From the Washington Post, "The myth of the black Confederates," by Bruce Levine, on 30 October 2010 -- Next year, the country will begin observing the sesquicentennial of the bloodiest war in U.S. history -- the Civil War. But the question of how to remember that war sometimes seems as contentious as the war itself was. On Oct. 20, The Post reported that in Virginia, fourth-grade students received textbooks telling them that thousands of African Americans fought in Confederate armies during the Civil War. The textbook's author, who is not a historian, found that false claim repeated so many times on the Internet that she assumed it had to be true.
She thereby helped propagate one of the most pernicious and energetically propagated myths about the Civil War. According to that myth, anywhere from 10,000 to 100,000 Southern blacks -- both free and enslaved -- served voluntarily, loyally, consistently and as fully fledged combatants in the South. Most of those who make these claims do it to bolster another, bigger myth -- that most Southern blacks supported the Confederacy.
“Our Virginia: Past and Present” is published by Five Ponds Press in Weston, Conn.
As a matter of fact, one of Jefferson Davis's generals did advise him to emancipate and arm slaves at the start of the war. But Davis vehemently rejected that advice. It "would revolt and disgust the whole South," he snapped. During the first few years of the war, some others repeated this suggestion. Each time, Richmond slapped it down. Not only would no slaves be enlisted; no one who was not certifiably white, whether slave or free, would be permitted to become a Confederate soldier.
And the Confederacy's policy of excluding blacks from its armed forces was effective. John Beauchamp Jones, a high-level assistant to the secretary of war, scoffed at rumors that the Confederacy had units made up of slaves. "This is utterly untrue," he wrote in his diary. "We have no armed slaves to fight for us." Asked to double-check, Confederate Secretary of War James Seddon confirmed that "No slaves have been employed by the Government except as cooks or nurses in hospitals and for labor."
Joy Masoff, the author of "Our Virginia: Past and Present," an elementary school book, said she found the information about black Confederate soldiers primarily through Internet research, which turned up work by members of the Sons of Confederate Veterans. (source: The Washington Post)
Why were the leaders so stubborn on this point? Because they were fighting to preserve African American slavery and the racial creed that justified it. Slavery's defenders insisted that blacks were inferior to whites -- uniquely suited to dull, arduous labor but incapable of assuming the responsibilities of free people, citizens or soldiers. As Seddon explained, since the Confederacy had taken that stand both before "the North and before the world," it could "not allow the employment as armed soldiers of negroes." Putting blacks into gray uniforms would be seen as a confession that this ideology was a lie. Even more practically, the Confederacy worried about what black troops would do with their weapons. At the very least they feared (in the words of Confederate Secretary of State Judah P. Benjamin) that black Confederate soldiers would desert to the enemy "in mass."
Finally, approaching military defeat forced Jefferson Davis to reverse course and support the black troops idea at the end of 1864. At that point, he faced fierce resistance from white Southerners who continued to insist that blacks would make only poor or disloyal soldiers. Davis now had to argue that black soldiers might yet fight effectively for the South. Tellingly, however, in trying to make that case, neither he nor his allies ever pointed proudly to the record of any of the black units (or even individuals) who purveyors of the modern myth claim were already in the field.
Five Ponds and its texts have been under scrutiny since last fall, when a history professor at the College of William and Mary pointed out what many historians consider an error in "Our Virginia." The offending line reads: "Thousands of Southern blacks fought in the Confederate ranks, including two black battalions under the command of Stonewall Jackson." (source: Hampton Roads)
After months of heated debate, a severely watered-down version of this proposal became Confederate law in March of 1865. Gen. Richard S. Ewell assumed responsibility for implementing it, and Confederate officials and journalists confidently predicted the enlistment of thousands. But the actual results proved bitterly disappointing. A dwarf company or two of black hospital workers was attached to a unit of a local Richmond home guard just a few weeks before the war's end. The regular Confederate army apparently managed to recruit another 40 to 60 men -- men whom it drilled, fed, and housed at military prison facilities under the watchful eyes of military police and wardens -- reflecting how little confidence the government and army had in the loyalty of their last-minute recruits.
This strikingly unsuccessful last-ditch effort, furthermore, constituted the sole exception to the Confederacy's steadfast refusal to employ African American soldiers. As Gen. Ewell's longtime aide-de-camp, Maj. George Campbell Brown, later affirmed, the handful of black soldiers mustered in Richmond in 1865 were "the first and only black troops used on our side." (source: washingtonpost.com)