Did the US recognize Confederate soldiers, and were they “honorable”?


A piece going around on Facebook (image below) and elsewhere says the US Government declared long ago by law that Confederate veterans are equivalent to Union veterans in all significant respects. This appears not to be true except for very limited aspects of being supplied government headstones and, long after the fact, receiving government pensions. Pensions for Confederate veterans apparently started only in 1958 when almost no veterans remained alive; pensions for their widows had started many years earlier.


The piece apparently derives from this “news item”

The piece says that Public Law 85-425 of 1958 declared Confederate veterans to be equivalent. But that law actually says that the equivalence is for veterans’ pensions and widows’ pensions, not for any other purpose. See the text of the law appended below.

The piece also says that Public Law 810 of the 17th Congress on February 26, 1929 declared the “War Department was directed to erect headstones and recognize Confederate grave sites as U. S. War dead grave sites”. But the actual law referenced seems to be 85-811 of 1958 or its predecessors, which address only headstones and markers for otherwise unmarked graves of military dead from numerous contexts, and do not declare Confederate dead to be “U. S. War dead”. I’ve searched high and low and cannot find any references to Public Law 810 in the 17th Congress on February 26, 1929. According to Wikipedia the 17th Congress started in 1821. The 71st started in 1929, and I found no law at all from it related to these matters. Records of the 70th Congress do say this: “Headstones for Confederate soldiers’ graves. An Act Authorizing the Secretary of War to erect headstones over the graves of soldiers who served in the Confederate Army and to direct him to preserve in the records of the War Department the names and places of burial of all soldiers for whom such headstones shall have been erected, and for other purposes. February 26, 1929 1307”. No mention of statues or monuments, only headstones. I have not been able to find anything about those cited “other purposes”, but it seems extremely unlikely that they declared Confederate dead to be US war dead on an equal footing with the non-rebel soldiers of the Union.

See this government-written history of US military headstones with correct attributions to laws. Note that our country began properly burying Confederate dead as early as 1861. But so far I cannot find any mention, anywhere, of Congress granting Confederate veterans all the honors and benefits extended to Union veterans.

An interesting aside from the Dept of Defense 2015 Law of War Manual : ”The Lieber Code reflected rules for ‘regular war’ or what today would be classified as international armed conflict. Such rules were applied to the Confederate forces for humanitarian reasons, even though the United States did not recognize the Confederacy as a legitimate government or State. In this way, the Lieber Code is an example of the application of the doctrine of recognition of belligerency.”

I still believe that truth and reconciliation is the best approach: forgive the Confederate transgressions, and honor their soldiers as being good people just like us, but unluckily for them born and imprinted and matured inside a terribly corrupt and inhuman environment of slavery. But, as you’ve said, do not display their monuments or symbols near, on or inside government facilities that are required by law to serve ALL citizens equally.


From Public Law 85-425


To increase the monthly rates of pension payable to widows and former widows of deceased veterans of the Spanish-American War, Civil War, Indian War, and Mexican War, and provide pensions to widows of veterans who served in the military or naval forces of the Confederate States of America during the Civil War.


SEC. 410. The Administrator shall pay to each person who served in the military or naval forces of the Confederate States of America during the Civil War a monthly pension in the same amounts and subject to the same conditions as would have been applicable to such person under the laws in effect on December 31, 1957, if his service in such forces had been service in the military or naval service of the United States.

Effective date. SEC. 2. This Act shall be effective from the first day of the second calendar month following its enactment.

Approved May 28, 1958.


Thank you for this good material.

Now as for the idea that the Confederate soldiers were merely pawns caught in a slave-owning society that they did not support, we can compare their situation with that of Nazi era Germans.

The Nazis, Hitler, once he came to power by democratic means, systematically destroyed opposition through intimidation, violence, and murder. In the 30s, the opposition, or enemy, was not so much the Jews, as left-wing parties and whatever it was that would be called the Communist Party today. There is a lot of debate these days as to the extent to which Germans might have opposed the regime’s genocidal policy toward Jews and Slavs.

This is distinct from the situation in the American South. Post war Lost Cause writers have covered up the fact that Southerners were not unanimously in favor of secession. Indeed, thousands of Southerners fought for the Union. Tens of thousands from Virginia, Tennessee, and even North Carolina. Smaller numbers fought for the Union from every Southern state. Further, many Southerners who were Union army officers remained loyal to the Union and fought for it. Those men did not renege on their oath to protect and defend the Constitution the way Robert E Lee did.

It is true that the Confederate government instituted conscription immediately, so some men, who might not have thought to fight, whatever their views about slavery, were dragged into battle. Also, most Southern whites did not own slaves, but were led into war by the wealthy and powerful who did. There were some states where that is not the case however. Tellingly, South Carolina (and Mississippi) had a majority population of slaves, and a majority of white households had slaves.

Furthermore, it is not true that the Southern white soldiers were honorable soldiers. In a major theme of the war, never discussed by the Lost Cause historians, but recognized by all other historians, the Confederate armies refused to recognize the Union’s “colored” troops as legal soldiers. Indeed, they hated the thought of fighting Negroes. After battles, the Confederates often killed all wounded colored troops remaining on the field, whereas usually the victor in any battle would otherwise aid the wounded from either side. The Confederates sold into slavery or returned to the owners those colored Union troops who fell into their hands unwounded, when they didn’t just kill them.

The usual practice during the Civil War was that captured soldiers were removed from the battlefield, cared for, and then paroled (they signed but widely ignored a promise not to return to battle), and exchanged them. Until, that is, the Union began enlisting colored troops. The Confederates refused to parole and exchange them. This led to a major squabble between the Union and Confederate Army, as the Union commanders insisted that all their soldiers be treated alike, and the Confederates refused to do this. The system of parole and exchange broke down, and this led to the large prison camps maintained by both sides. Conditions in these camps were terrible on both sides, but much worse in the Confederate camps, because the South didn’t have enough food for itself, let alone their white prisoners.

Finally, when the Southern armies mounted invasions of the northern states, which they did in 1862, leading to the battle of Antietam in Maryland, and in 1863, leading to the Gettysburg in Pennsylvania, they sold into slavery any black person unfortunate enough to fall into their hands, whether or not those Negroes were escaped slaves from the South or long time, free Negro residents of Maryland or Pennsylvania.

All of these practices were fully known to the commanders of the Confederate armies and to the Confederate politicians, and there is no reason to believe that the troops who carried them out did so unhappily.

Also, in addition to the Confederate Soldiers Monument about which I wrote, it turns out that the Hillsborough County’s offices, which are in a high rise in downtown Tampa, had a display of flags in the lobby. Spanish and British because Tampa had been a part of Spanish Florida and for a couple of decades in response to European wars had been a British territory, and the “Blood Stained Banner”, which was the third and final national flag of the Confederacy. The US flag and county flag too. Evidently, led by a black county commissioner from the next district over from ours, the County has removed that flag, as I understand it. And there seem to be discussions about the Confederate Soldiers Monument.

I’ve written to that black commissioner, to my commissioner, and to the city administrator, with my proposal that the county replace the Confederate Soldiers Monument with a Civil War soldiers’ memorial that honors all Floridians who fought in the Civil War: the 15,000 whites who fought for the Confederacy, and the more than 2,000 white and black Floridians who fought for the Union. In this way, the United Sons, and Daughters, of the Confederacy will see their heroes honored, but we will not be erasing those Floridians who fought for the Union from history and public knowledge.

In my opinion, we’d also have to be careful about how we praised these soldiers. The present monument calls the “patriots”. But the fact of the matter is that they were traitors, as per the definition of treason in the Constitution. The War Memorial, 50 feet away from the CSM praises all of the soldiers who fought “for our freedom” in WW I, WW II, and the Korean War. We can’t say that about the Confederate soldiers. They did not fight “for [all] our freedom” if the antecedent for the pronoun is Florida’s residents. Nearly 40% of those residents were black slaves.

And as I described the behavior of Confederate soldiers and armies to black Union soldiers, we have to be careful even about describing them as honorable soldiers.


Thanks as always for the thoughtful and informative reply!

I chose my words very carefully but maybe still not carefully enough: “I completely agree about honoring and respecting Confederate soldiers as loyal and valiant defenders of their families and institutions.”

I honor and respect the Confederates soldiers’ loyalty and valor as directed towards their families and towards the institutions within which they were born and raised. No doubt many among them were disgusted or far worse when ordered to kill wounded black Union soldiers left on the field of battle, while many others did that killing more than willingly. It would not be a surprise if a few others refused to carry out such orders and were punished for that, maybe even killed themselves for it. We are all humans with the same capacities on average for good and evil.

Nelson Mandela from Long Walk to Freedom: “I always knew that deep down in every human heart, there is mercy and generosity. No one is born hating another person because of the color of his skin, or his background, or his religion. People must learn to hate, and if they can learn to hate, they can be taught to love, for love comes more naturally to the human heart than its opposite. Even in the grimmest times in prison, when my comrades and I were pushed to our limits, I would see a glimmer of humanity in one of the guards, perhaps just for a second, but it was enough to reassure me and keep me going. Man’s goodness is a flame that can be hidden but never extinguished.”


As for your comment above, of course, I agree with you as to the unity of the human race. This idea of ours, however, shows that we are fairly enlightened, modern non-Southerners of the late 20th and early 21st centuries.

None of the white Confederate soldiers would agree with you. They were certain that black slaves came from an inferior race, perhaps sub-human. Indeed, most northerners would have agreed with them, somewhat.

If you saw the excellent recent movie Lincoln, you will remember that a key issue in the debates leading up to the Congressional passage of the 13th Amendment banning slavery was whether those who wished to ban slavery also thought that black people were or even could ever be social equals to whites. A critical moment in the film was when one of the abolitionist leaders, at Lincoln’s suggestion, stated what he did not believe, that blacks were not the equal of whites, and that abolition did not mean to declare them equal. He had to say this so make room for fence sitters to vote for the amendment. (Of course, in the final scene, we see that he is in a romantic relationship with his house keeper, played by Epatha Merkerson (of Law and Order fame).

We would think that even most Northerners were racist, by our definition. The northern Democrats were more interested in preserving the Union than in ending slavery. In the North, ferocious anti-draft riots in several cities, notably in New York, led to the murder of dozens of free black citizens and required Union troops to restore calm.

In the decades before the war, there was a large literature considering the justification of slavery, but nearly all of it began with the assumption that the Negro race was not the equal of the white race.

I agree with you about Nelson Mandela, who was a great man. The south Africans, both white and black, were fortunate in him. I think De Klerk, the white apartheid leader who surrendered power to Mandela in a negotiated deal, also showed great magnanimity. Compare Mandela, especially, but both of them with, for example Yasir Arafat and the various Israeli leaders, or the leaders of the states into which Yugoslavia split, to see the difference leaders can make.

The Southern whites never had such a leader. Northerners had Lincoln, but a Southerner assassinated him, and Andrew Johnson, a slave-holding Tennessean was a calamity.


Seems to me your statement that “none of the white Confederate soldiers would agree with you” cannot possibly be accurate. Do you really think that NOT ONE Confederate soldier out of ~900,000 ever had the slightest compunction about killing a wounded black Union soldier on the field of battle? Even a drafted one who probably would have defected to the Union had he a chance? Seems to me it would defy probability and statistics that, along this one dimension, every single soldier had exactly the same view: blacks were sub-human and killing a wounded one was no more than putting an animal out of its misery.


I guess you caught me. I admit that I cannot know if there might have been one white Confederate soldier who fought bravely on behalf of causes in which he did not believe.

As for white Confederate soldiers deserting, usually to return to their homes and families, but sometimes to the Union side, it happened. Historians tell us that this happened more toward the end of the war, when it was apparent to most observers that the Confederacy would lose. That is, we’d suppose that those deserters didn’t leave because they felt their cause was wrong, but because they felt it was hopeless.

Many Southern whites fought for the Union, from the beginning of the war, because they thought slavery was wrong and because they hated Southern whites’ attack on the Constitution and the Union. But you’d be hard pressed to find evidence of Southern white Confederate soldiers who rejected the causes for which they fought.

Indeed, white Southerners’ military defeat didn’t change their minds as to the justice of their causes. This refusal to change their minds as to the obvious, to them, inferiority of the Negro race was what led to the KKK, white citizens councils, Jim Crow, segregation, and Lost Cause historical writing.


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