The Continuing Debate About the Continuing Debate About Black Confederate Soldiers

This is my first post in 2012 concerning the debate over black Confederate soldiers.  Only it isn’t.  It is, instead, an observation about recent comments made by two good friends, Gary Gallagher and Peter Carmichael, about the debate over black Confederates, a debate they just can’t let die.

That’s right.  While bloggers continue to explore a number of issues, the commentary offered by Gary and Peter (and then well publicized by Kevin Levin) focuses on the great crime of bloggers in exciting and keeping alive the issue of black Confederate military service … by paying attention to a marginalized fringe of extremists whose minds will never be changed on that issue and who use it as an entering wedge to claim that the war somehow wasn’t about slavery and that the Confederate experience stressed racial harmony and brotherhood.  It’s reasonable to conclude that these are much more exercises in heritage than history, and we’ve already had several visible Confederate heritage advocates admit that they pick and chose from the historical record to fashion a vision of Confederate heritage to serve their present-day political, social, and cultural perspectives.

But Gary and Peter seem unable to let go of the issue of blogging and black Confederates.  True, in Peter’s case case it’s just a couple of sentences, and of course it’s those sentences that have gotten the most attention … which has the ironic effect of overshadowing the rest of the message, which I’m sure will receive attention in due time … maybe.  I’ve linked above to a transcript of Peter’s comments as offered by John Rudy through Kevin Levin’s blog.  Peter says:

So we’ve got to move ahead. One thing that strikes me is that we have a hard time doing as historians, public historians or academic historians, that we need to recognize that the interpretive battle has been won. Certainly there are pockets of the lost cause out there, and we certainly need to contend and address those issues, but we often bring undue attention to those pockets of resistance. And the blogging is largely responsible for that, in exciting and talking about the issue of the Confederate slave. Man, that’s not an issue among professional historians, that’s not an issue with most of the public, but it is an issue with really, I think, a small minority.

Several months ago Gary devoted an entire op-ed to his feelings about blogging, and parts of that commentary received a lot of attention in certain places (although not here).  Here’s what was excerpted about his views on blogging and black Confederates:

Attention on numerous blogs can make an unworthy topic appear to be serious. The “debate” over black Confederate soldiers is a perfect example. This non-issue is kept alive, so far as I can tell, almost solely on blogs. The best bloggers have made clear from the outset, with unimpeachable evidence to back them up, that there were not thousands of black Confederate soldiers. They argued what any scholar familiar with wartime sources knows; namely, that substantial numbers of slaves accompanied Confederate armies and worked in myriad noncombatant roles, and that these men were not soldiers “serving” in the Confederate army. Like slaves who labored on fortifications or harvested crops or worked at Tredegar Iron Works, they contributed to the Confederate war effort as part of a system of forced labor that allowed the incipient slaveholding republic to mobilize a very high percentage of its white military-age population. The nearly obsessive attention lavished on Andrew and Silas Chandler strikes me as worse than unproductive because it helps keeps alive the hallucination that large numbers of black men shouldered arms in support of the southern rebellion.

Of course, to highlight such comments can make an unworthy topic appear to be serious.  Either blogging is an insignificant activity (in which case, why worry?) or it is not (in which case it says much about how some professional historians are concerned about losing control of the discourse and the privilege of agenda-setting).  To my mind, bloggers correctly grasp how students and the general public come to engage in historical inquiry in cyberspace: that includes the rather facile use of the search engine and various websites and discussion groups.  Books, magazines, and talks no longer enjoy the monopoly they once did: we now have television and the internet (note that is how we came to learn so quickly about what Peter had said).  We also have various outlets where many people, regardless of training or qualification, discuss and dispense historical interpretations and hold forth on evidence.  It’s a far richer, more diverse, more democratic, and more confusing world out there when it comes to historical “knowledge,” information, and interpretation.

For professional historians to ignore that is simply foolish.  After all, we’ve had a cottage industry grow up in Civil War studies in the past several decades: the field of memory studies.  That endeavor seeks to show how people in the past have reshaped and even distorted the historical narrative to serve various ends.  The debate over black Confederate soldiers is simply a continuation of that exercise.  Are we really to believe that professional historians think we should read what they say about this process in the past while heeding their admonition to refrain from entering that fray in the present?   Is calling attention to a flawed interpretation to be decried because it draws more attention to it?

Let me put it this way: if that’s the case, a lot of professional historians are going to be out of work.  For example, if that’s true, I never want to hear a single word about Jubal Early.  And I certainly don’t know why anyone would edit or contribute to a book like this one.  Go to the table of contents and you’ll find essays by Gary, Peter, and me, all picking on various versions of Civil War memory that are at variance with the record and detailing how that came to be.

Bloggers are simply following along the same path as memory studies, only they are commenting upon and contesting versions of memory as they emerge rather than for waiting for those versions to become entrenched in public understandings.  They have chosen to be part of the process as engaged participants rather than holding forth from the safety of their studies (which, of course, is where I sit as I type this).  They do other things as well and have chosen additional ways to engage a public in a forum that can be free-wheeling, fast-paced, and sometimes very rough.  After all, they also do the usual things: they write, they teach, they speak.

In short, this is a non-issue that has been kept alive by some caustic commentary that makes for ideal blog fodder as well as a few smug snickers from a select group of professional historians (some of whom would not know a wider audience if it slapped them in the face).  Both Gary and Peter have established themselves as major interpreters of Civil War history, and Peter himself recognizes the importance of blogging, because he’s arranged for a session of bloggers at this summer’s session of the Civil War Institute.  And, as Gary says, bloggers do good work: “The best bloggers have made clear from the outset, with unimpeachable evidence to back them up, that there were not thousands of black Confederate soldiers.”  I’d argue that this helps to explain why that debate has subsided.

Both Gary and Peter are good guys, which is why I’m a bit puzzled by all this (Peter’s even commented on Kevin Levin’s blog).  But I think Gary’s absolutely wrong when he declares that “The nearly obsessive attention lavished on Andrew and Silas Chandler strikes me as worse than unproductive because it helps keeps alive the hallucination that large numbers of black men shouldered arms in support of the southern rebellion.”  It strikes me as quite the opposite, just as the attention given to that image of the 1st Louisiana Native Guards that demonstrated that it was a fraudulent image did good work. The efforts of several people to discredit the popular tale of the Chandler Boys has effectively disabled it as Exhibit A for advocates who claim that African Americans served in large numbers as soldiers in the Confederate army and that they did so out of a common identification with their white comrades as to what the Confederacy was all about.  To my mind that’s no different than questioning LaSalle Pickett’s letters or the writings of a Jubal Early.  They are all exercises in investigating, deconstructing, and interpreting Civil War memory.

So we’ve got to move ahead.  One thing that some professional historians who do not blog have a hard time understanding is that the battle over public understandings of history as represented on and transmitted through the internet is not won, even if the interpretive battle over black Confederate soldiers has already been won by bloggers.  Certainly there remain pockets of professional historians out there who seem uncomfortable with blogging (unless they want to do it through the Washington Post‘s failing effort in that direction), but perhaps we as bloggers are bringing undue attention to those pockets of resistance.  Surely it’s just a handful of historians who find fault with the whole enterprise and who unwittingly bring us back, again and again, to the issue of black Confederate military service even as they claim that it is settled by doing what some historians do best: discussing the debate about the issue and crafting broad generalizations and assertions with no empirical support for what people think, say, and feel.  That’s not an issue among bloggers; that’s not an issue with most professional historians; but it really is an issue with a small but vocal minority.

It shouldn’t be.

So, in the words of Ulysses S. Grant, who was born this day 190 years ago … let us have peace.  Otherwise, I’ll fight it out on this line if it takes all summer … starting with the 2012 Civil War Institute.