_ Americans still struggle over coming to terms with the core issues
of the civil war and reconstruction _
Sergeant AM Chandler of the 44th Mississippi Infantry Regiment, Co F,
and Silas Chandler, family slave., Photograph: Library of Congress
Arlington National Cemetery is the hallowed resting place of
America’s war dead. It is also home to a Confederate memorial
[[link removed]] with
a frieze depicting a “mammy” – the stereotype of a black woman
loyal to a white family – and an African American man wearing
“For many people, that is evidence of black Confederate soldiers,”
Kevin Levin told an audience at the National Archives
[[link removed]] in Washington last
month. “But it’s not. In fact, no one was confused during the
dedication that this was in fact a body servant.”
In other words, an enslaved man.
The American civil war
[[link removed]] has never
been in short supply of myths, but Levin describes black Confederates
as the “most persistent”. Hundreds of articles, organisations and
websites rewrite history by asserting that between 500 and 100,000
free and enslaved African Americans volunteered as soldiers in an army
fighting to preserve slavery.
Just because it is counterintuitive does not make it true. In the wake
of Donald Trump’s election and the white nationalist protest in
[[link removed]] where
a statue of the Confederate general Robert E Lee still stands, the
issue resonates beyond the halls of academia.
Levin, a historian, educator and author of the blog civil war memory
[[link removed]], [[link removed]] has been writing on
the subject since 2008.
“One of the things that I’m fascinated by is the extent to which
Americans still struggle over coming to terms with the core issues of
the civil war and reconstruction, and that is slavery and the issue of
race,” he says by phone from Boston.
“This is, it seems to me, the perfect case study through which to
track that memory of the war, whether it’s a matter of erasing
slavery from the landscape of memory or mythologising, which I think
the black Confederate narrative, at least in the last few decades, is
really just a perfect example of.”
Levin’s new book, Searching for Black Confederates: The Civil
War’s Most Persistent Myth
argues that slavery was central to the south’s war effort. Drawing
on research including letters, diary entries and newspaper editorials,
it demolishes the notion that_ _the Confederacy embraced black men as
soldiers from the beginning of the war.
After war broke out in 1861, thousands of enslaved men were forced to
accompany their masters into the army as body servants or camp slaves.
“It’s absolutely important to think of these enslaved men as the
cornerstone or foundation of any Confederate army because it’s their
presence, it’s the roles that they’re playing, that make camping,
marching and conducting battles even possible,” Levin says.
Life in the camps could be harsh. Levin “found a couple of cases
where the punishments are brutal. One Confederate officer wrote home
to his wife in vivid detail about stretching out his camp slave and
laying on 400 lashes. The kinds of punishments that you would have
found back home on the plantation, you would have found all of that
present in the army.
“It may have even been heightened because you have to remember most
of these men who bring camp slaves are officers, so they have to
constantly demonstrate their rank.”
When the war ended, enslaved African Americans serving the Confederate
army were liberated. But by the end of the 19th century, they began to
play a central role in the lost cause, a narrative white southerners
developed as a way to rationalise and romanticise defeat.
[The Confederate Monument at Arlington National Cemetery.]
The Confederate Monument at Arlington National Cemetery. Photograph:
Rachel Larue/Arlington National Cemetery
Levin explains:_ _“They argue that the war was never about slavery,
that their cause remained just even though they were defeated. What
was central to the lost cause was that they believed and maintained
that their enslaved people remain loyal to them and the Confederacy
until the very end.
“So when it came time, for example, for Confederate veterans to
start meeting in large reunion gatherings, it wasn’t uncommon for
these former camp slaves to attend as well. They have any number of
reasons for attending: I suspect some of them are able to make a
little money by entertaining these large white crowds. Some of them,
perhaps, wanted to maintain old ties with their owners or the people
in their respective units who are now leaders in their respective
communities and so it’s a way to maintain their own status back
“But for white southerners and former Confederates these former camp
slaves are hugely important symbolically because they symbolise the
racial status quo of the antebellum period.
“These are men who now can be pointed to as the models of proper
behaviour for African Americans during the Jim Crow era, so at a time
when there’s a great deal of racial unrest throughout the south and
there’s a new generation of African Americans who are pushing for
equal rights, white southerners can point to these elderly men and
say, ‘This is how you should behave.’”
Photographs helped fuel the false narrative. The most important, taken
in 1861, shows Sgt Andrew Chandler
[[link removed]] of
the 44th Mississippi Infantry Regiment sitting beside Silas Chandler,
a family slave. Both are in uniform, clutching pistols, knives and a
shotgun. It has been interpreted as an image of comradeship. Levin,
however, sees the master-slave relationship.
The spread of the myth also went hand in hand with the raising of
Confederate monuments and statues, some of which have been torn down.
[[link removed]] Levin,
who taught in Charlottesville for 11 years, says: “It provides the
narrative for those monuments, especially the monuments that
explicitly or specifically address the role of African Americans
during the war. There were a number of monuments that honoured the
former camp slaves.”
William Faulkner’s oft-quoted observation, “The past is never
dead. It’s not even past”, could have been written in the blood of
the civil war, which continues to stain America. Last month Trump, who
has been cheered by white supremacists, tweeted a warning about a
“civil war-like fracture” if he is impeached and removed from
Among the stars of what Levin calls the Confederate heritage movement
is HK Edgerton, an African American who marches in Confederate uniform
and waves the Confederate flag
[[link removed]] at gatherings of the
Sons of Confederate Veterans. According to Levin, Edgerton has
expressed a desire to remember a time when race relations were less
He is living proof that the black Confederate myth persists,
especially among white conservatives.
Levin reflects: “I think they embrace this myth because it’s an
easy way of pushing aside or minimising the racial divide today. So,
if you don’t want to deal with racism today and white supremacy
today, what you do is you embrace a historical narrative that
minimises it in the past. What that does is sort of gives you cover
and reinforces your own view of the present.”
Those looking for further reinforcement will find it at Arlington
cemetery, beneath Lee’s mansion, in the depiction of a “mammy”
taking a child from a southern soldier on the memorial dedicated in
1914 by the United Daughters of the Confederacy.
“I bring teachers there every summer and they’re all horrified,”
Levin says. “Anyone who goes there is just like, ‘What is this
_David Smith is the Guardian's Washington DC bureau chief. Click here
[[link removed]] for David's
public key. Twitter @smithinamerica