Black Confederates — Part 2

Over at Anti-Neo-Confederate, Edward Sebesta comments on the connection between the Neo-Confederate movement and the use of African Americans to advance certain conclusions. As he notes this is nothing new as there is a long history on the part of certain groups in claiming African-American support for the Confederate experiment. Sebesta is correct in pointing out the apparent contradictions between black support and the purpose of the Confederate government. He refers to Alexander Stephens’ “Cornerstone speech” in which he argues that the purpose of secession and the establishment of a new government was to protect the institution of slavery and the current racial hierarchy is but one example. Of course this is just the tip of the iceberg.

Following the war, many southern whites pushed similar conclusions as a way to ignore the role of slavery and emancipation and the fact that close to 200,000 African Americans fought for the Union. While it seems reasonable to argue that there were individual cases of blacks fighting in Confederate ranks, no one as of yet has shown that significant numbers willingly joined Confederate ranks. In addition, the Confederate government and southerners engaged in heated debate surrounding proposals to recruit African Americans, and as Bruce Levine makes it abundantly clear, much of that debate was negative.

The use of individual blacks at postwar reunions and reenactments made it possible to continue to ignore the steps that African Americans took during the war to secure their own freedom. A more local focus on Virginia makes this even more apparent as black Virginians made incredible strides during the four years of Readjuster control under the leadership of former Confederate General William Mahone. The Readjuster Party’s goal of cutting the antebellum state debt and providing funds for Virginia’s flegling school system and other programs attracted a great deal of black support. Mahone used that support to win state offices, including the governorship, and the state legislature. Mahone himself won a seat in the U.S. Senate. Black Virginians benefitted by gaining access to public schools and other important public offices. As one can surmise, this was considered to be a grave threat by more conservative whites. The Readjusters controlled Virginia state politics up until 1883, but the effects of their success brought about a sharp reduction of black civil rights as the state turned to Jim Crow legislation by the beginning of the 20th century.

The image of the loyal slave and the belief that Confederates fought for the Confederacy must be understood within this political context. White Virginians were hard pressed to prevent a return of interracial cooperation on the scale of the Readjusters. The belief in black support for the Confederacy not only allowed white southerners to ignore emancipation, but served to harden the racial hierarchy. Stonewall Jackson’s black servant at the 1903 Crater reenactment reminded whites of an idealized and inaccurate past of slave obedience and white benevolence. Most importantly, the pervasiveness of the images of the loyal slave and black Confederate pushed black Virginians further from the experiences of their recent political advances.

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