"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."
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.
"He is in Stonewall Confederate Cemetery," Barrow said. "Stewart was a private in Company H, 4th Tennessee Cavalry. He enlisted Aug. 24, 1861; was wounded on July 22, 1864, at the Battle of Atlanta; and sent to Catoosa Hospital in Griffin. He died and was buried on July 26, 1864. He isn't the only one." Barrow argues that Confederates have a difficult time producing more documents because many were destroyed after they lost the war.
A War That's Not Over?
The vicissitude of the debate is emblematic of just how much the Civil War continues to divide the nation. The schism is no longer about allegiances to the North and South but about politics itself, with conservatives and liberals duking it out.
Three-quarters of adult Americans believe "there are issues that divided the nation during the Civil War that still divide us today," according to a recent IBOPE Zogby interactive poll. Conservatives were more likely than all adults or Southerners to believe that states' rights, not slavery, was the main cause of the Civil War, pollster and political pundit John Zogby wrote a in a recent Forbes column.
For example, 40 percent of all adults and 47 percent of Southerners said that the Confederate flag should be seen today as a symbol of Southern heritage, not a symbol of bigotry. Among conservatives, 65 percent chose Southern heritage, the poll shows.
"We remain captivated by the Civil War for what it says about us as a nation," Zogby wrote. "Societal and technological change has put us in a different world than that of 150 years ago. But we are still a nation of different nationalities, races and ideologies. If we had a civil war now, we would be fighting our neighbors. Fortunately, our conflicts are confined to politics and polemics. That is at least one thing the Civil War resolved for us."
The poll results highlight exactly why historians are deeply divided about black Confederates. Conservatives, for the most part, support the idea of black Confederates, while moderates and liberals do not.
Perhaps the myth persists, too, because as Gates points out, slaves likely were involved in the Confederate Army, but under duress.
Fighting With the Enemy
Such was the case for Creed Holland. Apparently he was a slave who drove a horse-drawn wagon who was made to serve in the Confederate infantry, according to a 2002 Associated Press article. The story came to light when his great-great-grandson William Holland and his family reportedly joined the Sons of Confederate Veterans after making the discovery.
Beyond that, blacks were barred until 1865 from enlisting in the Confederate Army. Confederate President Jefferson Davis, seeing his troops decimated, signed a bill to lift the ban in March of that year that had been passed by the Confederate Congress, Bruce Levine — author of several books, including Half Slave and Half Free: The Roots of Civil War — told The Root. "It looks like there were 60 men who had seen very little service, and then the war was over," Levine said. "And everybody in the Confederacy is quite clear until then that blacks had been barred from service."
Levine makes the bold assertion that the myth of black Confederates is perpetuated by the Sons of Confederate Veterans to bolster its argument that the Confederacy was a great place to live — otherwise, why would blacks fight so vigorously to preserve it?
He said that the group has infiltrated the Internet with almost viral-like material that is made up of propaganda. "The contents are almost completely mirror images of one another, with the same misleading so-called evidence on them," Levine said. "So anybody who goes looking on the Web for black Confederates is going to fall into this pit."
Further, he argues, there may have been a small number of blacks who fought for the Confederacy of their own volition. But he is convinced that the Confederate Army was not teeming with blacks. "In the Second World War, there were people throughout Europe who collaborated with the Nazi occupiers," said Levine, who has a new book, The Fall of the House of Dixie: The Confederacy's Defeat and Slavery's Destruction, due out next year.
"When the Nazis occupied Scandinavia, there were collaborators. When the Nazis occupied France, there were collaborators, and so on and so forth, " he continued. "There is always somebody who for whatever reason is prepared to sell his own people down the river for some greater power, some greater money or greater recognition, or something.
"There were people like that among the slaves as well," he added, "but that doesn't change the fact that the Confederacy did not allow them to serve as soldiers. So whether there were loyal black slaves on the battlefield, there were no black soldiers in the Confederate Army. I've documented this repeatedly."
The fact remains that the Civil War was fought over slavery, as Gates points out, and the Confederate Army was overwhelmingly white. It rankles the mind to think that anyone would fight to remain enslaved.
Lynette Holloway is a frequent contributor to The Root. The Chicago-based writer is a former New York Times reporter and associate editor for Ebony magazine. Follow her on Twitter.