Died of a theory
It’s been interesting to read the recent controversy over the existence and prevalence of “black Confederates” during the Civil War. Short version: Harvard’s John Stauffer recently published a piece at The Root (which reprises a 2011 Harvard talk) asserting that “Yes, there were black Confederates,” and was taken to task by Kevin Levin, Brooks Simpson, and others.
I must say that I’m particularly unconvinced by Jim Downs’s defense of Stauffer, which seems to suggest that those who find little evidence of black Confederates have approached “the archive” uncritically and uncreatively. According to Downs, “the very construction of the archive . . . reflect[s] the same racist dynamics and oppression of black people that caused the war in the first place.”
Sure, but how does this apply in the present case? Downs seems to be arguing that historians’ trouble locating black Confederates in the archive owes to a history of “oppression.” How did those who led the Confederate state, as “purveyors of epistemic violence,” wittingly or unwittingly supress the presence of black troops in the archive? What is the evidence for this? And how exactly does it explain the general paucity of black Confederates in the historical record?
I am all for appreciating the power dynamics inherent in the archive. In the last half century, scholars have done a remarkable job of unearthing the “hidden transcripts” of black life in the era of the Civil War, using everything from the WPA slave narratives to the federal census to the records of slave traders themselves. (Prof. Downs himself has produced such scholarship, and it is excellent.) What historians have not found is strong evidence that African Americans en masse supported the Confederacy through voluntary military service, nor that the Confederate state sought that service as a matter of policy until the very end of the war.
Archives are always biased toward whatever power constructed them. But in this instance, “the archive” is hardly a monolithic entity that had it in for black Confederates. It includes official Confederate and Union government documents as well as innumerable eyewitness and private accounts. How is it that this amazing array of sources, constructed and retained by such a diverse range of historical actors, is systematically biased against the acknowledgment of black Confederates?
It is one thing to critique the construction of the archive, and another to posit a credible case in favor of something as tendentious as black Confederates. Evidence for the widespread and systematic use of slaves as Confederate soldiers is scanty at best. The burden of proof must lay on those making an assertive case for something, and not on challengers to prove a negative. This may indeed concede something to the systematic bias of the archive. But there is a distinction between creative reading and sloppy reading (though the fuzziness of that line makes for endless, and profitable, debate). Ultimately, evidence is all we have, and without method we are not a discipline.
We are talking here about hermeneutics, or the craft of reading and interpreting sources. I’ve written before about the kind of formal tools scholars have brought to bear on other historical questions, such as (seriously) the historicity of Jesus. By virtually any hermeneutic principle, the case for black Confederates is at best strained.
Let’s take the Frederick Douglass example. Yes, in August 1861, he wrote that at Bull Run the previous month, “black troops, no doubt pressed into the service by their tyrant masters” had appeared among the rebels. Douglass offered no concrete numbers and no source for this information, which he mentioned hastily as evidence of the threat posed by the secessionists. His agenda became clear in the next issue of Douglass’ Monthly (September 1861), in a piece entitled “Fighting Rebels with Only One Hand”:
What upon earth is the matter with the American Government and people? . . . They are sorely pressed on every hand by a vast army of slaveholding rebels, flushed with success, and infuriated by the darkest inspirations of a deadly hate, bound to rule or ruin. . . . Our Presidents, Governors, Generals and Secretaries are calling, with almost frantic vehemence, for men.— ‘Men! men! send us men!’ they scream, or the cause of the Union is gone, the life of a great nation is ruthlessly sacrificed, and the hopes of a great nation go out in darkness; and yet these very officers, representing the people and Government, steadily and persistently refuse to receive the very class of men which have a deeper interest in the defeat and humiliation of the rebels, than all others.
Douglass’s overwhelming concern was not to document the presence of slaves among Confederate forces, but to cajole Union officials into accepting black troops. To suggest this hardly seems to evade a critical reading of the archive. If slaves in Confederate grey served Douglass’s larger rhetorical purpose, he was happy to have them.
So either Douglass knew about a lot of black Confederates but chose not to offer details and sources, or he found the mention of them useful to promote a cause he was deeply committed to. Which seems more likely? About which is there more corroboration? In either case, not much can be made of his assertions regarding the actual prevalence of black Confederates.
To tell you the truth, I’m not even sure what exactly Downs is defending. For the life of me, I cannot find in Stauffer’s Root piece the larger argument that the existence of black Confederates is meant to support. Proponents of the position frequently assert that Lefties with political agendas actively suppress historical information on them because they don’t want to acknowledge some larger truth. But that larger truth remains obscure here.
Downs is correct that the debate reveals “the political imperatives that shape how we want to see the past rather than the ways that the past may have wanted to be seen.” But if any side in it seems committed to a loose interpretation designed to serve contemporary political ends, it is the side that insists that black service would somehow dispel the notion that the Confederacy stood for slavery. In the absence of a positive assertion of something else, Stauffer’s critics are concerned that his findings will be used as such findings have been used in the past: by Confederate apologists, white supremacists, and others willing to subordinate scholarship to political agendas.
The overwhelming weight of the evidence, which is all we have, suggests that as a matter of policy the Confederate government rejected slaves’ service as soldiers until it was too late to matter. No number of alleged black Confederates can change the critical truth that the Confederacy was predicated on a defense of slavery, and came into existence because of slavery.
So let’s slip into narrative mode, and consider the Confederacy’s recruitment of slaves in its comparative dimension. A perspective that crosses time and space reveals something important about this debate. In the annals of Atlantic slave societies, and even of previous US history, we forget how singular the Confederacy was in failing to arm its slave population in a time of military crisis.
By the Civil War, the use of the enslaved as combatants already had a long history in the Atlantic world, stretching back to the foundations of New World plantation societies. Sparsely populated settlements had often turned to their bondsmen in times of military crisis. But slaves could not be expected to fight for nothing. As Thomas Jefferson had put it, “if a slave can have a country in this world, it must be any other in preference to that in which he is born to live and labour for another.” The price of loyalty was the liberty so coveted by those in chains. During the conflicts between the Dutch and Portuguese over control of northeastern Brazil in the first half of the seventeenth century, sugar planters had promised freedom and pay for “every black, Arda, Mina, Angola, creole, mulatto, métis, free or slave, who does his duty in defense of divine liberty.” Slaves became the backbone of the French Revolutionary army in St. Domingue, and forces fighting on all sides in the Latin American wars of independence turned to slave liberation and recruitment in their struggles.
Let’s focus on the American case, though. Even before the American Revolution, planters in the lower South had viewed their powder-keg societies as a source of vulnerability on the world stage. Many planters considered southern slaves “necessary, but very dangerous Domestics, their Number so much exceeding the Whites.” Slaves constituted a potentially rebellious class, exploitable by an enemy willing to offer a likely inducement such as liberty.
As war loomed, the problem grew. In 1774, James Madison conveyed reports of a recent slave conspiracy, in which “a few of those unhappy wretches met together and chose a leader who was to conduct them when the English troops should arrive.” These slave rebels thought — “foolishly,” Madison wrongly believed — that the British would be coming “very soon and that by revolting to them they should be rewarded with their freedom.” Urging that such conspiracies “should be concealed as well as suppressed,” Madison worried that “if America should come to a hostile rupture, I am afraid an Insurrection among the slaves may well be promoted.”
In South Carolina, where slaves comprised nearly half of the state’s entire population on the eve of the American Revolution, concern ran particularly high. Back in 1766 Christopher Gadsen had called his native South Carolina “a very weak province,” for “having such a number of slaves amongst us.” In June of 1775, South Carolina’s legislature organized a militia (all white, of course) expressly to resist a feared British invasion of Charleston, which it was believed would accompany an instigated slave uprising. The assembly cited “the dread of insurrection,” which “a wicked and despotic ministry” might inspire, as one of the “causes sufficient to drive an oppressed people to the use of arms.”
Indeed, concerns over Britain’s arming of the slaves sparked the outbreak of the Revolution in Virginia. As tensions led to military showdown in the spring of 1775, Royal Governor Lord Dunmore used British troops to remove gunpowder from the magazine in the capital at Williamsburg. Colonists massed at the governor’s palace, demanding the return of the gunpowder on the pretext that they feared servile rebellion. In their words, “some wicked and designing persons have instilled the most diabolical notions into the minds of our slaves, and . . . therefore, the utmost attention to our internal security is become the more necessary.” Dunmore responded by threatening them with just this prospect. “If any insult is offered me, or those who have obeyed my orders,” he stated, “I will declare freedom to the slaves, and lay the town in ashes.”
Shortly after, Dunmore fled with his family to a royal warship offshore, reporting to his superior in England his intention to “arm all my own Negroes and receive all others that will come to me who I shall declare free.” That November, Dunmore carried out his threat, declaring martial law in Virginia, and promising freedom for slaves and servants “appertaining to Rebels” who might take up arms for the king. In the following months, some 800 slaves or more accepted Dunmore’s bargain, fleeing plantations to join British forces. Colonials howled. “Hell itself could not have vomited anything more black than this design of emancipating our slaves,” a Philadelphian croaked.
Fast forward almost a century, and the same dynamics came into play, even more fatefully. Early in the Civil War a very few Confederate voices had suggested the possibility of enlisting slaves in exchange for liberty, but the great majority, particularly among the Confederate leadership, refused even to contemplate such a move. A very few African-descended people in arms served the Confederate cause, such as the 1st Louisiana Native Guard, a militia regiment composed of free people of color largely from New Orleans, which Confederate leaders never risked testing in battle. Overwhelmingly, though, the Confederates used African Americans, mostly enslaved, as laborers and servants.
Only late in the war, with the manpower shortage clearly telling, did Confederate leaders begin seriously considering a policy of slave recruitment. In January 1864, General Patrick Cleburne wrote a remarkable letter to his commanders, conceding that “slavery, from being one of our chief sources of strength at the commencement of the war, has now become, in a military point of view, one of our chief sources of weakness.” A Confederate policy of liberation and recruitment would “strike dead all John Brown fanaticism” in the North, permit the raising of troops necessary for “carrying on a protracted struggle,” and remove all “fear of insurrection in the rear.” Confederate officials rejected the plan only to have the desperate Lee promote it again the next January. He failed. By March 1865, when Congress finally permitted masters to voluntarily relinquish slaves who would then be emancipated into Confederate armies, the end of the war was too near for the policy to make a difference in the course of the war.
In a nutshell, here’s what had happened: southern planters had sought to preserve slavery through a contest of arms rather than through a formal political system in which they believed themselves to be overmatched. Over time, Union policymakers, like Lord Dunmore and the British during the American Revolution, came to exploit the weakness of slaveholders’ discontented domestic population. Far more stunningly than in the American Revolution, the Civil War unleashed emancipation as a potent military force which transferred the power of the slaves from the Confederacy to the Union, thus helping to crush the slaveholding republic. The Confederacy’s late, desperate gamble to enlist freed slaves fit within historical patterns of Atlantic slave societies, but only in southern slaveholders’ extreme reluctance to consider measures that every other slave power at war enacted at some juncture.
And this is the critical point lost in the debate over black Confederates: Even were it to yield a brigade, this troubled search for black Confederates only demonstrates the Confederacy’s singularity. Of all New World slave societies, the Confederacy stood alone in predicating its very existence on the ideological defense of slavery, and thus rendering slaves’ military service a contradiction in terms. No other Atlantic slave power — not even the Brazilian planters who stood largely unopposed within their nation until the 1870s — so fiercely constructed ideological defenses of slavery as a legitimate, and indeed beneficial, modern social institution. And so, likewise, the Confederacy stood alone in contradicting the Atlantic norm of trading slaves service for freedom.
This proved to be a critical weakness, uniquely condemning the slave power of the Confederacy to be undone by the very institution it sought most to conserve. In 1865, Confederate congressman Howell Cobb of Georgia rebuked those who called for the Confederacy’s enlistment of black soldiers: “The day you make soldiers of them is the beginning of the end of the revolution. If slaves will make good soldiers our whole theory of slavery is wrong.” Confederate President Jefferson Davis demurred: “If the Confederacy falls there should be written on its tombstone, ‘Died of a theory.’”
Comments on “Died of a theory”
Douglass had good reason to believe that there were black Confederates at Manassas, because in the weeks between the battle there and Douglass’ essay, northern newspapers included numerous accounts describing them, including at least two papers he likely read in Rochester. It’s only when one compares these news accounts side-by-side, in sequence, that it becomes clear that they all apparently have the same origin, an account given by a supposed Confederate prisoner officer who cannot be identified in contemporary records. His account was told, embellished and repeated so many times that, to someone reading them in real time, it would look like wide corroboration of their presence.
so here we have an instance wherein insufficient interrogation of the archive may lead one to make more of evidence than it can bear. thanks for the insight.
This is exactly on point. The careful reading of the evidence that neither Stauffer nor Downs display in their pieces.
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