Saturday, September 21, 2019

September 21, 2019

MY CORNER by Boyd Cathey

The Debate over Black Confederates: It’s All about Ideology, not Real History


Earlier this month Boston-based, amateur historian Kevin M. Levin published a volume titled, Searching for Black Confederates: The Civil War’s Most Persistent Myth (University of North Carolina Press), in which, against substantial evidence both contemporary and modern, he maintains that it is simply a myth that Southern blacks, whether slave or free, fought for the Confederacy. In his screed Levin takes aim in particular at North Carolina Museum of History Curator Earl Ijames.  Mr. Ijames, who is himself black, has done substantial research on “colored Confederates,” including the production of an acclaimed film on the topic, in which he documents black Confederate soldiers and their participation in Confederate ranks.

An article in The [Raleigh NC] News & Observer [] describes Levin’s approach:

“The ‘black Confederate’ narrative is intended to fundamentally shift the history of the Confederacy,” Levin said in a phone interview with The News & Observer. “It’s an attempt to get the Confederacy right on race relations. That’s its goal. That’s what I was attempting to undercut with the book.” Of Ijames, Levin said, “He is operating under a fundamental misunderstanding of the Confederacy and of the Civil War in history. He has pushed this false narrative.”

Curator Ijames’ 75-minute documentary film, released in 2014, titled “Earl Ijames’ Colored Confederates and U.S. Colored Troops,”  offers documentation that blacks aligned with both sides during the Civil War in the hopes of securing their freedom.  “It’s just an inconvenient truth for some people” that blacks served as Confederate soldiers, Ijames has stated.

In the same news article, Frank Powell of the North Carolina Sons of Confederate Veterans was quoted in support of Ijames:

“To call him [Levin] an historian is a misnomer. Most of his stuff is wrong. He’s more of an agenda-pusher. We have a real problem nowadays with these people who don’t want to just change our history, but to eradicate it. And not just Confederate, but all of Western history. They want to tear all of that down so they can remake it to their liking…The problem is that, unfortunately, they didn’t keep very good [troop] records. A lot of the records got destroyed at the end of the war. I’ve read accounts about numbers. Some say 50,000 and some say 500,000. You just don’t know because of the lack of records. Five hundred thousand is probably too many. But 50,000 may not be enough.”

Not content to engage in debate, since debate implicitly suggests at least two legitimate sides to an argument, zealous supporters of Levin's position go so far as to suggest that Earl Ijames should be perhaps even dismissed from his position. W. Fitzhugh Brundage, a William Umstead Distinguished Professor of History at the University of North Carolina who wrote an endorsement for the jacket of Searching for Black Confederates, has declared that “if the museum in any way allows its name to be associated with, or provide space for, an uncontested description or claim about substantial numbers of black Confederates, I think it’s doing a disservice to North Carolina citizens.”

What emerges with indelible transparency in this debate is that the fanatical Progressivist Left is pushing an agenda, an ideological template, and their goal is total power. And in that template there is no room for dissent or disagreement. In our present cultural context race and racism have become weaponized, talismanic cudgels for totalitarian Progressivists with which to beat historically-dominant European civilization and “white supremacy” over the head, poisoned arrows in the quiver of the post-Marxist social justice warriors employed to advance their agenda.  Jarring and glaring exceptions that interrupt or undermine this narrative must be rejected and condemned at all costs: that blacks, whether slave or free, would have fought for the Confederacy simply cannot be true because it does not serve the ultimate goals of the revolutionary race zealots.

In other words, if history doesn’t confirm my ideology and my bias, well then, just go back and rewrite that history to make it so! And this methodology dominates the craft of the vast majority of current historians and the history tomes that they obediently churn out—ideologically tendentious and shaped to further an agenda.

How does this differ from the intellectual environment of the old Soviet Union, except perhaps that it is more insidious and more pervasive?


My good friend Lt. Colonel Sion Harrington, III (US Army, retired) has written a commentary on this topic. Si holds two Masters degrees in history, and he was for some time the State Military Historian at the North Carolina State Archives and a professor of history. I pass on his comments:

By Lt. Col. Sion H. Harrington, III (ret.)   September 13, 2019
The old joke, "Don't confuse me with facts, my mind's made up" seems fitting as I reflect on what I have read about this book and some of the author's rather insulting, even condescending comments aimed at those who dare disagree with him.  At the risk of confusing this Boston historical revisionist with facts, allow me to proceed. 
For the sake of discussion, let us dispense for the time being with eyewitness and other contemporary evidence of gray-clad African-Americans under arms, much of which has come to us from Union sources. [There exist contemporary photographs of black Confederate units.]
The author of this book of denial appears to have a somewhat narrow understanding of the practical nature of warfare.  Wars require troops.  Troops require constant resupply of the means of conducting military operations.
There is an old adage that states, "amateurs talk tactics; professionals talk logistics."  One cannot overestimate the importance of logistical support in military operations.  When discussing military planning, logicians refer to something called the "tooth to tail" ratio.  It identifies the number of troops required to provide combat support and combat service support to those fighting in the front lines.  Due to rapid advances in manufacturing and technology over the past two centuries, the ratio of "suppliers" to "fighters" has grown tremendously 
Whether fighting in the front lines (the "teeth" of the combat force), or providing the vital wherewithal for others to engage in active combat (the "tail"), the total force is a mutually dependent team.  Support troops are absolutely critical for success.  As the support troops of my day were fond of reminding those in the, supposedly, more glamorous combat arms, "Try fighting without us!"  Truer words were never spoken.
The question of the value of support troops to combat operations, whether voluntarily enlisted or drafted, is a mute point for those with military experience, or even non-military folk with a modicum of common sense.  The question pondered by the author and other deniers for whom the possibility of African-American military support for the Confederacy is anathema to their pre-conceived notions, appears to be the seemingly illogical nature of such an act, especially if voluntary, and whether or not their non-combat support constituted "real" military service.  My answer is simple:  If support personnel are in the chain of supply of a military operation and doing the job assigned them, they are definitely performing "real" military service. 
This author and others like him argue that slaves accompanying the Confederate Army, whether actively engaged in combat (which he vehemently denies as a possibility) or working to support combat operations, were not really soldiers.  This brings up an interesting point.  Does one have to be "formally" enlisted and wear a prescribed uniform to be counted as a "real" soldier? If not, what then constitutes "real" soldiering?
Those in the zone of operations, other than civilians under government contract to provide specified services, who provide support to the armed forces in the field in some form or another are recognized as vital to the life and success of that force.  Whether enumerated on the formal roll of a military unit as a regularly enlisted (or drafted) member, or wearing a prescribed, regulation uniform, is largely immaterial.  
Those who served in the Revolutionary War militia rarely had uniforms, but performed yeoman service in the roles for which they were properly trained and equipped.  The Daughters of the American Revolution (DAR) recognize both militia service and various types of support service, referred to as "Patriotic Service," as contributing to the overall success of the Revolution.  Yet, not all were formally enrolled in an active military unit.
Partisan bands such as those who served with Francis Marion, the famed "Swamp Fox" of South Carolina, or with the notorious North Carolina Loyalist Colonel David Fanning, wore no fancy, colorful uniforms such as those prescribed for wear by the regulars of the British and Continental Armies.  But, no reasonable person, historian or otherwise, can deny their martial contribution.
What about the fiscal nature of one's service?  If a person is "paid" to provide support, as were some former slaves who worked for the Union Army, does that have any effect on the credibility of the services provided?  Is a salary, real or in kind, the defining element of genuine military service?  Again, it would seem to be in the eye of the beholder.
For certain, after the War many Southern states granted pensions to African-Americans who provided some form of service or another to the Confederate war effort.  My home State of North Carolina paid pensions to a number of such African-American men for whom official state records are available. North Carolina is not the only state to provide such pensions.  Why would a Southern  state offer a pension to men who had not performed some worthy service, especially in the late Nineteenth and early Twentieth Centuries when state funds in the South were limited?  It defies logic.
In addition, if these men’s service was not recognized and appreciated by those with whom they served, why were so many welcomed by their former White comrades in gray at the many Confederate reunions held around the South in the post-war years?  It is not likely these hardened veterans would have welcomed any usurpers of their glory, glory hard-won on many a battlefield.  This was in the days before the curse of so-called "political correctness." So, obviously, these men had actually contributed materially to the support of the units with which they were associated and won the respect of their fellow veterans, despite the racial temper of the times.
Now, to address the popular and oft repeated notion of the "Black Confederate" nay-sayers that Southern slaves were forced to aid the Confederacy.  There can be no doubt that some did march with the Confederate Army against their will, but certainly not all.  Regardless, their service counts!
Answer me this:  Were the thousands upon thousands of men drafted into service during the War Between the States, World War I, World War II, the Korean War, and the Vietnam War "not really soldiers" because their service was not voluntary, or because it was not on the front lines?  Again, I suppose it depends on one's definition of "soldier."  But, I seriously doubt any veteran of any conflict who was drafted into service would refuse the proud title of "soldier," or claim that, although in uniform and paid by the government for performing military duties, that they were not part of the military establishment.

This gentleman's [Levin’s] obvious agenda and lack of objectivity on the subject cast doubts on the validity of his work.  He would have been far better served by truthfully acknowledging the legitimate contributions of African-Americans to the Southern bid for independence rather than by trying to deny the historical reality of the times.

Lieutenant Colonel Sion H. Harrington III, United States Army (Retired)

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