Notes from the Black Confederate Front

Over at Kevin Levin’s Civil War Memory there’s been a very interesting discussion about the racial identity of several men who enlisted in a Tennessee infantry unit in 1861 to fight for the Confederacy.

Then, of course, there’s this blast on a Facebook group:

Bearden Gibson

Bearden’s declaration is made without offering any context or understanding of what he’s talking about (which is typical for the “heritage, not history” crowd. A far more thoughtful and complete discussion was offered on Kevin’s blog over two years ago (and, as Bearden “monitors” that blog, to use Flaggerspeak, he can’t very well say he’s not aware of it).

Far more typical of the “heritage, not history” crowd’s response to the discussion about the individuals in the Tennessee unit is Michael C. Lucas, a veteran Confederate heritage advocate, who’s analysis of the discussion was most succinctly expressed in two words: “Eat Crow!!!!”

Makes you wonder about the quality of historical research at this place. And Lucas’s keyboard keys are always sticky when it comes to exclamations. I wonder why.

These examples demonstrate the difference between doing research to learn more and simply citing something out of context in order to score heritage points under the assumption that there are “sides,” and that it’s most important to say “we win/you lose” as if there’s a “we” and that winning and losing (whatever that means) is the goal of historical inquiry. The discussions on Kevin’s blog about Gibson and the Tennessee soldiers are thoughtful, place the topic in context, and seek additional information through research in order to find out what happened. On the other hand, the two Confederate “heritage” cheerleaders somehow see this as a great triumph, although it’s far from clear what they are celebrating.

The expression “Everyman his own historian” comes from Carl Becker’s 1909 presidential address to the American Historical Association. The essay bears reading. One rendering of his argument is that every man (and woman) is his/her own historian, or that we are all historians. Lucas and Bearden remind us of the fact that that does not mean that everyone is good at it.

Kevin Levin’s Missed Opportunity

Kevin Levin decided to forego staying at Gettysburg for this week’s events. Instead, he headed to Montreal, presumably to brush up on his sadly lacking hockey acumen, although anyone could have told him that Montreal is the last place a Boston Bruins fan (and I use this term very, very loosely) is welcome.

In choosing as he did, Kevin missed an excellent chance to enrich his study of Civil War memory, and, given his interests, he may have cause to regret nothing quite so much as the heaven-sent opportunity contained in today’s The Evening Sun, “serving the Greater Hanover and Gettysburg areas.”

Black re-enactor with Rebels says that ‘image needs to be portrayed’


Behind Confederate lines stands a man with blue pants, a white shirt and a black face.

Shane Williams, from Canton, Ohio is a Confederate re-enactor with 1st Tennessee Company H. He’s set up camp on the Redding Farm during the battle re-enactment recognizing the 150th anniversary of the Battle of Gettysburg.

Richard Adams, a private of the same company, said there aren’t enough black re-enactors in the Confederate ranks. And he believes there should be more to represent black people who served as slaves and, he said, might have fought.

“The way I see it, whether slaves were forced to fight or they were volunteers, it’s an image that needs to be portrayed,” Williams said.

Rachel Edgar, a Union re-enactor who passes bread to the troops, said she hasn’t heard of any black Confederate soldiers, but under rare circumstances, it could have been possible.

There are no historical accounts of black men under arms fighting for the Confederacy, but there are accounts of slaves staying in Confederate camps with their masters.

“Most slaves had never been off of their Southern plantations,” Williams said. “They didn’t know anything else. They came with their masters.”

Williams said many black men wanted to fight for what they knew was theirs — the land that belonged to their master.

“I’m going to fight for what I know is mine,” he said.

Historians say there were slaves whose primary loyalty was to their master or plantation, but the Confederate government refused to arm slaves.

Runaway slaves, or those liberated by Union soldiers, were far more likely to enlist in Northern regiments when the government accepted their service in 1863. By the end of the war, about 180,000 black men served in the Union army.

Williams’ role as a black Confederate soldier is met with some controversy among his friends. Williams also belongs to the 5th U.S. Colored Troops, Company G, an Ohio re-enactment group.

“Because most blacks in the South were slaves, they feel that it’s disrespectful to my heritage,” Williams said.

But, he said he wants to teach the public about U.S. history. He’s been a part of re-enactments for 10 years, and has portrayed a Confederate soldier for four years.

Many high-ranking officers had slaves with them in Gettysburg, working as servants and cooks.

Adam Bell, of the 33rd Virginia, Company E, said some slaves came simply because they liked their master and wanted to care for them, but it wasn’t incredibly common.

Mitch Riggs, a Confederate re-enactor with the 33rd Virginia Volunteer Infantry Company E, plays the part of a German soldier in a small Irish unit. He said too often people believe slavery was the only reason behind the Civil War, but many soldiers didn’t have a solid opinion on the matter.

“Not a lot of people know their history,” said Riggs,of Pulaski, Pa.

Few in the ranks of the Confederate army owned slaves themselves, and were poor farmers “one step above slaves,” Riggs said.

“A lot of them couldn’t write their names,” Daniel Hall said.

Hall, also in the 33rd Virginia Volunteer Infantry, said the original 60 men in the company previously were railroad workers.

“In railroad work, they wouldn’t want to lose a slave, because that would cost money,” he said. “If they lost an Irishmen, they wouldn’t have to pay anything.”

In the Union army, opinions on slavery weren’t all that different. Most Northern soldiers enlisted to save the Union, and some resented the increased attention on freeing the slaves later in the conflict. At the same time, a significant number of Union soldiers were committed abolitionists who saw the war as a struggle for freedom from the beginning.

There are not a lot of details on black men in the Confederate Army, and Williams doesn’t claim to represent a particular person within a specific unit. But, he plans to further develop his role.

“I’m not a slave,” Williams said. “I’m still researching.”

My, oh my. Here was your chance, Kevin.

Finally, for those of you wanting to have more fun at home, I direct you here.

The Irrelevance of Silas Chandler

News comes via Kevin Levin’s Civil War Memory that his long awaited (and much-mentioned) article on Silas Chandler, coauthored with Myra Chandler Sampson, is about to appear.  I’m sure that the article will offer a far richer context about Silas Chandler’s story than did the episode on PBS’s History Detectives, which offered little in terms of information that anyone armed with a computer, a search engine, and access to the internet would not have found on their own.

However, I have a sneaky feeling that however compelling this article may be, it will be far from the last word on Silas Chandler, let alone on the tales of African Americans, enslaved and free, who flocked to serve the Confederacy as soldiers and who embraced the goals of the Confederacy.  In fact, I take that as a sure bet after reading this post, including the comments section, where someone who sounds a bit like a proslavery apologist declares that slavery was no more than an “unfortunate circumstance.”

Well, that’s one way to put it.

So now that we are at this point in time, I think it behooves serious scholars to discuss what, if anything, they might have to say about the experience of black people in the Confederacy.  What lines of inquiry do you think should be followed?  How much of this research should be driven by a debate among non-scholars, many of whom show no interest in actual scholarship, and how much should be driven by scholarly curiosity and a quest for understanding?

Yes, I understand that it’s important to deal with debates on the public sphere, no matter how tangential those debates may be when it comes to historical reality.  I’m not discounting that (or its impact on issues of history education).  However, I’m not interested in privileging it, either, and I think it’s a different discussion to wrestle with that issue, about which I have some different ideas and a well-circulated proposal.

The Black Confederate Myth Controversy: Update and Observations

As the debate over Silas Chandler subsides, along comes Harvard’s version of John Stauffer’s comments about Black Confederates this past August at a luncheon at Harvard.  A review of the article reveals very little that is new, helpful, or different.  Indeed, I was a little amused to see that the talk as represented followed a rather standard format: characterize the existing argument in such a way as to maximize the significance of your own insight.  At times, unfortunately, that may involve a rather strained characterization of the current debate.  So it seems to be in this case.  Stauffer posits a debate between “neo-Confederates” (his term), who attempt to prove that blacks served as Confederate soldiers in an effort to whitewash the Confederacy of its connections to slavery and racism, and scholars who seem to dismiss altogether the role of blacks in the Confederate armed forces, “including one scholar who called it ‘a fiction, a myth, utter nonsense.’” (Note: I have been unable to date to identify this unnamed scholar: a Google search did not turn up this quote except as coming from this article, but it could always be on a video presentation Update: long-time commenter “Border Ruffian” offers a reasonable suggestion in the comments … thanks!)  Having characterized the debate to his best advantage, Stauffer (who is unapologetically identified in the article as a historian) offers his own take: that between 3,000 and 10,000 blacks served as soldiers in the Confederate army, while between 20,000 and 50,000 blacks served in support functions (teamsters, cooks, servants and the like).  There’s no hint in the article how Stauffer arrived at these numbers. Among the specific sources he cites are Frederick Douglass’s remarks in 1861 and the story of John Parker at First Manassas.

Stauffer complains that when he advanced this notion at a conference several months ago in Washington, D. C., he was “beaten up,” which I assume he meant figuratively (although not all people are so sure).  He also argues that one should not take the involvement of blacks in the Confederate army as an endorsement of the aims of the Confederacy, but rather as a result of blacks’ assessment of their own interests (as if slaves had a choice in all cases).

John Stauffer ought to name names and address specific arguments.  His complaint about feeling beaten up struck me as amusing, because, as many of us know, he has no problem defending himself and in fact is not shy about taking the offensive, including assailing the character of his targets.  Stauffer also claimed that he “rarely reads blogs,” but the announcement of his talk had no problem quoting a statement I offered on Crossroads about the use of evidence by advocates of the Black Confederate Myth (note he never directly challenged me by name, and perhaps he should have read my other posts on this topic before pretending to characterize what scholars say … perhaps someone else came up with this quote).

The problem with John Stauffer’s argument is that he doesn’t offer a lot of support for his position.  How did he come up with the estimates he presented?  Does his argument rest in the end on the Louisiana Native Guards and Frederick Douglass’s comments?  Nor does he offer much in the way of support about his characterization of what scholars have said about the presence and role of free and enslaved African Americans in Confederate service.  I don’t know of any scholars who do not agree that blacks were present with Confederate armies as teamsters, cooks, servants, and other roles.  The real debate is about the question of service as soldiers, and here Stauffer sheds no new light on the discussion (the Parker story is well known, and Parker represents himself not as a soldier, but someone who was forced to fight lest he receive a worse fate … not exactly part of the Black Confederate Myth).  In short, Stauffer is as careless in his use of evidence as are many of the proponents of the Black Confederate Myth, and for much the same reason: because he subordinates the careful handling of historical evidence to find out what happened in favor of advancing an argument. Or perhaps his home institution has misrepresented him.

Discussions of Stauffer’s claims, first reported on Kevin Levin’s blog, soon appeared elsewhere, but it’s good to read a friendly account of his remarks.  It would be even better to read the remarks themselves.

What I find most amusing about this is that John Stauffer and I have met, and he’s heard me discuss this issue over lunch earlier this year at ASU.  I didn’t hear him offer a different perspective at the time.  Clearly he knows how to access this blog, since a quote from it appeared on publicity for his lecture.  Yet he didn’t seem inclined to challenge me face-to-face or in the comments section.

Draw your own conclusions.

In other (and oddly related) news, Kevin Levin called attention to a very interesting article that uses the debate over the Black Confederate Myth in cyberspace as away to approach how non-professional historians participate in historical discussions.  Author Leslie Madsen-Brooks may now have to retract her claim that “no academic historians have subscribed to the narrative that there were thousands of black Confederate soldiers” in light of Stauffer’s assertions (please … if Harvard identifies John Stauffer as a historian, he’s a historian).  However, other participants in these discussions should read the article, if for no other reason than to learn how a historian evaluates these exchanges.

The Chandler Boys … Mystery Solved?

Well, the History Detectives show on Silas and Andrew Chandler has come and gone, and it looks as if the folks who like to claim that there were many black Confederate soldiers are not happy.  Sampling their responses from the usual sources yields a rather predictable pattern of outbursts and whining.  However, I haven’t heard anything challenging the evidence presented.

The short summary: Silas was a slave; he was not a soldier; he was Andrew’s servant; some family accounts of the relationships in the family after the war require modification.

I doubt this is going to change many minds about the larger issue of the role played by slaves in the Confederate army, although it seems to me that it will be harder to make certain claims about Silas Chandler in the face of the show’s findings.  However, the research itself concerning Silas Chandler’s status during the Civil War was the sort of thing anyone armed with a laptop and an internet connection could do.


Here’s a transcript of the show; at Civil War Memory Kevin Levin has much the same reaction as I do.

Black Confederates: Free Versus Enslaved

If you set aside the usual discussion about black Confederates in favor of serious scholarly inquiry, one subject worth studying would be free blacks who sought to serve as Confederate soldiers.  After all, students of southern race relations are aware that during the late 1850s black southerners who were free found themselves under increased scrutiny from white southerners ( most work on black slaveholders concentrates on South Carolina); at the same time references to “the South” tend to flatten regional variations and complicating issues, including the Creole population (primarily in Louisiana), where a substantial free black population provided the source for the oft-cited Louisiana Native Guards.  Moreover, given contemporary definitions of race, one could be predominantly “white” in terms of ancestry while being defined as “black” legally; we know of plenty of cases of people of mixed racial heritage attempting to “pass” as white.

Concentrating on free blacks in Confederate service offers a way to explore certain questions in a different way.  Such people were not fighting to perpetuate their own enslavement (as they were not slaves); they would not under normal circumstances have been likely to volunteer to be servants, and it would be interesting how many blacks listed as cooks, teamsters, and musicians were free.  Yet these people might well have sought to join the armed forces as a sign of loyalty to deflect queries about their disloyalty; better to be seen as a friend than as a potential enemy.  Moreover, the tendency to blur distinctions of circumstance and status when it comes to black Confederates does a disservice to history and to the study of those individuals.

In short, we might try to be a little more careful, not only in documenting the fact of service (including whether the individual involved was a soldier or served/supported the CSA war effort in some other capacity), but also in discussion about what such service meant.  Individuals may serve without supporting the goals of the belligerent/nation in whose army they serve.

Kevin Levin on John Stauffer and Black Confederates

Kevin Levin took a break from the Yankees-Red Sox series to make his way over to Harvard University, where he heard John Stauffer’s presentation on black Confederates.  You can read his observations here.

I have to say that I’m a little disappointed that Stauffer did not do a little more research on the examples he cited, for they have been discussed before, on the very blogs he cites.  Generally speaking, people actually read what they cite (and even quote) and glean what information they can from what’s already out there.  To leave the impression that one’s surveyed what’s out there (and I’d include the fine work of Andy Hall in Dead Confederates as of prime importance) and then fail to wrestle with it does not seem to me to be sound research practice.  Perhaps this is a case of the promotional material promising more than Stauffer was prepared to deliver … except guess who usually prepares the promotional material?

I’ll be interested to see whether more comes of this initial foray, or if a text or video of these remarks will appear anywhere.

John Stauffer Enters the Black Confederate Fray

It seems that another academic historian is about to enter the fray on the subject of black Confederates.  Tomorrow John Stauffer, Professor of English and American Literature and Language and of African and African American Studies at Harvard University, will speak on “Black Confederates in History and Myth.”  Kevin Levin, who alerted me to this presentation, has blogged about it and will be present.  Here’s the abstract for the talk:

“Black Confederates” is one of the most controversial ideas of the Civil War era and American memory more generally. Today, neo-Confederates claim that thousands of blacks loyally fought as soldiers for the South and that hundreds of thousands more served the Confederacy as laborers. These claims have become a staple among Southern heritage groups and are taught in some Southern schools. Their function is to purge the Confederacy from its association with slavery and redeem the white South from guilt over its past. In this they have been partly successful: according to a recent poll, 70% of white Southerners continue to believe that the Confederacy was motivated by states rights rather than slavery.

Academic historians, in reaction to these claims, have totally dismissed the idea that more than a handful of African Americans could have served as Confederate soldiers. To suggest otherwise, they say, is to engage in “a pattern of distortion, deception, and deceit” in the use of evidence.

But according to African Americans themselves, writing during the war, thousands of blacks did fight as soldiers for the South. In my presentation, I assess and contextualize the sources, examine case studies of blacks fighting for the Confederacy, and explain how and why it happened and how Northern black leaders understood this phenomenon. Along the way I reveal the richly diverse ways in which blacks acted on their understandings of freedom.

Gee, a pattern of distortion, deception, and deceit … where have I heard that before?

I’ll be curious to hear Kevin’s report on the lecture.  In the meantime, I’ll note that once more blogging historians have sparked a discussion by perfectly respectable scholars on an issue of such interest that they even talk about it at Harvard.

And they might even be wrong.


A Primer in Basic Research

Over the last several weeks there’s been a rather heated exchange between several contributors to this Facebook group, which celebrates “southern heritage” (although it seems more like “Confederate heritage” to me) and a number of bloggers who have become known for their research disproving or qualifying claims about various supposed “black Confederates” (as in supposed soldiers).  There’s something to be said for the observation that this is an online debate and little more … except, of course, that so many students do so much of their research online these days that they are bound to come across this stuff, including claims about black Confederate soldiers.

Here’s an example.

Ann DeWitt, who is responsible for a leading website devoted to documenting the widespread existence of black Confederates in military service, shared her most recent research with her fellow Facebook compatriots (posting under the name “Royal Diadem”).  As she declares:

Captain P.P. Brotherson’s Confederate Officers record states eleven (11) blacks served with the 1st Texas Heavy Artillery in the “Negro Cooks Regiment.” This annotation can be viewed on See the third line on the left. Also, the record is cataloged in the National Archives Catalog ID 586957 and microfilm number M331 under “Confederate General and Staff Officers, and Nonregimental Enlisted Men.”

Could this be one of the types of regiments many Confederate historians have documented as part of Confederate History?

Well, could it?

Apparently not, according to Andy Hall, who began by taking a careful look at the document Ms. DeWitt shared with her friends.  Let’s look at it ourselves:

Hmm.  As Andy points out, somehow eleven black cooks for a heavy artillery unit stationed at Galveston, Texas, commanded by one Colonel Joseph Jarvis Cook, have been transformed into a “Negro Cooks Regiment.”

Read Andy’s post for the rest of the story.

As Gary Adams, the president of the Southern Heritage Preservation Group, says, in regard to a topic discussed here,

Everyone does realize one of the quotes here is a myth posted to demostrate why research from reputable sites is important.

Precisely.  Indeed, according to Mr. Adams, the discovery that Ulysses S. Grant did not actually say comments attributed to him moved him to create his group.  He should be applauded for that.

Now we’ll see what to make of his commitment to historical accuracy in this case … one celebrated on the Facebook page of the very group he founded to ensure a commitment to historical accuracy.

Update: Judging from this post, at least some of the members of the SHPG are aware of this misadventure in research.  We’ll see whether they have a commitment to real scholarship.