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Black Confederate soldiers? In your dreams

September 23, 2011 12:15 am

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The Confederate monument at Arlington National Cemetery.

BOSTON

--The subject of black Confederate soldiers continues to fascinate the general public as we reflect on the Civil War's 150th. Last year Carol Sheriff, who teaches history at William & Mary, came across a troubling passage in her daughter's fourth-grade history textbook. In "Our Virginia: Past and Present," author Joy Masoff claimed that an entire division of black soldiers served under Stonewall Jackson.

It was soon learned that Masoff discovered this "fact" while doing an online search. Most academic historians, including James I. Robertson of Virginia Tech, challenged Masoff's claim. Indeed, one would be hard-pressed to find a reputable Civil War scholar who believes that significant numbers of enslaved and free blacks fought with the Confederate army.

A basic understanding of the history of the Confederate government as well as the culture of race relations in the antebellum South provides sufficient context as to why this is. Still, every so often the general public is introduced to supposed new evidence that demonstrates the existence of these men along with swift denunciations of those who would deny this evidence.

Now Calvin Collier and Kevin Crowder purport to demonstrate the existence of these men ["Afro-Confederates took their stand for Dixie," Sept. 15]. How many? According to the authors, "at least dozens, possibly hundreds, perhaps thousands." No attempt is made to explain such a vague and ultimately meaningless claim. It is not clear whether the authors even understand the difference between claiming that the Confederate army included additional companies as opposed to entire brigades and divisions. The evidence included also fails to advance our understanding. In fact, a quick perusal of the many websites devoted to this subject reveals just how often these same accounts have been cut and pasted from one site to another. Unfortunately, the same shoddy analysis that accompanies these accounts elsewhere can be seen here.

The first two accounts simply quote Union soldiers, who claim to have seen black men in the Confederate army. No attempt is made to analyze the possible explanations for these claims, nor do we know whether the individuals in question were soldiers. The historian's job is to ask questions and consider as many explanations as possible before arriving at a conclusion. Referencing a soldier's observa-tion as pointing to one conclusion without any corroboration is irresponsible.

NO CONFEDERATE STORIES?

Even more interesting, however, is that among the wartime accounts cited by the authors, they fail to include any accounts from inside the Confederate army. Collier and Crowder are not alone in this oversight, but given the conviction with which these claims are made one would think that these accounts are readily available. The authors also fail to shed any light on why, during the vigorous debate over whether to arm slaves as soldiers that took place within the army and on the home front in 1864-65, not a single person mentioned that blacks were already serving as soldiers.

No account has been cited more often than that of Lewis Steiner of the United States Sanitary Commission. Steiner's claims of armed black men in Confederate ranks in Frederick, Md., in September 1862 are typically taken at face value even though they are not corroborated by additional eyewitnesses.

More disturbing, however, is the failure to provide any context for his claims. As in the case of Frederick Douglass, whose 1861 newspaper editorial is often used as evidence, Steiner may have been using the occasion to advance the cause of the recruitment of black Union soldiers.

A careful reading of Steiner's account reveals many caricatures and exaggerations concerning the men in the ranks. The important point for now is that the authors have not provided sufficient analysis of their sources to warrant much of anything.

MONUMENTAL HISTORY

Finally, we come to the Confederate monument at Arlington National Cemetery sculpted by Moses Ezekiel, a VMI graduate and Confederate veteran. The monument was dedicated in 1914 and marked the graves of Confederate soldiers. It was funded by the United Daughters of the Confederacy. Around its base is a bronze tableau of Confederate soldiers marching off to war, as well as a young black man wearing a kepi.

While he looks like a soldier, he carries no visible weapon. That doesn't prevent Collier and Crowder from drawing their preferred conclusion. Even a cursory survey of the relevant evidence, however, would have helped the authors to properly interpret the monument. There is no evidence that Ezekiel believed he had sculpted a black soldier, and newspaper accounts of the event as well as the official history of the event by the UDC suggest otherwise. Consider the following description from Hilary A. Herbert's "History of the Arlington Confederate Monument" (1914):

"There they come, representing every branch of the service, and in proper garb; soldiers, sailors, sappers and miners, all typified. On the right is a faithful negro body-servant following his young master, Mr. Thomas Nelson Page's realistic 'Marse Chan' over again. And there is another story told here, illustrating the kindly relations that existed all over the South between the master and the slave--a story that can not be too often repeated to generations in which 'Uncle Tom's Cabin' survives and is still manufacturing false ideas as to the South and slavery in the 'fifties.'

"The astonishing fidelity of the slaves everywhere during the war to the wives and children of those who were absent in the army was convincing proof of the kindly relations between master and slave in the old South. One leading purpose of the U.D.C. is to correct history. Ezekiel is here writing it for them, in characters that will tell their story to generation after generation. Still to the right of the young soldier and his body-servant is an officer, kissing his child in the arms of an old negro 'mammy.' Another child holds on to the skirts of 'mammy' and is crying, perhaps without knowing why."

Ezekiel's monument is not depicting a story of loyal black Confederate soldiers, but a well-engrained narrative of loyal slaves that continued to animate the collective memory of both Northerners and Southerners.

FINGER-POINTING

As in so many cases, the analysis by Collier and Crowder is long on pointing the finger at stubborn scholars and short on analysis. The result is a questionable editorial that serves only to add to the general public's misunderstanding of this subject.

The presence of thousands of slaves and free blacks in Confederate ranks is an important subject that desperately deserves more attention by historians. What we don't need are editorials that claim authority without even a rudimentary ability to properly analyze the relevant evidence.

Kevin M. Levin is an independent historian. He is the author of the forthcoming book "Remembering the Battle of the Crater: War as Murder."





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