The Myth of Black Confederates Persists

A handful of names have emerged -- enough to reignite the debate. Would blacks fight to preserve slavery?

Courtesy of the Sons of Confederate Veterans

"This is a fiction," Fergus M. Bordewich, renowned historian and author of five nonfiction books, told The Root about the latest rancorous debate about black Confederates that comes as the nation's commemoration of the Civil War's 150th anniversary continues.

"It's a myth," continued Bordewich, author of Washington: The Making of the American Capital and Bound for Canaan: The Underground Railroad and the War for the Soul of America. "It is nonsense. I could be blunter than that, but you get the drift. It's a meaningless term, 'black Confederates.' There is no evidence whatsoever from any responsible source that there was more than the occasional slave who was forced to serve in the war."

Bordewich is not alone in his position. Top-ranking scholars have repeatedly torpedoed the myth, including Bruce Levine, the renowned professor of African-American studies at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign; Edwin Bearss, historian emeritus at the National Park Service; and Henry Louis "Skip" Gates, editor-in-chief of The Root and chair of Harvard's W.E.B. Du Bois Institute. Yet it persists. 

Gates weighed in on the issue in a quote that appeared in a column by Ta-Nehisi Coates, a senior editor and blogger at Atlantic Magazine, several weeks ago. " '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,' " Gates said of the bloody four-year battle, fought from 1861 to 1865. "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 construction fortifications."

And still the myth persists. Why?

Counting the Black Confederates

Proponents of the existence of black Confederates are equally adamant that it is not a myth. Just ask Charles Kelly Barrow -- lieutenant commander in chief of the Sons of Confederate Veterans, an organization dedicated to preserving and chronicling the army's history -- who has written extensively on the subject, including Black Confederates and Black Southerners in Confederate Armies.

"This is not like it's something that's made up after the war," Barrow told The Root. "Some people have agendas, and they refuse to believe there were black Confederates. To them, the Civil War was all about slavery. If you have blacks supporting the Confederacy in aid or combat, it goes against the crutch that the war was all about slavery."

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Barrow said that he has uncovered countless examples of black Confederates. One is Wiley A. Stewart. He found Stewart's name in public records listed as a free man of color who fought for Confederates. Barrow replaced Stewart's nondescript headstone with one that says, "Private Wiley A. Stewart, free man of colour," he said.