A couple of weeks ago Peter Carmichael of Gettysburg College gave a fascinating lecture at St. Mary’s College about “Imagining Slaves as Loyal Confederates: A Dangerous and Enduring Fantasy.” Carmichael examined stories of slaves that fought with their masters during the Civil War, but that wasn’t the most disturbing part of his talk. More troubling was the way that, to this day, many Americans, especially in the south, have an investment in believing that this occurred frequently and unproblematically. Carmichael doubts it was frequent—slaves were more likely to be camp servants than soldiers—and he showed that even the few documented instances of slaves in combat don’t bear out the vision of them as faithful companions.
The talk reminded me of some of the vital research that scholars are doing into white-black relations in Uncle Tom’s Cabin and Huckleberry Finn. When one is a piece of property, relations with the master become very complex, and Stowe and Twain were very good at charting the contradictions.
For instance, I wrote last semester about Roosevelt University’s Lawrence Howe, who came to campus and convincingly argued that Jim is playing very subtle power games with Huck and later with Tom—games he has to engage in since, after all, his very life is in their unreliable hands. Some African American scholars have complained that Twain makes Jim into a comic figure of derision, but Howe says they don’t give Jim (or Twain) anywhere near the credit that they should. In a world of limited options, people sometimes do what they have to to survive.
The same was true of the slaves who went to war with their masters. My history colleague Chuck Holden, who brought Carmichael to campus, told me the historian has received some criticism (some accuse him of New Confederate Revisionism) for even addressing the subject. Our broad political brushes can wipe out the subtleties of history as well as literature. But rather than feeding southern mythologies about faithful slaves, I believe Carmichael was delivering them a decisive blow.
For instance, the stories of slaves who stayed with their masters when they could have escaped are all qualified. Some had family back at home and couldn’t leave. Some, as camp attendants, found themselves with unprecedented levels of freedom. There was little sign, however, that their relationship with their masters was anything more than that of a useful pet. Carmichael said this is the overwhelming impression that one is left with when one reads the letters that white Confederate soldiers wrote home.
Yet the myth of some fraternal bond persists, and when the above picture of Andrew Chandler and his slave Sylas surfaced on National Public Television’s Antiques Road Show, it was used by many as proof.
One historian who thinks this way is Robert E. Lee biographer J. Steven Williams, who has a fan in Michele Bachman and who believes that
Slavery, as it operated in the pervasively Christian society which was the old South, was not an adversarial relationship founded upon racial animosity. In fact, it bred on the whole, not contempt, but, over time, mutual respect. This produced a mutual esteem of the sort that always results when men give themselves to a common cause. The credit for this startling reality must go to the Christian faith. . . . The unity and companionship that existed between the races in the South prior to the war was the fruit of a common faith.
Carmichael noted that pretty much all the historical evidence refutes such a notion. The Civil War, he says, was a necessary revolution, and as bad as Jim Crow was, it was better than slavery. So why is the myth so pervasive?
It has to do with wanting to think well of ourselves. We don’t like to think that the country we love was founded on slavery, that the founding fathers were slave holders, that Jim Crow was a means to cheap labor, that we still have racism within us. The way to freedom and justice, however, is not romanticizing the old south but facing up to the fact that we are flawed human beings who have it in us to be better. Studying history, like reading literature, can help show us who we are and what we must do to change.
Go here to subscribe to the weekly newsletter summarizing the week’s posts. Your e-mail address will be kept confidential.