Black Confederates, slavery, and the 150th anniversary of the start of the Civil War

Just a day late to join the many people commemorating the start of the Civil War on April 12, 1861, when South Carolina fired on Fort Sumter. I noticed that many of the news stories focused on whether we are “still fighting the Civil War” today (since there is still racism), and one story harped irritatingly on the misguided idea that many enslaved black Americans fought for the Confederacy.

The show (NPR’s The Takeaway) had a few black Americans in to talk about ancestors who fought for the Confederacy. I was about to post here in despair, in an attempt to set the record straight, but thankfully, the show brought in the wonderful Kevin Levin, author of the Civil War Memory blog, to set it straight himself. You can hear the interview here.

Here’s what Kevin had to say later on his blog:

“Unfortunately, the time [on the show] went by way too fast.  I would have been happy to listen to any number of people on this issue, but of course, I am pleased that they asked me to join them this morning. For additional reading, I highly recommend Bruce Levine’s Confederate Emancipation: Southern Plans to Free and Arm Slaves during the Civil War and Stephanie McCurry’s Confederate Reckoning: Power and Politics in the Civil War South.  You may also want to take a look at my Black Confederate Resources page, which provides an overview of what I’ve written on the subject on this blog.  You will also find a great deal of commentary on this site about Earl Ijames, who was mentioned in the course of the interview.  Click here for the post on Ijames and Henry L. Gates.”

I pass these resources along to readers of the HP, and pass along my thanks once again to Kevin for his tirelessly objective and valuable work.

On the other points, I think it’s hard to say we’re still fighting the Civil War; I think the Civil War was one watershed event in the history of acknowledging racism as an evil. We fought the Civil War as one battle in the war on racism. We’re still fighting that war, but not the Civil War.

Finally, there were many predictable claims that the Civil War was not fought over slavery but states’ rights. This began life immediately after the war, when Confederate leaders and supporters immediately began a spin campaign to put their actions in the best possible light. They claimed they had never fought for slavery, that the Constitution and states’ rights were the be-all and end-all of the Cause. This was debunked thoroughly over the years, notably by Charles Dew in his book Apostles of Disunion (see “Slavery leads to secession, secession leads to war” for more).

Once it was clear that southern leaders were 100% in their desire to fight the war to protect slavery, the argument shifted: now revisionists said that while powerful southerners fought for slavery, the average Confederate in the trenches was a poor man who didn’t own any enslaved people, who only fought because his homeland was invaded. Most notable in spreading this idea was Shelby Foote in Ken Burns’ documentary The Civi War, who quotes a Confederate telling a Union soldier that he fought “because you are down here.”

And this is the argument put about now—that the average Confederate soldier did not fight for slavery, and therefore bears no shame for his part in the war. But why was the Union “down there” in the first place? Because the southern states had seceeded so they could continue slavery. From the moment the Emancipation Proclamation was issued, January 1, 1863, the Union was fighting to end slavery, and even before that date, many Union soldiers had that as a personal aim.

If the average poor Confederate really did resent the rich whites who hired substitutes to fight for them, why fight their war? Why fight and die so those rich whites could continue to control society and politics, have slaves, and keep poor white people poor?

No war is simple. There’s no one reason why poor southern men fought for the Confederacy. They fought, as all people do, for a mix of reasons; in this case, fear and anger at being invaded, a sense of having no choice but to enlist once war began, wanting to join their friends in the army, loyalty to rich white leaders in their own towns and counties, excitement at the prospect of war, resentment of the North’s “anti-southern” policies, and a host of other, private reasons. Union soldiers had the same mix, and many of the same inducements.

But no matter why they fought, they fought, and they fought for the Confederacy, to preserve its slave society. There’s nothing noble about that.

The one way we’re still fighting the Civil War is in our unending attempts to understand what it was about, in all its complexity. But a few concrete facts must guide that understanding, and the fact that it was a war fought for slavery, even by the lowliest Confederate soldier, is one  of them.

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