Research Notes

As the risk of offending at least one reader who thinks that commenting on these issues may not be useful …

Donald Shaffer and Andy Hall have been doing some work inspired by the oft-recited story of Frederick Douglass claims about blacks in Confederate uniform as soldiers in 1861.  People have established that Douglass had to base his claims on the accounts of others, as he was not in position to observe such soldiers firsthand.  Don points to a Congressional debate as offering additional discussion, while Andy tracks down the roots of another story, with some assistance from Harry Smeltzer, who blogs about Bull Run. [Update: Kate Masur blogged about another example in the NY Times Disunion blog for July 27.]

Such research may not always look pretty, but it’s essential if we are going to learn more about the basis for these reports.  You would have thought that Confederate papers would have boasted about the service of loyal blacks in Confederate arms in the war’s first big battle …

… and speaking of roots, here’s Kevin Levin, who highlights how in reacting to Alex Haley’s Roots (and the ensuing television series) back in 1977, the Sons of Confederate Veterans (you know, the heritage, not hate folks who just want true history out there) began to solicit stories from the membership about loyal slaves and their service to the Confederate cause, including service as soldiers.

By the way, it’s rather interesting to look at the cast of the television series.  There you’ll see that O. J. Simpson and Todd Bridges, each famous for other things, were in the cast.  So were a number of television icons, black and white, including Lou Grant and Mike Brady as well as Carol Seaver and Boom Boom Washington, to say nothing of Gordy Howard (who worked for Lou Grant) and James Evans and Percy Fitzwallace.  It’s really a amazing collection of actors.

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4 thoughts on “Research Notes

  1. Thanks for the link. You wrote, “such research may not always look pretty. . . .” In fact, it’s messy, and sometimes leads to much more ambiguous findings than either “side” would prefer. But that’s the nature of the work, isn’t it?

  2. Dudely Cornish in The Sable Arm (1956) mentiones a Frederick Douglas reference from September 1861 that the Confederates were employing blacks in combat. Douglass used it as a reason for urging that the Union enlist black soldiers. Maybe Douglasss just made it up or exaggerated questionable evidence. That wouldn’t be out of line with the journalistic ethics for that time (or in fact for our own day).

    Dr. Simpson, I can’t tell you how informative and interesting I find your blog. Keep up the good work.

    • Douglass didn’t make it up; it was a story in wide circulation at the time, so much so that the New York Times referred to the unit as “the famous Negro regiment.” Whether it was factually true is a different question altogether, along with what credence Douglass actually put in such reports.

      You can follow the links above for a more complete discussion of the sources Douglass may have drawn his information from.

  3. I agree with Andy that Douglass appears to be drawing on contemporary media accounts. And to judge from the congressional debate in my original blog post, accounts of armed African Americans fighting at Bull Run/Manassas were circulating as fact within 24 hours of the battle. As I’ve commented on Andy’s blog and profiled in my follow up to my original post, Kate Masur had a highly relevant piece in Disunion in the NYT related to this topic later the same day (July 27) as I made my original post, that is suggestive of what extent, if any, blacks fought at the battle on either side. Although a recent comment on my blog makes me wonder how credible was the account of John Parker, the figure at the center of Masur’s Disunion piece. The commentator writes, “The John Parker story is interesting, but most likely untrue. Confederate batteries suffered relatively few casualties during the battle. Certainly, no battery suffered 20 killed as suggested by Parker.”

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