Jun 13, 2011



RALEIGH, N.C. – As America embarks on four years of Civil War commemorations, it revives an unsettling debate that lingers 150 years after the conflict: how to view the role of African Americans in the Confederacy.

It arose last year when a Virginia textbook was yanked over protests that it inaccurately claimed thousands of blacks served as Confederate soldiers. More recently, a North Carolina community turned down an effort to erect a monument to 10 black men who served the Southern army and later collected Confederate pensions.

Confederate law prohibited slaves from serving as soldiers until March 1865, when it was changed in a last-gasp effort to strengthen troop numbers.

Yet the debate continues bubbling to the surface in many ways.

Gregory Perry of Monroe, N.C., who learned recently that an ancestor was awarded pension for Confederate service, says it's hard to reconcile that fact with what he knows firsthand about being a black man in the South.

"I grew up in the era of Malcolm X and militancy, and would never have considered something like this possible," said Perry, 46, reflecting on the life of his great-great-grandfather, Aaron Perry.

"I wonder: If Aaron Perry knew the Union Army was coming to free him, why did he join the other side?"

Most Civil War historians agree black slaves and even some free blacks contributed crucial manpower to the Southern war effort — but it was mostly menial work done under duress or for survival, not out of support for the secession movement.

John David Smith, professor of American history at the University of North Carolina-Charlotte and a member of North Carolina's Sesquicentennial Academic Advisory Committee, said the South's 11th-hour effort to recruit black soldiers was "too little, too late."

"There's no evidence of any real mobilization of slaves," Smith said. At most, a company or two — including one of hospital workers — was ever organized.

Yet efforts to depict blacks as Confederates persist.


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