Wednesday, January 20, 2010

The Forgotten Legion: A Thought Experiment

Union soldier

The controversy over "Black Confederates" seems unlikely to die anytime soon. Recent posts by Kevin Levin and Ta-Nehisi Coates (and the comments on those posts) have inspired me to ponder the possible tactics for combatting the myth that tens thousands of slaves willingly served the Confederacy as enlisted soldiers and its implications (i.e. that slavery was incidental to the Southern economic/social/political regime, that a large number of slaves were unfailingly loyal to their owners, that the war was not about slavery, etc.).

As Ta-Nehisi Coates has rightfully observed, the evidence supporting the "Black Confederates" argument is both anecdotal and incidental. Among the thousands of slaves who were forced to serve the Confederate army and its soldiers as teamsters, manual laborers, cooks, body servants, and orderlies, some may have served willingly and some may have taken up arms at some point. Yet, it would be foolish to turn scattered stories of slaves retrieving their masters' bodies from battlefields or protecting their homes from foraging troops into legions of armed slaves recruited by the Confederate government and willingly fighting to preserve the Confederacy.

Thus, I propose a thought experiment. Anyone who accepts the idea that a significant number of black men fought for the Confederacy must also accept the "fact" that all Civil War armies were chock-full of women. We'll call this the Forgotten Legion Theory.

The evidence is much more solid than the evidence for Black Confederates. In They Fought Like Demons: Women Soldiers in the Civil War, DeAnne Blanton and Lauren M. Cook present documentary evidence of 250 female soldiers who served in uniform.* Some, like Sarah Emma Edmonds, are known to have participated in battles. Some, like Loreta Janeta Velasquez, became officers. Some were even granted medals (Dr. Mary Walker, first female recipient of the Medal of Honor) and pensions (Albert Cashier/Jennie Hodgers, who lived his whole adult life as a man). Half a dozen gave birth while in uniform:
When I was last on duty as General Officer of the Day I came across a very singular case of illness on the picket line . . . A corporal of a New Jersey regiment who was on duty with the pickets complained of being unwell, but little notice was given his complaints at first. His pain and other symptoms of severe indisposition increased, becoming so evident that his officers had him carried to a farmhouse. There the worthy corporal was delivered of a fine, fat little recruit
- Colonel Adrian Root, 94th New York Infantry,
as quoted in Blanton & Cook, p. 103
Now we let the logic of "Black Confederates" partisans take over. We know about hundreds of female soldiers, so why not thousands? Undoubtedly, many went undetected. Why not assume that tens of thousands served? Why not 100,000? And by "served," we don't mean that they were laundresses, sutlers, nurses, prostitutes, and vivandieres accompanying the army— we mean that they were armed, enlisted soldiers. One hundred thousand of them.

Furthermore, women's service, legitimated as it was by the Federal government when it granted pensions, medals, or burial in military cemeteries to a handful of female veterans, PROVES that women were not oppressed in 19th-century America. Even though they were denied the most basic civil rights, they must have been happy with their lives. After all, they never would have fought for a country devoted to keeping them down. The MYTH that Civil War armies were male-dominated is a conspiracy foisted upon us by the liberal, Northern, academic elites who impose political correctness through their textbooks and their smug superiority. They suppress the evidence of the Forgotten Legion because they are prejudiced against the 19th century. But let the word ring forth that from this day, we will teach our children the TRUTH: that the armies that swept over the ground at Gettysburg and Shiloh were made up of men and women, enjoying equal opportunities to serve the countries they loved, working together in harmony to defend their way of life.

If you believe that a significant number of black men willingly served as soldiers in the Confederate army and that their service proves that the Confederacy was not passionately committed to the continuation of slavery, intellectual honesty demands that you also believe that a significant number of women served as soldiers in both the Union and Confederate armies and that their service proves that both countries were committed to women's equality. It should go without saying that both positions are ridiculous.

*It should be noted that Blanton and Cook never overstate their evidence in this book. They claim, at most, hundreds of female soldiers and emphasize that female soldiers are worth studying because they were anomalies, not because they were integral to the war effort. Their work is well-researched and modest and should not be lumped in with the ravings of neo-Confederate partisans.


Daniel Dvorkin said...

Oh, this is brilliant.

Daniel Dvorkin said...

Oh, this is brilliant. That's all I've got to say. Thanks for this post.