Earl L Ijames,
Curator NC Museum of History speaks on NC blacks: slaves, free, slave
owners, and Confederate soldiers, facts they don't teach you in school.
Back on September 21, Reckonin.com ran my article, “The Debate over Black Confederates.” In that essay I cited a news report which originally appeared in The [Raleigh] News & Observer on September 12. That article detailed the efforts of one Kevin Levin, an author based in Boston, Massachusetts, to counter the longstanding work of Earl Ijames. Earl, who is black, is a Curator at the North Carolina Museum of History and was formerly an Archivist at the North Carolina State Archives; and he has done voluminous research on the existence and activities of black Confederates.
Over the years Earl has engaged in almost non-stop debate with those writers and others who wish to deny that “black Confederates” ever existed. And in my essay at Reckonin.com I suggested that the real reason for this zealous denial had far more to do with ideology and a new dogmatic template which has no room for deviation, than with historical investigation. I even made the comparison with the old Soviet Union under Stalin where “deviationism” from the party line was met with forced recantation, possibly an all-expenses-paid trip to a “re-education center” in Siberia. The reality of “black Confederates” in Southern armies, except under duress, is therefore dismissed, cannot be true, because it violates the current progressivist party line about race and racism. If the history doesn’t fit, simply dismiss the history.
Levin read my little essay, and apparently it infuriated him quite a bit. For he then proceeded to get on Twitter (which I don’t have and don’t care to have) and denounce me, although his real target continues to be Earl Ijames and the existence of black Confederates. In particular, he takes aim at the Confederate service of Weary Clyburn, asserting that Clyburn was never actually or technically a member of a Confederate unit.
Here is an access link to the Twitter comments by Levin:
I will not attempt to get into a shouting match with Kevin Levin—Earl’s research and the work of others on this topic stands on its own merit. I have, however, briefly touched on the subject in my book, The Land We Love: The South and Its Heritage:
Late in the conflict (March 13, 1865) the Confederate government authorized the formation of black military units to fight for the Confederacy, with manumission to accompany such service. According to several research studies (see Ervin Jordan, Jr. Black Confederates and Afro-Yankees in Civil War Virginia. University of Virginia Press, 1995; Charles Kelly Barrow, J. H. Segars, and R. B. Rosenburg, Black Confederates, Pelican Publishing, 2001), thousands of black men fought for the Confederacy, perhaps as many as 30,000. Despite the earlier declarations of some Deep South states, would a society ideologically committed to preserving in toto the peculiar institution as the reason for war, even in such dire straits, have enacted such a measure? Did the thousands of black men who fought for the Confederacy believe they were fighting for slavery? [The Land We Love, p. 14]
Additionally, let me quote Dr. Louis Henry Gates, Jr., the Alphonse Fletcher University Professor and the director of the W.E.B. Du Bois Institute for African and African-American Research at Harvard University and no defender of the Confederacy, that at the onset of the War Between the States,
…a group of free people of color in New Orleans, offer[ed] their services to the Confederacy….: "The free colored population [native] of Louisiana … own slaves, and they are dearly attached to their native land … and they are ready to shed their blood for her defense. They have no sympathy for abolitionism; no love for the North, but they have plenty for Louisiana … They will fight for her in 1861 as they fought [to defend New Orleans from the British] in 1814-1815."
…As Noah Andre Trudeau and James G. Hollandsworth Jr. explain, once the war broke out, some of these same black men formed 14 companies of a militia composed of 440 men and were organized by the governor in May 1861 into ‘the Native Guards, Louisiana,’ swearing to fight to defend the Confederacy. Although given no combat role, the Guards — reaching a peak of 1,000 volunteers — became the first Civil War unit to appoint black officers.
Although the 1st Louisiana Native (Colored) Guards, CSA, were later disbanded (and a very small proportion later joined Federal forces), the unit was the first of any in North America to have African-American officers, pre- dating the United States Colored Troops.
The Louisiana Native Guards were not unique, for there were other “colored” units that existed in the Southern Confederacy, as Professor Clyde Wilson has detailed (2016) in a long review essay of Professor Ervin Jordan’s study, Black Confederates and Afro-Yankees in Civil War Virginia, and Larry Koger’s Black Slaveowners: Free Black Slavemasters in South Carolina, 1790-1860 (Columbia: University of South Carolina Press, 1994). And who can forget Kent Masterson Brown’s description (in his much-praised study, Retreat from Gettysburg, published by the University of North Carolina Press, 2005) of how the Confederate lines at Gettysburg were manned by black Confederates as the survivors of the Pickett/Pettigrew charge fell back on that fateful July 3, 1863. “The English observer Col. Fremantle,” as Professor Wilson cites the Englishman’s memoir Three Months in the Southern States, “saw a black Confederate soldier marching a Yankee prisoner to the rear. He wondered at their reaction if the abolitionists in London could see that.”
Of course, a large majority of blacks fighting for or assisting in other ways the Confederate war effort were not formally inducted into the army. But it is beyond debate that many did so informally and voluntarily, and there are indeed pension records (for example, in the North Carolina State Archives, under the 1901 pension law as amended twenty-eight years later) for “colored Confederates” who did receive an allowance. And, like Earl Ijames, as a former (retired) Archivist and State Registrar at the State Archives I have viewed those records. More, many of those pensioners are listed in the comprehensive and meticulously researched North Carolina Troops, 1861-1865: A Roster. (Raleigh: Division of Archives and History, 1966-2009. 20 volumes).
As Dr. Wilson communicated to me in his observation about Clyburn, Levin’s comments are, “Just verbiage. The point is, he [Clyburn] served with the army willingly, as did many others. Thousands went with the army to Gettysburg and back.” And by the soldiers with whom he fought, he was considered one of them.
Again, I would suggest that the real issue here is not so much the existence (or non-existence) of black Confederates, but rather a classic Marxist ideological template in which such persons do not fit. They do not further the narrative, so they become non-persons, non-existent, inconvenient history.
And you’d better not say otherwise, lest you bring down all the wrath of writers like Kevin Levin or instructors at the University of North Carolina such as W. Fitzhugh Brundage, a William Umstead Distinguished Professor of History at that university (cited in the News & Observer story as supporting Levin) who threaten, in a not-so-veiled manner, your job.
Ironically, perhaps to be attacked by someone like Kevin Levin may also have its positives. At least it demonstrates that he is cognizant of opposing views, and that he felt strongly enough about my essay to attempt a reply. That is, it bothered and provoked him enough that he believed he should respond.
And any time I can get under the skin of such folks, hit a nerve so to speak, I count it a success.
-- Boyd D. Cathey