October 2, 2019
MY CORNER by Boyd Cathey
My Response to Kevin Levin’s Attack on My Article on Black Confederates
Back on September 21, the Reckonin.com site ran my article, “The Debate over Black Confederates.” In that essay I cited a news report which originally appeared in The [Raleigh] News & Observer on September 12. That article detailed the efforts of one Kevin Levin, an author based in Boston, Massachusetts, to counter the longstanding work of Earl Ijames. Earl, who is black, is a Curator at the North Carolina Museum of History and was formerly an Archivist at the North Carolina State Archives; and he has done voluminous research on the existence and activities of black Confederates.
Over the years Earl has engaged in almost non-stop debate with those writers and others who wish to deny that “black Confederates” ever existed. And in my essay at Reckonin.com I suggested that the real reason for this zealous denial had far more to do with ideology and a new dogmatic template which has no room for deviation, than with historical investigation. I even made the comparison with the old Soviet Union under Stalin where “deviationism” from the party line was met with forced recantation, possibly an all-expenses-paid trip to a “re-education center” in Siberia. The reality of “black Confederates” in Southern armies, except under duress, is therefore dismissed, cannot be true, because it violates the current progressivist party line about race and racism. If the history doesn’t fit, simply dismiss the history.
Levin read my little essay, and apparently it infuriated him quite a bit. For he then proceeded to get on Twitter (which I don’t have and don’t care to have) and denounce me, although his real target continues to be Earl Ijames and the existence of black Confederates. In particular, he takes aim at the role of the Confederate service of Weary Clyburn, asserting that Clyburn was never actually or technically a member of a Confederate unit.
Here is an access link to the Twitter comments by Levin:
I will not attempt to get into a shouting match with Kevin Levin—Earl’s research and the work of others on this topic stands on its own merit. I have, however, briefly touched on the subject in my book, The Land We Love: The South and Its Heritage:
Late in the conflict (March 13, 1865) the Confederate government authorized the formation of black military units to fight for the Confederacy, with manumission to accompany such service. According to several research studies (see Ervin Jordan, Jr. Black Confederates and Afro-Yankees in Civil War Virginia. University of Virginia Press, 1995; Charles Kelly Barrow, J. H. Segars, and R. B. Rosenburg, Black Confederates, Pelican Publishing, 2001), thousands of black men fought for the Confederacy, perhaps as many as 30,000. Despite the earlier declarations of some Deep South states, would a society ideologically committed to preserving in toto the peculiar institution as the reason for war, even in such dire straits, have enacted such a measure? Did the thousands of black men who fought for the Confederacy believe they were fighting for slavery? [The Land We Love, p. 14]
Of course, a large majority of blacks fighting for or assisting in other ways the Confederate war effort were not formally inducted into the army. But it is beyond debate that many did so informally and voluntarily, and there are indeed pension records (for example, in the North Carolina State Archives, under the 1901 pension law as amended twenty-eight years later) for “black Confederates” who did receive an allowance. And, like Earl Ijames, as a former (retired) Archivist at the State Archives I have viewed those records. More, many of those pensioners are listed in the comprehensive and meticulously researched North Carolina Troops, 1861-1865: A Roster. Raleigh: Division of Archives and History, 1966-2009. 20 volumes.
As Professor Clyde Wilson communicated to me just this morning in his comment about Clyburn. Levin’s comments are, “Just verbiage. The point is, he [Clyburn] served with the army willingly, as did many others. Thousands went with the army to Gettysburg and back.” And by the soldiers with whom he fought, he was considered one of them.
Again, I would suggest that the real issue here is not so much the existence (or non-existence) of black Confederates, but rather a classic Marxist ideological template in which such persons do not fit. They do not further the narrative, so they become non-persons, non-existent.
And you’d better not say otherwise, lest you bring down all the wrath of writers like Kevin Levin or instructors at the University of North Carolina such as W. Fitzhugh Brundage, a William Umstead Distinguished Professor of History at that university.
Ironically, perhaps to be attacked by someone like Kevin Levin may also have its positives. At least it demonstrates that he is cognizant of opposing views, and that he felt strongly enough about my essay to attempt a reply. That is, it bothered and provoked him enough that he believed he should respond.
And any time I can get under the skin of such folks, hit a nerve so to speak, I count it a success.