Confronting More Confederate Heritage Lies

Police separate protesters at the Lee monument in Richmond in 2017. Win McNamee/Getty Images/AFP

In this article, Christy Coleman of the American Civil War Museum dispells some more confederate heritage lies. “If you wonder why the United States has such a divergent view about the Civil War and Confederate monuments, it’s because it was crafted that way. We’ve spent 150 years lying to each other about what the war was about – and trying to reinforce the lie. After the end of the war, there were a lot of widows, daughters, families [in the South] trying to make sense of this profound loss …  They’d spent years talking about the superiority of white people and now their whole world was upturned. It’s like going through the stages of grief. The first stage of grief is denial and they … came up with this narrative that the war really wasn’t about slavery but about the rights of states. The powerful organisation United Daughters of the Confederacy, aligned both, on a preservation front and an educational front. Their historian, Mildred Rutherford, made it her business to frame the narrative that must be in every school or textbook … And they persisted. Therefore the lie that’s created during a period of grief, in a period of denial that all of this happened for the reason it happened, became so entrenched that we find ourselves in a space now where some people are finally moving into that bargaining stage: ‘They [the Confederate leaders] really weren’t that bad people, they were Americans too’ or ‘They really weren’t about slavery’. And her favorite confederate heritage lie? ” ‘There were black Confederates too’ is my favourite. It is bargaining with history. History is what it is. So it’s a powerful lesson about narrative.” She next discusses confederate monuments, and specifically the R. E. Lee monument in Richmond, to show how confederate heritage lies got spread. “In fact, the placement of the monument was the first co-opting of Lee’s memory. As much as they were revering him, they were also co-opting him. Post-war, there was a need to rally the white South into ‘what’s next? Who do we turn to be a moral guide in this time of crisis?’. And Lee was the man that they chose to do that, which speaks volumes to how he was revered. He was representative of an old, grand, long-line South and with that came a series of beliefs and systems that encapsulate him. He defended our ‘sacred honour’. Post-war, that meant the defence of our homes, our way of life, which is that ‘whites are supreme’. Lee became the embodiment of that. I’ve heard many different things about how Lee taught his slaves to read and write, how that was against the law but he did it anyway, and taught them bible study, and so on. However, the reality is men, women and children were bought and sold from their families by Lee. He comes from a family that for generations has bought and sold human beings this way and their wealth and status was based on it.”

This article by historian Mike Musick delves into the black confederate myth confederate heritage advocates have fabricated since the movie Glory came out. We learn, “The National Archives and Records Administration has a substantial, though scattered, set of records for “Black Confederates.” Thousands of body servants, laborers, cooks, musicians, teamsters, etc., encamped with and served the Confederate Army. But if one is looking for African Americans who were regularly enlisted to serve under arms, both the subject and the sources are problematic. To my knowledge, no NARA records have come to light that document the service of African-American soldiers fighting for the South to any significant degree. The notion that black troops fought to defend a nation founded primarily to preserve slavery is not as absurd as some might believe, however. Records show that the Confederate War Department received—and declined—offers of ‘colored companies’ in 1861.” He also tells us, “Researching Black Confederates involves looking at many different records, so precise definition and status are important. For example, the NARA has a muster roll of the field, staff and band of the 1st South Carolina Infantry for January 1– February 28, 1862. Beside the musicians’ names is a comment: ‘The Band is composed entirely of Negroes—free men of color— They are borne upon the muster rolls of several of the Companies of the Regiment.’ The NARA’s Compiled Military Service Records (CSRs) include files for each of these men. They served in the army, but they had separate status from regularly enlisted soldiers, confirmed by Confederate Army regulations. No rolls are known to have survived for the few African-American companies raised in Richmond in March 1865, when the Confederate Congress belatedly authorized such enlistments.” Finally, he tells us, “A small number of individuals of African descent who were apparently able to pass as whites do seem to have served as Confederate soldiers. The number of African Americans who served seems to be roughly on par with the number of black soldiers who were found out, ejected from the Army and then put to work as laborers. In addition, in The Confederate Negro, James Brewer quotes a Confederate report stating that late in the conflict a group of Richmond hospital attendants were temporarily armed and positioned in the trenches. It has been pointed out that Confederate records are incomplete, so evidence for blacks in Southern service could have been lost. In fact, although there are gaps, the records are so extensive—especially when supplemented by the ‘Miscellaneous Unfiled Slips and Papers Belonging in Confederate Compiled Service Records’—as to preclude such a possibility. Records for Confederate soldiers do not generally indicate race, but often those records do provide some form of physical description that would indicate the soldier’s complexion. Most of the NARA’s holdings on African Americans in the Confederacy can be found in a series of Slave Rolls that is part of Record Group 109, the ‘War Department Collection of Confederate Records.’ These are monthly reports indicating the date and place of the report, the slaves’ names, amounts paid to their owners and the name of the man in charge. One NARA source does suggest that a few blacks supported the Confederate government: A very small percentage of case files among the records of the postwar Southern Claims Commission are for ‘colored’ applicants whose claims were rejected because witnesses testified to their allegiance to the secessionist cause. In contrast, a formidable mountain of documentation exists to indicate that most Southern blacks preferred the Union cause. Record Group 393, ‘Records of U.S. Army Continental Commands,’ bulges with documentation on thousands of slaves who deserted their masters when Federals approached. As Southern historian C. Vann Woodward wrote in his 1964 foreword to a new edition of Bell Wiley’s 1938 study: ‘The evidence destroys the legend of the Negro’s indifference to freedom.’ ”

The evidence also destroys the confederate heritage lie that claims thousands of African Americans fought for the confederacy.

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8 comments

  1. That’s interesting, Al. Never saw someone connecting the earliest and most entrenched historical ACW falsehoods with the grief reaction and denial phase. Good point. Also makes sense that the North was reluctant to challenge the historical denial (or selective amnesia) of a grieving people. But after 150 years, it’s overdue time.

    I hope all is well with you. I’ve been busy and back to occasional lurking for a while. 🙂

    1. Thanks, Bert. Things are going well here. You’ll be pleased to hear my 8th Graders have been studying life science all year, and my 6th Graders just started a life science block.

      1. Yes indeed, wee need all the science we can get out there. Change in career for you?

        1. I wouldn’t call it a career exactly, but yes, a change in jobs, teaching.

          1. Welcome, and I wish you well! I hope you get to teach a little American history in between all that life science. 🙂

          2. Thanks, Bert. I’m a building sub so I go in every day and I can teach anything in the school. I’ve even taught piano and guitar! I’ve been able to teach both American and World history as well. 🙂

  2. Mike Musick · · Reply

    Al: It’s an honor to be quoted on your outstanding blog, which I’ve followed since its inception, and from which I’ve learned a great deal over the years.

    1. Thanks for your very kind words, Mike. I’m honored that you are following the blog.

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