Black Confederates Have Their Own Lesson to Teach

By Vincent F.A. Golphin

It’s great. After more than 130 years, black Civil War soldiers who fought for the North got their due. The recent unveiling of the Spirit of Freedom sculpture in the nation’s capital is a breathtaking reminder of the more than 208,000 African Americans who risked their lives. Yet, sadly the whole story remains untold-African Americans who fought for the Confederacy were left out.

Blacks who wore the gray are not heroes to most African Americans, but their stories are as important as the reason many southern blacks fought for the North. Without acknowledgement of the role of an estimated 90,000 African Americans who joined rebel ranks, we celebrate a half-truth. That robs us of the chance to understand blacks’ complex participation in the war.

Researchers have fought hard to earn African Americans even a footnote in chronicles of the nation’s bloodiest conflict. University of Virginia Associate Professor Ervin L. Jordan, whose 1995 book, Black Confederates and Afro-Yankees in Civil War Virginia, was a landmark study, said most African Americans can’t look objectively at what he calls "Afro-Confederates."

"It’s not going to happen," he said. "Look at what the Confederacy stood for, and look at how the Confederate flag is being used. When black people see a Confederate they see an enemy." That’s a fact.

Yet reading about black Confederates adds a peculiar twist to what many historians try to portray as a simple story. In the end, to grasp how some blacks acted against their best interest 130 years ago, might help some African Americans today.

Even on November 11, when the granite panels with 208,943 black Union soldiers and sailors’ names will be added to the $2.6 million, 11-foot, bronze monument in Washington, D.C., most Americans will still see the Civil War as a white struggle on behalf of blacks.

Within 10 years of the war, Union and Confederate officials whitewashed (no pun intended) the roles. Black Union and Confederate veterans who applied for soldiers pensions were often denied, or reclassified as laborers, feeding the myth that their contributions and numbers were insignificant.

As University of Pittsburgh art historian Kirk Savage described the situation to States News Service, statues cast after the war were erected by white men in public spaces controlled by white men. Often, such statues depicted black slaves kneeling and white soldiers standing.

Efforts by black Confederate soldiers’ descendants to piggy-back the July 19 African American Civil War Monument dedication were squelched. According to a press release from the Sons of Confederate Veterans, an organization that honors the rebels’ cause, one of their members, Dr. Emerson Emory, a black Dallas physician, was invited to participate in the ceremony in April and dropped from the program in May. Apparently, the African American Civil War Monument Committee saw any recognition of those who fought for the losing side as an embrace of the Confederacy’s ideals.

In truth, many on both sides battled for self-interest.

"I think a lot of it was heritage and pride," said Stan Armstrong, a Las Vegas filmmaker. His current documentary project, "Forgotten Heroes," is about black Confederate soldiers. "New Orleans boasted about having the richest blacks in the South. At the start of the war, when the South left the Union, 2,500 men of color in New Orleans were the first one’s to come to the aid of the Confederacy. Some of them were even captains, lieutenants and other officers."

Jordan said some of them were plain crazy. " Some of them were only looking out for themselves," he added. "Some of them were being pragmatic about where they were, especially free blacks. They felt if they demonstrated loyalty to the Confederacy that would keep them from being enslaved."

The Jim Crow era shows those who fought on both sides were deceived. Even white Americans are sometimes ashamed to admit that so many blacks gave all for a freedom that never came. But, black Confederates are still considered the bigger fools. That is why most African Americans want them to be forgotten.

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