Are the right motivations behind the search for Black Confederates?

Posted on July 25, 2008 by


What follows is one of my comments to some of the other comments on Peter Carmichael’s post on Black Confederates…

I’d like to add to/take another angle on Kevin’s comment about the SCV and what appears to be the SCV’s use/exploitation of black Confederates to promote the ideals of white Confederate ancestry.

Honoring blacks who served in the ranks of the army is a challenging thing. If it can be proved (and I think I’ve found proof that one African-American from my home county actually did, at least enlist, in the Confederate army), conclusively, that a black served in the ranks of the Confederate army and did so honorably, sure, this falls within the mission of the SCV. However, as Kevin points out, this does seem a bit awkward considering the very nature of the Confederate government.

I will also add that finding conclusive proof of honorable service is a difficult thing as Confederate military records pose a huge problem to researchers. The information on paper cannot be taken at face value. There is a need to look between the lines (in the case of white soldiers, I challenge many to look at the enlistment dates of soldiers and create a timeline, comparing dates of enlistment with the enforcement of the three – though I would argue that there was also an unwritten “fourth” – Confederate Conscription Acts… it makes one ponder why those men enlisted only at that time). After transcribing the records of twenty-seven Virginia artillery companies from the late 1980s through 2001, even I did not realize the need to read between the lines until the last few years (something, I think, that would have made me more critical of the way that I wrote the unit histories).

Furthermore, as many who have plowed through the Combined Service Records know, in 1864, most records end leaving a major question as to what happened to the soldier. Enlistment records are also vague, often not clarifying if an enlistment was actually a conscription (I’ve come upon this situation more frequently in the last couple of years where military records do not list conscription, yet the statements of other veterans make it clear that some soldiers were conscripts… and sometimes very unwilling at that).

All of this said, it concerns me a great deal that there are a number of people in the SCV who like to, as Pete mentions, play a “numbers game” and throw out large numbers, “guesstemations,” if you will, about the number of blacks in the ranks of the Confederate army. To me, this is an effort being made to justify the nature of the white Confederates’ reasons for fighting and de-vilify the darker side of the multi-tiered symbolism of the Confederate flag. After all, how could Confederate soldiers possibly be for slavery if the slave is fighting side by side with the white soldier? Furthermore, if blacks fought in the ranks of the Confederate army, how could it be that the Confederate flag would be found offensive to blacks? It’s all a part of the “make everybody feel-good effort about the Confederate flag” being made by the SCV. So, to me, the effort to find “thousands” of Black Confederates purely in the name of honoring those African-Americans is anything but pure… the motivation becomes more clear each time unverifiable numbers are thrown on the table by the speculators.

I think this is a sorry way to make a positive point about the nature of the Confederate soldier and the Confederate flag, especially when the spirit and quality of the soldiers can stand on their own merit. Though the effort to find the black Confederates is an interesting addition to discussion about the complexities of the Civil War/WBTS, the gross speculation deteriorates both intelligent discussion of the topic and does nothing for the new-era Confederate remembrance effort (except those who make themselves feel good/justified by touting numbers).

Bottom line, if blacks served in the Confederate army and did so honorably, and the white Confederates found that service so honorable, why wasn’t there any stronger efforts made by those white Confederates (they were in many cases, after all, the “best of friends”) to support “thousands” of pensions for those Black Confederate soldiers and servants. Why wasn’t the effort made when the Confederates themselves were lobbying their state government officials to make the veteran pensions possible in the first place?

Lastly, Rick, no disrespect intended, but as for the Virginia Servants’ Pension Act of 1924, how many black servants have you actually found on the rolls of that pension? This is a sincere question as my own research, though limited to one county (so far), turned up nothing but white pensioners. There wasn’t an African-American among the number.