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February 20, 2006

New book looks at startling Confederate policy during Civil War

By Scott Rappaport

Relatively few people are aware that during the Civil War, Confederate leaders put forth a proposal to arm slaves to fight against the Union in exchange for their freedom.

Bruce Levine

Bruce Levine

In his new book Confederate Emancipation: Southern Plans to Free and Arm Slaves during the Civil War (Oxford University Press, 2006), UCSC history professor Bruce Levine examines the circumstances that led to this startling and provocative piece of American history. In the process, he sheds new light on a little-known but significant story of slavery, freedom, and race during the Civil War.

The idea for the book came to Levine in the late 1980s when he was teaching at the University of Cincinnati and working on another book about the origins of the Civil War.

"The more I read about this episode, the more I realized how important it was to our understanding of the war; it wasn’t just an interesting little footnote,” said Levine. "After all, how could the war be about slavery if the Confederates were willing to sacrifice slavery in order to win the war? And it turned out that there was a cornucopia of information on that and related subjects available in letters, government documents, and newspaper articles and editorials.”

Levine traveled throughout the South, combing through archives for newspaper accounts of the war, letters sent to Jefferson Davis and other Confederate leaders, diaries of officers and troops, and memoirs by and about former slaves. He spent time exploring the internal documents of the Confederate government, which were captured by the Union army and are now stored at the National Archives in Washington, D.C.

Levine found that Confederate leaders had been receiving--and rejecting--letters from various Southerners suggesting that they arm the slaves since the very beginning of the war. But it was only in November of 1864, after the Confederates were defeated at Gettysburg, Vicksburg, and finally Atlanta, that Davis reversed himself and endorsed the proposal to arm the slaves. The result was a fierce public debate in newspapers, drawing rooms, army regiments, and slave quarters throughout the South.

The book shows how the idea was proposed out of desperation and military necessity--the Confederates were badly outnumbered, slaves were escaping and joining the Union armies, and the South was close to defeat and to the loss of slavery. But as Levine points out, "the opposition of slave owners was ferocious--even though they were facing defeat and the end of slavery, they would not face those realities. They would not give up their slaves, even to save the Confederate cause itself."

"Only a tiny handful of slaves responded to the Confederate proposal," Levine added. "They viewed it as an act of desperation and were skeptical of the sincerity of promises of emancipation. The reaction of the slaves generally was 'Why would we fight for the Confederacy; it's not our country? They were very well informed through the grapevine."

Levine noted that the book is designed to emphasize how important the slaves’ actions were during that period of history.

"The story of the Civil War is usually told as a story of two white armies and two white governments," Levine said. "The popular image is of passive, grateful slaves kneeling at the feet of Father Abraham. But in fact, the slaves were very active in shaping the war and its outcome.”

"There are a lot of revelations in this book," Levine added. "The proposals discussed here provided an early glimmering of how the white South would treat blacks for the next century."

Levine is the author, coauthor, or editor of six previous books, including Work and Society (1977), Who Built America? (two volumes, 1990, 1992), The Spirit of 1848: German Immigrants, Labor Conflict, and the Coming of the Civil War (1992), and Half Slave and Half Free: The Roots of Civil War (rev. ed. 2005). He has been a professor of history at UCSC since 1997.


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