For the past two years I’ve been more interested in the historiography of the Civil War than the actual events itself. The historiography through memory writing school is relatively new to the Civil War history scene, led by historians like David Blight, but it’s making steady progress. While most works (including this site) still focus more on military history aspects and what happened, books by the likes of Blight and sites like Civil War Memory show the importance of historiography and memory studies.
Bruce Levine’s Confederate Emancipation may be the first history I’ve ever read that serves as both a memory study and a more standard military history at the same time. Levine researches Southern plans to arm and/or emancipate their slaves during the war, a topic that hadn’t had a full length book written about it in 3 decades.
In retelling the history of the Confederacy’s various schemes, Levine addresses how this topic affected the Lost Cause ideology and is still used by various groups like the SCV today. In reviewing the book, the aforementioned Blight describes this book as a “death blow to the still-popular refrain in Lost Cause rhetoric that the war had never been fought for slavery.”
A few minor quibbles aside, Levine’s book is a major accomplishment.
Before diving into a broader discussion of Levine’s subject matter, I’ll mention a few odds and ends about the book itself:
At about 160 or so pages, it’s considerably shorter than I would have expected, given the sweeping nature of the topic. However, Levine is able to comprehensively cover every point he attempts to make, with only one exception. Midway through the book, Levine attempts to place the Confederacy’s situation/dilemma in perspective by comparing it to somewhat similar situations in the past, ranging from Western Europe to Haiti. He only spends about 10 pages on this, and in my opinion it should have been expounded on or excised entirely.
The editing of this book was nothing short of unforgivable. I’ve never seen a book so well researched and so well argued that had editing this poor. In some places the grammar is just plain shoddy. In one case, the text, intending to use the verb legitimize, instead uses the word legitimate. And I’m sure you will all be as surprised as I was to learn that the Union Secretary of War was Henry M. Stanton. The book also credits George Thomas with crushing Joe Johnston at Franklin and Nashville. Seriously.
Those are the only truly negative things I have to say about this book. To start, Blight’s description of this book as “brilliantly researched” is right on point. Most importantly, everytime Levine uses a source, it’s footnoted. So there are footnotes in nearly every sentence, as opposed to the Sears style, or, even worse, the dumbfounding Goodwin style. Instead of doing a chapter by chapter review, I’ll discuss the various Confederate plans, why they failed, and how this affects (or gives a “death blow” to) the standard historiography.
As early as 1861, General Ewell had suggested to Jefferson Davis the use of military age slaves to put in the military. Ewell’s proposal was rejected out of hand for a number of reasons: the concept was anathema to Southern society (a problem that would dog subsequent ideas until the war ended) and the Confederacy didn’t face grave danger yet (which is eventually what made Confederate leaders consider the idea more seriously by 1864/1865). In fact, Southern leaders had argued before the war that a slaveowning society had natural advantages in warfare, since its pool of manpower would not adversely affect its economic capacity. Slaves comprised 40% of the South’s population at the time too.
The book starts with General Cleburne’s proposal, presented at a meeting among other officers in Joe Johnston’s Army of Tennessee, that the South arm the most courageous slaves and grant freedom to those who take the offer. Cleburne presented this idea in December 1863, nearly a full year after the Emancipation Proclamation. Instead of considering the proposal, Davis told Johnston to have the topic completely squelched within the army. At this point, Davis was certain that Southern society would not accept the suggestion, in part because of Confederate propaganda that whitewashed the South’s military plight at that point.
Notably, Levine points out that Cleburne’s plan and those that followed were not a concession that racial equality in the South was inevitable. Instead, they hoped to salvage whatever could be salvaged among the old vestiges of the South, from the plantation system to the white supremacist racial hierarchy (Cleburne, for example, noted that freed blacks would still be dependent on whites for subsistence, and that whites could regulate how blacks’ work would be properly compensated). Certain plans around the same time called for arming the slaves without freeing them, originating with Southerners who had deluded themselves into believing that slavery was a benign institution and that black slaves appreciated their condition (one Southerner goes so far as to call them the “privileged” class of society). The “benign institution” ideology still has a grip on the public mind today.
By the end of 1864, the Confederate leaders realize the severity of the situation more acutely. Southern papers that once scoffed the idea of arming slaves begin to support it. The Southern masses, a majority of whom didn’t own slaves, note with contempt that the rich slaveowners are less ready than they are to sacrifice for the cause. Some note sardonically that slaveowners are willing to give away brothers, sons and fathers to the cause, but not their “property.”
Even still, the South struggled with the proper way to implement a policy arming the slaves. General Lee suggested that the slave’s entire family would have to be freed to get him to fight. Others suggested that the Confederacy should simply buy the slaves or rent them from slaveowners and then conscript them, returning the survivors to the owners at the end of the war. Some plans called for conscripting a quota of slaves from county to county.
None of these plans ever made much headway before the war’s conclusion, for a number of reasons. To start, the Confederacy’s political system hampered all forms of implementation: Levine notes that 90% of the Confederate Congress owned slaves. Legislation on the matter wasn’t introduced until late 1864. North Carolinian leaders resisted some policies on the basis of states’ rights and went so far as to suggest secession. One Southerner noted that if slaves made good soldiers, the South’s justification for slavery and going to war was inherently wrong. One irony of the Confederacy’s dilemma is that the South didn’t consider the plan seriously until its back was against the wall, and that led many slaveowners to hope the victorious North would be more lenient on them than if they went through hardships for independence.
Of course, much of this book focuses on an overlying factor in the failure of the policy: the fact that slaves by and large recognized the Union cause and Union army as their best means of freedom. This is where Levine’s book becomes critically important in the discussion of Lost Cause historiography and the still persistent myth of the “black Confederate” as propagated by groups like the SCV.
The simple truth, as established so forcefully throughout the book, was that a majority of blacks sought any way possible to get behind Union lines. Without the threat of retaliation, blacks on the home front resisted servitude, a condition Southerners laughably called “demoralization.” The small attempts that did successfuly place blacks in the Army of Northern Virginia (Levine estimates that maybe 200 blacks were mustered into Confederate forces in all) saw mass desertions. While some Southerners like Lee realized that blacks needed incentive to serve for the South, more realistic ones realized that companies of blacks could simply turn on their masters or walk into Union lines during a fight (this view was affirmed by some slaves’ comments in the book as well). By 1865, plenty of Southerners admit that blacks make worthwhile soldiers, under Yankee commanders. Even if the South could have brought itself to a consistent and successful policy of arming the slaves, Levine’s book aptly displays the idea would not have been a worthwhile endeavor after the Emancipation Proclamation, if even before it.
In all, this book serves a dual purpose. First, it shows how Southern society was an impediment to its own national interests, and it shows why Confederate nationalism vs. states’ rights continues to be a topic of study. Moreover, it demonstrates how slaves rejected the South’s aims and plans and greatly aided the Union arms (about 200,000 blacks fought in the Army/Navy) and intelligence. The latter point refutes the Lost Cause’s “benign institution” and “faithful slave” rhetoric while also refuting the present day Southern partisan claim that Confederate emancipation proved slavery was not the South’s primary war aim.
Levine’s book is a must read. Hopefully his next book will have better editing.
Check out Beyond the Crater: The Petersburg Campaign Online for the latest on the Siege of Petersburg!