Myth of Black Confederate Soldiers

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The Houston Chronicle
August 29, 1999, Sunday 4 STAR EDITION
Myth of Black Confederate Soldiers
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History gives lie to myth of black Confederate soldiers

Clark is a professor of American history (now emeritus) at Tomball College.

A racist fabrication has sprung up in the last decade: that the Confederacy had "thousands" of African- American slaves "fighting" in its armies during the Civil War.

Unfortunately, even some African-American men today have gotten conned into Putting on Confederate uniforms to play "re-enactors" in an army that fought to ensure that their ancestors would remain slaves.

There are two underlying points of this claim: first, to say that slavery wasn't so bad, because after all, the slaves themselves fought to preserve the slave South; and second, that the Confederacy wasn't really fighting for slavery. Both these notions may make some of our contemporaries feel good, but neither is historically accurate.

When one speaks of "soldiers" and "fighting" in a war, one is not talking about slaves who were taken from their masters and forced to work on military roads and other military construction projects; nor is one talking about slaves who were taken along by their masters to continue the duties of a personal valet that they performed back on the plantation. Of course, there were thousands of African-Americans forced into these situations, but they were hardly "soldiers fighting."

Another logical point against this wacky modern idea of a racially integrated Confederate army has to do with the prisoner of war issue during the Civil War. Through 1862, there was an effective exchange system of POWs between the two sides. This entirely broke down in 1863, however, because the Confederacy refused to see black Union soldiers as soldiers - they would not be exchanged, but instead were made slaves (or, as in the 1864 Fort Pillow incident, simply murdered after their surrender). At that, the United States refused to exchange any Southern POWs and the prisoner of war camps on both sides grew immensely in numbers and misery the rest of the war.

If the Confederacy had black soldiers in its armies, why didn't it see black men as soldiers?

By the way, all the Confederate soldiers captured by Union troops were white men. If there were "thousands" of black soldiers in the Confederate armies, why were none of them among the approximately 215,000 soldiers captured by the U. S. forces?

If there were thousands of African-American men fighting in the Confederate armies, they apparently cleverly did so without Robert E. Lee, Jefferson Davis, the members of the Confederate congress or any of the white soldiers of the Confederacy knowing about it. (I can just imagine some former Confederate soldier, told in 1892 that hundreds of the men in his army unit during the Civil War were black, snapping his fingers and saying, "I knew there was something different about those guys!")

The South was running short of soldiers as the war dragged on, however, and some people began to suggest that it would be better to use slaves to fight than to lose. As late as three weeks before the Civil War came to an end, the members of the Confederate congress (and Lee and Davis) were hotly debating the question of whether to start using slaves in the Southern armies.

If, as some folks in the 1990s claim, there were already "thousands" of black troops in the Confederate armies, why were the leaders of the Confederacy still debating about whether or not they should start bringing them in?

The very accurate point made then by opponents of this legislation was, as one Georgia leader stated, "If slaves will make good soldiers our whole theory of slavery is wrong." Southern newspaper editors blasted the idea as "the very doctrine which the war was commenced to put down," a "surrender of the essential and distinctive principle of Southern civilization."

And what was that "essential and distinctive principle of Southern civilization"? Let's listen to the people of the times. The vice president of the Confederacy, Alexander Stephens, said on March 21, 1861, that the Confederacy was "founded . . . its foundations are laid, its cornerstone rests, upon the great truth that the negro is not equal to the white man; that slavery, subordination to the superior race, is his natural and normal condition. This, our new government, is the first, in the history of the world, based on this great physical, philosophical and moral truth."

What was the "very doctrine" which the South had entered into war to destroy? Let's go to the historical documents, the words of the people in those times. When Texas seceded from the Union in March 1861, its secession declaration was entirely about one subject: slavery. It said that Thomas Jefferson's words in the Declaration of Independence in 1776 - "We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal" - were "the debasing doctrine of equality of all men, irrespective of race or color . . . a doctrine at war with nature . . . and in violation of the plainest revelations of Divine Law."

But, by March 13, 1865, the Confederacy had its back against the wall, and by the less than overwhelming margin of 40 to 37 in the House, and nine to eight in the Senate, the Confederate congress approved a bill to allow Jefferson Davis to require a quota of black soldiers from each state. Presumably (although the bill did not say so) slaves who fought would, if they survived the war, be freed. Southerners who opposed using blacks in the army noted that this idea had its problems: First, it was obvious that the Yankee armies would soon free them anyway; and second, if slavery was so wonderful and happy for black people, why would one be willing to risk death to win his freedom?

The war was virtually over by then, and when black Union soldiers rode into Richmond on April 3, they found two companies of black men beginning to train as potential soldiers. (When those black men had marched down the street in Confederate uniforms, local whites had pelted them with mud.) None got into the war, and Lee surrendered on April 9.

Yes, thousands of African-American men did fight in the Civil War - about 179,000. About 37,000 of them died in uniform. But they were all in the Army (or Navy) of the United States of America. The Confederate veterans who were still alive in the generations after the war all knew that and said so.

Finally, these modem non historians say that slavery couldn't have been a main cause of the Civil War (never mind the words of Alexander Stephens and the various declarations of secession), because most of the Confederate soldiers didn't own slaves.

As modern historians such as Pulitzer Prize-winner James M. McPherson point out, the truth was that most white people in the South knew that the great bulwark of the white-supremacy system they cherished was slavery, whether or not they personally owned slaves.

"Freedom is not possible without slavery," was a typical endorsement of this underlying truth about the slave South. Without slavery, white nonslaveholders would be no better than black men.

The slave South rested upon a master-race ideology, as many generations of white Southerners stated it and lived it, from the 1600s until 1865. There is an uncomfortable parallel in our century with the master- race ideology of Nazi Germany. First, millions of the men who bravely fought and died for the Third Reich were not Nazis, but they weren't exactly fighting for the human rights of Jews or gypsies. And second, yes, as was pointed out in the movie Schindler's List, many thousands of Jews did slave labor in military production factories in Nazi Germany - but that certainly didn't make them "thousands of Jewish soldiers fighting for Germany.

We can believe in the "black soldiers fighting" in the Confederate armies just as soon as historians discover the "thousands" of Jews in the SS and Gestapo.

Copyright 1999 The Houston Chronicle Publishing Company

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