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.