February is Black History Month. Started by Carter G. Woodson in the early twentieth century as Black History Week the month is popularly viewed as an opportunity to highlight the rich history of African Americans. This is certainly true, but for organizations like the Sons of Confederate Veterans it is an opportunity to spread the myth of the black Confederate soldier.
My recent book, Searching for Black Confederate Soldiers: The Civil War’s Most Persistent Myth, singles out the SCV as largely responsible for introducing this myth in the 1970s in response to an evolving Civil War memory that focused increasingly on slavery, emancipation, and especially the service of black Union soldiers. The black Confederate narrative was introduced to defend the honor of the SCV’s Confederate ancestors and to made it easier to identify with the history and legacy of the Confederacy.
The myth is also a way for the SCV to reach out to a wider constituency in recent years as the South itself becomes more racially and culturally diverse. See, for example this popular social media meme.
It should come as no surprise that during February groups like the SCV redouble their efforts to push aside what Confederate Vice-President Alexander Stephens referred to as the “cornerstone” of the Confederacy, namely slavery and white supremacy in favor of a more multi-cultural/racial image. It’s a move that their ancestors would find foreign and in most cases offensive.
This year the SCV is off to a fast start. This video was posted to their official Facebook page and feature a young African American college student by the name of Sammy. Take a look.
It’s hard to know where to begin, given that there are so many problems and outright lies. The video begins with the common Lost Cause trope that the Confederacy was defending state rights between 1861 and 1865. Nothing could be further from the truth. The Confederacy was incredibly intrusive from conscription to the suspension of habeus corpus.
It also included the impressment of tens of thousands of enslaved people to work on various military projects to support the Confederate war effort. Sammy appears to be completely oblivious to the fact that the mobilization of black bodies brought the Confederacy close to independence more than once and would have likely guaranteed the continued enslavement of his ancestors.
But the most shocking aspect of this short video is the use of archival photographs that compliment Sammy’s discussion of black Confederate soldiers. Not one of these images depicts a soldier. They are all photographs of body servants or camp slaves taken during or after the war. They even include the famous photograph of Andrew and Silas Chandler, which has been thoroughly debunked more than once.
It’s unfortunate that a young African American man agreed to take part in this video. I don’t profess to understand his motivations, but it is important to remember that African Americans have always been instrumental in the spread and maintenance of the Lost Cause. At the turn of the twentieth century, for example, they participated in Confederate veterans reunions as symbols of loyalty to their former owners, the memory of the Confederacy, and an emerging Jim Crow culture.
The SCV’s continued campaign of disinformation is a reminder that they are losing the battle over history. This narrative has all the elements of a desperate attempt to stay relevant and even legitimate as communities across the country debate whether Confederate flags and monuments have any place on public property.
Finally, this is a reminder of why Black History Month is still necessary.