- Searching for Black Confederates: The Civil War's Most Persistent Myth by Kevin M. Levin
Whether African Americans fought as soldiers in the Confederate army is a popular topic today, one being discussed among history buffs, Civil War round-table participants, and academics alike. Kevin M. Levin's book, Searching for Black Confederates: The Civil War's Most Persistent Myth, provides a definitive and convincing argument on the existence of black Confederates. He provides a [End Page 421] very well-researched case that African Americans did not serve as soldiers in the Confederate army. Yes, they were camp slaves, and, yes, they were laborers, but they were not soldiers. Levin meticulously and methodically lays out his argument and explains why black men were not Confederate soldiers and how they actually functioned in the Confederate army. He then explains how the myth of black Confederate soldiers began, its relationship to the Lost Cause narrative, and how the storyline of African Americans fighting as soldiers in the Confederate army has continued more than 150 years after the war's end.
Context is very important to Levin's book. He argues that to understand how the legend of the black Confederate was created and perpetuated, one must understand the context of the explanations and what else was happening at the same time in American society. First, the maintenance of white supremacy, preeminent in Southern culture, is the underlying theme before, during, and long after the war, but especially in the Jim Crow era. Immediately after the war ended, Confederates articulated the Lost Cause narrative to help them grasp the reality of losing the war and having their slavery-based society vanish forever. A central part of the narrative is that the war was over not slavery but instead states' rights and Confederate efforts to stop an invasion of their land. To help perpetuate this storyline, it had to be argued that black people actually supported the war, fought alongside their masters, and then remained loyal to them long after the war ended. Henceforth, they were soldiers in the war.
Looking at the period right after the war, Levin pays particular attention to the story of Andrew and Silas Chandler, central figures representing the relationship between master and slave and whose famous photograph (on the cover of the book) has been used through the decades to verify the existence of black Confederate soldiers. Supporters explain that the two went to war as master and slave and that throughout the war slaves like Silas remained loyal to the cause and their benevolent masters. Silas remained a faithful slave and former soldier, and proof of that relationship helps counter the emancipation narrative—thereby making it appear Confederates treated their slaves admirably. According to Levin, what the supporters forget or ignore is that camp slaves like Silas might have remained loyal because they had relatives at home who would have been treated cruelly if they did not help their masters and return home. Even more important, explains Levin, were the thousands of runaways who at their first chance ran toward Union lines, never to be seen again.
Levin argues one need only study the debate among Confederate leaders—from the war's start to its end—about whether slaves should be allowed to become soldiers. The records show that these leaders believed making black men soldiers undercut the main reason for the war. The war was being fought to protect slavery and white men's supremacy over black men. However, today's advocates of the black Confederate [End Page 422] soldier theory ignore this well documented discussion among the Confederate leadership, including President Jefferson Davis. They also neglect the fact that in all the primary-source records about this argument, "not a single office or soldiers suggested that slaves were already serving as soldiers in the Confederate army" (39).
Levin also argues how former Confederates' need to reestablish white supremacy after the Reconstruction era meant a need to explain...