Southerners have falsely claimed that "Black Confederates" fought in the Civil War. But the North has a myth of its own.
If Robert Penn Warren is right, white northerners have had an easy time coming to terms with the legacy of the Civil War. In contrast with the white South, which inherited what Warren referred to as "the great alibi" -- a memory of the war built on the psychological scars of defeat and emancipation -- northerners embraced a "treasury of virtue" that celebrated both the defeat of a slaveocracy and the preservation of the Union. Within the collective memories of both regions, African Americans have proved to be essential: as devoted slaves that remained loyal to the Confederacy on the one hand and as allies in the creation of a more perfect union void of racial boundaries on the other.
The first of these two myths can be found on hundreds of websites devoted to so-called "Black Confederate" soldiers. The proliferation of these sites, however, is in direct response to a competing myth that assumes that slaves identified with the United States from the beginning of the Civil War. As the story goes, African Americans eagerly awaited the president's call to serve, and once he did they flooded recruitment offices. In Glenn David Brasher's new book, The Peninsula Campaign & the Necessity of Emancipation, he successfully challenges both myths, and in the process, places Virginia's slave population at the center of one of the most important military campaigns of 1862 -- one he believes pushed the United States closer to a policy of emancipation.