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Book review-Black Confederates and Afro-Yankees in Civil War Virginia

Book review

  Black Confederates

Black Confederates and Afro-Yankees in Civil War Virginia. By Ervin L. Jordan, Jr. A Nation Divided: New Studies in Civil War History. James I. Robertson, Jr., Series Editor. Charlottesville and London: University Press of Virginia, 1995. xv, 447 pp. $67.50.


Black Confederates and Afro-Yankees attempts the ambitious -- and worthwhile -- task of reclaiming the stories of Virginia's African Americans during the Civil War era. The result offers glimpses into not only the familiar tale of resistance but also the provocative story of free blacks and slaves who helped the Confederate war effort. The research supporting this effort is wide and deep. Unfortunately, weaknesses in the presentation prevent this book from fulfilling its potential. Ervin L. Jordan, Jr., acknowledges his debt to such notables in African-American history as Carter Q. Woodson to show black people as "participants in, not objects of, history" (p. xii). Using Virginia for this research contains additional merit because the state has received more attention on military engagements than the home front. Although recent works have begun to address the neglect, the field remains open -- especially for learning about African-American involvement in the war.

The author has adopted a welcome approach by analyzing front and home front to demonstrate the effect of war on Afro-Virginians and vice versa. In the process, Jordan deals with an incredibly diverse range of African-American experiences. Readers encounter -- among others -- laborers, skilled workers, field hands, free blacks, African-American slaveholders, hired slaves, a woman pioneer in benevolence, preachers, runaways, body servants, and soldiers for both the Union and Confederacy.

Jordan packages this mammoth undertaking into two parts. The first, "Uncertain Trumpet," details the nitty-gritty of African-American life down to the diet of plantation slaves. For students of slavery and plantation society, this portion contains few surprises, although some of the vignettes are interesting and worth future citation. This section provides its greatest service in collecting material from secondary works and archives into one spot for a perspective on African-American life within the Old Dominion.

Part 2 contains the more provocative elements. Titled "Give Us a Flag," the section suggests that African Americans had a more complex agenda than escaping masters and fighting for the Union. Although many fled the South, most Afro-Virginians remained in their native state. Some, of course, did so from coercion, but others did not. Skilled black laborers and hired slaves benefited because the Confederacy needed their craftsmanship for war-related production. Free blacks - some of them shopkeepers - at times displayed Confederate sentiments to preserve their place in communities and their white clientele. Some body servants sympathized enough with masters or feared Yankees enough to pick up muskets against the Union. Other free blacks and slaves assembled late in the war to help fight for the Confederacy when the decision was made to arm slaves. To his credit, Jordan sees more ambiguity behind these gestures of support than the old Lost Cause mythology about happy slaves who loved their masters.

The overall analysis, however, could use strengthening. Although the author allows for a variety of motivations behind African Americans' fighting for the Confederacy, the conclusions do not always place material into perspective. One would suppose that black Confederates were the exception and not the rule, yet this surmise is not well enough delineated, Additionally, the section on using slaves in the southern army leaves the reader uncertain whether the men chose military service or were "volunteered" by masters.

Two factors contribute to the analytical problems: a failure to root arguments in secondary literature and the structure of the narrative itself. Concerning the former, Jordan has consulted an impressive array of books (although seemingly overlooking Lynda Joyce Morgan's Emancipation in Virginia's Tobacco Belt, 1850-1870) but does not situate his work well within them. He consults secondary materials primarily for their evidence without indicating if he accepts or rejects the approaches within. The reader ultimately must guess views on the nature of southern society, self-emancipation, and other historiographical standards.

As problematic is the execution of the narrative. An archivist at the Alderman Library at the University of Virginia, Jordan wanted to enhance understanding of the black experience by combing for all possible primary materials. He succeeds admirably in meeting this goal but presents the information in a way that sometimes reads like a report of wonderful findings that do not always flow together well. The beginning and end of chapters attempt to lay out a structure, but the material in between often seems like an episodic report of choice anecdotes -- as if a caring family member directed us through albums of beloved snapshots. This criticism is not meant to dismiss the book: the research alone makes this work a useful resource. Anyone attempting a study of Afro-Virginians during the Civil War of necessity should begin with the archival map that Black Confederates provides. Jordan also brings a dedication to his effort that is commendable and raises possibilities of Confederate loyalties among African Americans that most studies have ignored. One cannot help but wish that a more exacting presentation had been achieved.

William Alan Blair, University of North Carolina at Greensboro

Reviewed in the Virginia Magazine of History and Biography, v.103 no.4 (October 1990)



Posted By: Joe Elia
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