The myth of the black Confederate soldier

What few people appear to be aware of is that the black Confederate narrative is a fairly recent phenomenon. The proliferation of these stories and the zeal for the black Confederate soldier expressed by many would be alien to their Confederate ancestors, who lived under a constitution strongly devoted to protecting if not extending slavery. It was not until March 1865—after a contentious debate that took place throughout the Confederacy—that the Confederate Congress passed legislation authorizing the enlistment of slaves who were first freed by their masters. Even those who finally came to support the legislation as the only alternative to defeat would have agreed with Howell Cobb: “If slaves will make good soldiers our whole theory of slavery is wrong.” Other than a small number that briefly trained in Richmond, Virginia, no black men served openly and there is no evidence that the Richmond recruits saw the battlefield in the final weeks of the war.

Throughout the postwar period and much of the 20th century, stories of loyal black Confederate soldiers were decidedly absent. This changed in 1977 following the release and success of the popular television series Roots. At the time, the leadership within the SCV expressed concern over how the institution of slavery and race relations were portrayed in the film as well as the Confederacy itself.

SCV Commander in Chief Dean Boggs called on members to research the contributions of African Americans to the Confederate war effort to counter the series’s “propaganda.” Boggs claimed that, “Politics often ignores the truth, and the truth is that the majority of Southern Negroes, slave and free, sided [with] the Confederate effort tremendously. Some were under arms and in combat.” Both the SCV and UDC made a concerted effort to expand their membership to include African Americans by decorating the graves of former slaves who were present in the army in one of many supportive roles such as camp servants.