Seeing What is Not There

Once in a while one should step back, reflect, and then pull things together.  Such is the case with several posts that have appeared here in the past few weeks.  Together they explore a common problem.

We’ve revealed that Ed Bearss’s comment about the role of African Americans in the Civil War has been distorted and twisted into a statement supporting the notion that enslaved blacks voluntarily served in the ranks of the Confederate army.

We’ve discovered that Dr. Lewis Steiner’s observation about the presence of blacks with the Army of Northern Virginia in September 1862 has been twisted and distorted into a statement that they were serving in combat arms.

We’ve learned that Frederick Douglass’s comment about blacks serving in the Confederate military was simply a second hand assertion that he saw as advantageous to use to bolster his argument for black military service in the Union army.  Its value as “proof” of anything other than of Douglass’s ability to make good use of what he heard and read is, to say the least, problematic.

Finally, we’ve seen that in recent years someone deliberately distorted a photograph of black soldiers in United States service to make the claim that the image was of the 1st Louisiana Native Guards in Confederate service in 1861, despite evidence that Confederate authorities were not quite so welcoming.

Each of these statements, taken by themselves, might seem minor to some people, even as others wonder what’s going on.  Taken together, however, as we see a pattern of deception based upon the fabrication or distortion of the historical record.  Not a single commenter has posted evidence to the contrary.

Nor are these the only cases that could be brought to one’s attention.  Over at Civil War Memory Kevin Levin’s been doing a lot of work concerning Silas Chandler, who’s often portrayed as another black Confederate.   And that’s just for starters.  Other folks have done work on other aspects of this topic.

But there does appear to be a pattern of distortion, deception, and deceit in the use of these pieces of evidence to make a case for the presence of African Americans in the Confederate army as willing participants in fighting for the cause of southern independence.

Why do you think that is?  What conclusions might we draw?  Could you explain why these examples are still used by people who claim a fidelity to historical accuracy?  After all, they offer no defense of their use of these examples in light of the information presented.  They simply continue to present the examples.

10 thoughts on “Seeing What is Not There

  1. James F. Epperson February 8, 2011 / 5:27 am

    I think the answer is close to obvious. The rise of the “black Confederate” narrative closely parallels the resurrection of slavery’s role in secession and the war, and the final decline of what little remained of the Lost Cause. Some Southern romantics have grabbed hold of the “black Confederate” idea as a way to say, “See? It couldn’t have been about race and slavery! Thousands of blacks fought for the South!”

  2. Sherree February 8, 2011 / 6:09 am


    I don’t know what the motivation of those who attempt to promote the black confederate myth might be. I can guess, but that would be nothing more than supposition on my part, and most likely not very useful. I do think that the focus on the groups that attempt to promote this narrative takes away from educating the public, if that is a goal of a blogger. Apparently, however, the influence of these groups is more pervasive than I am aware, so I understand the focus.

    My question is as follows: where does this leave the conversation? I understand fully the anger and frustration of African American men and women. The conversation is personal. History is personal. The overused “past is not even past” quote definitely applies. This is so for others in the nation, too. My Indigenous friends can attest to that, as I am sure you also know. The problem seems to be that history is a narrative that has not yet grown– outside of academic circles perhaps–to include the terrible truths of paradox. We still seem to need heroes and villains, and no one wants his or her ancestors to be the villain, although as a student of literature, I see some appeal to that role (smile) Robert E. Lee is a hero to some white southerners and a traitor to some white northerners and a criminal who committed crimes against humanity to some African American men and women. Tecumseh Sherman is a hero to some white northerners, a liberator to some African American men and women and a criminal who committed crimes against humanity to some white southerners and to some Indigenous men and women . Sheridan is a hero to some white northerners, a villain to some white southerners, etc, etc, etc…….This is not history; it is wishful thinking by everyone, in all actuality. And it is hurting all of us. I linked to your ISI intercollegiate site. The ideas presented are excellent. I truly believe that we must come together as a nation and understand one another in a way that is not mutually assured destruction of some sort. We all have a stake in the future, and this country is still in its infancy.

  3. David Corbett February 8, 2011 / 6:31 am

    Dear Sir,
    A tempest in a teapot. Academic fodder. Remember the fads of late: Northern Irish Catholics winning the war, then Saint Cleburne and the Confederate Irish, women soldiers, U.S. Colored Troops, now Black Confederates. Delightfully fun to read and write about, ain’t it?

    • Brooks D. Simpson February 8, 2011 / 8:32 am

      I would not group these things together. Nor would the people who argue for a significant number of enslaved blacks who voluntarily fought for the Confederacy, who would protest at their claims being dismissed as academic fodder. Nor would I dismiss the service of USCTs as a fad. Maybe you would like to dismiss all this with a wave of the hand because you find it too difficult to address directly. Thanks for reading and bestirring yourself to comment on something you want us to believe isn’t really worth noticing …

  4. Andy Hall February 8, 2011 / 8:33 am

    Adam Serwer, a blogger at The American Prospect, is not an historian, but he’s a pretty keen observer nonetheless. His conclusion, as an layman looking in on the argument with bemusement, is that the “black Confederate” phenomenon is a Lost Causer variant of “some of my best friends are black”:

    White guilt is generally characterized as a liberal phenomenon. The idea is that liberals seek to exonerate themselves from past racism rather than simply meet their obligations to their fellow citizens. To the extent that the former is an accurate description of someone’s motives, the criticism is warranted. But the attempt to minimize the suffering caused by slavery and segregation, to recast the Lost Cause as one motivated by “honor” and self-determination rather than racial supremacy and the preservation of chattel slavery, arises out of the same contemptible emotional impulse. The Lost Causer insisting that the Confederacy was not built on racism because of the presence of black soldiers isn’t any less mired in guilt than the liberal quietly mouthing the names of their black friends as they count them on their fingertips. In both cases, the individual trying to free themselves from history ends up drowning in a bottomless pit of self-pity and self-deception that, over time, can only ferment into rage over inability to find an absolution that will be forever beyond their reach.

  5. Mark February 8, 2011 / 1:37 pm

    Serwer’s post is interesting. Thanks Andy for posting that. I also can’t help having a sneaking suspicion that such false assertions aren’t also helped along by a sort of fashionable skepticism in the founding principles of the country, and the West generally. I’m surprised at how many not on the left at all (some Libertarian and some in thrall of some anti-bourgouis animus) seem to need to believe the worst (that the war wasn’t just, etc.) and studying history is out of fashion for similar reasons. I think folks advancing Confederate Romantic views know tthis and suppose about anything will slip under the radar.

  6. MarkD February 12, 2011 / 6:46 pm

    I just finished “The American Civil War” edited by Susan-Mary Grant, where in a chapter entitled “Confederate Emanipation and its Meaning,” Bruce Levine told of a late-war proposal to arm the slaves that was put forth by Davis and endorsed by RE Lee and others. He called it the “Cleburne-Davis proposal.” Nothing came of it, but it was news to me.

    He presents it as pure pragmatism to try to fend off defeat, but also advances the idea that many knew that slavery had to be reformed in some way if it was going to survive anyway, and so even if slaves had to be promised freedom to fight the idea was defensible as a way to protect the planter interest and retain slavery in some form. Not sure what to make of this. Are Levine’s ideas credible? I’ve not heard of this before,

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s