Hi everyone! Today’s myth is something I see a lot when people who love the Confederacy and/or Confederate flag want to deny accusations of racism, and deny that the Civil War was fought over slavery. They point to the alleged existence of Black soldiers fighting on behalf of the Confederacy to argue that Confederate heritage and Confederate pride groups are actually honoring Black veterans as well, provided that they fought on the “right” side.
Kevin Levin has written an entire book about this myth. If you don’t want to read it, perhaps a 12 minute video would suffice? He argues that the Black Confederate narrative “emerges in response to…people in the Confederate Heritage Committee worried about not being able to celebrate their Confederate ancestors without having to deal with the issue of slavery and emancipation...[with this idea of Black Confederate soldiers] they can balance out the moral scales.”
So that’s why the myth exists, but why is it untrue? Well, most importantly, throughout U.S. history military service has been a compelling argument for civic personhood and rights. It’s one of the many reasons why the Civil Rights movement ramped up after World War II–we saw how Black vets, who fought and died for the U.S., were treated as second-class citizens at home.
So what would have happened, then, if the Confederacy made enslaved men soldiers? This would have not only granted them personhood, even though they were legally classified as property, but also would have given them a reasonable claim to eventual citizenship. General Robert E. Lee, the head of the Confederate army, refused to participate in prisoner of war exchanges with the United States after the introduction of Black troops. Black soldiers did not deserve the same exchange policy as white soldiers, Lee argued, because “negroes belonging to our citizens are not considered subjects of exchange and were not included in my proposition.” Lee was ignoring the fact that many soldiers in the U.S. Colored Troops were free before the war.
Confederate leadership was well aware of what Black Confederates would mean. Robert Toombs of Georgia, the first Confederate Secretary of State, claimed that black soldiers would make the army “degraded, ruined, and disgraced.” He thought it would be mortifying if the South won the war due to “the valor of our slaves, instead of our own.” But most importantly, he realized that military service could bring equality:
“But if you put our negroes and white men into the army together, you must and will put them on an equality; they must be under the same code, the same pay, allowances and clothing. There must be promotions for valor or there will be no morals among them. Therefore, it is a surrender of the entire slavery question.”
Georgia’s own Confederate general and one of the founders of the Confederacy, Howell Cobb, agreed: “The proposition to make soldiers of our slaves is the most pernicious idea that has been suggested since the war began. The day you make soldiers of them is the beginning of the end of the revolution. If slaves make good soldiers our whole theory of slavery is wrong — but they won’t make soldiers.”
So why does the myth remain? For one, many Confederate soldiers brought enslaved body servants with them to war. The entire Confederate war effort was powered by slavery: plantation labor camps kept the Confederacy fed, enslavers loaned out enslaved people to the Confederate cause (sometimes against their will through conscription), and “camp slaves” did all of the cooking, laundering, and less desirable aspects of nursing. It cannot be exaggerated how much enslaved resistance, both on plantations and through running away, helped to destabilize the Confederacy during the war.
I can’t say that zero African Americans fought for the Confederacy for some amount of time, though. For instance, 1,500 free black soldiers formed the 1st Louisiana Native Guards in 1861. However, the Confederacy forced this state militia to disband in January 1862, and many ended up actually joining the U.S. Army later on. Of the 50,000-paged Official Records of the War of the Rebellion, there are four reports of Black armed men 1) having a gun and 2) being on the Confederate side. Four.
The image above (via the Library of Congress) is often used as evidence that Black men fought for the Confederacy. In reality, Silas Chandler is listed as a “family slave” and was enslaved by Confederate Andrew Chandler as a “body servant” to tend to his needs. Though there are records of enslaved servants picking up weapons to repel a U.S. Army force, they would never have been considered soldiers by the Confederacy.
In the twilight hours of the war, in March 1865, a desperate Confederate Congress passed a law allowing black men to serve in combat roles, which had been illegal before. Despite this service, they would remain slaves. The Civil War ended three weeks after this law was passed, so there is no evidence that any Black units were officially accepted into the Confederate Army.
To conclude: Black Southerners were forced to support the Confederacy as enslaved laborers. The Confederacy even conscripted slaves to be teamsters, “camp slaves,” and wealthy Confederates brought “body servants” from home. No Black man received a Confederate pension as a soldier. No Confederate mentions Black soldiers under his command. The Confederacy made Black Confederates legal three weeks before the war ended, but nothing came of it.
Missy DeVelvis is a historian of the U.S. South with a particular interest in the Civil War Era and women and gender studies. You can learn more about her work here.
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