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.