Twelve Reasons We Don't Believe in Black Confederates
By: Vernon R. Padgett, Ph.D.
Many people reject the evidence that thousands of the South's 3,880,000 blacks, both free men and slaves, labored and fought, willingly, for the Southern Confederacy.
Why do they not believe, given the many accounts in the Official Records, contemporary newspaper reports, photographs, pension application records, and recollections of black Southerners? Here are 11 explanations.
1. It may force us to change what we believe. Changing our beliefs is troublesome and effortful. Most of us have always believed that both the Confederate and Union armies were all white, just like they are shown in the 1994 film Gettysburg.
2. It is not what most others believe. The leading guideline for adult behavior in questionable moral areas, according to the classic work of psychologist Lawrence Kohlberg is “What would people think?” (i.e., “what are other people doing”). We base our behavior—and ideas—on what others are doing, so that we appear “normal.” Since few others believe in black Confederates, we will not either, in order to fit in with the majority.
3. It might contradict a prejudice. Are we ready to accept that a black man could be every bit as brave, and every bit as dedicated, as a white man in combat? Rejecting the claim that blacks fought is consistent with a prejudice against blacks. Perhaps those who reject out of hand the idea of black Confederates are expressing their own prejudice against blacks.
4. It complicates our simple stereotype of blacks vs. whites as separate groups. But in truth, are these groups more alike than different? Maybe seeing them as different groups allows us to perceive differences that are not really there? A more complex perception is of one larger group with many diverse individuals, not of two groups of similar individuals. The simpler perception that fits a black versus white stereotype is consistent with the view that there were no black Confederates.
5. How do we now teach Civil War history in 10 minutes? How do we summarize the reasons for the war in a few sentences, if in fact thousands of black Southerners fired in anger at the Northern troops coming "to free them"? At least one Northern soldier put his frustration at that incident into the Official Record of the War of the Rebellion: "Here I had come South and was fighting to free this man," the disgusted U.S. major wrote in his diary; "If I had made one false move on my horse, he would have shot my head off" (Barrow et al., 2001, p. 43).
6. It complicates the simple portrayal of the North as Good, driving out the “Wicked Southern Slave master.” How can Northern soldiers serve in the role as Angels of Mercy, if black Confederates shot at them?
7. It weakens support for the claim that the War was About Slavery
We like simplicity. "The War was About Slavery" is simple, as simple as a Pepsi commercial. For a society raised on Pepsi commercials, the One Factor Theory (slavery) has enormous appeal. If many blacks chose to fight for the South, how could the War have been exclusively concerned with slavery? Maybe there were other issues. Now we might have to examine economic factors (No—not that!).
We also have to consider why individual black Southerners fought. Some were slave owners themselves, and/or occupied respected positions in their communities as Free Men of Color (especially Louisiana and Virginia) or Free Women of Color (as in Charleston, with its 6000 free blacks, mostly women).
Suggesting the slavery was not the only factor brings up a number of annoying truths about slavery, like these:
Lincoln didn't emancipate the slaves until about half way through the war;
Lincoln fired two generals who did free slaves in 1861 and 1862;
Lincoln didn't emancipate any slaves under his actual control; (imagine the President today stating that the minimum wage is henceforth and forever going to be $25 an hour-- in Mexico and Canada).
The under ground railroad didn't stop at the Mason/Dixon line. It reached all the way to Canada because such states as Illinois (the land of Lincoln) had laws that a black could be whipped if found within the state for more than three days.
There were 5 slave states among the Northern states;
Slavery was legal in these Northern states after the "emancipation" of slaves that were not under Northern control;
Lincoln's idea of how to deal with emancipated slaves was to send them to Africa, and a new African country was created for this purpose;
Slavery was legal in the north even after the fall of the Confederacy.
The flag that flew over slave ships was the United States' Stars and Stripes, never a Confederate flag.
Do we want to bring up these facts about slavery?: That Africans were captured by other Africans to be sold into slavery? That Africans sold other Africans to Yankee, not to Southern, slave dealers, for transport in Yankee slave ships? That blacks as well as whites owned slaves?
Do we want to recognize that slavery had never been safer than in 1860: Lincoln personally supported a new constitutional amendment protecting slavery forever, which he signed, and Illinois had already ratified it when war broke out.
"The institution of slavery had never been more secure for the slave owners, with the Supreme Court in their back pocket, with the Constitution itself expressly protecting slavery, and mandating the return of fugitive slaves everywhere-- a mandate Lincoln said he would enforce; with Lincoln also declaring he had no right to interfere with slavery and no personal inclination to do so; with Lincoln personally supporting a new constitutional amendment protecting slavery forever . . . There is nothing the South could have asked for, for the protection of slavery, that wouldn't have been gladly provided, just as long as the South remained in the Union" (Adams, 2000).
We don’t believe in black Confederates because when we question that the war was "about slavery," we eventually get around to the question: “What Was The War About?” and “Why were 360,000 Northern boys and men killed?”
Slavery had died out everywhere in the world except Brazil, and was on its way out in the Southern American States. Slavery had ended almost everywhere in the world without war. Was the death of 600,000 Americans worth ending slavery 10 or 15 years sooner?—or than ending it as it had been ended peacefully everywhere else in the world, by compensated emancipation?
8. Many whites disbelieve that there were black Confederates because of "White Guilt." Many white Americans feel undeserving of their wealth. Certainly, many are undeserving. Some give a small part of their wealth to the poor, and this seems to make them feel better. Others hire the poor to work for them—and then bask in their role as benefactors. Massachusetts writer—and abolitionist-- Henry Thoreau saw through this chimera 20 years before the War. He wrote concerning charity towards the poor at the end of the chapter “Economy,” in his masterpiece Walden. Regarding his wealthy friends who “helped” the poor, by paying them to work in their kitchens, Thoreau wrote: "Let them work in their own kitchens."
One target for giving wealth has traditionally been black causes. A major recipient has been the NAACP, which endorses a movement to shift massive wealth to former slaves. Establishing that some of these slaves supported the Southern States, and that some blacks today, descendants of those slaves, still support the ideals of the Confederacy (and there were other ideals besides slavery), is inconsistent with the fundamental causes of White Guilt.
9. It is inconsistent with the culture of Victimhood. If blacks chose to fight for the South, how can blacks be passive, helpless, unwilling victims? One black liberal dismissed evidence that blacks fought for the Southern Confederacy by referencing the "abused wife syndrome": An accusation that these poor helpless blacks were victims and unable to act with volition and control over their environment. But what do we say of the blacks captured by Yankees who escaped and returned to their units?— Or of the more than 40 blacks attending the 1890 UCV Reunion, pictured in another essay? One has to believe an “abused wife syndrome” that is powerful indeed, to explain the activities of these black Confederates.
10. It brings up the annoying question: Why did blacks fight? If the reasons blacks fought for the South include the same reasons whites fought for the South, or any of the same reasons that anyone fights for any cause in any war, then we have to look at those fighting black Confederates as deliberative, volitional, reasoning, diverse, individuals, just like the whites we talk about, when we talk about why whites fought for the South. This topic is dealt with as a separate essay.
11. It brings up another annoying question: Why did anyone fight for the North? No one really knows why men go to war to fight. Once they get there, they don't fight for their flag, or their country, or God. They fight for their comrades. Some of the issues involved in the discussion of why men fight are presented in another essay in this series, “Why Did Blacks Fight for the Confederate States of America.”
The literature documenting why men fight is rich: Some of the writers who have tried to explain why men fight include Erich Maria Remarque, Hans Helmut Kirst, Heinrich Böll; William Broyles, and McPherson; Ambrose, etc. Southerners fought because the North invaded the South.
But why did Northerners fight? We do not want to ask that question, and discussing why blacks fought for the South leads us ultimately to the question: Why did anyone fight for the North?
What would you say to a boy from Iowa, bleeding to death in front of a wall near Fredericksburg in December 1862 (note the date: Before the “Emancipation”)-- "Your life was lost to help force Arkansas back into a Union she does not wish to be part of"? Or how about: “You gave your life to help force Florida back into a Union that she does not wish to be part of”?
Why did anyone fight for the North? We know why 1 of 5 of them fought-- they were literally off the boat from Ireland or Germany. These immigrants arrived at Ellis Island, and stepped from their ship into a New York Infantry Regiment. They fought in order to get citizenship. But what about the other 4 of 5 Northerners who served in the Union forces? It is indeed a difficult question to answer.
12. We Want to Believe the War Was About Slavery
Accepting that thousands of blacks fought for the Confederate States of America forces us to rethink the common assumption that the War was “about slavery.” Surely no one would dismiss slavery as an important factor. But to most modern Americans, slavery was the factor, perhaps the only factor. Again, to the extent that we believe that thousands of black Confederates fought for their country, our belief in slavery as the cause of the War is threatened. This need for cognitive balance is examined at length in another essay. To summarize that essay: We ask, “what balances the deaths of 600,000 Americans during the years 1861 to 1865?” We need some reason to balance that great tragedy. What is it?
Getting even for Fort Sumter? No. Settling States Rights issues? No-- That answer never seems to explain why so many Americans died. Settling Tariff issues? No-- Same shortcoming, plus, few modern Americans can stay awake during any discussion of tariff issues. How about, to Preserve our Great Experiment in Democracy! No-- it is hard to sell this idea to modern Americans as the reason that more than half a million Americans died. The argument typically holds that had the Confederacy established itself, then there would have been more secessions, until ultimately we would have had a separate country, or two, in everyone’s back yard.
Finally, the End of slavery: Yes: Now there’s a reason we can celebrate: Slavery is bad; The South had slavery; therefore the South was bad and the Good North fought against the South, and slavery ended. Any child can grasp this argument; try explaining tariff issues to that person. Try explaining States Rights to that person—try explaining the issue of free trade and Northern versus Southern import and export economies—try explaining the diverging cultural bases of the North and the South. You will get a big yawn. Consider Ken Burns’s popular and acclaimed The Civil War—the most popular PBS series in history. To his great credit, Mr. Burns shows the appalling tragedy of 600,000 thousand dead Americans. And running throughout this 11 hour drama is the theme that ending slavery was the reason for these deaths. At one point a black woman historian makes that point explicit: The Union lifted the War to a higher plane, she explains. Clearly, Burns has accepted the idea that the War was “over slavery”—if only to give some sense to the TV audience who might wonder why America fought itself, and to do it in the TV schedule he had to work with.
Ultimately we believe the War was about the Ending of Slavery because that is the only cause that provides the cognitive balance we need.
The great evil of more than 600,000 deaths “balances” in our minds against the great evil of slavery.
Many of us will never believe that Lee Oswald acted alone in killing President John Kennedy (no “balance”)—many of us will believe that the U.S. entering World War I was a great victory—we will not believe that 160,000 more lives were wasted, and that our tipping the balance against Germany and Austria in 1918 lead directly to Hitler, and to WWII with another 100,000,000 dead, and to 40 years of Cold War. “Ending Slavery” provides that cognitive balance for the War of 1861-- Never mind that slavery ended everywhere else in the world without bloodshed. Never mind that other factors explain that the North and South became different countries long before 1860. Slavery provides that simple cognitive explanation.
Any evidence that blacks fought for the South is inconsistent with the notion that the War was only about slavery.
Adams, Charles. (2000). When in the Course of Human Events: Arguing the Case for Southern Secession. Lanham, Maryland: Rowman & Littlefield Publishers.
Barrow, C. K., Segars, J. H., & R.B. Rosenburg, R.B. (Eds.) (2001). Black Confederates, Pelican Publishing Company, Gretna.
Originally published at