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Exactly Who Were The Confederate Soldiers?

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While most of the Confederate soldiers were white, it has been well documented that there were a handful of African Americans who fought for the Confederacy.

It is less known as to why African Americans fought for the Confederacy, historians believe that there were a number of different reasons.  Although there are no records which verify this, some historians believe the leaders of the Confederacy may have been desperate for soldiers and they may have conscripted some slaves to fight for them.  

Fighting for the Confederacy was an option that had been offered to all male African-American slaves in the southern states during the first half of the 1860’s.  It is believed that some slaves may have found the conditions of combat preferable to the conditions that they’d been living in as slaves.  As soldiers, they were provided uniforms, beds, clean sheets, 2 warm meals per day when possible, and state of the art medical care- which they’d rarely had access to as slaves.  Others may have been paid to fight- again there is no evidence for this, but some historians believe that some of the African-Americans who fought for the Confederacy had been paid mercenaries.  It is known that some of the African-Americans who fought for the Confederacy had been offered their freedom if the South would win the war.  Others may have been misled into fighting for the Confederacy.  They may have been told that the Union had no real intention to free them, and so they had no incentive for the South to lose.  While historians continue to research the reasons, it is clear that there were a handful of African-American soldiers who fought for the Confederacy.  For a handful of African Americans today, monuments which commemorate Confederate soldiers commemorate the great grandfathers of their great grandparents too.

It is also not clear how many soldiers who fought for the Confederacy were of mixed race.  It is well known that some slave owners had affairs with some of their slaves.  People tend not to keep detailed written records describing their extramarital affairs, so it is only now that recent advances in genetics research are able to provide insights into family lineages.

It is clearer is why a number of Native Americans fought for the Confederacy.  The Delaware and Creek peoples mostly fought for the Union, while the Cherokee and Choctaw tribes mostly fought for the Confederacy.  Unlike the reasons that a handful of African-Americans fought for the Confederacy, this is well documented and understood.  The leaders of the Confederate States Of America had told the leaders of the Cherokee and Choctaw tribes that if the Union were to win the war, the Union government would likely confiscate much of their tribal lands and subsequently forcibly relocate them, while the Confederate leadership promised that they had no intention of confiscating their lands or relocating them.

The South surrendered in 1865, and throughout the Reconstruction period, the Union continued to confiscate some of the Cherokee’s tribal lands.  Although the Choctaws did get to keep most of their lands, they were mistreated during the Reconstruction too.  Whether the Confederacy would have kept their promise and they would have let the Cherokees keep their lands if they had succeeded in seceding, or whether their pledge had been an empty promise intended to get the Cherokees to fight for them is not knowable.

In the southern states, Native Americans had been permitted to own slaves.  In 1866, the last slaves to be freed were slaves that had been owned by Cherokees, who had initially refused to free them when the 13th Amendment passed in 1865.  The Last Confederate general to surrender had been Stand Watie, who was Cherokee, he did not surrender until June of 1865.

People from some tribes such as the Seminoles, Kickapoo, Seneca, Osage, Shawnee, Lumbee, Chickasaw, Iriquois, Powhatan, Pequot, Ojibew, Huron, Odawa, Potawatomi, Catawba and Pamunkey fought for both sides during the Civil War.

Slavery, Institutionalized Racism And Segregation Were Not Limited To The Southern States, Nor Did They End With The Reconstruction Era

Some northern states had been slave states.  New York State did not abolish slavery until 1799, and slavery was not outlawed in New Jersey until 1804.  In the mid 19th century, many politicians, military officers, and soldiers in the northern states were not opposed to slavery.  To keep the support of many Union generals, the Lincoln administration portrayed the Civil War as being about both secession as well as slavery.  They knew it would be difficult to maintain support of some Union generals if they’d been describing the war as having been only about ending slavery.  Ulysses Grant was known to have been racist- not against Native Americans or African Americans, but in December of 1862, he’d attempted to expel the Jews who were living in the areas of Tennessee, Mississippi, and Kentucky which had been under his command.

Delaware, Kentucky, Maryland, and Missouri were Union states which were slave states during the first half of the 1860’s.  There is clear evidence to show that people who had been living in those four states fought for both sides in the Civil War, though again precise numbers are not known because not all military records from 150 years ago have survived.  Those four states were exempt from the 1863 Emancipation Proclamation, slavery in those states did not end until the 13th Amendment was ratified in 1865.

In the 1863 draft riots in New York City, at least 100 African Americans were killed in 4 days.

The end of the Civil War brought the 13th Amendment which ended slavery.  Many politicians within the Union government, which would soon come to be called our Federal government were almost as racist as many of the politicians within the Confederacy had been.  Legalized segregation lasted for another 100 years- and not only in the southern states.  In the Plessy vs. Ferguson decision (1896), the Supreme Court stated that “separate but equal” facilities were acceptable, thus paving the way for 6½ decades of legalized segregation.  The Jim Crow laws which allowed for segregation were more prevalent in the southern states, but some cities and counties in the Midwestern and the western states permitted segregation too.  The U.S. military was not desegregated until 1948.

The Confederate States Of America, African Americans And Native Americans

The Lincoln administration is widely known for having been the most progressive administration regarding civil rights until the Kennedy administration 100 years later.  Again, we need to revisit pieces of our history that are often glossed over in history textbooks because this is a vast oversimplification.  While the Lincoln administration did end slavery, there were a number of massacres of Native tribes in the western states and territories during the same years that the Union army was fighting the Confederacy- including the Horse Canyon Massacre (California, 1861), the Fort Fauntleroy Massacre (New Mexico, 1861), the Upper Station Massacre (California, 1862), the Big Antelope Creek Massacre (California, 1862), the Kowonk Massacre (California, 1862), the Cottonwood Massacre (California, 1864), the Massacre At Bloody Tanks (Arizona, 1864), the Oak Run Massacre (California, 1864), the Skull Valley Massacre (Arizona, 1864), the Sand Creek Massacre (Colorado, 1864), the Mud Lake Massacre (Nevada, 1865), the Owens Lake Massacre (California, 1865) and the Three Knolls Massacre (California, 1865.)

It is important to note that in 1862, President Lincoln did approve the execution of 38 Sioux tribesmen in Minnesota, this was the only mass execution of Native Americans that had been directly ordered by the Lincoln administration.  No one within the Lincoln administration would have ordered nor approved of the slaughter of Native Americans during the 14 incidents that I’ve mentioned, and no one within the Lincoln administration knew of these massacres until after they’d occurred.  When people within the Lincoln and the subsequent Grant administrations learned of these events, some of these massacres that I’ve mentioned were investigated, and some of the people who were responsible for them were tried and sent to prison.  However, it was the responsibility of the Lincoln administration to prevent genocide from occurring, and they failed to do so.

By contrast, while the Confederacy had zero respect for the rights of African Americans, they were more progressive regarding the rights of Native Americans than the Union.  The aforementioned massacres all occurred in Union territories.  I could only find one comparable incident in which Confederate soldiers killed Native peoples during the Civil War years, which was the 1861 Gallinas Mountains Massacre, in which 4 Confederate soldiers killed a group of Chiricahua Apaches in what was then Arizona, and is part of New Mexico today.

It is important to note that the “Indian Wars” and the “Indian Massacres” neither began in nor ended in the 1860’s, this date back to the 16th century and continued into the first decades of the 20th century.  Some of these massacres were conducted by bloodthirsty Union soldiers who acted without orders or permission from anyone.  Others were carried out by civilian settlers in the western territories.  I mention these to show that during the years 1861 through 1865, while the Union was fighting the Confederacy, the Union government lost control over parts of the western territories, and they failed to protect the rights and lives of many indigenous peoples.  Five of the massacres which I’ve mentioned occurred in 1864, which was the year of the first Geneva Convention.  

The Confederate States Of America And The Role Of Women In Society

Many credible modern historians also believe that in some ways people within the Confederacy had more progressive views regarding the roles of women in society than were common among people in the northern states during the first half of the 1860’s.  For example, the Treasury’s 2015 decision to place Harriet Tubman on $20 bills got many people thinking about who the first woman to appear on American currency was.  The 1886 $1 silver certificates featured Martha Washington on them, however, Lucy Pickens appeared on the 1864 Confederate $100 bills, making her the first woman to appear on American currency- depending on whether you opt to consider Confederate currency as having been “American” currency.  It would have been unimaginable to include a portrait of a woman on Union currency during the 1860’s.

“Those Who Cannot Remember Their Pasts”

I feel that monuments which commemorate Confederate soldiers, officers and politicians belong in history museums, not in parks, but unlike the desegregation legislation of the 1950’s and the 1960’s which was accomplished by our Federal government, I advocate for the decisions to relocate monuments which commemorate the Confederacy from parks to museums to be accomplished by local town, city, county and state governments and not by Federal legislation.

Segregation was unconstitutional, which is why the Federal government ended legalized segregation with the Civil Rights Act of 1964.  The right for the owners or managers of buildings to place signs at the entrances to buildings which state “Whites Only” and “Colored” is not protected under the First Amendment.  By contrast, the rights for a town, city or county government to decide to place a statue in a park or in a government office building is protected under the First Amendment- even if a statue is controversial or potentially offensive.  The presence of these statues violates no Federal laws, and so the decisions to remove or relocate statues that are presently displayed in parks is not within the realm of issues that the Federal government needs to intervene.

The way to promote tolerance is through education- which includes a detailed explanation of our history, not a sanitized or oversimplified version.  Relocating monuments which commemorate Confederate soldiers, officers and politicians from parks to museums will be another step towards promoting tolerance- not only because this will make people feel welcomed when walking through parks, but also because those monuments are pieces of history- which is why I feel that these sculptures should be displayed in museums where they can be seen and understood by tourists from throughout the world.  Tour guides within museums can present these monuments within the appropriate historical context, with a full understanding of the complexities of our history.

Sociologists agree that numerous factors including poverty, poor education systems, domestic abuse, neglect, mistrust of government, mistrust of law enforcement and families that don’t encourage children to become educated tend to be the primary forces which perpetuate prejudices, not flags or monuments.  However, relocating monuments which people find to be offensive or hurtful from parks to museums will be one more step which would contribute to sending a very clear message to future generations about the value of tolerance and diversity within our society.

The U.S. Capitol Building Visitor Center And National Statuary Hall

There are also statues of 8 generals and politicians from the Confederacy located within the U.S. Capitol Building’s Visitor Center and the National Statuary Hall Collection.  Until 2009, there were 9 statues of officers and politicians from the Confederacy in the statuary.  In 2009 the Alabama state government replaced their statue of Jabez Curry with a statue of Helen Keller.  The Florida state legislature announced that they will replace their statue of Edmund Smith, though they’ve not finalized plans to do so.

With specific regard to the U.S. Capitol Building, state governments decide if they want to replace their statues in the National Statuary Hall.  Legislators within those state governments need to decide whether they feel that it still makes sense to keep statues which commemorate former politicians and military generals from the Confederacy as their submissions to the National Statuary Hall, or whether to opt to replace them.

 

Read also: What Should America Do About The Monuments Which Commemorate Confederate Soldiers?

 

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About the author

Scott Benowitz

Scott Benowitz

Scott Benowitz is a staff writer for Afterimage Review. He holds an MSc in Comparative Politics from The London School of Economics & Political Science and a B.A. in International Studies from Reed College in Portland, Oregon. Scott lives in Rye, N.Y. photo credit: Liza Margulies

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