Friday, October 24th, 2014
Pants on Fire!
McBerry
"You’ll find blacks in almost every regiment throughout the South who fought right alongside white Southerners," during the Civil War.

Ray McBerry on Wednesday, December 15th, 2010 in a radio interview

Sons of Confederate Veterans spokesman said many blacks fought for the South

As the 150th anniversary of the Civil War's start approaches, a group of proud Southerners is belting out a rebel yell.

The Georgia Division of the Sons of Confederate Veterans paid the History Channel to air commercials that reject the view that the South fought the Civil War over slavery. The cable network dropped them after a complaint.

The head of public relations for the group's Georgia Division blasted the move Dec. 15 during "Morning Edition" on Atlanta public radio station WABE-FM (90.1).

"You’ll find blacks in almost every regiment throughout the South who fought right alongside white Southerners," said Ray McBerry. "And in almost every case, it was a voluntary decision that the freed blacks made."

Blacks? Fighting in almost every regiment? For a regime that backed slavery?

When we asked McBerry to elaborate, he said that it is "an incontrovertible fact of history" that blacks fought willingly as soldiers and in large numbers.

"They served just like white Southerners did," McBerry said.

He referred us to Charles Kelly Barrow, former historian in chief for the national SCV and a Griffin high school teacher, and books written and edited by Barrow and supporters of the theory.

We interviewed Barrow, talked to history professors and reviewed Civil War scholarship.  

First, a brief note. The debate over blacks in the Confederacy is part of an ugly disagreement over whether the Civil War was fought over slavery. People on both sides accuse each other of rewriting history to suit their prejudices.

This fact-check is not about that issue. We're only looking at McBerry's statement.

Historians typically scoff at the idea that black soldiers served in large numbers for the Confederacy.

"I've been fighting this myth for years," said William Blair, a professor at Pennsylvania State University and director of the George and AnnRichards Civil War Era Center.

Documentation of blacks fighting for the South is scarce. There are anecdotes where blacks in Confederate regiments picked up muskets to fight or to defend themselves, but not enough to prove that it happened often, Blair and other historians said.

Blacks were barred from the Confederate army until just before the end of the war.

While SCV members are correct that Civil War history is complicated, their conclusion goes too far, said Brian Wills, director of the Center for the Study of the Civil War Era at Kennesaw State University.

"The fact was that you wouldn't want to arm people you considered capable of an insurrection," Wills said.

For the most part, the Civil War was a white man's fight by the North and South.

The Union Army barred blacks until after President Abraham Lincoln issued the Emancipation Proclamation. Some 180,000 blacks served in the Union army, often in support roles.

In the South, arming blacks was controversial. States restricted or banned blacks from owning guns.

They became laborers instead. Thousands of blacks, free and slave, worked as Confederate cooks, teamsters, fortification builders, and medical care providers. Slaves went to war with their masters to tend to their needs. This work brought African-Americans to the front lines.

Gen. Robert E. Lee quietly supported the enlistment of blacks, and another general lobbied to emancipate and arm slaves. But President Jefferson Davis squelched such talk, saying the idea "would revolt and disgust the whole South."

The Confederate Congress finally authorized the enlistment of 300,000 black troops in March 1865, after the white ranks were thinned by combat, disease and desertion. The war ended weeks later. Few blacks had enlisted by that time.

Still, the idea that blacks fought in large numbers for the Confederacy has ardent advocates. The prologue of "Black Confederates," a book edited by Barrow, cites "conservative estimates" of 50,000 to 60,000 of them but gives no evidence to support the numbers.

Books that purport to prove the phenomenon was widespread are collections of anecdotes where blacks and mixed-race men wore Confederate uniforms, worked as sharpshooters, volunteered to fight, and even killed Union soldiers in battle.

Barrow's "Black Confederates" documents 61 blacks who received pensions from state and local governments in North Carolina, Mississippi and South Carolina. Nearly 300 applied for pensions in Tennessee, it says, but it's unclear whether they received them. Records suggest they were noncombatants.

Yet even if you accept all of these accounts, they fall well short of proving McBerry's case.

These were isolated cases. There were 500,000 to 2 million (estimate vary widely) Confederate soldiers who took part in the war.

McBerry and Barrow boost the number of black Confederates by counting black laborers as soldiers, saying soldiers perform similar duties for the present-day U.S. Army.

"They [blacks] ate the same bad food, and when it rained on soldiers, it rained on them," Barrow said. "People, regardless of whether they're black or white, they need to be honored for their services because they gave so much." 

But the difference between a black laborer and a Confederate soldier is more than a matter of formal recognition. It's fundamental.

Bondsmen were property. If they resisted, they ran the risk of being terrorized, beaten or worse.

Furthermore, even if large numbers of blacks wanted to fight for the Rebel cause, the obstacles would have been daunting.

Thousands would have had to bear arms even though it was illegal and join forces with armed white soldiers who did not want them as comrades.

We find that McBerry's claim that blacks "fought right alongside white Southerners" and "in almost every regiment throughout the South" is incorrect, if not absurd. Even supporters of his theory have found nothing more than isolated cases.

If McBerry's claim were true, it would not only mean that thousands of blacks took up arms for a government that supported their enslavement, it would also mean they were willing to battle overwhelming odds to do it.

We rate McBerry's statement Pants on Fire.