Wednesday, April 13, 2011

Black Confederates?

Ta-Nehisi Coates calls attention to the persistent myth that thousands of black soldiers fought for the Confederacy, quoting this from Tony Horwitz:

When New York Gov. George Pataki recently backed calls to boot Georgia's flag from Albany's display of state flags because of its "racist" component, he quickly roused ire. "As many as 50,000 brave young black men were wounded and killed fighting for the South," wrote Charlie Condon, South Carolina's attorney general in a letter. "Your slander of our region and its historic flag is outrageous and offensive."

But what many historians find outrageous and offensive are the claims being made by men such as Condon. Though he later revised his estimate to 50,000 blacks who "served in the Confederate Army," Smith at American University puts the number of black rebels "actually shooting people" at 30,000.

Most historians regard this figure as inflated - by almost 30,000.

"It's pure fantasy," contends James McPherson, a Princeton historian and one of the nation's leading Civil War scholars. Adds Edwin Bearss, historian emeritus at the National Park Service: "It's b.s., wishful thinking." Robert Krick, author of 10 books on the Confederacy, has studied the records of 150,000 Southern soldiers and found fewer than a dozen were black. "Of course, if I documented 12, someone would start adding zeros," he says.

For more scholarship on the subject see this web site, or Bruce Levine’s, Confederate Emancipation: Southern Plans to Free and Arm Slaves during the Civil War.

Of course you can see immediately why Southern apologists are so drawn to this myth, which exonerates the Confederacy of racism and "proves" that the war was not about slavery. The plain reality is that almost all the blacks who served the Confederate military did so as laborers, or as body servants to white officers. If there were a few black men who so liked the idea of shooting Yankees that they somehow connived their way into fighting units, that just shows what a strange and variegated species we are. The Confederate government was dead set against treating blacks as the equals of whites in any way, and as policy they never enrolled blacks as soldiers in their army.

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