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A question of blue and gray ... and black lingers

Photo by Laura Williams

Photo by Laura Williams

ALBANY, Ga. -- When Confederate Civil War hero Amos Rucker died, the city of Atlanta shut down for his funeral.

Eulogized by the state's poet laureate with the moving "When Rucker Called the Roll," the fallen veteran's pallbearers included then-Georgia Gov. Allen Chandler, Judge William Lowndes Calhoun, ex-Postmaster Amos Fox and former Confederate Army Camp Commander Frank Hilburn. Rucker was laid to rest in Atlanta's Southview Cemetary, current burial site of members of Martin Luther King's family.

While such ceremony was not uncommon among Southern survivors of America's Civil War, what made Rucker's funeral so memorable is that he was among the black soldiers who fought for the Confederacy during the war.

Whether Southern blacks willingly participated as Confederates against the Northern army that eventually won them their freedom is an argument that continues to be waged today in the year that marks the 150th anniversary of the start of the war. But documented stories like the ones of Amos Rucker, Bill Yopp, Holt Collier, Louis Napoleon Nelson and the all-black First Louisiana Native Guard offer evidence that African Americans did indeed take up arms alongside the men who at the time were their masters.

"I hear today -- from blacks and whites -- that there were no black Confederate soldiers," said Kelly Barrow, a Henry County history teacher who has published two books -- "Black Confederates" and "Black Southerners in Confederate Armies" -- and is working on a third about the subject. "But the documented evidence is overwhelming."

Barrow, who teaches and coaches soccer at Locust Grove High School, said he became passionate about researching black Confederates after a professor at Shorter College in Rome told him they didn't exist.

"I'd find all this material about black soldiers, about blacks who were heroes during the war, and (my professor) would say I was wrong," Barrow said. "She, of course, had her own agenda, but I kept finding more and more stuff.

"After I graduated, I was working with the General Assembly when the flag fight started kicking up. I did a lot of research for (former) Rep. Frank Redding, including genealogy, and I kept coming across more evidence of black Confederates. I eventually put an ad in a Confederate Veterans magazine asking for documentation of black Confederates and was overwhelmed with information. I guess I kind of became the clearinghouse for stuff people said they'd had for years but didn't know what to do with."

Historians question whether blacks would have freely fought alongside men who "owned" them and against an army that would free them, but a number of potential answers have surfaced. Noted African-American journalist Walter Williams tackled that question in a recent syndicated column.

"One would have to be stupid to think that blacks were fighting in order to preserve slavery," he wrote. "What's untaught in most history classes is that it is relatively recent that we Americans think of ourselves as citizens of 'United States.' For most of our history, we thought of ourselves as citizens of Virginia, citizens of New York and citizens of whatever state in which we resided.

"(African-American Historian Charles) Wesley says, 'To the majority of the Negroes, as to all the South, the invading armies of the Union seemed to be ruthlessly attacking independent states, invading the beloved homeland and tramping upon all that these men held dear.' Blacks have fought in all of our wars, both before and after slavery, in hopes of better treatment afterward."

Charles Lunsford, who is retired now but who once served as national spokesman for the Sons of Confederate Veterans organization, said his research into the subject of black soldiers serving in the Confederate army has offered some telling information that history books have failed to mention.

"One of the truths that a lot of people don't like to talk about is that Northerners were far more racist that Southerners until the Jim Crow era," Lunsford, who lives in Mansfield in north Georgia, said. "That's part of the reason so many people say there were no black Confederates. See, the Yankee army segregated its black troops, while the blacks who fought for the South fought alongside white soldiers.

"Experts -- both black and white -- that I've talked with estimate that as many as 90,000 black soldiers wore the uniform of the Confederacy and as many as 300,000 served as support personnel.

Just like the white Confederates, these men were fighting for their homeland."

As recently as last year, The Atlantic senior editor Ta-Nehisi Coates wrote a widely distributed article disputing such evidence. He called his article "The Myth of the Black Confederate Soldier," challenging any who disputed his claim to "prove him wrong."

Interviewed in the Southern Partisan magazine, retired educator Nelson Winbush of Kissimmee, Fla., who is one of a few African Americans who are members of the Sons of Confederate Veterans, said his grandfather Louis Napoleon Nelson initially served as cook and bodyguard for his master's son, a Confederate soldier, before taking part in combat at Lookout Mountain, Bryson's Crossroads and Vicksburg.

Winbush said his grandfather was not forced to fight for the South.

"My grandfather was quoted in newspapers -- the Commercial Appeal out of Memphis and the Lauderdale County Enterprise, the county paper there at home -- as saying that if he had wanted, he could have left any time during the war," Winbush said.

The retired educator said his grandfather met and talked with Nathan Bedford Forrest, who formed the original Ku Klux Klan, after the war in an effort to quell unrest in the Memphis area. Forrest had, according to documents compiled by the Gen. N.B. Forrest Historical Society, 65 black troopers in his Confederate cavalry, and eight of the elite marksmen of Forrest's Escort were blacks.

Yopp, who was drummer for the 14th Georgia Regiment, followed his master into battle and took up arms when the white man who owned him was shot. Yopp was wounded in battle but survived and eventually became the only black to live among white veterans in the Confederate Soldiers Home in Atlanta.

While historians don't always agree on the number of blacks who fought alongside whites for the Confederate army -- estimates range from 13,000 to near 100,000 -- Barrow said he stays away from such arguments.

"I've learned over the years not to put numbers on these kinds of things," the author said. "You do that, and you can end up looking ridiculous. What I try to do in writing about black Confederates is find proof, gather evidence about people who were actually there.

"What a lot of people have a hard time understanding is that the Confederate flag was these men's flag, too, and 'Dixie' was their song. Maybe if they understood that, they wouldn't be so quick to attack the Confederate flag as racist."

No one has to convince H.K. Edgerton of any such notion. The president of the Southern Heritage 411 Inc. donned Confederate gray and carried the flag he calls the "Southern Cross" from his home in Ashville, N.C., to Austin, Texas, a trip of 1,606 miles, to promote the heritage that he says is shared by Southern blacks and whites.

"My march was a march of heritage, not one of hate, to bring an awareness of the pride we feel," Edgerton said of that 2002 trek. "There are folks who look like me who care a lot about Dixie."

Edgerton said he is a "child of the Civil Rights era," and he notes in his list of accomplishments that he co-founded the black student center at the University of Minnesota, served as spokesman for minority and women contractors with the North Carolina Department of Transportation, was a representative with the Black Leadership Caucus in North Carolina's District 50, and was first vice president and president of the Ashville Branch of the NAACP.

"My work in the civil rights arena has come full circle," Edgerton said. "I see today where some groups are using slavery as the weapon of choice against Southern whites. But what I've found is that the further South you get, the more blacks and whites understand their shared heritage.

"I've been physically attacked twice for my stance, and I've had some members of the Klan come out and stand with me when I've protested against schools that ban the display of Southern heritage.

But I see the road as my university, and I use it to try and teach. There are a lot of babies out there who don't know their history."

Edgerton said he decided to walk to a high school outside Austin after hearing of the school's ban of paraphernalia displaying the Southern Cross and the state's removal of a plaque honoring Robert E. Lee.

"Kids were being made to turn their clothing inside out, and men were losing their jobs over an image on a coffee mug," Edgerton said. "To me, this was discrimination of the highest level. I'd worked with officials with the Southern Legal Resource Center in Black Mountain, N.C., and told them I wanted to do something. They kept saying the timing wasn't right, that there was no funding, but I finally just said I didn't care if I didn't have but 25 cents to my name, I was going."

Edgerton said he'd been "half-asleep and half-awake" when a feeling so strong that it "made my bed shake" came over him, convincing him to make the walk.

"My brother got me some new boots, and before I completed the first 15 miles, my feet hurt so bad I told myself I couldn't make it," he said. "But I got my old boots and just kept going. I was treated with so much love by blacks and whites along the way.

"It's the greatest thing I've ever done. And since I'm coming up on the 10-year anniversary of that walk, I'm going to do something else. I don't know what yet, but it'll be something big."

Men like Edgerton, Barrow, Lunsford and Winbush say they need no further convincing that Southern blacks fought side-by-side with whites during the Civil War, no matter that the debate still rages a century and a half later.

"I think there was more a sense of shared heritage among Southern blacks and whites until the late 1980s when the NAACP made it their policy to attack everything Southern," Lunsford said. "I've debated Martin Luther King III and Ralph Abernathy III, and I pointed out to them that their fathers had never said anything negative about Confederates. That started when the NAACP took the stance to try and become relevant again.

"They're trying to rewrite history by attacking anything that has to do with the South. And like my great-great grandfather did in 1861, when people attack you, you stand up to the attack."