Invoking blacks in Confederate statues is an abhorrent political tactic

South Carolina State Assembly Members Bill Chumley (R-35) and Mike Burns (R-17) have introduced a bill into the state legislature to build a statue to Confederate-serving African-Americans at the South Carolina Statehouse. The purpose of the statue, according to Burns, is to honor any African-American who served the Confederacy, regardless of whether they served as soldiers during the war. Mr. Chumley and Burns’s tactless proposal attempts to obscure their infatuation for regressive Confederate iconography by callously exploiting the tragedy of African-American oppression in the Civil War-era South. Their efforts are nothing more than a disgraceful new strategy to preserve Confederate memorabilia and whitewash the hardship of a dark part of American history.

Assemblyman Burns said that this “monument can help educate current and future generations of a little-known but important part of South Carolina history.” Continuing, he said, “These African-Americans, like many of their Caucasian contemporaries, stepped up to defend their home state during a tumultuous time in our country’s history. Their service has largely been overlooked or forgotten.”

Firstly, Burns’ claim that African-Americans stepped up to defend their home is one still under debate by historians. University of South Carolina History Professor Emeritus Walter Edgar claims that he has seen no documentation of black South Carolinians fighting for the Confederacy, and instead said that South Carolina actually feared the premise of armed black soldiers and denied them service. Due to the nature and history of the Confederate government in South Carolina, any attempt to praise both the Confederacy and the plight of African-Americans is unequivocally contradictory.

In an institution that denied the ability of a population to even voluntarily serve in the armed forces, it is reasonably obvious that the aims of such an institution and the well-being, liberty and aims of that population are in direct conflict. Thus, an attempt to honor “black Confederates” is a logical absurdity that, at best, implies and praises a tragic phenomenon of Stockholm Syndrome amongst blacks in the Confederacy, and at worse, is a devious mechanism to preserve pro-Confederate iconography.

Conversely, John Stauffer, a professor of African-American studies at Harvard University, has estimated that somewhere between 3,000 and 6,000 blacks, including some from South Carolina, served as soldiers in the rebel army, and that over 100,000 served in the war in a non-combat capacity. It should be noted however, that the alleged 3,000 to 6,000 blacks still made up less than one percent of both the black military-age population in the South and less than one percent of the total Confederate army.

In accordance with Stauffer’s estimates, Burns has also claimed that the statue aims to honor all African-Americans who served the Confederacy in any capacity. There is contention over whether blacks from South Carolina served at all, but more importantly, the notion of “honoring” blacks who supported the Confederate army is equally heartless as it is myopic. Slaves, by their very definition, are involuntary servants, meaning any and all work they did was the result of unconstrained coercion, a circumstance that under our legal system, dismisses actions and evidence in a court of law. Furthermore, Stauffer also points out that the majority of slaves who did fight were given the hope of freedom, further evidence that the support of blacks in the Confederate effort is a tragedy, not a display of common ground between slaves and their morally debase owners.

Burns and Chumley, after all, could maybe benefit from this piece of history that is so important and seemingly so little-known in their state. Blacks in the Confederacy had no choice whether to serve the rebel army or not during the Civil War. The slaves did the work of the South since before the birth of the nation, during times of peace they were forced into difficult manual labor in the fields and house. During times of war, they were coerced into supporting the war effort, which by all historical accounts, was prompted by the federal government’s attempt to prevent the expansion of slavery. The notion of honoring the “service” of slaves that were obligated to fight for the very institution that had oppressed them for over a century is both historically deceptive and deeply inappropriate.

The servitude of blacks to the Confederacy during the Civil War is nothing more than a shameful extension of the greatest calamity of American history, and the attempts by Chumley and Burns to exploit this deep tribulation of African-Americans is a shameful disservice to the men and women who suffered so much for the wicked attempts at preservation of the South’s peculiar institution.  

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