By Mike Dorf
Last week, the Washington Post reported on the publication, in a Virginia 4th-grade textbook, of the proposition that thousands of African Americans fought for the South during the Civil War. No reputable historian believes this to be true, but Southern revisionists set on propounding the view that the "War of Northern Aggression" was not about slavery have made it on the internet. From there, the claim worked its way into the textbook.
To my mind, the most interesting aspect of the story is the defense offered by Joy Masoff--author of the controversial textbook and several others but not a professional historian. Rather than saying something like, "oops, I thought I had properly sourced everything in the book, but I goofed on that one, my bad," Masoff instead stood her ground. "As controversial as it is, I stand by what I write," she said. "I am a fairly respected writer." I just love the self-refuting quality of this statement. Rather than offer evidence for her controversial view, Masoff asserts that she is "fairly respected"--not as a historian, mind you, but as a writer.
Meanwhile, the incident got me interested in the organization promulgating the view that thousands of African Americans fought for the Confederacy, the Sons of Confederate Veterans. On its website, the SCV proclaims that "The preservation of liberty and freedom was the motivating factor in the South's decision to fight the Second American Revolution." The claims about African Americans who fought for and otherwise served the Confederate forces are found here. Strikingly (at least for me), the Confederate Battle Flag is found in numerous places on the SCV site, and expressly defended against the "arrogance" of those who deem it offensive..
It appears to be important to the SCV to deny that in defending symbols of the "Lost Cause," they are in any way associating themselves with slavery or racism. In the view promoted by the SCV, the dispute over slavery played no substantial role in the Civil War, except to the extent that Lincoln tried to transform what the SCV calls "a disagreement over secession into a crusade against slavery." The SCV is conspicuously silent, however, about what led the Confederate States to want to secede in the first place. Yet while there were sectionally divisive issues in antebellum America besides slavery (most prominently the tariff), it's simply ludicrous to suggest that slavery was not at least an important source of division.
The SCV is right to object to contemporary portrayals of 19th century Northerners as champions of civil rights. By contemporary standards, most Northerners of the time were shockingly racist. But even as the SCV does not deny that the South practiced slavery, it seems intent on denying that slavery in the 19th Century was distinctly Southern or distinctly race-based, noting that there were a handful of African Americans who owned (African-American) slaves. Running throughout the website is a very strong tone of grievance: the Confederacy and thus the contemporary South have been unfairly painted in victors' history as villains; the SCV aims to set the record straight. Unfortunately, it does so by mixing truths (e.g., about Northern racism) with fiction (e.g., about the level of African-American support for the Confederacy).