The 2015 Charleston church massacre and 2017 white nationalist rally in Charlottesville prompted a reckoning with the monuments that still dot the former Confederate States of America, with dozens of municipalities pulling down statues and relocating plaques and flags to museums.
Now two Republican lawmakers want to erect a new monument at the South Carolina statehouse—to African-Americans who fought for the Confederacy. It’s not surprising that they’re running into opposition from historians, who say almost no blacks chose to take up arms for the South. But the project is also at odds with the efforts of white nationalists who, for different reasons, want to ensure the Confederacy is remembered as a white supremacist project.
State Reps. Bill Chumley and Mike Burns told TPM their inspiration came from a group of descendants of African-American Confederate soldiers who reached out to them last October, wanting to construct a monument honoring their ancestors. The lawmakers say their only aim is educating South Carolinians about a forgotten part of their state’s history.
Civil war historians counter that the vast majority of blacks who served in the Confederacy were slaves working as cooks, servants, laborers. A very small number, some historians say, did serve as armed soldiers, but only because they were forced into doing so. They argue the myth of blacks volunteering as soldiers is designed to obfuscate the reality that slavery was the root cause of the conflict.
Meanwhile, a younger generation of white nationalists proudly acknowledges that the South fought the Civil War to protect and propagate the enslavement of African-Americans. And they have pushed back against efforts to memorialize black Confederates.
“One of the things that this black Confederate narrative is trying to do is paint the Confederacy as a multicultural, progressive experiment in civil rights,” Kevin Levin, author of the forthcoming book “Searching for Black Confederate Soldiers,” told TPM.
“Hardcore white supremacists want to step back and say, ‘Look, the Confederacy was racist, their goal was the preservation of white supremacy and slavery. And they’re actually the ones who are on solid historical ground; they’re the ones that are cutting through the myth.”
In a 2017 blog post, white nationalist Brad Griffin decried so-called “Rainbow Confederates” who engage in “deceptive historical revisionism.” Another leading white nationalist, Matthew Heimbach, has written that the focus on non-white soldiers obscures the fact that the Confederate army believed in maintaining “the superiority of the White race in all affairs.”
Commenters on a recent article posted about the South Carolina monument on white nationalist site American Renaissance mock the effort to honor black soldiers as “tripe” and “cuckservatism at its most absurd.”
The lawmakers behind the proposal, which they pre-filed in December, both voted in 2015 against removing the Confederate battle flag from statehouse grounds. And they admit that they’re trying to advance the largely discredited idea that the Civil War was fought over states’ rights and economic issues, not primarily over slavery.
“It is in part about slavery,” Rep. Burns told TPM of the conflict, “but in fact it’s largely about the 35 percent tariff that was imposed on all goods and services coming in and out of the south in that period. The truth of the matter is that there were thousands of black Confederates serving on the side of the south.”
Burns and Chumley claim it was Walter Curry, a board member of South Carolina’s African-American Chamber of Commerce and great-great-great grandson of the state’s only known female African-American Confederate veteran, who first reached out to them about constructing the monument. Curry did not respond to TPM’s requests for comment. Chumley and Burns said they would release the names of the other black South Carolinian individuals and groups who pitched the monument idea to them next week.
“Whatever the circumstances were, they fought,” Chumley told TPM. “They picked up the cause. That’s what was admirable about it.”
But historians, despite some ongoing disagreement on the number and significance of the role blacks played in the Confederacy, say these sorts of depictions are historically inaccurate, not educational.
John Stauffer, a Harvard University historian who has clashed with Levin over his advocacy for the “symbolic” importance of black Confederates, told TPM that the “statistically insignificant” number who took up arms did so “essentially with a gun to their heads.”
There were a small number of free blacks in cities like New Orleans who outwardly supported the Confederacy to protect the few rights they had, and tens of thousands more enslaved laborers who worked on ironworks, railroads, and as body servants to Confederate officers on the battlefield. But a Confederate law prohibiting blacks from enlisting as soldiers, enacted out of fear that arming African-Americans would foment an uprising, wasn’t repealed until weeks before the conflict ended in 1865.
Stauffer cautioned that public monuments like the one proposed in South Carolina fail to provide this necessary context and are just another way of “purging slavery from the war.”
Scores of websites maintained by modern-day Confederate sympathizers aim to do just that, pushing dubiously-sourced news accounts and images of black men in uniform as proof that African-Americans were valued servicemen. Paul Gramling, Lt. Commander-in-Chief of the Sons of Confederate Veterans, told TPM the existence of black Confederates proves that the “reason for that war was money and taxes.” Kirk Lyons, head of the stridently pro-Confederate Southern Legal Resource Center, maintains a Facebook page devoted to those people, and said statues like the one in South Carolina would be a credit to the “contributions” of these “undercounted” supporters of the Confederate government.
The monument proposal has been assigned to the legislature’s judiciary committee, and Chumley and Burns hope to get a hearing to debate it once the body reconvenes next Tuesday.
Advancing the project will be an uphill battle.
Reached by phone Wednesday, Rep. Samuel Rivers, the only black Republican in the Palmetto State’s legislature and a member of the judiciary committee, said a “dicey” new Confederate statue was the wrong way to teach residents about their state’s history.
“I have no desire to continue to go backwards in some continuous battle that has already been won,” Rivers said. “I’m for educating us on what happened, but erecting monuments of over 100 years ago? Let’s move forward.”