My biennial class on the American civil war is coming up this fall. In addition to the war itself, I am looking forward to covering the historical narratives that continue to capture our imagination as Americans. Of course this will include Lost Cause historiography, which leads to the question above. Historian Kevin M. Levin has become one of the leading experts on the role of blacks in the confederacy and the mythology that has come to surround this topic since the 1970s. As part of the buildup to the release of a new book he has written, Levin has a recent article about Gettysburg in Smithsonian Magazine.
As I’ve learned from following Levin’s work, the key to this question is the word “soldier.” No one is contesting that many black individuals were involved in the war effort on the side of the south. But were they soldiers? To use this term would imply there were blacks who played direct roles in the conflict, were trusted with weapons, and were loyal enough to the confederacy to stay and fight rather than flee to Union lines. Those who subscribe to Lost Cause ideology would have use believe that many blacks did, in fact, go to war to protect the land and society they loved — even defying the confederacy’s prohibition against it. This is part of a larger narrative that says slavery really wasn’t that bad and slaves were content and loyal to their masters. As Levin has shown, the “evidence” for black confederates is based on misunderstood documents or downright fabrication. The black individuals who contributed to the confederacy were slaves and servants — cogs in a racialized society — not soldiers. He says:
Enslaved workers constituted the backbone of the Confederate war effort. Although stories of these impressed workers and camp slaves have been erased from our popular memory of the war in favor of mythical accounts of black Confederate soldiers, their presence in the Confederate army constituted a visual reminder to every soldier —slaveowner and non-slaveowner alike—that their ultimate success in battle depended on the ownership of other human beings.
You can read the entire article here.