One of the latest Confederate monument fights is currently brewing in South Carolina. State Representatives Bill Chumley and Mike Burns have proposed erecting a monument to black Confederate soldiers. The problem, of course, is that there were no black Confederate soldiers. The Confederate government refused to allow blacks to enlist until March 1865, when, desperate for manpower, the Confederate Congress passed a law allowing African Americans to serve in combat roles. Even with the war nearly lost, this move was extremely controversial, as it flew in the face of Confederate racial ideology. “In my opinion, the worst calamity that could befall us would be to gain our independence by the valor of our slaves, instead of own,” wrote Robert Toombs, the first Confederate secretary of state and a general in the Confederate army. “The day that the army of Virginia allows a negro regiment to enter their lines as soldiers they will be degraded, ruined, and disgraced.” Two weeks after the law allowing their service was passed and before any black troops could be enlisted, the war was over.

But in recent years, the myth of the black Confederates has grown. Early “Lost Cause” ideology was often frankly racist. Works like D.W. Griffith’s Birth of a Nation (1915), and the Thomas Dixon novels on which it was based, depicted the Confederacy as explicitly a white man’s cause. While neo-Confederate accounts of the Civil War and Reconstruction often displaced slavery as the cause of the conflict and depicted the South as fighting for “states’ rights” or even a lower tariff, there was at first no attempt to reimagine the Confederacy as a land of racial equality, especially since the vision of the Lost Cause was actively used as a defense of Jim Crow.

But after the rise of the modern civil rights movement, it became convenient to claim that the Confederate fight was an interracial one. On the basis of no evidence whatsoever, the myth grew. “The modern myth of black Confederate soldiers,” notes the Civil War Trust on their webpage devoted to this tale,

is akin to a conspiracy theory—shoddy analysis has been presented, repeated, amplified, and twisted to such an extent that utterly baseless claims of as many as 80,000 black soldiers fighting for the Confederacy (which would roughly equal the size of Lee’s army at Gettysburg) have even made their way into classroom textbooks. It is right to study, discover, and share facts about the complex lives of nineteenth-century black Americans. It is wrong to exaggerate, obfuscate, and ignore those facts in order to suit twenty-first century opinions.

(The Civil War Trust also notes that this story could only grow once all the veterans of that conflict, who clearly never saw tens of thousands of black Confederates in uniform, were no longer around to deny the story.)

But in many ways the most fascinating, and to my mind disturbing, part of the ridiculous attempt in South Carolina to erect a monument to imaginary black Confederates has been the reaction of younger white nationalists to the suggestion.  There has apparently been a pushback from the far right against the notion of a “Rainbow Confederacy.” The sorts of people who marched in Charlottesville last year openly embrace white supremacy and, not surprisingly, openly celebrate the Confederacy’s white supremacy, too.

Though historians should all want to see the myth of the black Confederates disappear, its ideological usefulness in recent decades actually reflects positive changes in American life. While white supremacy has remained a powerful force in our political life, open white supremacy grew less socially and politically acceptable. Just as hypocrisy is the tribute that vice plays to virtue, the myth of black Confederates was an attempted accommodation to the new political realities of post-civil rights and Voting Rights Act America. It is the kind of myth that appeals to white supremacists who like to be able to tell themselves that they are not racist.

But especially over the last two years, the open expression of racism has come to play a larger and larger role in our political life. We now have a president who suggests that some neo-Nazis are good people and who rails against accepting immigrants from “shithole” countries in Africa.

No wonder that the far right is losing its felt need to simulate racial tolerance. When people who want to erect a monument to imaginary black Confederates are not the worst players in a story about public commemoration, we are in a very bad place.

Benjamin L. Alpers is Associate Professor of American Intellectual and Cultural History at the University of Oklahoma and an editor of S-USIH blog, where this essay first appeared.

15 thoughts on “The Myth of Black Confederates

  1. Many Blacks ran to Union Army for freedom but Contraband Camps quickly made them loyal Confederates. “Louisiana in the Civil War” by Winters 1963 pg 207-8, ‘Louisiana’s Black Heritage ” 1979 PG 153-4 Plus Black Union Veteran G W Williams assures us in “History of Negro Race in America 1619-1880” that South used Black soldiers before the North. Yes their were laws against it from Richmond, but there were laws against drug use in Vietnam. North invaded for Cotton and tariffs, not to do Blacks any favors. So this whole article is myth of Lincoln Worship, agenda driven propaganda, not history.

    1. I am sorry Karl, but what you have posted is not true: African-Americans went to war as slaves, not as free soldiers; nor did they flee the admittedly horrendous conditions of Union Army camps to go back to slavery.

      1. Richest Slave owners in Louisiana were Black and richest Blacks in America. NOLA had more Black Professionals than all the Northern Cities put together, Only SC rivaled Louisiana in terms of Black wealth and prosperity. Your view of slavery is terribly distorted, Guess what? Not all Blacks thought alike!

        1. Karl: the point is that these stories have circulated for years, and there is absolutely zero evidence behind them. I would challenge you to name one piece of real scholarship — not a website maintained by the Daughters of the Confederacy, or heritage literature, but actual scholarship — that demonstrates that slaves, or free Blacks, volunteered to fight for the Confederacy. In fact, the CSA prohibited them from doing so, and all states prohibited the ownership of firearms by all African – Americans, slave or free. But this debate is an interesting teaching tool for anyone who chooses to use this in a class.

          1. “Rebel Scout” Thomas Conrad PG 108, “Riding with Rosser” PG 37 “Louisiana’s Black Heritage” PG 153-4, “Civil War in Louisiana” PG 208, “History of Negro Race in America 1619-1880” G W Williams. Quote from Frederick Douglass that South would free slaves before surrender in 1862. “Stable Arm” Dr Stieners Account from Maryland 1862, Holt Collier, John Nolan, Louis Napoleon Nelson.

            But you can watch my video “Lee’s Black spy” or “Catletts Station and other Black Spies” on YouTube, where I show all this evidence. But I don’t think you care about history only your political agenda.

          2. Since when do eyewitness accounts become too old to be relevant? Do you want a new eyewitness account of the Civil War?

            Rebel scout is relevant because it is old, not in spite of it.

          3. Or suppressed by Yale (named after slave merchant) to hide Yale Yerkes Eugenics Programs that inspired Hitler and Yale affiliated Union Bank that funded him in 1920s because of his adherence to Yerkes. Nothing written after 1950 is a primary source because all eyewitnesses were dead. But all of this Lincoln Worship Propaganda began with “Team of Rivals” by Goodwin in 1970s to forward her fictional perspective of the Great Ape Lincoln. That fiction was born in “Wave the Bloody Shirt” political rhetoric of Radical Republicans Abolitionists who funded Union Pacific RR, while stealing much of the contract money in the Credit Mobilier scandal, to hide the fact one million Freedman starved to death due to premeditated policy. While living memory of the abuses of Robber Baron Oligarchy remained, this kind of Virtue Signalling was unthinkable. Blacks may have run to Union Army at first, but Contraband policy made them loyal Confederates.

      2. PG 53 Louisiana’s Black Heritage. PG 208 Civil War in Louisiana. You are making an extremely racist statement assuming all Blacks thought alike. When severe abuse made many react in a variety of ways. More free Blacks lived in the South than the North antebellum because of the severe Northern Black Codes. Many were slave owners and many more were abused by Union Army.

  2. History is a bit more complicated. Are these men and their own words imaginary? History is written by the victors. One can debate over size and scope, or what ought to be memorialized, but it is not the case that there were “no” black Confederate soldiers or that it is a total myth with with a “basis of no evidence whatsoever”. Exaggerated for ideological purposes? Yes.

    https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=MoM908FhJ5o

    https://www.theroot.com/yes-there-were-black-confederates-here-s-why-1790858546

    https://blackripley.com/2011/11/01/louis-napoleon-nelson-%E2%80%93-ripley-native-and-confederate-civil-war-soldier/

Leave a Reply