[Marxism] New book by Bruce Levine

Louis Proyect lnp3 at panix.com
Sun Mar 5 13:07:45 MST 2006

(Bruce Levine was a member of the SWP years ago. He was part of a small 
state capitalist group called the Revolutionary Marxist Committee that 
joined together.)

Washington Post, Sunday, March 5, 2006; BW07
Desperate Measures
Were slaves really so loyal to their masters that they went to war to 
defend the Confederacy?

Reviewed by David W. Blight


Southern Plans to Free and Arm Slaves

During the Civil War

By Bruce Levine

Oxford Univ. 252 pp. $29.95

The idea of faithful slaves in the Old South has been one of the most 
tenacious myths in American history. Slaves' fidelity to their masters' 
cause -- a falsehood constructed to support claims that the war was not 
about slavery -- has long formed one of the staple arguments in Lost Cause 
ideology. In dealing with such myths, historians often analyze their 
tenacity instead of their veracity. Not so Bruce Levine, a professor of 
history at the University of California at Santa Cruz. His Confederate 
Emancipation is brilliantly researched and persuasively argued.

In the past decade, the neo-Confederate fringe of Civil War enthusiasm 
(with tentative support from some academic historians) has contended that 
thousands of African Americans, slave and free, willingly joined the 
Confederate war effort as soldiers and fought for their "homeland." A 
quasi-debate over the existence of "black Confederates" has seeped into 
academic conferences, historical journals and many Web sites. The issue of 
competing popular memories is driven largely by the desire of current white 
supremacists to re-legitimize the Confederacy while tacitly rejecting the 
victories of the modern civil rights movement. What could better buttress 
the claims of "color-blind conservatism" in our own time than the notion 
that the slaveholding leaders of the Confederacy were themselves the true 
emancipators and that many slaves were devoted to the Southern rebellion? 
George Orwell warned us: Who needs real history when you can control public 
language and political debate? This book is a scholarly, well-written 
demolition of the invented tradition of "black Confederates." Levine's 
intrepid research overwhelms the myth, although it will never kill it as 
long as such stories reinforce current social needs and political agendas.

In December 1863, after numerous Confederate military defeats, Gen. Patrick 
Cleburne, an Irish-born Arkansan, presented a stunning memorandum to his 
fellow officers in the Army of Tennessee. Cleburne judged the Confederacy 
to be in dire straits, "hemmed in" by "superior forces" on virtually all 
fronts. The South faced a "fatal apathy" in its own ranks, he warned, and 
would in time be "subjugated" by the federal armies unless Confederates 
took the radical step of arming slaves. Cleburne assumed widespread slave 
loyalty to the Confederacy, yet he admitted that black battlefield service 
could be purchased only by promising freedom to soldiers and their 
families. The Confederacy faced a desperate choice, according to Cleburne: 
"the loss of independence" or the "loss of slavery." The true Southern 
patriot, he contended, must "give up the negro slave rather than be a slave 
himself." Although largely suppressed, this memo made it to President 
Jefferson Davis and his cabinet, which rejected it almost unanimously.

But in 1864, after further military setbacks, the idea of arming slaves 
developed an influential following among a small group of white 
Southerners, especially Judah P. Benjamin (Davis's closest cabinet 
adviser), Gen. Robert E. Lee and Davis himself. Public calls to enlist 
slaves emanated from Union-occupied sections of Mississippi and Alabama, 
and in the wake of the fall of Atlanta in September 1864, five Southern 
governors supported some kind of black-soldier policy. When Davis finally 
embraced the idea two months later, he did so gingerly, first suggesting 
the outright purchase of slaves from their owners.

Levine illuminates a "wide-ranging public dispute [over arming slaves] that 
dominated political life during the Confederacy's final six months." Once 
unleashed, especially in newspapers, the idea of slave soldiers and 
Confederate emancipation met fierce opposition. Critics repeatedly labeled 
any form of the plan an "insult" to white soldiers and "embarrassing" 
before the world. Some raised the specters of slave revolt and 
miscegenation; other critics rehearsed familiar proslavery arguments about 
the inherent inferiority of black people and the benign, natural character 
of racial slavery.

Levine demonstrates, in one crisp, convincing quotation after another, that 
to Confederates the war was all about preserving their "property" in 
slaves. For example, plantation mistress Catherine Edmondston condemned any 
attempt to arm slaves because it would "destroy at one blow the highest 
jewel in the Crown." "Our independence," chimed in North Carolina Gov. 
Zebulon Vance, "is chiefly desirable for the preservation of our political 
institutions, the principal of which is slavery." And Brig. Gen. Clement H. 
Stevens spoke for most Confederate officers when he announced, "If slavery 
is to be abolished then I take no more interest in our fight." While many 
other historians have gamely mustered the same argument in this struggle 
between scholarship and public memory, Levine delivers what ought to be a 
death blow to the still-popular refrain in Lost Cause rhetoric that the war 
had never been fought for slavery. In the increasingly embittered debate of 
1864-65 over black enlistment, the proposal's advocates charged that their 
fellow Southerners would, in the words of a Georgia congressman, "give up 
their sons, husbands, brothers & friends, and often without murmuring, to 
the army; but let one of their negroes be taken, and what a howl you will 
hear." Deftly, and with archival authority, Levine hoists the Confederates 
on their own petards.

Levine's analysis of their motives is most revealing. Davis and Lee, he 
contends, were never the enlightened advocates of emancipation that their 
Lost Cause defenders, as well as some distinguished biographers, have 
fashioned. Rather, they were staunch Confederate nationalists, determined 
to do whatever it took to win a war of Southern independence and, in so 
doing, preserve ultimate control over blacks in the postwar South. Among 
some Confederate leaders, two growing realizations drove them to support 
emancipation through soldiering: first, that by 1864, the demise of slavery 
in this war could not be stopped; second (and most difficult of all to 
square with their values), that slaves dearly wanted their freedom. But as 
Levine makes clear, those Confederates who supported black enlistment 
coupled with emancipation did so in the hope of controlling the lives, 
prospects and especially the labor of the people they would "free." Their 
best intentions were thwarted by their own caution and by African Americans 
themselves, who chose by the hundreds of thousands to flee to and join the 
armies in blue rather than gray.

Comparing Confederate plans for emancipation to similar developments in the 
West Indies, Japan and Russia, as well as to other transformations of labor 
in European history, Levine exposes the would-be emancipators as 
"revolutionaries from above." The rhetoric of Lee or Cleburne is similar, 
Levine shows, to Otto von Bismarck's assertion: "If there is to be a 
revolution, we want to make it rather than suffer it." Advocates of 
Confederate emancipation sought to use hundreds of thousands of black men 
not only as cannon fodder to win the white slaveholders' war, but also as a 
new lease on life for slavery, in the form of serfdom or apprenticeship, 
and most definitely to retain white supremacy. As the Richmond Sentinel put 
it, "partial emancipation" was the "very means" to keep Southern blacks 

In late February and early March 1865, after intensive debate and facing 
huge desertion rates in the Southern forces, the Confederate Congress 
adopted a halfhearted bill authorizing black enlistment. The House voted 
40-37 and the Senate 9-8 to allow Davis to implement a voluntary plan in 
which no slaves were to be conscripted. Owners had to come forward and give 
their slaves to the cause. The law itself did not free a single slave and 
operated, as one of its proponents admitted, as a "free-will offering." 
Gen. Lee demanded urgent action to usher black men into his army, which was 
about to collapse in front of Petersburg. The war ended before anything 
could come of this last-ditch Confederate effort to find manpower -- which 
now looked, as a Mississippian gravely confessed, "like a drowning man 
catching at straws." Only in Virginia were any blacks actually mustered 
into companies, totaling at most perhaps 200 men. None saw meaningful 
combat, and, as Levine found, some of those who did wear Confederate gray 
did so as a means of running away to Union lines.

Sometimes Levine lets his research dominate when one would wish for more of 
his own narrative voice. But his conclusions are judiciously tethered to 
the evidence. And how can he avoid letting despairing Confederates speak 
for themselves, as does a South Carolina planter with remarkable candor 
right after Appomattox? "Born and raised amid" slavery, said Augustin 
Taveau, he had believed "that these people were content, happy, and 
attached to their masters." But "the conduct of the Negro in the late 
crisis of our affairs convinced me that we have all been labouring under a 
delusion." That delusion both made and unmade the Confederate quest to save 
their slaveholders' republic by arming blacks. In the end, Levine 
successfully counters the "spirit of reactionary nostalgia" that has fueled 
the "black Confederate" mythology. For more than a century, the pernicious 
story of the faithful slave took deep root in the American imagination, 
where it still provides an active, if declining, currency in race relations.

Levine breathes some welcome truths into this dispute over public memory. 
"The Confederacy had come into the world to protect slavery," he writes, 
and those leaders who urged arming slaves by freeing them did so "not 
despite their antebellum values but because of them. In pushing to enact 
this measure, they were trying to preserve as much of the Old South as they 
could." Confederates almost achieved the goals of Confederate emancipation, 
despite losing on the battlefield. This book reminds us, however, of the 
profound importance of Union victory. ·

David W. Blight is a professor of history at Yale University, the editor of 
"Passages to Freedom: The Underground Railroad in History and Memory" and 
the author of "Race and Reunion: The Civil War in American Memory."

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