Black Confederates and the SCV
Vernon Fueston of the Elizabeth City (NC) Daily Advance reports today
on a recent meeting of the Col. W.F. Martin camp #1521, North Carolina
Division, Sons of Confederate Veterans. The meeting’s topic, black
Confederates, is "controversial" and "likely to raise an eyebrow,"
according to Fueston, because the existence of black Confederates is
supported only by "scraps of historical information."
To support his claim, Fueston quotes Thomas Clark, an adjunct
professor of ceramics and art history at Tomball (TX) Community
College, who says the concept of black Confederates is a "racist
fabrication." It is unclear why Fueston did not find a more
reputable "source" to dispute the SCV camp’s program topic, nor why
Fueston did not find a local source (such as a history professor from
one of North Carolina’s many colleges who specializes in the War for
The complete article follows. You can respond to the article at PO Box 588,
Elizabeth City, NC 27907-0588, via fax to (252) 335-4415, or via e-mail at email@example.com
You can respond directly to "Professor" Clark at Thomas.J.Clark@nhmccd.edu
GHOSTS OF THE CIVIL WAR
Sons of Confederate Veterans look to honor their ancestors’ history, but history
can be controversial
By Vernon Fueston, Correspondent
Friday, August 24, 2007
Eleven members were present. Sometimes as many as 40 "compatriots"
attend monthly meetings of the Sons of Confederate Veterans at the
Top Side Restaurant in Shiloh. They all rise to attention; the
remains of tonight’s fried chicken and seafood buffet neglected, as
they raise a salute and recite the pledge.
"I salute the Confederate flag with affection, reverence, and undying
devotion to the cause for which it stands," they say in unison.
They also salute the North Carolina flag and recite the Pledge of
Allegiance to the Stars and Stripes. Bill Lewallen calls the meeting
to order. He stands at a podium with the letters "CSA" emblazoned
the front. A three-foot banner representing the seal of the Sons of
Confederate Veterans is draped behind him. It is a Confederate battle
flag with tabs attached to the borders bearing the name of the
organization and the date of it’s founding, 1896.
Lewallen says the SCV was founded to protect the honor of Confederate
veterans and the memory of the Confederacy, two things he passionately
believes to be under assault these days. He says his organization is
dedicated to defending both.
"The charter requires us to uphold the honor of the soldiers who
fought in the cause," Lewallen says, "who fought against the Union
He does not care for the term "Civil War," preferring to speak of
the "War Between the States." Since he believes secession was a legal
option open to the South, Lewallen says the conflict was not
technically a fight within a divided country, but between two
He also sees the war as a defensive action taken by an invaded
"Once Abraham Lincoln called out the troops to put down what he
called a ‘rebellion,’ the South was forced to defend itself with
troops," Lewallen says. "Those who answered that call were our
ancestors. They put up a brave fight, a fairly hopeless fight,
despite some fairly monumental victories."
They are literally his ancestors. To become a member of the Sons of
Confederate Veterans, an applicant must be male and prove himself
descended from a Confederate soldier. Lewallen says he had ancestors
on both sides of the conflict.
The speaker on this particular evening more than a week ago is local
author, educator, and historian Elizabeth Whitley Roberson of
Williamston. Her topic for the evening is black Confederate soldiers.
The concept might raise an eyebrow or two outside this room, but it
is a familiar topic to the members gathered here.
Roberson makes the claim that as many as 300,000 black Americans
participated in the war on behalf of the South "in some way or other."
That is an important distinction. Most of the black "troops" cited
historians in several recent books on the subject were slaves taken on
campaign as body servants or pressed into service as cooks or
laborers. They were not listed as recruits.
Roberson concedes this point but also lists "colored" units formed
several states at the beginning of the conflict. These units, she
says, were state militias and not as well documented as those of the
Blacks were barred from enlisting in the regular army until the final
months of the war and then accepted only after a lengthy and bitter
debate in the Confederate legislature.
As proof of her claims, Roberson quotes battlefield descriptions by
Union soldiers of "colored troops" they fought against in the field.
As for slaves serving in the army, Roberson says most served whole-
heartedly, if not of their own free will, and cites several examples
of cooks and laborers disregarding orders and taking up arms in the
heat of battle or serving as messengers to cross enemy lines.
Roberson’s contentions are not without their detractors.
Thomas R. Clark is a professor of history at Tomball College, in
Tomball, Texas. In an article for The Houston Chronicle he calls the
idea that "thousands of African American slaves were ‘fighting’ in
the Civil War" a "racist fabrication."
The argument is passionate and heated on both sides. To admirers of
the Confederacy like Lewallen, the presence of blacks on the
battlefield alongside white soldiers gives lie to the notion that the
Southern culture can be defined by slavery alone. To critics like
Clark, that is precisely the point.
To concede blacks were willing to die for the Confederacy would mean
there must be some redeeming qualities in the culture it represented.
Both sides seem unwilling to give ground.
Clark ridicules the notion of black troops, posing the question, "if
there were thousands of black soldiers in the Confederate armies, why
were none of them among the approximately 215,000 soldiers captured
by the US forces?"
Of course Roberson has an answer. She cites the cases of several
blacks who were interred at prison camps during the war as
combatants. While the issue seems not as absolute as Clark paints it,
evidence to the contrary is not so quick to vindicate Roberson. The
number of black prisoners of war amounts to a handful of individuals.
The Union routinely treated captured slaves on the battlefield as
"contraband" or confiscated property and resettled them unless they
were actively fighting at the time of their capture.
The use of "colored" fighting units by the South was widely accepted
during the war, but considered an anomaly. Frederick Douglass, black
abolitionist and author, said, "there are at the present moment many
colored men in the Confederate Army, as real soldiers, having muskets
on their shoulders, and bullets in their pockets. … They were at
Manassas and they are probably there still."
This issue of black soldiers in the Confederacy may be, like most
questions of history, too complicated to satisfy anyone’s agenda a
century and a half later. As to the motivation of the larger part of
those 300,000 black Americans who served the Confederates "in one way
or another," that debate will rage on.
Critics of historians like Roberson point to "inflated statistics."
Admirers of the Confederacy cite the stubborn refusal of many to
acknowledge those scraps of historical information that have been
uncovered. Passions run high on both sides.
While a desire to defend the confederacy has led some to fabricate
"evidence," equally strong passion drives the rhetoric of their
critics. Truman Clark’s article bristles with characteristically
"The slave South rested upon a master-race ideology as many
generations of white Southerners stated it and lived it, from the
1600s until 1865," writes Clark. "There is an uncomfortable parallel
in our century with the master-race ideology of Nazi Germany."
For Lewallen and his group, much rides on arguments like this one and
others. He has no intention of seeing his ancestors lumped with the
likes of the Gestapo and the Nazis. For him and his compatriots at
the Sons of Confederate Veterans, it’s a question of honor. He points
to the fact that few Confederate soldiers owned slaves and many
disagreed with the institution. To Lewallen, they deserve better than
to be judged simply as defenders of the practice.
He is probably not holding his breath until the controversy dies out.