Black Confederates! Remember, you heard it here first. You will be hearing more if you have any interest at all in the Great Unpleasantness of the last century that is the focal point of American history. There are more things in heaven and earth, dear Horatio, than are dreamed of by Ken Burns.

In the film Gettysburg appears the English Colonel Arthur Fremantle, played as a somewhat silly character. Fremantle was a real person who accompanied the Confederate Army on the Gettysburg campaign and published a book, Three Months in the Southern States. One incident noted by Fremantle in his book did not, of course, make it into the movie—the spectacle of a black Confederate marching a file of Yankee prisoners to the rear.

Real life is always a lot more complicated than ideological history. The image that most Americans carry around in their heads of the Old South and the black slavery that flourished over much of this continent for two and a half centuries is cartoonish and largely misleading. (Just think of Uncle Tom’s Cabin and Roots.) It is also, of course, extremely comforting to the mainstream American consciousness to think of the heroic soldiers in blue marching forth to strike the chains from the suffering black people—setting aside the fact that emancipation did not become a war goal until well after hostilities had begun, and that in many cases it resulted only in destructive uprooting or a change of masters.

The material brought forth in these two recently published works has not been unknown; it has always been self-evident to serious historians who have worked with primary sources. Large numbers of black people identified the South and the Confederacy as their homeland and homefolks, and did not rush into the arms of the emancipators. This really is not surprising to anyone who knows anything about history or human nature, which, of course, does not include Ken Burns. The Confederate Army was vastly sustained by black men who drove teams, cooked, foraged, dug fortifications, cared for the wounded, and occasionally took up arms. George Washington Cable, the author, when a mere youth of 15 or so, served as General Bedford Forrest’s headquarters clerk. At the beginning of the war, Forrest took 50 of his slaves with him, promising freedom if they served faithfully. Cable records how he was told by Forrest to make out emancipation papers for all but one of these. A number of units of free blacks volunteered for Confederate service, and near the end of the war the Confederacy had decided to enlist black units. There was much opposition to this invasion of private property, but there was also solid support. As in the Union Army, they were to receive the same pay as white soldiers. It is a fact that black men who had been with the army were welcomed at Confederate reunions and received Confederate pensions from Southern states.

Dr. Jordan’s book presents a tremendous amount of documentation about the activities of black Virginians for and against the Confederacy. He is far from a Confederate sympathizer, which makes the data all the more telling. When one considers that over large areas of the South, the black population was 70 to 90 percent and most able-bodied white men were off fighting the war, and that nevertheless no uprisings or significant outrages occurred on the homefront, one has to take a rather more complicated view of the Civil War than is usually passed around. It is true that many slaves left when they had the chance, when federal forces came near, but sometimes they had to be taken away by force. (Often they found themselves pressed into harsher service with the Union Army than with the Southern.) This attitude of the blacks was not due to ignorance or lack of understanding. When Sherman burned over 100 blocks of Columbia, the “winds” that were said to have been responsible did not spare the homes of black people, though they did, mysteriously, jump over that of the French consul. The mayor of Columbia observed three Union soldiers shoot to death a black man they considered insolent. When he reported this to Sherman he was told, “We don’t have time for court-martials and such.” During Sherman’s progress blacks, like white civilians, were left without food and shelter, and black women were much more vulnerable than white women were to rape and murder. Jordan’s book is not the only one in this field of revisionism. The Journal of Confederate History a few years ago published as an entire issue a symposium on “Black Southerners in Gray”; while Professor Edward C. Smith of American University, an African-American, has produced two video tape lectures on the same subject.

Prior to the war there were almost a half-million free blacks in the United States, more than half of whom lived in the South. Historians have long noted that many of these were prosperous, and some were slaveowners. The situation has usually been explained as one of a few blacks having nominal ownership of relatives. There was some of that, but also abundant evidence, as marshaled by Koger for South Carolina (and for Louisiana by Gary Mills, Forgotten People: Cane River’s Creoles of Color, 1977) that many participated in the Southern economy as masters of slave labor in exactly the same way as their white neighbors. (At the time of the averted Denmark Vesey insurrection in Charleston in the 1820’s, 72 percent of free black households in the city held slaves.) All of this is not to provide a defense of slavery, but it does provide the grounds for a less simplistic and moralistic rendering of our ambivalent history.

In the 1970’s, it was fashionable to attribute American racial problems to “the legacy of slavery.” Is it not curious that, the further away we have moved in time and location from the regime of the Old South, the worse these problems have become? How simple it was, in the days before the Watts riots, to attribute all problems to the benighted South. If only the South were corrected with an iron hand, then all would be well. That was a false and destructive rationale, as should be evident to all. It is said that there is now a net in-migration of black Americans back to the South, reversing the pattern of most of this century. There is also evidence that the South (except for a few international metropolises like Atlanta, New Orleans, and Dallas) enjoys more racial peace and progress than elsewhere in the Union.

It appears that Americans are in the process of rethinking some of the fundamentals of race relations that have been held sacrosanct for the past half century. These historical works are both a product of and a contribution to that rethinking, which yet has far to go.


[Black Confederates and Afro-Yankees in Civil War Virginia, by Ervin L. Jordan, Jr. (Charlottesville: University Press of Virginia) 447 pp., $67.50]

[Black Slaveowners: Free Black Slavemasters in South Carolina, 1790-1860, by Larry Koger (Columbia: University of South Carolina Press) 286 pp., $14.95]