In the day’s most astonishing story, Kevin Sieff of The Washington Post reports that “A textbook distributed to Virginia fourth-graders says that thousands of African Americans fought for the South during the Civil War — a claim rejected by most historians but often made by groups seeking to play down slavery’s role as a cause of the conflict. The passage appears in Our Virginia: Past and Present.” The book’s author, Joy Masoff, is not a trained historian but has written several books, including Oh Yuck! The Encyclopedia of Everything Nasty and Oh Yikes! History’s Grossest Moments. She told Sieff that she found the information about black Confederate soldiers on the internet research, from works written by members of the Sons of Confederate Veterans, a group that also promotes the idea that slavery was not the cause of the war, but that southerners fought to preserve their homes and livelihood. Which, of course, is nonsense.
Surely some slaves wore confederate gray, if only as servants accompanying their masters on the campaign trail. And it’s hard to dismiss the possibility that others took up arms. Funny things happen in war: on D-Day, American forces captured a German soldier from Mongolia. The man had been dragooned into the Soviet army, captured by the Germans, offered his freedom in exchange for enlisting in the German army, and eventually assigned to France. There is, however, no evidence of widespread or common enlistment of black men in the confederate army, and surely nothing supports the claim that two battalions of black troops fought under Stonewall Jackson (a battalion numbers between 500 and 1500 men.) It’s just nonsense.
Most absurd in this suggestion that there were large numbers of black troops is the idea that anyone in a leadership position in the south would have approved of the idea of arming large numbers of black men. As much as anything that stampeded the south into secession in 1860 was the fear that John Brown’s raid was a harbinger of things to come, that with Lincoln in office, instigators from the north would spread insurrection among the slaves. Moreover, economic self-interest and racism were always the defining motivations. Late in 1863, when it was becoming crystal clear that the south’s manpower’s disadvantage was costing them the war, General Patrick Cleburne suggested augmenting the armies with slaves, who would be given their freedom once the war was over. Cleburne, and Irishman who owned no slaves, was one of those who fought for the south because it had become his home. “Satisfy the negro that if he faithfully adheres to our standard during the war he shall receive his freedom and that of his race … and we change the race from a dreaded weakness to a position of strength. Will the slaves fight? The helots of Sparta stood their masters good stead in battle. In the great sea fight of Lepanto where the Christians checked forever the spread of Mohammedanism over Europe, the galley slaves of portions of the fleet were promised freedom, and called on to fight at a critical moment of the battle. They fought well, and civilization owes much to those brave galley slaves … the experience of this war has been so far that half-trained negroes have fought as bravely as many other half-trained Yankees.”
The confederate leadership politely turned him down. Even though they appreciated his truly heroic efforts on the battlefield, he just didn’t get it.
*NB–Reading Ta-Nehisi Coates‘ always excellent blog blog on theatlantic.com this afternoon, I learned a little bit more about Patrick Cleburne that diminishes him in my eyes. Although he did indeed favor ending slavery, he also favored the creation of a racist class system very much like that which prevailed in the Jim Crow south. One commentator includes this quote: “[I]f the Yankees succeed in abolishing slavery,” Cleburne reasoned, “equality and amalgamation will finally take place.” But “if we take this step now, we can mould the relations, for all time to come, between the white and colored races.” And in that case, “we can control the negroes, and….they will still be our laborers as much as they are now; and to all intents and purposes, will be our servants, at less cost than now.”