Posted on September 9, 2019

Dismantling the Myth of the ‘Black Confederate’

Rebecca Onion, Slate, August 30, 2019

Spend any amount of time talking about slavery on the internet, and you’ll eventually encounter the claim that there were “black Confederates” that fought for the South. “Over the past few decades, claims to the existence of anywhere between 500 and 100,000 black Confederate soldiers, fighting in racially integrated units, have become increasingly common,” writes historian Kevin Levin in his new book, Searching for Black Confederates: The Civil War’s Most Persistent Myth. “Proponents assert that entire companies and regiments served under Robert E. Lee’s command, as well as in other theaters of war.” Look, believers say (directly or subtextually): The Confederacy can’t have been so bad for black people. Otherwise, why would they have defended it?

Levin’s book explains how this myth came about—while neatly dismantling it. We spoke recently about actual Confederates’ perspectives on black soldiers; why former “body servants” attended Confederate reunions during Jim Crow; and how the World Wide Web gave this story legs.

This conversation has been edited for length and clarity.

Rebecca Onion: I can see from following your Twitter that you sometimes engage with people who believe in this myth. And you’ve been researching it for a decade or so. What are the major pieces of evidence that people most often bring to you as “proof”?

Kevin Levin: If you’re browsing online, there are literally hundreds if not thousands of websites dedicated to promoting this myth. And on many of them, you’ll find photographs of enslaved men in uniform, which are easily interpreted as “proof” of the existence of black Confederate soldiers. Certainly there are plenty of newspaper accounts, mainly from Northern newspapers published during the war, that seem to suggest black men were fighting as soldiers. There are photographs taken after the war of some of these former “body servants” attending Confederate veterans’ reunions and monument dedications. Sometimes you’ll hear or read references to pensions given to black Confederate “soldiers,” which in fact were for former camp slaves or “body servants.”

There are some bits of evidence that are straight-up faked, like a supposed photograph of the “Louisiana Native Guard,” which is actually of black Union soldiers. {snip}

Yes. The best example is on the cover of my book, which has a photo of Andrew and Silas Chandler: two men, both in uniform, one black and one white. They both appear to be heavily armed, and what more evidence could you possibly need for the existence of one black Confederate soldier? It’s an iconic photograph, one of the most popular photographs of the Civil War.

Silas, the African American in the photograph, was born enslaved into the family. He moved as a child with the family from Virginia to Mississippi. In 1861, when Andrew volunteered for the 44th Mississippi Infantry, like a lot of other officers from the slaveholding class, he brought with him what they would have called “body servants”—what I call in the book a “camp slave.”

And the camp slave essentially existed outside the military hierarchy. He functioned as the personal slave of his master—in this case, Andrew. He would have been tasked with cooking, with cleaning, with packing up camp for long marches, carrying supplies, and serving as a messenger between camp and home. Even assisting on the battlefield at times. If necessary, even rescuing the master from the battlefield or escorting the body home in the event of his death. There were thousands of these men in the Confederate Army, in addition to tens of thousands of impressed slaves that performed all sorts of other functions.

Silas was with Andrew until the latter was wounded at the Battle of Chickamauga in September 1863; he escorted Andrew home. Silas had a wife and newborn child back home in West Point, Mississippi. And for a brief period of time he was present back on the plantation, until Andrew’s brother Benjamin enlisted and went off to war in a Mississippi cavalry unit. So Silas went off to war again, escorted him and served as his “body servant.” Interestingly enough, Benjamin’s unit was responsible for escorting Jefferson Davis out of Richmond after the Fall of Richmond. And so Silas was literally in the war from the beginning until the very end.

The photograph, which was taken in a studio, shows Silas loaded up with weapons that you write were most likely props. He was never a soldier, per se. And when it comes to the experiences of many of these camp slaves, you mention that there’s a number of pieces of evidence that some of them used the chaos of the war to work for their own interests—to make money, or to run away.

{snip}

And what I found is, not surprisingly I guess, enslaved men like Silas and others used that opportunity to gain increased privileges. So when they had free time they would work for money, doing odd jobs for other people. Some of them end up buying their own uniforms for any number of reasons. They’re able, some of them, to send money home to their families. Some of them stretch the relationship to the breaking point and end up running off, either to the Yankee army or elsewhere.

On the flip side, you get to see how Confederate officers, their masters, end up having to push back, and try to regain control over this enslaved individual. And obviously many of them do so in the most violent way. {snip}

And in one way—and I think more research needs to go into this—I get the sense that when you watch this dynamic play out, you’re actually watching the unraveling of slavery. Historians have written about the ways that, on the home front, you see slavery unravel as the war progresses. Depending on whether all the men are away fighting, and the location of the Union Army, you see how everything breaks down. But I think even in the Confederate Army itself, you can see how slavery unravels relationship by relationship.

{snip}

One of the weird things about this history and its relationship to the myth is that there was a moment late in the war where people inside the Confederacy actually did argue over whether to bring enslaved people into the army as soldiers.

As someone who has dealt with people who believe this narrative, I’m always struck by the fact that they seem to be completely unaware that the Confederacy openly debated this issue throughout most of 1864 and early 1865. It was a very public debate! There were literally hundreds of newspaper editorials, letters, and diaries from people in the army writing about this. The soldiers themselves were glued to this issue. Entire regiments issued statements on where they stood.

And what’s remarkable to me is that no one involved in this debate at the time, regardless of their position on the enlistment of slaves, ever pointed out, “Hey, black men are already fighting as soldiers on the battlefield.” So forget about whether or not anyone has ever heard of an enslaved man picking up a weapon on the battlefield or wearing a uniform and marching with the army. No Confederate saw any of this as reflecting service as a soldier.

{snip}

Now, in 2019, there are some neo-Confederates who are saying, “No, the black Confederate myth is wrong because black people could never have been brave enough to fight in our army.” So this is coming full circle.

That’s right! The most extreme conservative neo-Confederate organizations, like the League of the South, call people who believe in the “black Confederate” myth “Rainbow Confederates.” They’re like, “We were racists! Let’s not hide this!”

It’s funny, because in a sense they’re the ones who are historically sound! It’s horrifying to think of it, but they are absolutely right [about the nature of black men’s involvement with the Confederate Army].

{snip}

You wrote something similar about the decisions to extend pensions to former camp slaves. At a time when there was no money from the state for impoverished black people, here’s the way to get money—but only if you served us.

The initial push for these pensions came from the Confederate veterans themselves. But the states didn’t end up passing them until the early 1920s, when only a few former camp slaves were still living to take advantage, and the amount they were being paid paled in comparison to what white Confederate veterans were receiving. But still, there was nothing else like it at that point in time.

{snip}

Coming out of the civil rights movement, new scholarship was beginning to filter down, historic sites were beginning to address the issues of slavery and emancipation, Roots was a hit, and we were starting to learn a bit about the United States Colored Troops in the Union Army. Neo-Confederates saw it as a threat, and they wanted to make sure they could balance the scales, if you will—and how do you do that? Go out and find your own brave black Confederates. The myth was percolating through the ’80s, responding to the success of the movie Glory, and also Ken Burns’ Civil War series—which, as Lost Cause–y as it is, they saw as a threat because it was dealing with slavery. And the public was eating it up. So the Neo-Confederates needed to come up with a response.

{snip}

One thing I learned from the late Tony Horwitz is when it comes to understanding memory and how people try to make meaning of the past, listen. And listen carefully. And do your best not to prejudge. As bizarre as I think someone like H.K. Edgerton is, and opportunistic, and just downright silly at times, I hope that I’m able in the book to take him seriously. Ultimately, I think we are hard-wired to try to come to terms with history in a way that helps us make meaning of our own lives and the world around us. And I want to honor that.

{snip}