The Controversy Over Black Confederate Soldiers

Did African Americans fight for the Stars and Bars? Maybe a few, but hardly the thousands that some claim.

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The controversy started well before the celebrations of the 150th anniversary of the Civil War got under way. We learned a few months ago that a book used in the fourth grade in Virginia public schools claimed that 30,000 blacks fought for the South in the War Between the States. The number came up again on NPR's The Takeway, when two guests claimed that their black ancestors had fought for the South. One is even a doing a documentary about it.

One of our favorite bloggers, Ta-Nehisi Coates at the Atlantic, reported the radio show's hosts as saying that no less an authority than The Root's editor-in-chief, Henry Louis Gates Jr., had endorsed the idea that thousands of blacks fought for the South. Gates quickly responded to Coates to correct the impression that he would support such a thing:

I would worry if anything I wrote lent credence to the notion that tens of thousands of black men served as soldiers in the Confederate army. "No black rebel units ever fought Union forces, although many slaves fought alongside their owners, and thousands more were compelled to labor for the Confederacy, rebuilding rail lines or constructing fortifications," my co-editor, Donald Yacovone, perceptively noted in a headnote in Lincoln on Race and Slavery, pp. 313-314. 

"As the Confederacy faced defeat in the closing months of the war, cries for the arming of slaves increased. Most Southerners rejected the call. Howell Cobb, who had been secretary of the treasury under President Buchanan and became a general commanding Georgia Confederate troops, exclaimed that 'If slaves will make good soldiers our whole theory of slavery is wrong.' Nevertheless, late in the war many state governors and commanders in the field cried out for more men-and the four millions of slaves represented the only fresh group available,"Yacovone went on. 
"Desperate to avoid defeat, President Jefferson Davis and his cabinet, in February 1865, approved the measure. When it obtained the blessing of General Robert E. Lee, Virginia organized a small contingent of poorly equipped and untrained slaves ... " On the issue of black troops fighting for the rebellion, see: James McPherson, Battle Cry of Freedom: The Civil War Era (New York: Oxford, 1988), 832-835.  
What's beyond dispute is that the Confederate Army was overwhelmingly white; the simple fact is that the war was fought over slavery, and slavery never endeared itself to the enslaved.

So let's put the myth of the 30,000 to rest. It seems undeniable that some -- relatively few -- African Americans fought on the side of the white South; there was a small number of black slaveowners and even slaves whose loyalty to their masters may have superseded their desire for freedom. The politics of the issue make it difficult to discern the truth, although archivists like Earl Ijames at the North Carolina Museum of History are painstakingly collecting the numbers for a final, accurate count. But there was no mass enlistment of blacks in the Lost Cause, and those who embrace these myths are still looking to deny that slavery was the central issue of the Civil War.

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Sept. 19 2014 8:34 AM