Monday, April 09, 2007

Book Review: Bruce Levine, Confederate Emancipation: Southern Plans to Free and Arm Slaves during the Civil War

This is the second in my series of book reviews on slavery, the Civil War, and the South in commemoration of Treason in Defense of Slavery Month. Here is the first.

At the heart of neo-Confederate mythology is that slavery was not at the heart of secession. These people argue that the South revolted to resist northern capitalist oppression. Concomitant to this is the idea that most slaves were happy in the Old South and that slave owners treated their human property well. As evidence for this, you will occasionally see the supposed legions of slaves ready to fight for the Confederacy trotted out. So I was quite curious when I discovered Bruce Levine's 2006 work Confederate Emancipation: Southern Plans to Free and Arm Slaves during the Civil War. I really didn't know what to expect. It is published by Oxford, so I assumed a certain quality, but the title doesn't give away much about where Levine stands.

In fact, Levine's strategy is a good one because he musters a massive amount of evidence to show what I think we all already believe: 1) Almost all Confederates opposed arming slaves for any reason until the very end of the war, 2) Nearly every slave who could do so escaped slavery at the first opportunity, and 3) The "freedom" that slaves were promised for fighting was going to be taken away as soon as possible.

While some Confederate officers suggested freeing slaves in exchange for military service as early as the end of 1863, they were few and were silenced by the Davis administration and top military brass. The Richmond Examiner suggested that the idea was "opposite to all the sentiments and principles which have heretofore governed the Southern people (p.2). President Pro Tempore of the Confederate Senate Robert M.T. Hunter of Virginia put it best when he said, "What did we go to war for, if not to protect our property (2)." And Tennessee's Henry Foote said, "If this Government is to destroy slavery, why fight for it? (3)"

This is what I don't get about Confederate apologists. The Confederates themselves said they went to war to protect slavery. After the war, they changed their story. But all you have to do is read what they said before and during the war to see exactly why they went. At least Hunter and Foote were honest, which is more than you can say about Confederate apologists today.

Anyway, as the Confederates became more desperate, they turned to arming slaves. Robert E. Lee called for it in February 1865 and in March, Jefferson Davis signed into law a bill inducting hundreds of thousands of slaves into the army. Interestingly, the slaves had to come voluntarily and could not be drafted. The reason--the Confederate Congress would not pass a bill that provided for enforced emancipation. They wouldn't take anyone who's master had not explicitly freed them. Until the very end, the Confederacy would not free slaves. How anyone can question the notion that the Civil War was about slavery is beyond me.

Some slaves did put on the Confederate uniform. And nearly all of them defected to the Union at first opportunity. In addition, thousands of slaves flocked to Union armies to free their people. What's great about this story is that slaveholders believed their own rhetoric about their slaves being loyal. They were shocked that their benevolent treatment of slaves did not ensure loyalty. After all, what's a few whippings and a little rape? They simply could not believe that African-Americans found the closest Union soldiers and put themselves under their care. They actually expected that the slaves would fight for the Confederacy proudly. So why not give them guns? They won't turn them against us! Uh, no. Importantly, Levine points to the agency of blacks fleeing the plantations for Union lines as a key event in the decline of the Confederacy. The loss of slaves killed both plantation agriculture and Confederate morale. While the Union deserves the bulk of the credit for defeating the Confederacy, Levine shows us that the actions of individual slaves helped accelerate the demise of the slave power.

And what about the Confederates freeing the slaves? Sure, they gave the slaves "freedom" in exchange for their service. What did they intend after these slaves helped the Confederacy turn back the North? The nation in fact found out in 1866. They wanted to implement what became the Black Codes. The slaves were to be given freedom only in the most nominal sense. While their marriages would be recognized and perhaps they would be allowed to learn to read, blacks still had to be employed by whites, corporal punishment could be used, and "vagrancy" was punishable by law.

Levine also usefully discusses the origins of the Lost Cause myth. He shows that it started immediately after the war. Jefferson Davis and Alexander Stephens denied that slavery had anything to do with the war. As early as 1867, ex-slaveholders started invoking the myth that they got along beautifully with blacks before the war and that race relations would have processed dandily had the North not interfered. That continued for a century, promoted by Confederate sympathizers in the decades after the war. By the 1890s, the new historical profession, led by people who fully imbibed in the pro-Confederate ideas of the time, placed these ideas in their books, creating the historical narrative for race relations and the Civil War until the 1960s.

Confederate Emancipation is really a first-rate work. It's short and well-written. The argument is strong and the evidence is plentiful. Moreover, Levine found a key gap in the historiography. His work should guide historians on the topic of Confederate emancipation plans for at least a generation.