What Should Historians Make of "Black Confederates?"

tags: slavery, Civil War, Confederacy, African-Americans



Glenn David Brasher is the author of The Peninsula Campaign and the Necessity of Emancipation (2012) and winner of the 2013 Wiley-Silver Prize from the Center for Civil War Research.

The topic of so-called “Black Confederates” is controversial. Some insist that Confederate nationalism motivated thousands of African Americans to fight alongside their masters, proving that slavery did not cause the American Civil War. The Internet has become one of the primary means of spreading this nonsense. While professional historians scoff, the “black confederate myth” is popping up on monuments across the south and even temporarily appeared in a Virginia textbook.

When asked about “Black Confederates,” historians often question the sources used by the myth’s supporters, pointing out that they are usually second-hand and anecdotal, or a product of post-war Lost Cause propaganda.  Other historians simply pooh-pooh the claims. I believe that these are not effective responses. A better approach is to place the evidence back into the context in which it first emerged.

In a number of primary sources, people claim to have seen African Americans fighting alongside Rebel soldiers. Most of these sightings were likely of slaves serving as body servants for their soldier masters, or were of the thousands of slaves impressed to work on confederate fortifications. Still, individual human motivations are rarely monolithic and therefore it is not irrational to believe that in the excitement of combat a few of these black men picked up weapons and got involved in the fighting.  Some perhaps felt that in their particular situation it was in their best interest to demonstrate “loyalty” to their masters. Others may have been deceived about the intentions of northern soldiers; white southerners repeatedly told their slaves that Yankees were intent on capturing blacks to send them away to labor in the Caribbean.

Yet while these incidences were in nowhere near the numbers that some claim today, the exaggeration of such tales to promote an agenda is not new. In pushing for emancipation, some abolitionists and radical Republicans widely publicized these stories. In propaganda-like fashion, they greatly exaggerated them to further their cause, and thus they were the first to give these reports more credence and attention than they deserved....




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