Kevin Levin Challenges a Persistent Myth
Kevin M. Levin, Searching for Black Confederates: The Civil War’s Most Persistent Myth (Chapel Hill: The University of North Carolina Press, 2019). This book is currently slated for released in September, 2019 and is now available for pre-order.
I think it would be a safe bet to suggest that pretty much any Civil War historian worth his or her salt would acknowledge that black people were a familiar sight in Confederate armies, both in camp and on campaign. One might suggest that these black people were somehow furthering the Confederate cause - which I suppose would be readily apparent by virtue of their being there and doing things. These same historians would also likely (and correctly, I might add) acknowledge that the Confederate bid for independence was without question rooted in the preservation of the institution of slavery. The evidence for this conclusion is overwhelming. So what gives?
Over the course of the last several decades, and especially recently, a growing number of so-called Neo-Confederates and Confederate apologists have argued quite adamantly that black people joined Confederate armies and contributed willingly and ideologically in support of the Confederate cause. These folks, in books, magazines, and on thousands of websites have constructed a persistent myth: one in which blacks by the tens of thousands took up arms to defend the South…they were black Confederate soldiers.
Of course these black Confederate soldiers really only exist in the imaginations of those who wish to distance the Confederate cause from the institution of slavery. There is no evidence that black men willingly shouldered muskets and marched lockstep into battle with the intention of securing Confederate independence and establishing a slave-holding republic…but we still have to account for the presence of black people in Confederate armies. Historian Kevin Levin, who has been hard at work on this topic for years on his website Civil War Memory, handles this with great skill by reminding the reader of one rather salient fact: the majority of black people “serving” with Confederate armies were slaves.
Levin discusses these camp slaves with especial attention to nuance and complexity. Yes, Levin determines, it is quite possible that slaves, serving as body servants and sometimes in uniform as pictured above, developed special bonds with their masters, that many stayed with the army when opportunities arose to run away - underscoring familial ties to their southern homes, and that slaves even at times faced the horrors of Yankee shell and shot. But he does so with the understanding that the master/slave relationship remained under all circumstances and that the camp slaves in Confederate armies were there not so much by choice, but by compulsion.
Levin traces the history of the black Confederate myth that winds down a Lost Cause path to the late-19th century and the faithful slave narrative. Monuments to faithful “servants” (a popular euphemism for slave) and black Confederate “mascots” in Rebel gray at reunions populate the early story - and Levin deftly explains their presence and usefulness to the postwar construction of the Lost Cause myth. Modern iterations of the black Confederate in the form of one H. K. Edgerton appear as well…suggesting that today’s Confederate organizations such as the Sons of Confederate Veterans have continued in the tradition of their ancestors.
By the end of the book, the reader should see that while we cannot possibly account for each and every individual black person that marched or camped with a Confederate army, it is quite clear that a master/slave dynamic dominated during the war, and that a racial hierarchy persisted in the war’s wake. The Confederate Congress debated arming slaves and rejected the notion on racial and ideological grounds, and postwar states awarded pensions to black men as faithful servants, not as combat veterans.
Levin has inspired a legion of Neo-Confederates who are currently ready and eager to debunk his exhaustive research as fictitious political correctness…and I am quite sure they will do so without cracking open the book. I would note as a point of criticism…Levin’s analysis has the tendency to imply that this battle over mythology is a Conservative v. Progressive fight. There might indeed be a correlation here, but I should point out that I have met many Conservatives who think the black Confederate myth is not only ahistorical but just plain silly, and I have likewise met Progressives who have taken the mythological bait, so to speak. In the end, the people who really, really should read this book probably won’t. And that’s just too damn bad.