Opinion Extra

SC monument to black soldiers would be a whitewash

When it opened in 1998, the Tennessee Civil War Museum featured a black mannequin dressed in a Confederate uniform; the exhibit claimed that thousands of black people fought for the Confederacy.
When it opened in 1998, the Tennessee Civil War Museum featured a black mannequin dressed in a Confederate uniform; the exhibit claimed that thousands of black people fought for the Confederacy. Associated Press

The proposal by state Reps. Bill Chumley and Mike Burns to erect a monument to “black Confederate soldiers” seems more like an attempt to rewrite history to make the Confederacy look better to modern sensibilities.

The representatives point to 328 pensions given to former slaves and free people of color during the 1920s and 1930s as evidence of black Confederates soldiers who “loved their state” so much that they “fought courageously” against the United States military. This is historically inaccurate.

These pensions are not evidence of black Confederates. Instead, it merely shows that ex-slaves who had been forced to labor for the Confederacy through the threat of violence in the 1860s took advantage of an opportunity in the 1920s to receive back pay.

Most of these black pensioners labored for the Confederacy because their masters took them to war; slaves, by definition, cannot volunteer as they do not own the rights to their own labor. Those eligible for pensions were explicitly referred to as “body Servants or male camp cooks,” not soldiers. Indeed, the enlistment of African-Americans in the Confederate Army was barred until March 1865; even then, a last-ditch plan to preserve slavery by freeing a select group of slaves in exchange for fighting was never fully implemented.

As an attorney general’s opinion explained, the purpose of the 1923 state law creating the pensions was to reward “the negros who were faithful when the war was raging,” provided that “since the war has ended their conduct has been such as to meet the approval of the county board of honor.” That is, an applicant who was not respectful and subservient risked the all-white pension board denying his application from the start. The pensions were literally used as another tool of racial control during the Jim Crow-era.

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Monument sought to recognize blacks who served Confederacy

Read a 1923 news article on the SC legislation

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Pensions for African-Americans weren’t authorized until years after the creation of similar pensions for Confederate veterans. Even then, they were capped at $25 annually. In reality, even less was paid. In 1925 a former slave could expect to receive $8 annually, while white veterans might expect as much as $115. After the state received too many applicants under the 1923 law authorizing “cooks, servants, or attendants” to apply, the Legislature amended the law after just one year to make laborers and teamsters ineligible. In 1928, black pensioners did not receive even one half of one percent of the money South Carolina spent on war pensions.

Widows of black pensioners were not eligible for the pensions that veterans’ widows received because, as North Carolina’s state auditor noted in 1926 about a similar inequality in eligibility in that state, “there were no negro soldiers in the Confederate Army.”

In the minds of Southern legislators, African-Americans deserved and required less than whites. To give an equal pension to former slaves would have contradicted the racial hierarchy of the Jim Crow South.

Pension records have consistently failed to provide evidence of the thousands of black Confederate volunteers that neo-Confederates keep claiming existed. Instead, they show that a few hundred indigent, formerly enslaved people utilized a system designed to oppress them. If anything they deserve a monument for surviving slavery and Jim Crow.

Instead of trying to rewrite history to make the Confederacy less objectionable, why not celebrate something historically accurate? Around 180,000 former slaves served as soldiers in the United States military, fought to end slavery and helped save the nation. Included among them were at least 5,462 South Carolinians who enlisted in the U.S. Colored Troops. Additional South Carolinians served in other Union units and the U.S. Navy, including Robert Smalls, for whom Sens. Greg Gregory and Darrell Jackson recently proposed building a statue on the State House grounds.

If you are looking to honor African-Americans from South Carolina, these men seem worthy of honor and more representative of the period. Of course, a monument to runaway slaves fighting to end slavery is less useful when attempting to defend the Confederacy against accusations of racism.

In the early 20th century, stories of loyal slaves were used by white politicians to justify segregation, disenfranchisement and other Jim Crow laws. Ironically, these same stories have morphed and are today cited to deny that slavery even played a role in the war.

In 1894, famed Confederate guerrilla John Mosby, complaining about revisionists putting up Confederate monuments and rewriting the cause of the war, noted: “I always understood that we went to War on account of the thing we quarreled with the North about. I never heard of any other cause of quarrel than slavery.”

Mosby was annoyed at veterans retroactively changing the cause of the war from slavery to states’ rights. He would likely be baffled by this proposed monument.

Dr. Domby teaches history at the College of Charleston; the views expressed here are his own. Contact him at dombyah@cofc.edu .

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