Dispelling the myth of ‘black Confederates’
Given that the American Civil War ended more than 150 years ago, it would be reasonable to assume that by now, everybody more or less agrees on what happened — at least when it comes to the broader details.
A quick jaunt through the internet, however, reveals that this isn’t necessarily the case.
While some of these debates are relatively harmless and occupy only the smallest corners of the internet, such as the question of whether or not extraterrestrial beings played a significant role in the conflict, others have made their way into the mainstream of modern-day political discourse.
One such myth posits that anywhere from 500 to 100,000 black soldiers fought on the side of the Confederacy.
Kevin Levin puts this myth under a microscope in his new book, Searching for Black Confederates: The Civil War’s Most Persistent Myth.
“When this narrative first emerges in the 1970s, it’s fairly difficult to get the word out there,” Levin says. “These organizations, the Sons of Confederate Veterans, they published a couple of books, they had a magazine that they published, but very few people would’ve been exposed to this new narrative.”
Levin believes the myth began as a way for people living in the southern states to resolve the cognitive dissonance they were likely feeling from during the Post-Civil Rights Movement Era.
“By the 1970s, coming out of the civil rights movement, there had been a push to acknowledge the reality of slavery,” he added. “Specifically, the history of these men, these black men, who had fought for the United States Army from 1863 to 1865. For white southerners, especially those white southerners who were still very much engaged in trying to celebrate and honor their Confederate ancestors, this new push to finally talk about slavery and emancipation put them on the defensive for the first time. They found it more and more difficult to engage in honoring their ancestors when more and more of the country is talking about the role their ancestors played in perpetuating slavery.”
Some of them, rather than accept the harsh reality of that history, seeking some form of justification.
“If both sides had their black soldiers fighting for them and their respective causes, then you don’t have to be so defensive and so apologetic about the history of slavery and emancipation,” Levin says.
Despite not having been massively widespread when it was first conceived in the 1970s, the internet seems to have given the black Confederate narrative a new life. Levin chalks it up to a combination of ease of access, and lack of accountability.
“Anyone can be his or her own historian on the internet, there are no gatekeepers, and if you’re someone who is searching for information but isn’t trained in how to both search and assess digital information, then you are very likely going to end up falling victim to this narrative.
The vast majority of these people are not pushing the agenda. They either simply did not do a thorough search or did not understand how to asses a specific website or they just lacked the historical context.”
– Kevin M. Levin
In particular, images can be a particularly powerful tool for spreading misinformation.
“You find these photographs where you see black men posing next to white Confederate soldiers,” Levin says. “They’re both in uniform, and if you don’t know much, for a lot of people this is sufficient evidence that these men, in fact, were soldiers in the army, as opposed to serving as what they would have called ‘body servants,’ or what I call in the book ‘camp slaves.’”
“These were men who accompanied soldiers from the slaveholding class as their own personal slaves, not as soldiers;” Levin points out that the cover of his book features one such example, the image of Andrew and Silas Chandler.
The picture shows the two men sitting side by side, each holding a gun. While it gives the impression that heavily armed black Confederates existed, and may have even been commonplace, Levin’s research suggests that the photo was actually taken in a studio using props.
What the prevalence of this picture does tell us is that the current myth about black Confederate soldiers probably stemmed from the fact that many Confederates did bring camp slaves with them to the war.
“The Confederacy had no chance of winning its war of independence if it failed to mobilize its enslaved population, for any number of reasons,” Levin says. “Beginning with the population difference between north and south, to all the kinds of material that you need to win a war. The United States basically outgunned and outmanned the Confederacy every step of the way, so the Confederacy had to mobilize its enslaved population to do all the kinds of jobs that would free up as many white men as possible to carry a rifle.”
But to Levin, one of the key differences in the way camp slaves were remembered by those trying to justify the Confederacy: Not as soldiers, but as their loyal slaves.
The “loyal slave” narrative is another myth that permeates many parts of American history, as Levin explains:
“Even in the 20th century, one of the most popular images for white Americans that embodies the loyal slave is what they would have called the ‘Loyal Mammy.’ The image of the black woman who worked in the house, in the plantation house, took care of the white children, was the most fiercely loyal of the enslaved population.
She was the one who would give her own life to protect the children of her masters. The congress of the United States, as late as the 1920s, was seriously considering placing what they would have called a national mammy monument on the national mall in DC.”
To Levin, properly understanding the events of history, and their context is important for understanding the current racial divides within the country.
“About 10 years ago, as I was beginning to research this topic, I was contacted by the great-great-granddaughter of Silas Chandler,” Levin concludes. “It was interesting because she had always been challenging this myth for a number of years – This involves her own ancestor. For me, it kind of solidifies just how important it is to challenge these narratives, these myths.”
“You can sometimes as a historian push your subject into the distant past, but with this one, it was always difficult to do because it always seemed to be more about the present than the past. In other words, it really is a book about how we as Americans, white and black, how we approach the past and how we try to make meaning of that past, how we try to understand history as a way to understand what’s happening in our own lives in 2019.”
Levin further posits: “If we can’t get the history right, we’re not going to have any chance of getting the present right.”