By: Vernon R. Padgett, Ph.D.
Many people reject the evidence that thousands of
the South's 3,880,000 blacks, both free men and slaves,
labored and fought, willingly, for the Southern
Why do they not believe, given the many accounts in
the Official Records, contemporary
newspaper reports, photographs, pension application
records, and recollections of black Southerners? Here
are 11 explanations.
1. It may force us to change what we
believe. Changing our beliefs is troublesome
and effortful. Most of us have always believed that
both the Confederate and Union armies were all white,
just like they are shown in the 1994 film Gettysburg.
2. It is not what most others believe.
The leading guideline for adult behavior in
questionable moral areas, according to the classic work
of psychologist Lawrence Kohlberg is “What would
people think?” (i.e., “what are other people
doing”). We base our behavior—and ideas—on what
others are doing, so that we appear “normal.” Since
few others believe in black Confederates, we will not
either, in order to fit in with the majority.
3. It might contradict a prejudice.
Are we ready to accept that a black man could be every
bit as brave, and every bit as dedicated, as a white
man in combat? Rejecting the claim that blacks fought
is consistent with a prejudice against blacks. Perhaps
those who reject out of hand the idea of black
Confederates are expressing their own prejudice against
4. It complicates our simple stereotype of
blacks vs. whites as separate groups. But in
truth, are these groups more alike than different?
Maybe seeing them as different groups allows us to
perceive differences that are not really there? A more
complex perception is of one larger group with many
diverse individuals, not of two groups of similar
individuals. The simpler perception that fits a black
versus white stereotype is consistent with the view
that there were no black Confederates.
5. How do we now teach Civil War history in
10 minutes? How do we summarize the reasons
for the war in a few sentences, if in fact thousands of
black Southerners fired in anger at the Northern troops
coming "to free them"? At least one Northern
soldier put his frustration at that incident into the
Official Record of the War of the Rebellion: "Here
I had come South and was fighting to free this
man," the disgusted U.S. major wrote in his diary;
"If I had made one false move on my horse, he
would have shot my head off" (Barrow et al., 2001,
6. It complicates the simple portrayal of
the North as Good, driving out the “Wicked
Southern Slave master.” How can Northern soldiers
serve in the role as Angels of Mercy, if black
Confederates shot at them?
7. It weakens support for the claim that the
War was About Slavery
We like simplicity. "The War was About
Slavery" is simple, as simple as a Pepsi
commercial. For a society raised on Pepsi commercials,
the One Factor Theory (slavery) has enormous appeal. If
many blacks chose to fight for the South, how could the
War have been exclusively concerned with slavery? Maybe
there were other issues. Now we might have to examine
economic factors (No—not that!).
We also have to consider why individual black
Southerners fought. Some were slave owners themselves,
and/or occupied respected positions in their
communities as Free Men of Color (especially Louisiana
and Virginia) or Free Women of Color (as in Charleston,
with its 6000 free blacks, mostly women).
Suggesting the slavery was not the only factor
brings up a number of annoying truths about slavery,
emancipate the slaves until about half way through the
Lincoln fired two
generals who did free slaves in 1861 and 1862;
emancipate any slaves under his actual control;
(imagine the President today stating that the minimum
wage is henceforth and forever going to be $25 an
hour-- in Mexico and Canada).
The under ground
railroad didn't stop at the Mason/Dixon line. It
reached all the way to Canada because such states as
Illinois (the land of Lincoln) had laws that a black
could be whipped if found within the state for more
than three days.
There were 5 slave
states among the Northern states;
Slavery was legal in
these Northern states after the
"emancipation" of slaves that were not under
Lincoln's idea of how
to deal with emancipated slaves was to send them to
Africa, and a new African country was created for this
Slavery was legal in
the north even after the fall of the Confederacy.
The flag that flew
over slave ships was the United States' Stars and
Stripes, never a Confederate flag.
Do we want to bring up these facts about slavery?:
That Africans were captured by other Africans to be
sold into slavery? That Africans sold other Africans to
Yankee, not to Southern, slave dealers, for transport
in Yankee slave ships? That blacks as well as whites
Do we want to recognize that slavery had never been
safer than in 1860: Lincoln personally supported a new
constitutional amendment protecting slavery forever,
which he signed, and Illinois had already ratified it
when war broke out.
"The institution of slavery had never been more
secure for the slave owners, with the Supreme Court in
their back pocket, with the Constitution itself
expressly protecting slavery, and mandating the return
of fugitive slaves everywhere-- a mandate Lincoln said
he would enforce; with Lincoln also declaring he had no
right to interfere with slavery and no personal
inclination to do so; with Lincoln personally
supporting a new constitutional amendment protecting
slavery forever . . . There is nothing the South could
have asked for, for the protection of slavery, that
wouldn't have been gladly provided, just as long as the
South remained in the Union" (Adams, 2000).
We don’t believe in black Confederates because
when we question that the war was "about
slavery," we eventually get around to the
question: “What Was The War About?” and “Why were
360,000 Northern boys and men killed?”
Slavery had died out everywhere in the world except
Brazil, and was on its way out in the Southern American
States. Slavery had ended almost everywhere in the
world without war. Was the death of
600,000 Americans worth ending slavery 10 or 15 years
sooner?—or than ending it as it had been ended
peacefully everywhere else in the world, by compensated
8. Many whites disbelieve that there were
black Confederates because of "White Guilt."
Many white Americans feel undeserving of their wealth.
Certainly, many are undeserving. Some give a small part
of their wealth to the poor, and this seems to make
them feel better. Others hire the poor to work for
them—and then bask in their role as benefactors.
Massachusetts writer—and abolitionist-- Henry Thoreau
saw through this chimera 20 years before the War. He
wrote concerning charity towards the poor at the end of
the chapter “Economy,” in his masterpiece Walden.
Regarding his wealthy friends who “helped” the
poor, by paying them to work in their kitchens, Thoreau
wrote: "Let them work in their own kitchens."
One target for giving wealth has traditionally been
black causes. A major recipient has been the NAACP,
which endorses a movement to shift massive wealth to
former slaves. Establishing that some of these slaves
supported the Southern States, and that some blacks
today, descendants of those slaves, still support the
ideals of the Confederacy (and there were other ideals
besides slavery), is inconsistent with the fundamental
causes of White Guilt.
9. It is inconsistent with the culture of
Victimhood. If blacks chose to fight for the
South, how can blacks be passive, helpless, unwilling
victims? One black liberal dismissed evidence that
blacks fought for the Southern Confederacy by
referencing the "abused wife syndrome": An
accusation that these poor helpless blacks were victims
and unable to act with volition and control over their
environment. But what do we say of the blacks captured
by Yankees who escaped and returned to their units?—
Or of the more than 40 blacks attending the 1890 UCV
Reunion, pictured in another essay? One has to believe
an “abused wife syndrome” that is powerful indeed,
to explain the activities of these black Confederates.
10. It brings up the annoying question: Why
did blacks fight? If the reasons blacks fought
for the South include the same reasons whites fought
for the South, or any of the same reasons that anyone
fights for any cause in any war, then we have to look
at those fighting black Confederates as deliberative,
volitional, reasoning, diverse, individuals, just like
the whites we talk about, when we talk about why whites
fought for the South. This topic is dealt with as a
11. It brings up another annoying question:
Why did anyone fight for the North? No one
really knows why men go to war to fight. Once they get
there, they don't fight for their flag, or their
country, or God. They fight for their comrades. Some of
the issues involved in the discussion of why men fight
are presented in another essay in this series, “Why
Did Blacks Fight for the Confederate States of
The literature documenting why men fight is rich:
Some of the writers who have tried to explain why men
fight include Erich Maria Remarque, Hans Helmut Kirst,
Heinrich Böll; William Broyles, and McPherson;
Ambrose, etc. Southerners fought because the North
invaded the South.
But why did Northerners fight? We do not want to ask
that question, and discussing why blacks fought for the
South leads us ultimately to the question: Why did
anyone fight for the North?
What would you say to a boy from Iowa, bleeding to
death in front of a wall near Fredericksburg in
December 1862 (note the date: Before the
“Emancipation”)-- "Your life was lost to help
force Arkansas back into a Union she does not wish to
be part of"? Or how about: “You gave your life
to help force Florida back into a Union that she does
not wish to be part of”?
Why did anyone fight for the North? We know why 1 of
5 of them fought-- they were literally off the boat
from Ireland or Germany. These immigrants arrived at
Ellis Island, and stepped from their ship into a New
York Infantry Regiment. They fought in order to get
citizenship. But what about the other 4 of 5
Northerners who served in the Union forces? It is
indeed a difficult question to answer.
12. We Want to Believe the War Was About
Accepting that thousands of blacks fought for the
Confederate States of America forces us to rethink the
common assumption that the War was “about slavery.”
Surely no one would dismiss slavery as an important
factor. But to most modern Americans, slavery was the
factor, perhaps the only factor. Again, to the extent
that we believe that thousands of black Confederates
fought for their country, our belief in slavery as the
cause of the War is threatened. This need for cognitive
balance is examined at length in another essay. To
summarize that essay: We ask, “what balances the
deaths of 600,000 Americans during the years 1861 to
1865?” We need some reason to balance that great
tragedy. What is it?
Getting even for Fort Sumter? No. Settling States
Rights issues? No-- That answer never seems to explain
why so many Americans died. Settling Tariff issues?
No-- Same shortcoming, plus, few modern Americans can
stay awake during any discussion of tariff issues. How
about, to Preserve our Great Experiment in Democracy!
No-- it is hard to sell this idea to modern Americans
as the reason that more than half a million Americans
died. The argument typically holds that had the
Confederacy established itself, then there would have
been more secessions, until ultimately we would have
had a separate country, or two, in everyone’s back
Finally, the End of slavery: Yes: Now there’s a
reason we can celebrate: Slavery is bad; The South had
slavery; therefore the South was bad and the Good North
fought against the South, and slavery ended. Any child
can grasp this argument; try explaining tariff issues
to that person. Try explaining States Rights to that
person—try explaining the issue of free trade and
Northern versus Southern import and export
economies—try explaining the diverging cultural bases
of the North and the South. You will get a big yawn.
Consider Ken Burns’s popular and acclaimed The Civil
War—the most popular PBS series in history. To his
great credit, Mr. Burns shows the appalling tragedy of
600,000 thousand dead Americans. And running throughout
this 11 hour drama is the theme that ending slavery was
the reason for these deaths. At one point a black woman
historian makes that point explicit: The Union lifted
the War to a higher plane, she explains. Clearly, Burns
has accepted the idea that the War was “over
slavery”—if only to give some sense to the TV
audience who might wonder why America fought itself,
and to do it in the TV schedule he had to work with.
Ultimately we believe the War was about the Ending
of Slavery because that is the only cause that provides
the cognitive balance we need.
The great evil of more than 600,000 deaths
“balances” in our minds against the great evil of
Many of us will never believe that Lee Oswald acted
alone in killing President John Kennedy (no
“balance”)—many of us will believe that the U.S.
entering World War I was a great victory—we will not
believe that 160,000 more lives were wasted, and that
our tipping the balance against Germany and Austria in
1918 lead directly to Hitler, and to WWII with another
100,000,000 dead, and to 40 years of Cold War.
“Ending Slavery” provides that cognitive balance
for the War of 1861-- Never mind that slavery ended
everywhere else in the world without bloodshed. Never
mind that other factors explain that the North and
South became different countries long before 1860.
Slavery provides that simple cognitive explanation.
Any evidence that blacks fought for the South is
inconsistent with the notion that the War was only
Adams, Charles. (2000). When in the Course
of Human Events: Arguing the Case for Southern
Secession. Lanham, Maryland: Rowman &
Barrow, C. K., Segars, J. H., & R.B. Rosenburg,
R.B. (Eds.) (2001). Black Confederates,
Pelican Publishing Company, Gretna.
Originally published at http://www.rebelgray.com/
For a series of essays by Dr. Padaett