
It is certainly likely that handfuls of camp slaves may have, on rare occasions, taken up a weapon alongside their masters and fired at soldiers in blue charging their positions. Such reports exist, even if these cannot always be corroborated. In the scheme of things, these numbers are certainly miniscule. And, of course, in every conflict there are collaborators. But the idea that African Americans served as organized, uniformed forces fighting for the south not only lacks evidence but rationality.
Yet, how can we really know for certain? For that, we turn to a point Levin makes repeatedly in the narrative: there are simply no contemporaneous accounts of such a thing. It has elsewhere been estimated that soldiers in the Civil War, north and south, collectively wrote several million letters. Tens of thousands of these survive, and touch on just about every imaginable topic. Not a one refers Black Confederate troops in the field.
On the other hand, quite a few letters home reference the sometimes-brutal discipline inflicted upon disobedient camp slaves. In one, a Georgia Lieutenant informed his wife that he whipped his enslaved servant Joe “about four hundred lashes … I tore his back and legs all to pieces. I was mad enough to kill him.” Another officer actually did beat a recalcitrant slave to death [p26-27]. Such acts went unpunished, of course, and that they were so frankly and unremarkably reported in letters to loved ones speaks volumes about the routine cruelty of chattel slavery while also contradicting modern fantasies that black men would willingly fight for such an ignoble cause. The white ex-Confederates who later hailed the heroic and loyal camp slave no doubt willingly erased from memory the harsh beatings that could characterize camp life; the formerly enslaved who survived likely never forgot.
Searching for Black Confederates is as much about disproving their existence as it is about the reasons some insist against all evidence that they did. With feet placed firmly in the past as well as the present, Levin—who has both a talent for scholarship as well as a gifted pen—has written what is unquestionably the definitive treatment of this controversy, and along the way has made a significant contribution to the historiography. The next time somebody tries to sell you on “Black Confederates,” advise them to read this book first, and then get back to you!
I reviewed the Woodward book here: Review of: Marching Masters: Slavery, Race, and the Confederate Army During the Civil War, by Colin Edward Woodward