‘Black Confederates’: Book renews debate between historian and NC museum curator

An award-winning Boston historian and author has written a book about the Civil War that hit stores this week like a shell fired from a 3-inch muzzle-loading rifle.

History teacher Kevin M. Levin’s “Searching for Black Confederates: The Civil War’s Most Persistent Myth,” is the latest salvo in a decades-long argument over whether black men served willingly as soldiers in the Confederate Army. One of Levin’s targets in the book is Earl Ijames, a curator at the N.C. Museum of History who says he coined the term “colored Confederates” and has lectured for years that blacks did serve as soldiers on the South’s behalf.

More than an academic disagreement, the existence — or lack — of black Confederates has become a key to explaining the causes of the Civil War at a time when people across the South are debating the fates of monuments honoring those who fought in the conflict.

Each side in the argument accuses the other of trying to rewrite history.

“The ‘black Confederate’ narrative is intended to fundamentally shift the history of the Confederacy,” Levin said in a phone interview with The News & Observer. “It’s an attempt to get the Confederacy right on race relations. That’s its goal. That’s what I was attempting to undercut with the book.”

Kevin M. Levin, author of "Searching for Black Confederates: The Civil War's Most Persistent Myth." UNC Press

Of Ijames, Levin said, “He is operating under a fundamental misunderstanding of the Confederacy and of the Civil War in history.

“He has pushed this false narrative.”

Previous debate

Levin has been critical of Ijames before, dedicating several posts on his blog, “Civil War Memory,” to what he says are the curator’s misstatements and misinterpretations that lend credence to unsubstantiated claims by Confederate heritage groups.

Ijames, pronounced “Imes,” who joined the history museum in 2013 after 23 years at the state division of Archives and Records, didn’t respond to emails or phone calls to discuss Levin’s book. In 2014, he released a 75-minute documentary film called “Earl Ijames’ Colored Confederates and U.S. Colored Troops” that says blacks aligned with both sides during the Civil War in the hopes of securing their freedom.

A popular speaker at gatherings of the Sons of Confederate Veterans and at genealogical conferences, he spoke at Bennett Place State Historic Site in Durham in late March.

Ijames can be heard discussing “colored Confederates” in a speech at a 2016 forum sponsored by the Abbeville Institute, which describes itself on Twitter as a group of scholars devoted to the study of “what is true and valuable in the Southern tradition.”

N.C. Museum of History curator Earl Ijames, right, in 2015. Harry Lynch hlynch@newsobserver.com

In a video of the speech, Ijames says, “It’s just an inconvenient truth for some people,” that blacks served as Confederate soldiers.

What historians agree on is that government records, personal letters and news reports of the day show irrefutably that blacks served both the Union and Confederate armies. They diverge on the nature of the service.

According to the National Archives, about 179,000 black men served in the Union Army by the end of the Civil War, accounting for about a tenth of its total forces. Historians say they served in infantry and artillery divisions, and were found throughout the Union military’s supporting functions, working as cooks, carpenters, chaplains, nurses, scouts, steamboat pilots and in other positions. Another 19,000 black men were in the Union Navy.

Black women couldn’t formally join the Union Army, but the National Archives says they served as nurses, spies and scouts as well.

National Archive records

For all but the last three weeks of the war, black men were barred from becoming soldiers in the Confederate Army, but thousands of enslaved black men provided critically important support services and physical labor at the command of their owners or the Confederate government. Records in the National Archive show some slaveholders received about 50 cents a day for the use of their slaves in the war effort. The men could be found in the roles of personal servants to military officers, or as cooks, or hauling equipment on long marches. They built roads and railroad lines. They dug trenches and constructed earthworks.

In discussing the role of blacks in the Confederacy, Ijames has offered examples including the case of Wary (sometimes spelled Weary) D. Clyburn, who was born into slavery in South Carolina. When his slaveholder’s son went into the Confederate Army, Clyburn joined him as a personal servant.

Wary Clyburn was a Union County pensioner who served in the Confederate Army. Earl Ijames, an N.C. Museum of History curator, said the photo probably was taken in 1913. Clyburn played the fiddle, considered a prime diversion of the time, Ijames said. Clyburn passed the picture down to his daughter. COURTESY OF MILES GARDNER AND MATTIE RICE

In 1926, 61 years after the end of the Civil War, Clyburn was living in Union County, east of Charlotte, and applied to the state for a soldier’s pension. The application, found in state archives, indicates Clyburn enlisted in Company E of the 12th S.C. Volunteers in June 1861. It claims he is due a pension because his “services were meritorious and faithful toward his master and the cause of the Confederacy.”

Levin and other historians say Southern states didn’t offer any pension to former slaves until decades after the war, and the offers coincided with Jim Crow laws, the installation of Confederate monuments and a larger effort to redeem the Confederate cause as something more noble than an attempt to preserve the institution of slavery. The tiny pensions were granted, Levin said, as a way to reward blacks who showed deference and loyalty to whites.

Even if the occasional Southern black man had picked up a gun and fired at a Union line, Levin says, he did so as a slave and without a choice.

In 2012, Union County added a 48-by-28-inch granite plaque “In Honor of Union County’s Confederate Pensioners of Color.” It was placed at the base of the Confederate Soldiers Monument outside the old courthouse in Monroe at the request of the Union County Sons of Confederate Veterans. It names 10 men, including Clyburn, “In Honor Of Courage & Service By All African Americans During The War Between the States.”

Ijames spoke at the event, along with SCV members. A group of Confederate color guard re-enactors fired a salute to the honorees.

An asterisk indicates one of the honorees was a “free person of color,” but the word “slave” does not appear on the marker.

Historian or ‘agenda-pusher’?

Frank Powell, spokesman for the N.C. Division of the Sons of Confederate Veterans, said he’s familiar with Levin’s work and disagrees with the findings of his research.

“To call him a historian is a misnomer,” Powell said in a phone interview. “Most of his stuff is wrong. He’s more of an agenda-pusher. We have a real problem nowadays with these people who don’t want to just change our history, but to eradicate it. And not just Confederate, but all of Western history. They want to tear all of that down so they can remake it to their liking.”

Powell said he has studied Civil War history since the early 1960s and has seen numerous examples of black men serving the Confederacy, “both slave and free.”

LevinSearching_cover (1).jpg

Numbers are elusive, Powell said.

“The problem is that, unfortunately, they didn’t keep very good records,” he said. “A lot of the records got destroyed at the end of the war. I’ve heard arguments about numbers. Some say 50,000 and some say 500,000. You just don’t know because of the lack of records.

“Five hundred thousand is probably too many. But 50,000 may not be enough.”

Powell said slavery was not the main cause of the Civil War.

“You find out it was about the same thing all wars are about,” Powell said. “Money. It’s about money. Industrialism was rising in the North. They wanted the natural resources of the South. They couldn’t take them politically, so they had to do it by force.

“The slavery issue was just propaganda.”

W. Fitzhugh Brundage, a William Umstead Distinguished Professor of history at UNC who wrote an endorsement for the jacket of “Searching for Black Confederates,” agrees with Levin’s assertion in the book that celebrations of former slaves as newfound Confederate heroes contort historical fact.

Like Levin, Brundage said it’s problematic for a high-profile curator of a major state museum to espouse theories for which most historians say there is no proof.

“If the museum in any way allows its name to be associated with, or provide space for, an uncontested description or claim about substantial numbers of black Confederates, I think it’s doing a disservice to North Carolina citizens,” Brundage said. “That’s trafficking in historical myth.”

Michele Walker, a spokeswoman for the N.C. Department of Cultural and Natural Resources, which includes the museum, said the state had no comment on the book or on Ijames’ accounts of “colored Confederates.”

Levin’s book, published by the University of North Carolina Press, arrived in stores this week.

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Martha Quillin is a general assignment reporter at The News & Observer who writes about North Carolina culture, religion and social issues. She has held jobs throughout the newsroom since 1987.