On Monday, two Republican legislators in South Carolina, Bill Chumley and Mike Burns, called for a monument honoring African Americans who fought for the Confederacy to be erected at the State House in Columbia. Rep. Burns hopes the monument will “help educate current and future generations of a little known” chapter of South Carolina history. It is “little known” in large part because the story of these loyal black Confederates is a myth.
Both Burns and Chumley are troubled by recent decisions in cities and towns across the former Confederacy to remove Confederate battle flags and monuments from public spaces. Neither representative supported the removal of the battle flag from the State House grounds following the heinous murders committed by Dylann Roof of nine black Charlestonians while attending Bible study at Emmanuel AME Church in Charleston.
They were not alone. As calls for removal increased in the days after the murders the South Carolina Division of the Sons of Confederate Veterans (SCV) issued the following public statement:
“Historical fact shows there were Black Confederate soldiers. These brave men fought in the trenches beside their White brothers, all under the Confederate Battle Flag. This same Flag stands as a memorial to these soldiers on the grounds of the SC Statehouse today. The Sons of Confederate Veterans, a historical honor society, does not delineate which Confederate soldier we will remember or honor. We cherish and revere the memory of all Confederate veterans. None of them, Black or White, shall be forgotten.”
The SCV offered this argument not only to stem the tide of calls to lower the Confederate flag in Columbia, but to suggest that the flag has nothing at all to do with racial divisions in South Carolina. Since black men fought willingly for the Confederacy, the argument runs, the preservation of slavery and white supremacy could not have been its goal. The Confederate flag—properly understood—ought to unite black and white South Carolinians. According to the SCV, Roof’s violent act and close identification with the Confederate flag was the product of the “deranged mind of a horrendous individual.”
What few people understand, including Reps. Burns and Chumley, is that the black Confederate narrative is a fairly recent phenomenon. The proliferation of these stories and the zeal for the black Confederate soldier expressed by many would be alien to their Confederate ancestors, who lived under a constitution strongly devoted to protecting slavery and white supremacy. It was not until March 1865—after a contentious debate that took place throughout the Confederacy—that the Confederate Congress passed legislation authorizing the enlistment of slaves who were first freed by their masters. Even those who finally came to support the legislation as the only alternative to defeat would have agreed with Howell Cobb: “If slaves will make good soldiers our whole theory of slavery is wrong.” Other than a small number that briefly trained in Richmond, Virginia, no black men served openly and there is no evidence that the Richmond recruits saw the battlefield in the final weeks of the war.
Throughout the postwar period and much of the 20th century, stories of loyal black Confederate soldiers were decidedly absent. This changed in 1977 following the release and success of the popular television series “Roots.” At the time, the leadership within the SCV expressed concern over how the institution of slavery and race relations were portrayed as well as the Confederacy itself. SCV Commander-in-Chief Dean Boggs called on members to research the contributions of African Americans to the Confederate war effort to counter the show’s “propaganda.” Boggs claimed that, “Politics often ignores the truth, and the truth is that the majority of Southern Negroes, slave and free, sided [with] the Confederate effort tremendously. Some were under arms and in combat.”
Broader interpretive shifts in the decades since “Roots” and a willingness to explore slavery, race, emancipation, and the service of United States Colored Troops at museums, historic sites, in history textbooks, at National Parks, and in popular movies such as “Glory,” “12 Years a Slave,” and “Lincoln,” has magnified the importance of the black Confederate narrative for the SCV and others committed to a mythical past.
The Internet largely fuels confusion today about the history of slavery and the role of slaves in the Confederacy. Misinformation abounds. In 2010 a Virginia history textbook, “Our Virginia: Past and Present,” authored by Joy Masoff, included the claim that “thousands of Southern blacks fought in Confederate ranks, including two battalions under the command of Stonewall Jackson.” When asked for the source of this claim, Masoff admitted it had been discovered online after conducting a simple search. Today it is impossible to find a reputable historian who subscribes to this history.
The proposal to erect a monument to black Confederate soldiers is little more than an attempt to defuse the ongoing debate about the Confederacy and its monuments that dot public landscapes throughout the country. Some have suggested that the way to move forward is to dedicate new monuments to commemorate events and individuals that have for far too long been overlooked. While there is some merit in this approach, what we must not do is erect new monuments that mythologize the past and glorify a rebellion that, if successful, would have destroyed this nation and seen the creation of an independent slaveholding republic built on white supremacy.
Kevin M. Levin, a historian based in Boston, specializes in the history and memory of the Civil War. He is the author of numerous books and articles and the forthcoming “Searching For Black Confederates: The Civil War’s Most Persistent Myth” for the University of North Carolina Press. His work is online at Civil War Memory [http://cwmemory.com].