Two Republican South Carolina state legislators have sponsored a bill to create a memorial on the statehouse grounds to “honor” the African-American veterans who “fought” for the Confederacy. Yes, you read that correctly.
Not only do Reps. Bill Chumley and Mike Burns intend to erect this obscene statue to champion a whitewashed narrative of the South that absolves the region of the sin of slavery, but they also seek to “educate” South Carolinians in public schools about the “contributions” African Americans made to the Confederacy.
“We are all learning a lot. The purpose of the bill is education,” said Chumley.
Obviously, education is not the purpose of this bill, but instead the indoctrination of a society with white supremacist propaganda. This memorial would perpetuate the all too common false narratives that Southerners love to spew about African Americans being better off during slavery and the nobility of the Confederacy.
The international equivalent of this memorial would be Germany attempting to downplay the horrors of the Holocaust by erecting a statue misrepresenting the Jews in Auschwitz who played in the orchestra as joyous musical enthusiasts, and ignoring how the orchestra and the forced singing were used as another implement of terror by the Nazis.
However, these two propagandists say this memorial is about education, so let me give them a quick history lesson.
Yes, an incredibly small number of blacks “fought” for the Confederacy. Estimates place it at between 3,000 and 6,000, out of the Confederacy’s 750,000 soldiers. That’s less than 1 percent. More African Americans supported Donald Trump than the Confederacy. This monument would be the equivalent of erecting statues of Ben Carson and Omarosa to celebrate and educate America about the “many” African Americans who oppose President Barack Obama and support Trump.
But accepting even these miniscule numbers assumes a degree of agency and freedom among African Americans that the South refused to let them have.
At the start of the Civil War, the Confederacy refused to enlist blacks into their army. Enlisting African Americans would require that they arm the enslaved, and they didn’t want to do that for reasons that I hope are obvious.
Of the blacks who “fought” for the Confederacy at the start of the war, most of them were enslaved and forced to serve against their will. Also, many of them worked as laborers forced to support the Confederacy, and never set foot on the battlefield. Calling them “fighters” or “soldiers” would be equal to labeling enslaved blacks as farmworkers and housekeepers.
South Carolina’s Civil War pension records show that no African Americans were recognized as armed soldiers in South Carolina for the Confederacy, and only two were recognized, one as a laborer and the other as a cook.
Intriguingly some of the other African Americans who engaged with the Confederacy were free blacks. Free blacks, or FPCs (free persons of color), in New Orleans and Charleston, South Carolina, had long lived as a community apart from the enslaved, and the Civil War threatened to upend their way of life. Leading up to the war South Carolina and Louisiana began passing laws limiting the freedoms of FPCs, and many were forced into slavery. As a result, many FPCs fled the states. Those who stayed behind attempted almost anything to survive the war and avoid a life of chattel slavery.
My ancestors John and Nathaniel Hills were both FPCs in Charleston who fled the city between 1860 and April 1861. John and Nathaniel first sailed to Haiti and then in 1862 sailed to New York City from the Caribbean island. Both of them enlisted in the Union Army.
By August of 1861, five months after the war started, African Americans, both free and enslaved, played no role in the Confederate Army due to the First Confiscation Act, which allowed the Union Army to seize any rebel property, including enslaved people. This law liberated the enslaved and FPCs, and as the Union Army made its way through the Confederacy, African Americans constantly joined their ranks. It granted blacks liberation from Southern white oppressors, but not yet freedom.
On July 17, 1862, the Second Confiscation Act passed, declaring that all slaves in Union occupied territory in the South “shall be forever free.” The Confiscation Acts were the precursors to the Emancipation Proclamation in 1863.
During the final months of the war, when defeat was inevitable for the Confederacy, they then finally considered enlisting black soldiers, but many still opposed the idea.
Confederate Gen. Howell Cobb fiercely objected to this proposal, saying, “If slaves will make good soldiers, our whole theory of slavery is wrong.”
On March 13, 1865, the Confederacy narrowly passed legislation, winning by just one vote in the Confederate Senate, approving the enlistment of enslaved blacks. But it did not grant them emancipation. On March 25, the first company of black soldiers was formed in Richmond, Virginia, and on April 9, 1865, Gen. Robert E. Lee surrendered to Gen. Ulysses S. Grant at Appomattox. Black Confederate soldiers existed for the final two weeks of the war.
When given the choice between freedom and fighting for the Confederacy, African Americans overwhelmingly chose the former.
Instead of erecting this insulting monument and rewriting history, South Carolina state Sens. Darrell Jackson, a Democrat, and Republican Greg Gregory have proposed the creation of a memorial honoring Robert Smalls.
Smalls was an enslaved Charlestonian who was forced to work on a Confederate ship named the Planter. On the night of May 13, 1861, as the ship’s white crew members slept in Charleston, Smalls loaded up the ship with his wife, children, and other enslaved blacks, and set sail for the North. During his months of forced labor on the Planter, Smalls had learned all the signals to pass through the Confederate checkpoints. During his brave escape, he safely made it through five checkpoints before reaching Union territory.
For the rest of the war, Smalls served as a Union Navy captain and recruited blacks to enlist in the Union. After the war, he returned to South Carolina and represented the state in various positions at the state and federal levels from 1868 to 1883.
Smalls’ life and those of my ancestors represent the true experiences of African Americans during the Civil War. The abominable, whitewashed misrepresentation of history proposed by Chumley and Burns showcases the South’s steadfast commitment to distort history and disparage African Americans. Following Reconstruction, Southerners spread the story of the Lost Cause of the Confederacy, and now Southern text books refer to “The War of Northern Aggression,” and America is littered with memorials celebrating racist Confederate traitors.
This ignorant and obscene proposal is more American than we care to admit. Hopefully, we’re now capable of embracing real heroes like Smalls instead of celebrating white supremacist propaganda.