Wednesday, April 23, 2008

Confederate Apologists

I found a new blog today when I was rumbling around the tubes searching for more information on Lost Cause commemoration, Confederate Memorial Day, etc.: Michael C. Hardy's North Carolina and the Civil War.

Hardy is a thoughtful, well-meaning Confederate apologist, which is the kind that fascinates me most. He is earnestly devoted to preserving "Southern Heritage" and honoring soldiers who fought for the Confederacy. Of course, that means ignoring the nasty bits like slavery, patriarchy, and coercion. A search on his blog for the word "slave" is revealing: as of today at 3 pm, there are 272 posts about North Carolina and the Civil War on this blog and exactly 6 of them contain the words "slave" or "slavery." Of the six posts that mention slaves,
  • one complains that there are few interpretive markers at the North Carolina state capitol, and that "the few markers present are devoted to African-Americans"
  • one describes a loyal slave who brought his master's body back from Gettysburg
  • one is made up of quotes from 1860-1 describing reactions to secession
  • one is a post entitled "Happy 200th Birthday, Robert E. Lee" and mentions Lee's slaves, but goes on to declare, "his entire life is an example that should be emulated. In a day and age when we need heroes, when we need people to look up to, Lee should be one of those men who command our attention."
  • two chronicle that most elusive of apologist canards: the black Confederate soldier.
It would be beyond tedious for me to go through all six posts that mention slavery (let alone the 266 that don't), so I will confine my comments to the insidious myth of the black Confederate.

Some may argue that "myth" is an inappropriate word here. By "myth," I do not mean to imply that there were absolutely no African-Americans or Native Americans who fought for the Confederacy. There undoubtedly were a few.

Rather, the myth of the black Confederate reads something like this: during the Civil War, over 50,000 slaves and free black men served as soldiers in the Confederate army, which PROVES that the South wasn't racist, and, by the way, the North was racist too!
*Please note, this is NOT a quote from Mr. Hardy - I'll get back to him in a minute.*

First, the claim that 50,000 (or more - these guys say 100,000, this guy says "at least 100,000") African-Americans fought as soldiers for the CSA is flat-out bullshit. Many, many slaves worked for Confederate troops in service capacities and as manual laborers/drivers/gravediggers, etc., but many of them ran to Union lines as soon as they could (many bringing valuable information with them). Saner heads have found that, at most, a few hundred African-Americans may have fought on the Confederate side. Which, incidentally, is about the number of female soldiers who were able to join the army by dressing as men.

Second, the idea that finding black soldiers who fought for the Confederacy would prove that the war was not about slavery is silly. The war was about slavery. It was not necessary a war for emancipation, but saying it wasn't about slavery is unfathomable. Don't take my word for it - just ask Confederates circa 1861. Regardless of how many people of color may have fought, the idea that the war was not about slavery is a pillar of the post-war myth of the Lost Cause.

Third, lots of Confederate apologists like to stick in a gotcha: The North was racist too! Thing is, you'll find no argument here. The North was horribly racist - hell, even abolitionists were paternalistic, condescending racists. I fail to see how this makes the war less about slavery.

All of this is a lot of lead up to say something very simple: Michael C. Hardy is not a wild-eyed crazy person. It is easy to dismiss people who say insane things, but the myth of the Lost Cause does not always come wrapped in the Stars and Bars. From what I have read on his blog, Hardy is a considerate, well-intentioned person who is interested in research, history, and honoring his forebears. Still, he is not at all interested in slavery and posts information about black Confederates on his blog without commenting on the history of this debate.

The problem is that Hardy's vision of the Confederacy is a gentler, more reasonable version of the insidious Lost Cause ideology. When our focus is on honoring the men who fought and died, no doubt bravely, without ever really grappling with what they were fighting for, we don't learn anything. When we implicitly deny the horror of slavery and the continual betrayal of African-Americans during and after the war, we are setting ourselves up to accept racist fantasies in the present. When we fawn over Southern leaders like Lee and Jackson as models of American manhood, what we are really doing is yearning for a white, Christian, patriarchal past in which women and slaves knew their places and real men were subordinate only to God.

I realize that everyone has interests and doesn't necessarily have time to explore all of the problems that attend those interests. I don't have a problem with Michael Hardy if he wants to write primarily about military history. Still, his blog is a reminder of how the soft power of the Lost Cause myth continues to inhabit our mental landscapes.


THET-SHAY said...

There were many black confederate soldiers. The current display at the Appomattox Courthouse National Monument museum provides strong proof as will an honest review of the historical record credible sources. And yes there were many black slave owners who feared they would loose their property.

Last year I picked up a book solely devoted to blacked slave owners in SC. This is not a happy topic for many black people but as many black people blindly loyal to one political party, they do not want to see the complexity of their condition. Today we have very wealthy blacks and some who are very poor. Slavery was the cause of the civil war, but it was first a war between the "whites".

I do find most Confederate Apologist disgusting and pathetic but one should not be so naive as to see the ironic and often strange complexity to this great conflict.

Caitlin GD Hopkins said...

I will refer you to Civil War Memory, a blog that has taken on the issue of black Confederates in a much more extensive way than I can do here.

I will say only this: there were not "many" black Confederate "soldiers." Many slaves were coerced into serving the Confederate army in as non-armed support personnel. As for "many" — there are more documented female soldiers than documented black Confederate soldiers.

THET-SHAY said...

By many, it was the two companies raised a days before the surrender. There is the stories of the regiment of Louisana freemen "of color" mentioned by Catton and McPherson, but I have not done any research myself.

Anonymous said...

My name is Rogers my family fought for Virginia and as I have been told were not slave owners ,which saved thier home from burning by The War Criminal T.Sherman