Today I introduce a new feature at Crossroads: “Keeping It Honest.” The title (which may be subject to change) is adapted from a feature on Anderson Cooper’s show on CNN, although I’ve replaced the “them” with “it.” I’m still toying around with other labels.
This week, we look at a quote from Ed Bearss, who served as Chief Historian of the National Park Service from 1981 to 1994. The following statement is often attributed to him:
I don’t want to call it a conspiracy to ignore the role of Blacks both above and below the Mason-Dixon line, but it was definitely a tendency that began around 1910.
As presented, on its own, the comment is unexceptional, although its source remains unknown. Indeed, the statement highlights how many historians tended to overlook the role of African Americans during the Civil War. For years, W. E. B. Du Bois’s Black Reconstruction in America, 1860-1880 (1935) stood nearly alone as a major study of the theme. It would not be until 1956 that we would see Dudley T. Cornish’s study of blacks in the Union army, The Sable Arm; in the 1960s and early 1970s more historians, including Benjamin Quarles, John Hope Franklin, James M. McPherson, Jack D. Foner, and Peter Burchard added to that story. David W. Blight’s Race and Reunion (2001) addresses the issue of how certain versions of the Civil War faded from the mainstream in the half-century after the Civil War, despite the efforts of men such as Luis F. Emilio and George W. Williams to keep alive the memory of black service. One could argue that we still need studies of African Americans during the Civil War above the Mason-Dixon line to accompany a rich and ever-growing literature on blacks, free and enslaved, south of that line: we sorely lack a history of emancipation to tell us how freedom came.
However, I venture to guess that most people do not encounter the quote in the context in which I’ve just placed it. Instead, this quote is repeatedly used in support of arguments that African Americans, enslaved as well as free, served in the Confederate army. Even that claim, by itself, is not controversial. We know that enslaved blacks were impressed by the Confederate government and local authorities for various reasons, including preparing field fortifications (which, after all, helps to explain the incident that led to Benjamin F. Butler’s invention of the “contraband” concept to justify his decision not to hand over to Confederate authorities and slaveholders the blacks in his possession in 1861). We’re also aware of the case of the free blacks of Louisiana, who offered to serve for the Confederacy in 1861, but were spurned by Confederate authorities: some of those free men of color eventually served in the ranks of the Union. But many of the people who brandish Bearss’s quote do so as “testimony” that enslaved blacks served willingly as soldiers (a very specific status) in Confederate ranks. Some people insist that this tells us something about the relationship between race, slavery, and the causes for secession and war, as well as what both sides were fighting for. Want samples? Look here for the use of the quote.
What do I make of this?
Whatever one’s views on the issue of “black Confederates,” as some people use the term, Bearss’s quote simply makes no mention of that argument. It is misused as an endorsement of the factual accuracy of stories about black Confederates. It’s simply silent on that score.
Elsewhere, however, Bearss has not been silent on this issue. He’s reportedly repeatedly dismissed the claims made about large numbers of blacks in Confederate ranks as soldiers (and, folks, in the 19th century, soldiers were people who enlisted in the army … and could be found on the roles).
It would be better, of course, if Ed Bearss came out in public and simply addressed this matter in a more formal statement, and you would think that both Ed’s friends and the groups that employ him as a tour guide would assist in that process if they wanted Ed’s true feelings to be known. This is not the first time I’ve suggested that a formal statement be issued, and you would think that all of those people who are interested in historical accuracy and such would see that using Ed’s quote to support a position he challenges is not all that far from what Thomas Lowry was accused of doing last week. And all of those people who moaned about the failure of scholars to do something about this … well, each and every one of you has a chance to help set this record straight right now. Contact Ed Bearss. Make known your feelings about this misrepresentation of his words, and impress upon him the importance of setting the record straight in definitive fashion. Show me your commitment to historical accuracy and honest scholarship.
I’m not the first person to point out the troublesome nature of this quote and its misuse by people who claim to want to uncover “true” history. Kevin Levin’s brought it up before, including here. But I’m tired of hearing about it.
Enjoy Black History Month.