Again With The Black Confederates

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In yesterday's open thread there's a discussion about a black slave who evidently fought with his master for the Confederacy in the Civil War. As some of the commenters note, the definitive book on this subject is Bruce Levine's incredible Confederate Emancipation. (A lecture by Levine is embedded below.) I think it helps to understand that some 650,000 people fought for the Confederacy. I don't think find it impossible, or even, unlikely that some black person, somewhere was among that number. What is false, and frankly risible, is the notion that these instances rose above the scant and anecdotal.

One reason this myth sticks around is that most of us don't really understand how important slavery was to the South. (Thinking back on Ken Burns' documentary, I wish he'd banged on this harder.) We think of it as a kind of incidental evil, not an essential feature of the Southern economy, culture and lifestyle. Here is Yale historian David Blight putting in gripping terms exactly what slavery meant to South and America:

By 1860 there were approximately 4,000,000 slaves in the United States, the second largest slave society--slave population--in the world. The only one larger was Russian serfdom. Brazil was close.  But in 1860 American slaves, as a financial asset, were worth approximately three and a half billion dollars--that's just as property. Three and a half billion dollars was the net worth, roughly, of slaves in 1860. In today's dollars that would be approximately seventy-five billion dollars. In 1860 slaves as an asset were worth more than all of America's manufacturing, all of the railroads, all of the productive capacity of the United States put together. Slaves were the single largest, by far, financial asset of property in the entire American economy. The only thing worth more than the slaves in the American economy of the 1850s was the land itself, and no one can really put a dollar value on all of the land of North America.

You have to get this--trying to imagine the South without slavery, is like trying to imagine Detroit without auto companies. Likewise, embracing the Lost Cause is like imagining feudal Europe as Authurian legend, and insisting that there were no  serfs. As much as Detroit is the car industry, the South, to varying degrees, was slavery. Slavery, contributed to the Mexican-American war. Slavery ignited the dreams of proto-Confederates looking to annex Cuba. Slavery inscripted entire societies, mandating, for instance, that all able-bodied white men in Virginia--whether slave-holder or yeoman--do serve in the slave patrols.

There is no antebellum South (as we know it) without slavery, and the first rule in preserving that South, consisted of doing whatever it took to keep blacks--free and enslaved--unarmed at all times. That rule extended right up to the Civil War. In Virginia, free black could not even bear arms in the state militia, much less serve in the Confederate army. Again, I'm sure you can find anecdotes about slaves or free blacks serving here and there. Much like you can probably find anecdotes about trusted slaves owning guns, or women fighting in the Army. But the prospect of the South arming blacks en masse, as the Union did to the tune of 180,000 black soldiers, is only slightly less batshit insane than the prospect of the Nazis arming Jews to fight the Russians.

Ultimately this is about Lost Causers and their cloying need to believe in the perfection of their ancestors. It's quite sad. Paul Robeson is one of my heroes. But he was wrong about communism, and grievously wrong about Stalinist Russia. I love John Brown. But his scheme was crazy.

Forcing ones ancestors to be Christ-like, is the ultimate act of selfishness. It asks those who would die for us to, essentially, die yet again. They are not allowed to live in our memory as fully-formed humans, but instead are petrified by our need for a Godhead. You have to let them live, else your reverence is pageantry, and your estimation, blasphemous.

They were human.  And we were all human.

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Ta-Nehisi Coates is a national correspondent at The Atlantic, where he writes about culture, politics, and social issues. He is the author of the memoir The Beautiful Struggle.

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