What’s a Historian to Do?

In a continuing conversation over at Kevin Levin’s Civil War Memory, a commenter offers the following observation:

Indeed, as more people turn to the internet for information, the more these black Confederate sites have an impact. Obviously we can’t control the content of these sites (nor should we), so the question becomes if it’s worth fighting them. So it’s important to understand who it is that goes to these sites, and what it is they pick up from it (how many people that see it believe it? and to what degree?), and most importantly to your point about education: how many of these people who visit such sites are even open to education? Or do they have a conclusion in mind already and only find what they already believe (which means they will find a forum to do that through, no matter what, online or not)? These questions require evaluation as suggested by Professor Orr, in order to answer the question of whether it’s worth rebutting these sites (i.e. are their audiences even open to our interpretation? and thus, is it worth our resources? or are we better off spending those resources elsewhere?) — which gets precisely to the heart of your question: “it’s a fair question to ask as to whether they are passing up opportunities to educate others through online sources and conceding the field to this so-called ‘fringe.’ ” Is it worth the fight?

A larger point (and not speaking directly to your point, but related): in my opinion, the more we argue with them on their terms, the more we create that there is a “debate” and legitimize their position, and the more we lose the fight, because unfortunately the people who want to believe this black Confederate stuff would accuse us of ignoring evidence, etc. This is always their accusation, no matter how strong your argument is. Thus, my new approach is this: ok, fine, so 10 zillion African Americans fought for the Confederacy, but really that’s irrelevant to why the Confederate States of America was established as a nation (i.e. to protect the institution of slavery), if we look at any/all of its foundational documents. In other words, it is impossible to be accused of ignoring their evidence, because I am acknowledging their evidence, and then refocusing the question to the heart of the matter (since I think the number of black Confederates is irrelevant to why the CSA was established). Unfortunately, I think by arguing on the numbers of black Confederates, we argue on their terms (i.e. implicitly acknowledging the number of black Confederates who enlisted is connected to the question about how important slavery was to the Confederacy). I think the answer is irrelevant: whether 0 black Confederates, 10 of them, or a million of them, what does not change is this: all the forming documents of the CSA explicitly state why the CSA is formed. Period. This has absolutely nothing to do (and cannot be changed) with the number of black Confederates that “fought for” the Confederacy. Thus, I think it’s time we don’t get sucked into the neo-Confederate Red Herring paradigm of the importance/relevancy of the number of black Confederates, but it’s time we simply point out the CSA’s foundational documents.

I find this position problematic, and it frames the choices as either/or.  Either you contest the evidence someone offers (because you can demonstrate it’s false) or you set that aside and say, “so what?”

Readers of this blog already know that I have long ago raised the “so what?” argument, so I see nothing original in that.  But I think that simply going directly to “so what?” while leaving the evidence uncontested as the approach is simply wrong-headed.  Moreover, isn’t simply accepting the evidence as true a way to legitimize the evidence offered?  I’m very careful to say when I offer “so what” that the evidence is very much contested, but, for the sake of argument, I’ll stipulate it as entered into the record.

Inherent in this commenter’s claim is an accusation: replying to certain people gives them legitimacy and recognition, while ignoring it will leave it to die.  I’ve raised this question before, and there is a counterargument.  The notion that people who contest the claims concerning black Confederates are responsible for the fact that there is an argument (and one that some people speculate may distract professional Civil War historians from getting their own messages across) seems to me mistaken in its import, and I could with equal justice raise it about any issue.

I truly doubt that battling proponents of what’s becoming known in some circles as the myth of Black Confederates will cause many of them to change their minds.  As Andy Hall has argued, it’s an article of faith with them: good old “BorderRuffian”, for example, has left open the notion that one need not have served in the military to be a veteran (how do those of you who are veterans feel about that denigration of your service?).  But there are other audiences, other publics, other consumers of online information.  If we don’t contest the factual basis of these claims, the NPS finds itself supporting historical falsehoods; Virginia’s fourth graders are fed inaccurate history; and people turning to the internet for information will find fraud presented as fact, with nothing to contest it.

Contesting both the narrative and the supposed evidence adduced in support of these claims is what historians do all the time.  Should we let photographic forgeries and false claims go uncontested?  Would that be a good rule for historians to follow, period?  I don’t think so.  Oh, I don’t think we should spend every waking hour in a vigilant reactive mode, and I’ve seen idiots suggest, for example, that not contesting everything that falls out of the mouths of political candidates serves as a tacit endorsement of that candidate.

The commenter on Kevin’s blog later offered this observation:

Moreover, you are missing the big picture if you get sucked into arguing over numbers with them. These people argue for black Confederates why? What is their larger point? Their larger point is to say that slavery was not important to the CSA. Thus, while you are busy arguing on their terms on their paradigm and creating a forum of debate so these people are heard (instead of letting them just talk to each other), I would rather get to the heart of the matter and point out the irrefutable official CSA documentation that explicitly states why the CSA was formed. To me, that undermines their larger point, and thus defeats their argument.

Put another way, the “number” of black Confederates is simply the means to an end — the end/goal being that the CSA was not a nation fighting for preserving the institution slavery. So, I like to go for the goal, because once again, they will simply say to you that you are denying their evidence and put you in some liberal conspiracy or something — but if you acknowledge them and calm them down, and then show your own evidence in return (evidence that gets to the heart of the matter), you will defeat their argument another way.

Again, I’ve already raised the same point before, but I think this tactic is miscast as an act of persuasion directed at the person who believes in the Black Confederate story as an article of faith.  You may come away from this confrontation believing that you have defeated an argument, but how so?  Certainly the person with whom you are arguing doesn’t make that admission if that person is already committed to a position.  The only way any of that matters is when an audience eager to learn and open to discussion wants to weight the merits of various arguments, and one way to undermine the Black Confederate narrative is to undermine its evidence and logic (for example, if there were so many Black Confederates, why was not mention made of them in the debates over enlisting blacks in the winter of 1864-65?  Are you really going to tell me Robert E. Lee was not aware of their existence?). If one confines oneself simply to saying so what, then one’s given away a lot of history, and the presenter of the Black Confederate tale will simply dismiss you as “politically correct” and walk away, declaring that you had nothing … NOTHING … to say about their evidence, leaving the audience to scratch their heads.  Counter evidence, logic, and implications, and then you may be getting somewhere, or at least that’s what I think.  

What do you think?

20 thoughts on “What’s a Historian to Do?

  1. BorderRuffian May 12, 2011 / 12:54 pm

    “As Andy Hall has argued, it’s an article of faith with them: good old BorderRuffian’, for example, has left open the notion that one need not have served in the military to be a veteran (how do those of you who are veterans feel about that denigration of your service?)”

    The case I posted on Levin’s site- Preston Roberts the slave cook. To be awarded the Cross of Honor he had to receive endorsement from other Confederate veterans.

    • Brooks D. Simpson May 12, 2011 / 1:38 pm

      The “other” has yet to be proven. Absent documentation, your claim proves nothing. Now go to work and produce the documentation. Show us what those people wrote. Show the endorsement.

  2. BorderRuffian May 12, 2011 / 1:10 pm

    Hey, y’all opened up a whole new can of worms and got bit, didn’t ya?-

    “had to receive endorsement from other Confederate veterans”

    • Brooks D. Simpson May 12, 2011 / 1:36 pm

      Not at all. You haven’t presented the endorsement papers and what they said. Again, you denigrate the service of real veterans by making these claims without supporting evidence.

      And, BR, quoting yourself is not exactly supporting evidence. I think that’s funny … offering a phrase, then quoting it as proof that you’re correct. If that’s the best you can do, I accept your admission of your intellectual bankruptcy.

  3. TF Smith May 12, 2011 / 3:24 pm

    Not to get all Godwiny and everything, but isn’t ignoring the liars implicitly endorsing them?

    There is a lot to be said for challenging the David Irvings of the world – no matter what their particular lies are – to provide factual evidence to support their claims…

    As an example, there were three factual histories of AA troops in the USA (both the USCTs and others) published by AA historians and AA-centered presses in the 19th Century – where are the equivalents from the slaves who allegedly were fighting for Dixie?

    …the world wonders…

  4. Matt McKeon May 12, 2011 / 4:35 pm

    Its interesting to compare three historical myths;

    creationism, holocaust denial and black confederates. I reject that these groups are in anyway similar, except that each is using the past to promote a current agenda. The relation between creationism and biology..well there isn’t any. There’s a social value in teaching real science and not thinly disguised religion, but creationism or debating creationism doesn’t really add anything to biology.

    Refuting holocaust denial on the other hand have produced some excellent research and books. Robert J. Evans, Deborah Lipstadt and Peter van Pelt’s books on Auschwitz and the David Irving libel trial have added to the understanding of the Holocaust.

    Disproving the black confederate myth doesn’t really add to historical knowledge, although Andy Hall does a great job in demonstrating what historical research is. There’s a social value in getting history right, but I don’t know if it actually adds to historical knowledge.

    I must state:
    Obviously these three groups are utterly different in every way imaginable, don’t overlap, and don’t have equivalence.

    • Brooks D. Simpson May 12, 2011 / 5:11 pm

      Given the political import of the BCM, discrediting it hampers a certain political and social agenda embraced by many of its advocates.

    • Marc Ferguson May 12, 2011 / 5:57 pm

      “Disproving the black confederate myth doesn’t really add to historical knowledge, although Andy Hall does a great job in demonstrating what historical research is. There’s a social value in getting history right, but I don’t know if it actually adds to historical knowledge.”

      I think it does add to historical knowledge if it is countered with accurate descriptions and analyses of the roles of African Americans, free and enslaved, who accompanied and labored for Confederate armies.

      • Andy Hall May 13, 2011 / 7:33 am

        The point of pushing back against the BCS meme with the actual documentation isn’t about revealing to the True Believers the error of their ways; it’s about turning up in search engines. We can’t change the fact that some people make spurious claims about James Kemp Holland or Fremantle’s account of the Gettysburg Campaign or the Arlington Monument; the best one can do, I think, is to explain in specific detail why those claims are incorrect, and trust interested readers to take the time to Google around for additional information.

        • Brooks D. Simpson May 13, 2011 / 8:17 am

          The reason I moved this conversation here was to focus on the content of what was being posted in the comment’s section of Kevin’s blog and to move away from some of the static that was about to overwhelm the argument.

    • Lyle Smith May 13, 2011 / 7:48 am

      Throw in black Egyptians as well. At the West Texas junior high school I attended black history month was used to promote the myth about Egyptians being black. No distinction was made about the short lived Nubian dynasty… just that the Pharaohs that built the great pyramids were black. Nonsense.

      Communist theories on history should be included as well. Chariman Mao is still considered to have mostly right and good by a majority of Chinese(I’ve been there and heard this myself). North Korean history do you believe it? 🙂

      The political left makes up stories too. Lets be fair.

      • Brooks D. Simpson May 13, 2011 / 8:19 am

        Oh, there are different narratives supporting different causes across the political spectrum.

        • Lyle Smith May 13, 2011 / 10:09 am

          Yes, I totally agree.

  5. Ray O'Hara May 12, 2011 / 7:50 pm

    Levin makes the mistake of thinking the debate is to convince the other party when it is to convince the audience. Leave the field to the crank and the crank will win.

    and then there is who is pushing the agenda, the Lost Causers are advocates because they want to whitewash the Secession.

    the more insidious crew are the Libertarians, the DiLorenzo, Lew Rockwell types who are pushing it for a modern political agenda and who have the ear of Ron Paul who has a substantial national following.

    Add in the Melissa Harris-Perry faction who see Black Confederates as something else Blacks are denied credit for and one gets a strange medley of groups.

    M H-P Black Studies angle the one needing to be approached with the most tact, the first two groups can be portrayed as near loons if not outright ones. \

    All must be engaged ot their narrative will become the narrative, and we’ve all seen in the Grant was a drunken butcher /the South won all the battles how persistent an incorrect narrative can be.

    or maybe the Black Confederates were geniuses at camouflage

  6. Matt McKeon May 12, 2011 / 8:56 pm

    Its Robert van Pelt of course. In response to the holocaust denial people, some real history and new research has been done: the opposite of the intention of the deniers. I don’t think any new history has been done in response to the black confederate ideologues in the same way, but I might be wrong.

    With the BC guys, it’s not open debates, it’s rather a case of sneak attacks, with BC talking points slipping into the mainstream through the back door. It’s pest control. I wonder if professional historians consider it a distraction, doing another couple of rounds, knowing that the zombie like First Native Guards(we have photos!)will rise again to feed on the brains of the living.

  7. James F. Epperson May 13, 2011 / 4:53 am

    I’ve made this point before: Long ago, biologists ignored creationists because they didn’t want to legitimize their crackpot ideas. And now we have state school boards endorsing creationism. So I think it would be a Bad Idea to ignore the “black Confederate” mythos.

  8. TF Smith May 13, 2011 / 9:53 am

    Okay, if Abraham Lincoln: Vampire Hunter is on the way, can Pat Cleburne: Zombie Black Confederate Organizer be far behind?

  9. Matt Gallman May 13, 2011 / 10:20 am

    I think that most folks would subscribe to the notion that there are many rooms in the historians’ mansion. Seems to me that historians should engage the questions of their choosing, so long as they do a good job. (Whether their choices lead to jobs and publications is another matter!)

    Don’t you often look at folks doing other jobs and think “boy, I’m glad somebody is doing that, and I’m glad it isn’ me”? (Navy Seals, Air Traffic Controllers, Associate Deans)

    In that spirit, I think it is valuable that folks do scholarly battle with the people who think there were 200,000 black confederates, even if no minds will be changed.

    There is a separate issue, that has been raised here and on Kevin’s site and elsewhere: Is there something in the act of debating that legitimizing beliefs that have no claim to legitimacy? Probably. And are there folks who pay no attention to the debate who get a sense that there is in fact a debate going on with two real sides? Probably that too.

    I know of no answer to that problem, beyond the simple suggestion that folks who are fighting the good fight might want to keep using words like “myth” rather than “debate” in their titles (of lectures, articles, posts whatever) so that folks who are just glancing and not reading don’t come away with the idea that there is a legitimate debate here

  10. John Foskett May 13, 2011 / 1:34 pm

    AS so many others have said, and as Brooks put on the table at the beginning, it’s not a “debate” if one side is just making it up. I keep asking for a few simple things: (1) a photograph or three – how many thousands of photographs were taken during the War and yet not one establishing this truly remarkable phenomonon has survived; (2) a document or three in the OR referring to this curiosity – there are a lot of thick, cumbersome volumes; (3) correspondence, a diary, or a journal by one of the officers at the rank of Colonel or above who was in command of this unusual body of troops; (4) somebody’s memoirs along the lines of “Four Years in a Black Regiment Fighting with Lee”. There is far more convincing proof that Sasquatches stalk the North Cascades…..

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