Desperate Measures

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Reviewed by David W. Blight
Sunday, March 5, 2006

CONFEDERATE EMANCIPATION

Southern Plans to Free and Arm Slaves

During the Civil War

By Bruce Levine

Oxford Univ. 252 pp. $29.95

The idea of faithful slaves in the Old South has been one of the most tenacious myths in American history. Slaves' fidelity to their masters' cause -- a falsehood constructed to support claims that the war was not about slavery -- has long formed one of the staple arguments in Lost Cause ideology. In dealing with such myths, historians often analyze their tenacity instead of their veracity. Not so Bruce Levine, a professor of history at the University of California at Santa Cruz. His Confederate Emancipation is brilliantly researched and persuasively argued.

In the past decade, the neo-Confederate fringe of Civil War enthusiasm (with tentative support from some academic historians) has contended that thousands of African Americans, slave and free, willingly joined the Confederate war effort as soldiers and fought for their "homeland." A quasi-debate over the existence of "black Confederates" has seeped into academic conferences, historical journals and many Web sites. The issue of competing popular memories is driven largely by the desire of current white supremacists to re-legitimize the Confederacy while tacitly rejecting the victories of the modern civil rights movement. What could better buttress the claims of "color-blind conservatism" in our own time than the notion that the slaveholding leaders of the Confederacy were themselves the true emancipators and that many slaves were devoted to the Southern rebellion? George Orwell warned us: Who needs real history when you can control public language and political debate? This book is a scholarly, well-written demolition of the invented tradition of "black Confederates." Levine's intrepid research overwhelms the myth, although it will never kill it as long as such stories reinforce current social needs and political agendas.

In December 1863, after numerous Confederate military defeats, Gen. Patrick Cleburne, an Irish-born Arkansan, presented a stunning memorandum to his fellow officers in the Army of Tennessee. Cleburne judged the Confederacy to be in dire straits, "hemmed in" by "superior forces" on virtually all fronts. The South faced a "fatal apathy" in its own ranks, he warned, and would in time be "subjugated" by the federal armies unless Confederates took the radical step of arming slaves. Cleburne assumed widespread slave loyalty to the Confederacy, yet he admitted that black battlefield service could be purchased only by promising freedom to soldiers and their families. The Confederacy faced a desperate choice, according to Cleburne: "the loss of independence" or the "loss of slavery." The true Southern patriot, he contended, must "give up the negro slave rather than be a slave himself." Although largely suppressed, this memo made it to President Jefferson Davis and his cabinet, which rejected it almost unanimously.

But in 1864, after further military setbacks, the idea of arming slaves developed an influential following among a small group of white Southerners, especially Judah P. Benjamin (Davis's closest cabinet adviser), Gen. Robert E. Lee and Davis himself. Public calls to enlist slaves emanated from Union-occupied sections of Mississippi and Alabama, and in the wake of the fall of Atlanta in September 1864, five Southern governors supported some kind of black-soldier policy. When Davis finally embraced the idea two months later, he did so gingerly, first suggesting the outright purchase of slaves from their owners.

Levine illuminates a "wide-ranging public dispute [over arming slaves] that dominated political life during the Confederacy's final six months." Once unleashed, especially in newspapers, the idea of slave soldiers and Confederate emancipation met fierce opposition. Critics repeatedly labeled any form of the plan an "insult" to white soldiers and "embarrassing" before the world. Some raised the specters of slave revolt and miscegenation; other critics rehearsed familiar proslavery arguments about the inherent inferiority of black people and the benign, natural character of racial slavery.

Levine demonstrates, in one crisp, convincing quotation after another, that to Confederates the war was all about preserving their "property" in slaves. For example, plantation mistress Catherine Edmondston condemned any attempt to arm slaves because it would "destroy at one blow the highest jewel in the Crown." "Our independence," chimed in North Carolina Gov. Zebulon Vance, "is chiefly desirable for the preservation of our political institutions, the principal of which is slavery." And Brig. Gen. Clement H. Stevens spoke for most Confederate officers when he announced, "If slavery is to be abolished then I take no more interest in our fight." While many other historians have gamely mustered the same argument in this struggle between scholarship and public memory, Levine delivers what ought to be a death blow to the still-popular refrain in Lost Cause rhetoric that the war had never been fought for slavery. In the increasingly embittered debate of 1864-65 over black enlistment, the proposal's advocates charged that their fellow Southerners would, in the words of a Georgia congressman, "give up their sons, husbands, brothers & friends, and often without murmuring, to the army; but let one of their negroes be taken, and what a howl you will hear." Deftly, and with archival authority, Levine hoists the Confederates on their own petards.

Levine's analysis of their motives is most revealing. Davis and Lee, he contends, were never the enlightened advocates of emancipation that their Lost Cause defenders, as well as some distinguished biographers, have fashioned. Rather, they were staunch Confederate nationalists, determined to do whatever it took to win a war of Southern independence and, in so doing, preserve ultimate control over blacks in the postwar South. Among some Confederate leaders, two growing realizations drove them to support emancipation through soldiering: first, that by 1864, the demise of slavery in this war could not be stopped; second (and most difficult of all to square with their values), that slaves dearly wanted their freedom. But as Levine makes clear, those Confederates who supported black enlistment coupled with emancipation did so in the hope of controlling the lives, prospects and especially the labor of the people they would "free." Their best intentions were thwarted by their own caution and by African Americans themselves, who chose by the hundreds of thousands to flee to and join the armies in blue rather than gray.

Comparing Confederate plans for emancipation to similar developments in the West Indies, Japan and Russia, as well as to other transformations of labor in European history, Levine exposes the would-be emancipators as "revolutionaries from above." The rhetoric of Lee or Cleburne is similar, Levine shows, to Otto von Bismarck's assertion: "If there is to be a revolution, we want to make it rather than suffer it." Advocates of Confederate emancipation sought to use hundreds of thousands of black men not only as cannon fodder to win the white slaveholders' war, but also as a new lease on life for slavery, in the form of serfdom or apprenticeship, and most definitely to retain white supremacy. As the Richmond Sentinel put it, "partial emancipation" was the "very means" to keep Southern blacks enslaved.

In late February and early March 1865, after intensive debate and facing huge desertion rates in the Southern forces, the Confederate Congress adopted a halfhearted bill authorizing black enlistment. The House voted 40-37 and the Senate 9-8 to allow Davis to implement a voluntary plan in which no slaves were to be conscripted. Owners had to come forward and give their slaves to the cause. The law itself did not free a single slave and operated, as one of its proponents admitted, as a "free-will offering." Gen. Lee demanded urgent action to usher black men into his army, which was about to collapse in front of Petersburg. The war ended before anything could come of this last-ditch Confederate effort to find manpower -- which now looked, as a Mississippian gravely confessed, "like a drowning man catching at straws." Only in Virginia were any blacks actually mustered into companies, totaling at most perhaps 200 men. None saw meaningful combat, and, as Levine found, some of those who did wear Confederate gray did so as a means of running away to Union lines.

Sometimes Levine lets his research dominate when one would wish for more of his own narrative voice. But his conclusions are judiciously tethered to the evidence. And how can he avoid letting despairing Confederates speak for themselves, as does a South Carolina planter with remarkable candor right after Appomattox? "Born and raised amid" slavery, said Augustin Taveau, he had believed "that these people were content, happy, and attached to their masters." But "the conduct of the Negro in the late crisis of our affairs convinced me that we have all been labouring under a delusion." That delusion both made and unmade the Confederate quest to save their slaveholders' republic by arming blacks. In the end, Levine successfully counters the "spirit of reactionary nostalgia" that has fueled the "black Confederate" mythology. For more than a century, the pernicious story of the faithful slave took deep root in the American imagination, where it still provides an active, if declining, currency in race relations.

Levine breathes some welcome truths into this dispute over public memory. "The Confederacy had come into the world to protect slavery," he writes, and those leaders who urged arming slaves by freeing them did so "not despite their antebellum values but because of them. In pushing to enact this measure, they were trying to preserve as much of the Old South as they could." Confederates almost achieved the goals of Confederate emancipation, despite losing on the battlefield. This book reminds us, however, of the profound importance of Union victory. ยท

David W. Blight is a professor of history at Yale University, the editor of "Passages to Freedom: The Underground Railroad in History and Memory" and the author of "Race and Reunion: The Civil War in American Memory."


© 2006 The Washington Post Company

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