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Essay 4: Teaching about the Confederacy and Race Relations

Recognizing that inaccurate history often subtly promotes continuing white supremacy, the National Education Association (NEA) commissioned these articles and has posted some of them in slightly different form at its website. I thank Harry Lawson and others at NEA for the commission, for editorial suggestions, and for other assistance.

Between 1800 and 1860, the legal position of African Americans in the South grew ever worse. In 1806, Virginia required persons freed after that year to leave the state or be re-enslaved. In 1822, Mississippi required the state legislature to approve any new emancipations, which drastically cut their number. In 1859, Arkansas passed a law requiring all freed people — not just new ones — to leave the state by the end of the year.

After secession, the new government made clear its position regarding the black race. On March 22, 1861, ten days after the Confederacy adopted its new constitution, Vice-President Alexander Stephens made the case for it before a huge crowd in Savannah, Georgia. The United States, he complained, "rested upon the assumption of the equality of races."

Our new Government is founded upon exactly the opposite idea; its foundations are laid, its cornerstone rests, upon the great truth that the negro is not equal to the white man; that slavery — subordination to the superior race — is his natural and moral condition. [Applause.]
Confederate battle flag
The second national flag of the Confederacy, white to stand for the white race.
The second Confederate national flag also symbolized white supremacy. In April, 1863, the Savannah Morning News proposed a new flag, all white except the Confederate Battle Flag in the top corner next to the pole. The editor explained, "We are fighting to maintain the Heaven-ordained supremacy of the white man over the inferior or colored race; a white flag would thus be emblematical of our cause." Republished with approval in Richmond newspapers, his thinking carried the day.

White supremacy was Confederate national policy from the top down. In November, 1862, for example, Confederates seized four African Americans in U.S. uniforms on a South Carolina island and asked Richmond what to do with them. President Davis and his secretary of war approved their "summary execution," which was and is a war crime. When President Lincoln released the Emancipation Proclamation on January 1, 1863, Jefferson Davis called it "the most execrable measure recorded in the history of guilty man." He proposed to his Congress that white officers of black troops be delivered to state authorities to be "dealt with in accordance with the laws ... providing for the punishment of criminals engaged in exciting servile insurrection" — again, execution. The Confederate Congress responded that the C.S.A. should use its own military courts to have such persons "put to death or be otherwise punished."

The Confederacy put these policies into practice. Time after time: at Fort Pillow, Tennessee; Poison Spring, Arkansas; Brice's Cross Roads, Mississippi; Olustee, Florida, etc., Confederate troops killed black POWs and their officers. On the home front, in February, 1863, Davis decreed the enslavement of "all free Negroes in the Southern Confederacy."

Some teachers emphasize that African Americans played many roles in the South during the Civil War, including active service in its army and navy. African Americans did do many things, of course, but they did not serve in the Confederate armed forces except as body servants and enslaved laborers. They were not even allowed to until March 13, 1865, just three weeks before Jefferson Davis had to flee Richmond. The day after he left, United States Colored Troops liberated most of the Confederate capital, ending most of the rebellion.

Sticking with primary sources is essential for educators working to expand their students' understanding beyond what is covered in our textbooks, and it also teaches them to withstand challenges from those wanting to paint a rosy portrait of the Confederacy.


Lies Across America
Essential Reading
  • Loewen and Sebesta, The Confederate and Neo-Confederate Reader (Jackson: U. of MS Press, 2010), collects in one place the statements referenced above, all secession ordinances, and other useful primary sources.
  • Gregory Urwin, Black Flag Over Dixie (Carbondale: Southern Illinois University Press, 2004), tells of Confederate war crimes against Black POWs.


All essays in the Correct(ed) series:
Introducing the Series
Essay 2: How To Teach Slavery
Essay 3: How To Teach Secession
Essay 4: Teaching about the Confederacy and Race Relations
Essay 5: Confederate Public History
Essay 6: Reconstruction
Essay 7: Getting History Right Can Decrease Racism Toward Mexican Americans
Essay 8: Problematic Words about Native Americans
Essay 9: How and When Did the First People Get Here?
Essay 10: The Pantheon of Explorers
Essay 11: Columbus Day
Essay 12: How Thanksgiving Helps Keep Us Ethnocentric
Essay 13: American Indians as Mascots
Essay 14: How to Teach the Nadir of Race Relations
Essay 15: Teaching the Civil Rights Movement
Essay 16: Getting Students Thinking about the Future

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