Book Review: Searching for Black Confederates: The Civil War’s Most Persistent Myth

Kevin Levin, a historian, educator, and blogger based in Boston, has waded into this argument keyboard blazing. The first three chapters discuss in depth the definition of a “camp slave.” When a slave-owning family sent one of their men to the Confederate army, a body servant (or several) accompanied him to camp. Within the confines of the camp or on the march, slaves performed any chore involving actual labor such as digging or carrying. Slaves were also responsible for personal care, such as haircuts and the maintenance of clothing.  Often camp slaves worked as a group to provide services for those soldiers who had no body servants. There was a nominal charge for the rendering of such services.

Just as “at home,” young gray-clad soldiers expected obedience and a thorough job from their servants. Soldiers wrote home with affection concerning the job done by his man servant. There is little doubt that every slave sent to war was tasked with the overall job of “taking care of young Massa.” There are reports of slaves bringing home injured masters or carefully marking gravesites so that homefolks could find the body of their loved one after the fighting ceased. Once in a while, the whipping of a camp slave occurred in camp. Sometimes slaves were hurt or died just as did their masters. However, Levin found no circumstance under which camp slaves were spoken or written of as being equal to the average Confederate fighting man.

Often images of black men in Confederate uniforms are offered as proof that they served as soldiers. Levin painstakingly checked payroll records (where they were available) in all former Confederate states for examples of remuneration for black soldiers. There was nothing noted about the eleven dollars a month they should have been receiving. Pension records do not include black men. Any regular payment given was for disability, and those were very few.

Levin carefully examined founding documents for the Confederacy as well as military papers discussing whether or not to draft slaves. Confederate General Patrick Cleburne’s initial suggestion to enlist slaves as soldiers–and the reaction it received–is analyzed as well. Quotes from letters, telegrams, and documents make it clear that the Confederacy was completely against arming black men, at least until 1865. At that time, the southern military was desperate for soldiers and willing to entertain any last-ditch idea that might promise victory. The South surrendered before any troops were enlisted and brought to the battlefield.

According to Levin, somewhere along the line camp slaves began appearing at reunions of Confederate soldiers. Many appear in photographs and newspaper articles abound with their reminiscences. Jefferson Shields, Steve Perry (known as “Uncle Steve Eberhart”), and Howard Divinity made names for themselves representing the camp slaves seen so often in the Confederate army, but in no article or photograph are these men recognized as enlisted soldiers. Simply put, there is no evidence to confirm the claims made mainly during the recent Civil War Sesquicentennial that black men served as enlisted soldiers in the Confederate forces.

As the celebration for the Civil War Sesquicentennial arrived, the historical emphasis changed from red/blue lines and the Lost Cause to a different way of looking at the war. The role of the United States Colored Troops is part of formerly forgotten history. Today the participation of over 178,000 black soldiers is heavily emphasized by the National Park Service and historical researchers. One of the anomalies resulting from this change in emphasis concerns an image of black Union soldiers initially published in Civil War Times Illustrated (1973). With a little digital manipulation, this image went from its original subject to one now used in blogs and websites to support the idea of Black Confederates.

Levin walks the reader through the process of how images, monuments, letters, and military orders morphed facts into fiction. Suddenly the camp slave became a soldier, and female slaves who were primary caregivers for white children were heartbroken that “young Massa is a-goin’ off to war.”  Except it never happened. Because there are few slave narratives that have remained untainted by politics, we may never know the truth of slave hearts and minds.

One of the most troubling things about this issue is that the slaves themselves–once again–have their history rewritten by white people. Camp slaves were an integral part of the southern armies. They served officers and privates alike, often as a link between home and the battlefield. Their story deserves a truthful telling. As long as some people prefer a history made up of innuendo and outright lies, the reality of the camp slaves’ story will stay dormant. Author Kevin Levin’s book Searching for Black Confederates: The Civil War’s Most Persistent Myth, calls out those lies and makes an excellent case for a more truthful telling.

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Kevin M. Levin, Searching for Black Confederates: The Civil War’s Most Persistent Myth
The University of North Carolina Press, 2019
240 Pages
Endnotes, Bibliography, Index

About Meg Groeling

CW Historian
This entry was posted in Antebellum South, Book Review, Books & Authors, Leadership--Confederate, Monuments, Photography, Primary Sources, Sesquicentennial, Slavery, USCT and tagged , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

12 Responses to Book Review: Searching for Black Confederates: The Civil War’s Most Persistent Myth

  1. John Pryor says:

    This is small potatoes compared to the greatest persisting myth of the UnLost Causers: that all Unionists were abolitionists who went off to war in 1861 chanting John Brown’s Body with a copy of Uncle Tom’s Cabin tucked under their arms. It’s most persistent affect is to obscure why the Reconstruction Era followed the incomplete course that it did, and why it ended the way it did.

    • Meg Groeling says:

      So many myths, so little time.

    • Todd Berkoff says:

      The problem with your argument is that state governments throughout the South during the late 19th and early 20th century actually mandated Lost Cause myths be taught to school children. At the same time, southern ladies in the UDC spent loads of money in a concerted effort to erect monuments to the Confederacy in the Jim Crow South. No similar effort of mythologizing the war existed in the northern states. Apples and oranges my friend.

      • Meg Groeling says:

        Simply because untruths were taught in school and, in a sad attempt to prop up their war-losing relatives, misguided southern women put up statues does not mean there were Black Confederate soldiers. The North had no need to lie or prop anyone up.

        This fruit salad is past its prime, good sir.

      • Lyle Smith says:

        Meg,

        The North had no need to lie? Haha. They just let the Lost Cause be for the sake of reconciliation. Plenty of Northerners enjoyed themselves some Birth of a Nation. Later on they then loved themselves some Gone With the Wind. Get real!

  2. Mike Maxwell says:

    Meg
    Excellent review! My favorite “unauthorized participation” of a Black man with a gun during the Civil War was the servant who arrived with Buell’s Army of the Ohio at Pittsburg Landing overnight 6/7 April 1862 and took position to the right of Willich’s force, and blasted away with his rifle-musket and advanced with the Union Army at Shiloh during Day Two.
    I have looked, but as yet found no confirmed involvement of armed slaves fighting on behalf of the South. However, participation as cooks, undercooks, counter-miners and labourers is confirmed (and similar use of free Blacks by the Union after 1862 is also acknowledged.) This use of unarmed labor, by both sides, is little reported and under-appreciated.
    Cheers
    Mike Maxwell

  3. Trevor Siprelle says:

    Seems like I had read that Forrest armed some of his black teamsters and cooks during his raid on Murfreeboro when he was performing his ruse on Parkhurst’s position. I realize this does not make them Confederate soldiers, the subject made me think of this account though.

    • Meg Groeling says:

      The book discusses this type of situation in some depth. Often these accounts are used to prove black men fought for the Confederacy. I think it merely proves that slaves were used to taking orders. Thanks for your enlightening comment.

  4. Lyle Smith says:

    Actually blacks… today they would be called blacks, fought for the Confederacy. They were of mixed race, but held themselves out as white and were accepted as white. Read Arthur W. Bergeron’s work.

    One guy was captured at Fredericksburg during the Chancellorsville campaign and was exchanged just a couple of weeks later and ended up charging up Cemetery Hill at Gettysburg and was wounded.

    Amazing!

    And yes… slaves helped that masters out on the battlefield. General Pettigrew’s slave was on a horse, very near him, when he was killed defending Lee’s escape from Meade at Falling Rivers/Williamsport.

    • Meg Groeling says:

      These are the stories that need to be told–the real ones. The biggest issue with things like Lost Cause history–in my opinion–is that the truth is almost always lost. Thank you for reminding readers of these incidents.

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