Black Confederates Come to Defense of Nathan Bedford Forrest

On this day in 2015 the Confederate battle flag was permanently removed from the capitol grounds in Columbia, South Carolina. It touched off a wave of flag and monument removals across the South. Not everyone was happy about the decision, especially the Sons of Confederate Veterans.

In Charleston they attempted to sway public opinion against the flag’s removal in a public statement that included a reference to the existence of Black Confederate soldiers:

Historical fact shows there were Black Confederate soldiers. These brave men fought in the trenches beside their White brothers, all under the Confederate Battle Flag. This same Flag stands as a memorial to these soldiers on the grounds of the SC Statehouse today. The Sons of Confederate Veterans, a historical honor society, does not delineate which Confederate soldier we will remember or honor. We cherish and revere the memory of all Confederate veterans. None of them, Black or White, shall be forgotten.

It was a predictable and futile attempt on the part of the SCV to distance the flag from Dylann Roof’s heinous murder spree and his own close identification with Confederate iconography.

As I show in Searching for Black Confederates it was the SCV that first employed this myth in the late 1970s to challenge a growing counter-memory of the war that highlighted the centrality of slavery and white supremacy to the Confederacy and the service of Black soldiers in the United States Army.

Following the violence in Charlottesville, Virginia in 2017 and another wave of flag and monument removals two Republican state senators in South Carolina proposed a new statue honoring Black Confederates for the State House. That proved unsuccessful as well.

Over the past few weeks we have witnessed the most sustained wave of Confederate monument removals to date. As of the writing of this post the number stands at over fifty.

During this time the Black Confederate myth has surfaced regularly on social media platforms, but this week it was once again employed by the SCV in Tennessee in response to the decision to remove a bust of Nathan Bedford Forrest–slave trader from inside the state capitol building.

Forrest’s cavalry command included over sixty men of African ancestry in service. One such man was Louis Napoleon Nelson who first served as cook, and then as a rifleman within Forrest’s cavalry. As a cavalry trooper, Nelson also served as a Chaplin ministering to the spiritual needs of soldiers of both races.

This can be easily dismissed. Forrest’s command included impressed slaves and not solders as well as the usual contingent of body servants or what I refer to in the book as camp slaves.

Louis Napoleon Nelson was one of these camp slaves. He applied for a pension from the state of Tennessee in 1921 as a former slave. Following his death in 1934 Nelson’s wife applied for a widow’s pension, but was rejected owing to the fact that her husband was not present in the army as a soldier or “rifleman,” whatever that means.

This has certainly been a tough time for the Confederate heritage community. The pace at which the monument landscape that they have long cherished is literally being pulled down. Unfortunately, they have no new arguments.

It’s time to retire the Black Confederate myth.

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