Guest Essay: The Myth of African American Confederate Soldiers

Guest post by Alfred J. Andrea

As Brooks D. Simson convincingly demonstrates in the recently published Seven Myths of the Civil War (Hackett Publishing, Sept. 2017), the claim that African Americans served, in any appreciable numbers, as combatants in Confederate forces has no basis in fact. It is, however, an incontrovertible fact that nearly 200,000 African Americans voluntarily served in the Union forces, acquitted themselves with devotion and honor, and were a significant factor in hastening the end of the war.

One of the earliest and most celebrated units was the 54th  Massachusetts Volunteer Infantry Regiment that was memorialized in the 1989 movie Glory for its valiant attack on Fort Wagner, South Carolina on July 18, 1863, in which it suffered almost 50 percent casualties. Because of his bravery during that battle, Sergeant William Harvey Carney was later awarded the Medal of Honor. Contrary to popular impressions, the regiment was not destroyed or disbanded as a result of these horrific losses. Reorganized, it fought in three subsequent engagements, including the Battle of Boykin’s Mill that took place on April 18, 1865, nine days after Lee’s surrender at Appomattox.

Mindful of this proud history, African American re-enactors have recreated the 54th and consistently participate in commemorations of the regiment’s service to the Union and, more importantly, its service to the cause of total African American freedom. Pictured here is First Sergeant Gerard Grimes of Company A standing before Boston’s memorial to the soldiers of the 54th  and its fallen colonel, Robert Gould Shaw. For an illustration and description of  this memorial, see the series editors’ Foreword to Seven Myths of the Civil War.

*Photos courtesy of A. J. Andrea.