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Confederate Emancipation: Southern Plans to Free and Arm Slaves During the Civil War (Book Review)

Originally published on Published Online: June 12, 2006 
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Reviewed by Craig Symonds
By Bruce Leviner
Oxford University Press

There has been a lot of discussion in the last decade or so about black Confederates. Some of that discussion has questioned the number of African Americans who labored or bore arms on behalf of the Confederacy. The answer matters because if the number was large, it would seem to validate the Lost Cause position that Southern blacks identified more with their Southern masters than with invading Yankee armies. The broader issue, however, is the extent to which Southern whites were willing to sacrifice slavery as a labor system in exchange for victory in the war by freeing their slaves and arming them for military service. While a number of scholars (including this reviewer) have assessed Pat Cleburne's January 1864 proposal to do just that, no one since Robert F. Durden (The Gray and the Black, 1972) has examined this broader issue with the kind of systematic and detailed attention that Bruce Levine provides in this slim but elegant book.

Levine starts with Cleburne's so-called "Memorial," but he includes all the various proposals for arming the South's black population beginning as early as 1861 and culminating in the passage (by a single vote) of a bill by the Confederate Congress in March 1865. His organization, however, is designed not merely to describe the evolution of this issue, but to explore its roots and its meaning, and he does this by devoting chapters to the fundamental underlying issues and assumptions: Why did the South go to war in the first place? Were slaves satisfied with their circumstances, and to what extent did they identify with their masters in the war? What was the motive of those Southerners who advocated emancipation and military service for slaves? What factors convinced the Confederate government to take this drastic step? And finally, could a program of voluntary emancipation and mobilization have made a difference in the war if it had been implemented sooner?

The answers Levine provides are utterly convincing because he draws virtually all his evidence from Confederates. Levine does not merely assert answers to the questions he poses; he allows Southerners to speak for themselves. And what they said is clear: The South went to war in 1861 to protect slavery; slaves were not happy as chattel laborers and identified with Yankee armies more than with their Southern masters; the motive of most of those who suggested arming slaves was not merely to win Southern independence, but also to ensure that blacks remained in some kind of subordinate position after the war; the final passage of a bill to authorize black soldiers was due to desperation and supported almost exclusively by representatives of districts already overrun by Yankee armies; and earlier acceptance of such a program was a practical impossibility precisely because the masters who still had physical control of their chattels clung to them even in the last days of the Confederacy.

One can take issue with some of Levine's conclusions. Obviously, not every advocate of arming blacks shared the same motive. His continual references to "the Cleburne-Davis proposal" are distracting because there were significant differences between the plans each man supported. On the broader issues, however, Levine is thoughtful, authoritative and convincing.

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