The Myths We Need



It's worth listening to this episode of The Takeaway on black Confederate soldiers.  I like The Takeaway. A lot. I've appeared on the show a few times. But they really should have called a few historians before they did this show. A quick Nexis search may have revealed the following:


When New York Gov. George Pataki recently backed calls to boot Georgia's flag from Albany's display of state flags because of its "racist" component, he quickly roused ire. "As many as 50,000 brave young black men were wounded and killed fighting for the South," wrote Charlie Condon, South Carolina's attorney general in a letter. "Your slander of our region and its historic flag is outrageous and offensive." 

But what many historians find outrageous and offensive are the claims being made by men such as Condon. Though he later revised his estimate to 50,000 blacks who "served in the Confederate Army," Smith at American University puts the number of black rebels "actually shooting people" at 30,000. 

Most historians regard this figure as inflated - by almost 30,000. 

"It's pure fantasy," contends James McPherson, a Princeton historian and one of the nation's leading Civil War scholars. Adds Edwin Bearss, historian emeritus at the National Park Service: "It's b.s., wishful thinking." Robert Krick, author of 10 books on the Confederacy, has studied the records of 150,000 Southern soldiers and found fewer than a dozen were black. "Of course, if I documented 12, someone would start adding zeros," he says.*

The claim that blacks "served on both sides," which is made at the outset, is true in the most broadest sense of the word "serve," or in much the same way that both Usain Bolt and I both "run." Some 180,000 black people fought for the Union. Krick claims twelve for the Confederacy, and I'd be very interested in those specific cases.

It's worth considering how this claim lingers. James McPherson is a Pulitizer-Prize winning historian, one of the titans of his field. Bruce Levine wrote a highly readable investigation into the charge. Historians from the Park Service have debunked the myth. There is a website specifically devoted to further debunking the myth. And yet it does not simply linger, it thrives and actually spreads to reputable places like The Takeaway. The information is widely available. We simply can't cope with it.

That black people are participants in the spread of this myth doesn't mean much to me. I'm sure somewhere there are Jews who deny the Holocaust. All this says to me is that it is extremely painful--for blacks and whites--to face up to the fact that Civil War was about the right of white people to pilfer the labor of blacks. We really need to believe that our ancestors were better than this. But they weren't. And, as proven by our inability to accept the truth, neither are we.

I really hope The Takeaway will call a couple historians and have them on for a discussion. Again it's a good show, and I count myself as a fan. I say none of this out of malice.

*Palm Beach Post (Florida) May 11, 1997, "Is Black Confederacy A Historical Truth Or Secession From Fact?"
A Section Pg. 15A
Written by some dude named Tony Horwitz

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Ta-Nehisi Coates is a national correspondent at The Atlantic, where he writes about culture, politics, and social issues. He is the author of the memoir The Beautiful Struggle.

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