'Ifs' Defeated the Confederates at Shiloh

I happened to be poking around Kevin Levin's fascinating Civil War site, and learned that someone is making a movie about Confederate General Patrick Cleburne, a patron-saint to many neo-Confederates. Cleburne is held in high-esteem because he was among a tiny minority of Confederate generals to endorse arming and emancipating black slaves. Regrettably, as Kevin points out, the film is informed by the same kind of "black Confederate" nonsense that recently was found in the textbooks of Virginia students. Among the claims:

    • General Forrest freed all of his slaves in 1863 and put 6 of them in his personal escort. The escort was an elite group of "special forces" soldiers and a position of honor. They were the "best of the best", and responsible for his protection. 
    • During the Peninsula Campaign of 1862, Federal troops in McClellan's Army of the Potomac captured several Black Confederate sharpshooters. All were free men from Virginia who volunteered their services as snipers for the South. 
    • Many Black Confederates actually engaged in combat including the Battles of First Manassas, Chickamauga, Seven Days, Thompson's Station, Franklin, and others. Louisiana raised the first Black Unit for the Confederacy in 1861, two years before the North would enlist Blacks in their ranks.
    • Black Confederates were known to frequent veteran reunions years after the war and many posed proudly for photographs with Confederate Battle Flags.
    • Several Confederate leaders, including Robert E. Lee, Stonewall Jackson and Secretary of State Judah Benjamin supported Patrick Cleburne's proposal for freeing slaves and enlisting them as soldiers in the Confederate Army.
Leave aside the fact that Stonewall Jackson was dead when Cleburne made his proposal in 1864. Leave aside, the twisted science-fiction of Forrest, a slave-trader, and an early member of the KKK, who upon perpetrating the massacre at Fort Pillow wrote that "negro soldiers can not cope with Southerners," having an "elite group of special forces" comprised of freed blacks. Leave aside the perversion of Louisiana history, and the fact that the first real action that the "Native Guard" saw was at Port Hudson fighting for the Union.

What this is about, to paraphrase U.S. Grant, is a history of "Ifs". Actual Confederate history concerns the failed effort to turn a slave society, into a slave empire. The operative words here are "failed" and "slave." Confederate history offers neither the success of Indian Removal, nor the honor of the American Revolution. Secession was not simply a villainous act, it was a villainous act which was foiled, in large measure, through the aid and efforts of the very people it sought to suppress.

Deprived of the comfort of both military success and moral redemption, neo-Confederates concern themselves with "Ifs." "If" Little Round Top had been taken. "If" Albert Sydney Johnson had lived. "If" Patrick Cleburne had recruited black soldiers to fight for the Confederacy.

The latter case is the only one in which neo-Confederates have actually resorted to lying. But their very worship of Cleburne condemns them. Specifically, if blacks were serving throughout the Confederate Army, enjoying support from such luminaries as Stonewall Jackson and Nathan Forrest, what made Cleburne so revolutionary?

Even in the case of Cleburne, the facts of history bound the Confederacy. I'm on the road and don't have a copy of Bruce Levine's Confederate Emancipation. But the book, which is the most thorough attempt to address blacks in Confederate uniforms, exposes Cleburne as, not so much a herald of emancipation, but herald of Jim Crow. He believed in freeing the slaves to fight (something the South, simply could not do) but he also believed that, after winning the war, such steps could be taken to preserve the broad white aristocracy, and the state of black peonage on which is was built.

The South lost the war. But toward the goal of preservation, Cleburne was prophetic.
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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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