116 3rd St SE
Cedar Rapids, Iowa 52401
On Jan. 21, The Gazette published a column, 'Confederate flag honors black soldiers, too,” by economist Walter Williams. As history students committed to accuracy and inspired by historian Bruce Levine's refutation of black Confederate soldiers ('In Search of a Usable Past,” in Slavery and Public History, pages 187-212), which we read for class just days before Mr. Williams' column appeared, we wanted to address some of the inaccuracies that underlay Williams' column.
Williams' main claim was that thousands of African Americans willingly served in the Confederate Army during the Civil War. To prove this, Williams, like others who seek to prove the existence of 'black Confederates,” relied on incomplete and misinterpreted evidence and overlooked historical context. Other books and websites about 'black Confederates,” generally produced by non-historians, similarly rely on this out-of-context evidence and interpretation.
Conversely, exhaustively researched studies produced by leading professional historians like Levine, James McPherson, Gary Gallagher, Robert Krick, Jr., and James Hogue have proved that African Americans did not serve as Confederate soldiers in any significant number (Levine, 201-202; and James Loewen, Lies Across America, page 256). Indeed, long-standing southern laws forbade the arming of blacks and Confederate leaders like Jefferson Davis and Robert E. Lee repeatedly rejected black military service. Confederate Secretary of War James Seddon bluntly summarized that the Confederacy 'will not allow the employment as armed soldiers of Negroes” (Loewen, 256).
Likewise, 'black Confederate” defenders never mention that blacks found working for the Confederacy were doing so because they had to. During the war as before it, most blacks in the South were slaves; indeed, slavery was the Confederacy's reason for existence. Southern declarations from 1860-1861 cited slavery as the cause for secession and Confederate Vice President Alexander Stephens succinctly stated the Confederacy's 'corner-stone rests upon the great truth, that the negro is not equal to the white man; that slavery - subordination to the superior race - is his natural and normal condition”. Instead of including and contending with Confederates' words, Williams instead used truncated and entirely taken-out-of-context phrases from northerners like Frederick Douglass, who actually worked to enlist black men in the northern army. Historians know Douglass - like millions of other African Americans - overwhelmingly supported the Union, not the Confederacy.
Rather than enlightening 'ignorant” readers about a supposedly heretofore unknown aspect of Civil War history, Williams and others who promote the myth of 'black Confederates” obscure past as well as present-day realities. By focusing on states' rights, 'a war of northern aggression,” and black Confederate soldiers, defenders inaccurately distance the South from slavery and racism. If, as the argument goes, there were thousands of blacks who fought for the South, how could the Confederacy have been committed to slavery and white supremacy? And how could racism persist today if it never existed in the 1860s? Yet Americans are all too familiar with the fact that these complicated issues do persist today. The Confederate flag Williams asserts 'honors black [people], too” was implicated in last June's white supremacist massacre of nine African Americans at a Charleston AME church - only the most recent example of racism and violence connected to the flag. To be sure, the South has no monopoly on racism and violence in American history. But heritage arguments, like those advocating the existence of 'black Confederates,” elide the more irrefutable historical evidence of slavery, discrimination, and opposition to civil rights connected to the Confederacy and its flag. The ways Americans talk about the past and the historical stories they tell matter greatly, as they often reveal more about the present than the past.
' The professor and students of Coe College's History 317: Public History. Brie Swenson Arnold, Ph.D., Cole Baker, Kyrsha Balderas, Emma Bozenda, Sean Caldwell, Anna Dentlinger, Sean Donaldson, Ashley Iehl, Alyssa Lesmeister, Stuart Lind, Cruz Martinez, Maddie Morehouse, DJ Stanec and Lindsey Vogt. The Public History class explores the ways history is used, interpreted, and practiced by professional and non-professional historians in a variety of settings, including museums, historic sites, historic preservation, popular writing, political debates, films, school curricula and social media. Comments: firstname.lastname@example.org