Redstone instructor: History of black Confederate soldiers unpopular but must be told
February 28, 2013
HUNTSVILLE, Alabama – An attempt to squelch a little known part of African American history gave Edwin Kennedy a bigger microphone than he ever imagined 13 years ago.
At the time, he had just seen a history display he helped arranged at Fort Leavenworth, Kan., removed from the Combined Arms Research Library because it was perceived as offensive, Kennedy recalled.
The display, which the command post said lacked historic balance, shared part of the story of blacks who fought for the Confederate army during the Civil War, not as body servants for their owners or impressed cooks and general laborers, but as actual soldiers shouldering muskets.
"It’s not politically correct to talk about it," said Kennedy, a retired lieutenant colonel now teaching at the Army Command and General Staff College’s satellite campus on Redstone Arsenal, "but you can’t ignore it."
Kennedy has had numerous opportunities to talk about black confederate soldiers since 2000, and said he generally gets the most requests during Black History Month, which concludes today. But despite the amount of evidence he produces and similar statements by black historians and descendants of black soldiers, he said there is still strong opposition to accept the truth.
His program, which he shared last week with the Sons of Confederate Veterans chapter in Athens, built an argument with photographs, government documents and newspaper clippings that show blacks not only served alongside white soldiers in the rebel army, but also earned the enduring respect of officers and eventually veteran pensions paid by southern states.
Kennedy said the black soldiers in the Confederate army are no different from soldiers during any other conflict in that they served for various personal reasons, with patriotism just one possibility. Ask a service member today why they joined up and many will likely say for college benefits, he said.
"I don’t care which reason they serve, they did it and deserve credit for it," Kennedy said.
Common reasons black men fought for the South include patriotism, expectation of reward, economic ties to South, emotional attachment, resentment to criminal treatment from Union troops and personal subjectives, he said.
Patriotism – The South was the only home they knew, and they naturally could fear the unknown invader from the North. Also there were free blacks who stayed in the South before and during the war.
Kennedy shared a quote from Roland Young, a black historian, who said black soldiers who fought for the South "were demonstrating that it was possible to hate the system of slavery and love one’s country."
Black soldiers served honorably in World War I and II, Kennedy said, when African Americans still lacked many basic civil rights, including being able to serve in unsegregated military units.
Expectation of reward – Many black soldiers, including slaves who fought for Nathan Bedford Forrest, served because they were promised freedom. Also, whether or not they received their pay or it went to their owners, black Confederate soldiers received the same pay as white soldiers, unlike the Union army.
Economic ties to the South – There were black-owned businesses in the South, including the largest rental property holder in Charleston. And according to the federal census of 1830, free blacks owned more than 10,000 slaves in four southern states, mostly in Louisiana.
Emotional attachment – House slaves in particular, felt a kinship with their white owners. One instance was Andrew Chandler and the black boy he grew up with named Silas. Silas ran away from home to join Andrew in the 44th Mississippi Infantry and brought Andrew home after he was wounded, turning his back on the chance to run away. In gratitude the Chandler family gave Silas some land, which he used to build a church.
Those who say African Americans never willingly served or were engaged in battle point to Southern laws that banned black people, slaves or freemen, to bear arms and that all impressment acts clearly mandated slaves could only be used as teamsters, laborers, hospital orderlies, cooks and similar non-combat roles.
The Confederate government did approve raising black troops, but not until the last month of the war. And the legislative act did not grant freedom to slaves who fought, leaving it up to their owners to let them serve.
Kennedy said there are repeated references during the Civil War by Union officers and even abolitionist, Frederick Douglass, acknowledging black soldiers carrying muskets in the Confederate Army.
After the war, there are photographs of black soldiers attending reunions with their Confederate comrades, government records of them receiving veteran benefits and living in old veterans homes and monuments standing in recognition to their service, he said.
"You can say (southern slave holders) forced them to fight, but why would they attend reunions," Kennedy asked.
In recent years, Kennedy said he has met African Americans participating in Civil War re-enactments portraying their Confederate ancestors, as well as people who learned of their Confederate history after conducting genealogy searches. One of those is Peggy Towns, a black author from Decatur, who recently published a book, Duty Driven: The Plight of North Alabama’s African Americans During the Civil War.
Her family search revealed she had ancestors who fought for both the Union and Confederate armies.
"I was shocked, more or less," she said, until further research revealed they fought in exchange for freedom.
Towns also experienced some resentment and opposition to her findings, but she said she’s not worrying about it. She said it’s simply her duty to put the truth out there.
"I’ve gotten some flack about the Confederates in my book, but at the end of the day, that’s our history, it’s who we are. I will continue to tell our story," she said.
"I surmise that the war was not so much about slavery, but fear," Towns added. "Fear of losing political, economic and social power. Fear of recognizing what came to be in the eyes of many an inferior people to be equal. Fortunately, after the ultimate sacrifice of thousands of Confederate and Union soldiers, a people were freed in the process.
"Isn’t it something that 150 years later, our history is still tucked away into the recesses of time and no one wants to acknowledge the truth," she said.
Kennedy said it was ironic that Fort Leavenworth, the "intellectual center" for the U.S. Army, was the site that forced him to remove an historic display, and that in doing so, it had the opposite effect of quieting the story.
The flap drew national attention, including an article in Army Times newspaper and it encouraged him to delve further into seeking evidence of black Confederate soldiers, he said.
The attention he received eventually brought him to be the keynote speaker at the 2005 Army Quarterly Equal Opportunity Conference at Fort Gordon, Ga. He said he continues to be asked to speak to school, civic and historic groups.
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