Why Blacks Fought For the Confederate States of America
By: Vernon R. Padgett, Ph.D.
Historians and students of history often reject out of hand the claim that African Americans fought for the Confederate States of America. Students in today’s public schools leave their day or two of U.S. History with the idea that African Americans were the oppressed victims of white slave masters, which of course, they often were. Therefore, it seems ridiculous that blacks would have fought in defense of that system.
Yet the historical record is clear: Thousands of black Southerners served, and fought, for the Confederate States of America. Many wonder, why did they do so? Let us this question by posing, and answering, some other questions:
Why did anyone fight for the Confederacy?
There is a vast literature on the Confederate States of America. An understanding of why Southerners in general fought to establish an independent Southern Confederacy can help explain why any one group in particular fought for the Confederacy. Perhaps all Southerners shared at least some of the reasons for fighting that Southerners in general shared? (Of course, defending the institution of slavery was not the only reason the South fought.) If we believe that the War was only “about slavery” we have a particularly difficult time understanding why blacks fought in defense of their country, the Confederate States of America.
Why did blacks fight in the Revolutionary War?
Five thousand blacks fought in defense of the United States from 1776 to 1789. Did they fight to defend the slavery that existed throughout the 13 Colonies at that time? Of course they did not.
Historian Edwin Smith, Director of American Studies at American University in Washington, D.C., discusses Washington and Lee, and states: “Five Thousand American blacks served with George Washington in the Continental Army. Some were slaves. Most were free. Some worked with George Washington on his plantation. The British offered black slaves their immediate freedom if they would serve the British Cause. The vast majority of blacks said “No!—We are going to remain loyal to the Colonies.”
Dr. Smith concludes: “If black slaves would serve in the armies of George Washington, why would you be surprised for them to serve in the armies of Robert E. Lee?” (Smith, 1996).
Why did blacks fight in the War of 1812? In the Spanish-American War? In the First World War?
The answer to those questions may also answer our first question. The United States of America, in each of those wars, included many sections that were slave, or were segregated. African Americans have always fought for America. General Jackson led large numbers of African American troops against the British in the Battle of New Orleans.
If you could ask a black slave, fighting against the British in the first American Revolution, “Why are you fighting?” What would he say? Perhaps he would say “The enemy is attacking us, burning our homes-- I am fighting to defend home, family, and my way of life.“
Why did blacks fight in World War II? In Korea? In Viet Nam?
The U.S. Army in WWI and WWII was a segregated army. Not until 1948 did the United States Army integrate blacks and whites. Were black Americans fighting to defend and protect a segregated society? Of course they did not.
Were blacks fighting to defend and protect a segregated army in World War II? Again, of course not. If you asked a black soldier in the segregated U.S. WWII Army, “Why are you fighting—to defend a society that segregates you, a society in which prejudice against you is widespread, a society that gives your children substandard schooling?”
Why did Japanese Americans Fight in World War II?
Let us look at another group of Americans. Perhaps the answers to these same questions, this time with reference to another group of Americas, will help us answer our first question. We turn to an episode in American history that too few know, or understand: The mass incarceration of Americans without charge or trial, solely on the basis of race.
Soldiers of the 442nd Regimental Combat Team, an all Japanese-American outfit, fought in eight major campaigns in Italy, France and Germany. They earned 18,127 individual decorations, including one Medal of Honor, 53 Distinguished Service Crosses, 588 awards of the Silver Star, 5,200 awards of the Bronze Star Medal and 9,486 Purple Hearts, and seven Presidential Unit Citations, the nation's top award for combat units. President Clinton approved the upgrade of 19 DSCs to the Medal of Honor. Even before the presidential action, this unit was the most-decorated combat unit in American military history.
All the while the men fought, many of their parents and relatives were being held behind barbed wire in isolated detention camps in the United States. One writer, an ex-Naval officer who helped carry out the infamous Executive Order 9066 referred to the camps as “America’s Concentration Camps” (Bosworth, 1967). Why did Americans of Japanese ancestry fight for the United States in 1943? Were they fighting to defend the detention, or concentration, camps their families were held in? Of course they were not. Were they fighting because they agreed with the policy of locking up their children and parents behind barbed wire? Of course they not.
Some observers suggest that Americans of Japanese ancestry fought with such exemplary valor in WWII in order to prove to the rest of America that they too were Americans, as good as any other.
Can we learn from our country’s sorry treatment of Japanese Americas any lesson that explains why men fight in war? If you asked a black Confederate soldier why he was fighting, what would he say? Perhaps he would state the same reasons that blacks gave for fighting in any of America’s wars. Perhaps he would explain his motivation using the same words that any American soldier uses to explain why they fight—in any of America’s wars. Perhaps we would state, like the Nisei of World War II in the 100th/442nd, that they were fighting to show that they too were as worthy as anyone else of being called American soldiers.
Conclusion: Blacks fought for the Confederate States of America for the same reasons as any Americans fought in that war, or in any of our wars. They are the same reasons for which Americans have served in all our wars—in defense of their homes, their country, their way of life, and to show that they were worthy of the title “American soldier.”
Bosworth, Allan R. (1967). America’s Concentration Camps. New York: Norton.
Smith, Edward C. (1996). Black Southern Heritage (video). Taped presentation delivered at Hollywood Performing Arts Center, 10 February 1996. Available for $22 from Nelson Winbush, 1428 Grandview Blvd., Kissimmee, Florida 34744.
Originally published, with photos, at