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A Lack of Evidence - Blacks did not Fight for the South, Despite what Confederate Apologists Argue

By Carroll Wilson
Editor, The Times Record
Wichita Falls, Texas

Copyright 2000. The Wichita Falls Times Record, Wichita Falls, Texas. Reprinted and posted with permission of Carroll Wilson, Editor.

Sunday, July 9, 2000

THE debate in various states, including, to some extent, Texas, on whether to remove reminders of the Confederacy from public display has given rise to a bizarre sub-argument.

It smacks of distortions more sinister than those I mentioned in last weekend's column. Then, I wrote about mistakes popularized by an anonymous document forwarded around the world via e-mail as the Fourth of July approached.

Those distortions were relatively innocuous misstatements about what happened to the 56 men who signed the Declaration of Independence after they affixed their signatures to that bold assertion of freedom.

The sub-argument relative to artifacts from the defunct Confederacy is not innocuous, and one side damages the truth to such an extent that what they have to say simply cannot go unchallenged.

Apologists for the Confederacy are contending that black soldiers served in the army of the South.

The contention is not immaterial to the overall argument about whether the bars and stars should, say, fly over a state capitol, because a part of the overall argument has to do with what the South was fighting for and against.

If you can show that black soldiers fought for the South, you can by extension argue or at least imply that what the South was fighting for was not the perpetuation of slavery but instead something else - state's rights, for example. Because, after all, why would someone enslaved fight to sustain a system the preservation of which would mean only continued enslavement?

And so, by further extension, you are invited to come to the conclusion that slavery was not such a bad thing after all, and that all those singing black folks out in the cotton patches were really, honestly just expressing their jubilation at having found honest work.

This would all be very tidy were it not for the argument's failure to meet any test of reasonableness.

In other words, that there were black soldiers willingly serving in the Southern ranks flies in the face of common sense, based on what we know about the institution of slavery and life in the South at the time.

Unless African Americans are somehow fundamentally different from everybody else, the urge to be free has to rank among the most basic of desires, and the notion that someone institutionally deprived of freedom would take up arms to defend the system that enslaved him defies imagination.

I do not think African Americans are different.

In addition to failing to meet the test of reasonableness, the apologists' argument simply does not stand up to what we know of those times and that war.

Thanks to the efforts of Wichitan Dan Lewandowski, who was so intrigued by the dispute that he spent some time doing research, I've been going through various Web sites and documents related to this ongoing debate.

And the weight of historical fact comes down very heavily indeed on the side of those who say that black soldiers serving in the Confederate military is unquestionably a myth.

James Loewen, a professor of history at the University of Vermont, has addressed the issue, for example, in a couple of books written on historical inaccuracies of this nature.

Loewen, author of "Lies Across America" and "Lies My Teacher Told Me," writes that the historical record simply does not and will not support the contention that blacks served in the armies of the South.

Likewise, Ed Sebesta, who has a Web site devoted to the issue, has compiled tons of information from original documents to dispute the claim.

Sebesta builds a tight and solid mass of evidence showing that if there were any black soldiers in Southern armies at all it was only because they were forced to serve.

Yes, blacks were cooks and teamsters and laborers for the Southern troops, but they were not themselves troops.

The best evidence for those who dispute the apologists comes from the Confederate Congressional Record, the contents of which Sebesta summarizes. The record shows that the congressmen absolutely opposed the use of blacks in their armies right up almost to the very end of the war when they were out of other options. In fact, use of blacks was authorized by the Confederate Congress only a month before Lee signed the war-ending truce at Appomattox.

Second best evidence cited by Sebesta comes from the fact that there is not one single document anywhere - letter, newspaper article, discharge paper, pay record - nothing from the actual hand of a black man who served as a soldier on the side of the South. In other words, there is not even any anecdotal evidence.

Looking through all this material, you simply have to conclude that what the apologists would have us believe is more mythology than anything else.

And you especially have to come to that conclusion if you believe, as I do, that extraordinary claims require extraordinary proof.

What those who assert that blacks willingly served in the Confederate military have doesn't even come close to being ordinary.

Now, before I get jumped on as some kind of Yankee or Yankee-wannabe, let me state this for the record My two great-grandfathers on my father's side of the family both fought in the Civil War. They both fought for the South, one joining up out of Alabama and one out of Tennessee.

I am proud of that fact, but not proud enough to turn history upside down to prove they were in the right.

Carroll Wilson's column appears in this space on Sundays. Wilson, the editor for the Times Record News, can be reached at (940) 720-3435, or with e-mail at wilsonc@wtr.com.

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