Having raised questions about other people’s scholarship in The Union War and about the place of military history in Civil War history, Gary Gallagher (in the April 2015 edition of Civil War Times) now turns his inquiring mind to asking why anyone (read: me [and a few other folks]) would pay any attention to the Virginia Flaggers.
He asserts that the Flaggers’ absurd “claims have provoked reactions from scholars and others who, in my view, bring a good deal of unwarranted attention to something that otherwise would be consigned to the irrelevant fringe of Civil War interests.” He does this, of course, by writing an article that will bring what he believes is “unwarranted attention” to the very people he would like me (among others) to ignore, although apparently he can’t quite ignore them.
It’s been nine days since Harvard historian John Stauffer raised a ruckus with his commentary about black Confederate soldiers on The Root, and six days since Jim Downs used his platform on Huffington Post to add his two cents (adjusted for inflation). Other than Downs, the only people who have commended Stauffer’s article are select Confederate heritage advocates, which proves that sometimes poor scholarship makes for strange bedfellows. Neither historian has chosen to respond to the specific criticism leveled at their contributions to the discussion … and I no longer expect that either one will. This suggests that neither historian was interested in engaging in serious discussion, but perhaps just wanted to offer something sensationalistic to make a splash. In this they succeeded beyond their wildest expectations. Whether their arguments left a favorable impression on readers outside a small circle of friends (none of whom have countered criticism of these pieces) remains to be seen, but at present count a number of people have called into question their arguments and use of evidence (where evidence is used, which is not always the case).
Oh my goodness. But you knew it had to happen.
Discussions about “black Confederates” follow a pattern of assertion, response, and then commentary, and this time has proven to be no exception. Over at Civil War Emancipation, Donald Shaffer expresses his irritation with the most recent discussion. Kevin Levin objected to the objection.
I hope Don expresses his displeasure directly to John Stauffer and Jim Downs. It seems to me a bit bizarre to criticize people who were the targets of these essays, especially Kevin Levin, especially when the real target should be the poor example of historical scholarship offered by Stauffer. Downs’s piece is also worth engaging, and that would do a lot more to foster an informed debate than a call to put an end to it. After all, I don’t tell other people what to research, and nowadays I simply dismiss out of hand attempts to tell me what to do.
More useful is Matt Gallman’s response in Don’s blog. I think that is a topic worth pursuing. And I think Don’s correct in saying that there are other ways to explore this issue, but I’d prefer to hear what we can and should do rather than what we shouldn’t do.
This is all part of blogging. Posts beget posts. I’m sure that’s far from over. I find irritating such expressions of irritation, but, while I’d wish they would stop, I don’t tell people to stop it. After a while, however, I will just ignore them. I have hopes that Don’s post may provoke more thought than that.
It’s one thing to examine the evidence and the intellectual framework behind a piece of historical scholarship. It’s quite another to follow the course of an argument that raises a lot of questions about the practice of Civil War scholarship. The response to John Stauffer’s essay on black Confederates is a case in point.
As one might assume, I was not the only historian who objected rather quickly to Stauffer’s article. So did Kevin Levin in a pair of posts, the second of which ignited more controversy. For it was there that Levin decided to make reference to another ongoing discussion about the place of military history within Civil War studies, one that aggrieved some people’s sensibilities and aroused objections. Most of that discussion involved an article by Gary Gallagher and Kathryn Meier that appeared in the December 2014 issue of the Journal of the Civil War Era, although Earl Hess in the December 2014 issue of Civil War History offered some different observations about the place of military history in Civil War studies. Levin simply observed that Stauffer’s essay could have benefitted from a better understanding of military history, a point Gallagher and Meier made in their essay.
The eruption that followed was as loud as it was unexpected. Continue reading
In this interview with the Civil War Monitor, Peter Carmichael discusses Gettysburg College’s Civil War Institute, which he directs, and comments on recent discussions about Civil War military history, black Confederates, and blogging.
I’m sure some of his comments will provoke discussion.
My, isn’t that a long title.:)
A few days ago a friend of mine pointed me to John Stauffer’s essay on black Confederates, which, as noted, was a slightly updated rehash of a presentation he made in 2011.
The essay was problematic, to be kind, in two respects.
First, Stauffer clearly and deliberately mischaracterized the perspective of several people, including Ta-Nehisi Coates, Kevin Levin, and yours truly, on black Confederates. That’s simply scholarly malpractice, and I’m surprised that in ensuing discussions that some scholars who declare that they are all about various research approaches to history did not call him out on that. None of the people Stauffer targeted have ever argued that there were no black Confederates. Nor have they denied that there were not substantial numbers of enslaved blacks who accompanied Confederate armies in the field. All have acknowledged that some free blacks, many of them along the Gulf Coast (New Orleans stands out as the best example) volunteered their services as soldiers to the Confederacy in 1861. There are other instances of people defined as black in southern society who fit the definition of “soldier” held by the Confederates at the time (these scholars resist retrofitting 21st century definitions on 19th century service, as they should). And, of course, they note the debate over enlisting enslaved blacks in the Confederate army in 1864-65, as well as the Confederate policy of impressing enslaved blacks into military service as well as the presence of slaves accompanying their masters in Confederate ranks.
To say otherwise is to misunderstand, mischaracterize, misrepresent, or simply lie, or to demonstrate sheer scholarly incompetence. Why any reputable scholar would tolerate such behavior or seek to excuse it puzzles me.
Want to learn about ironclads and Stonewall Jackson? Sure you do.
And now you have.
Historians of the American Civil War often have to contend with what-if questions (and some ask a few of their own). Indeed, inherent in much of an assessment of the wisdom of this or that move or decision is some contemplation of what was likely to happen if someone made a different move or decision. Otherwise, we would be stuck assessing decisions by outcomes, which is little more than hindsight, and tells us very little about the options open to the decision maker.
A different sort of what-if question reverses the course of history in some seemingly critical way. The favorite what-if that embodies this approach is asking what if Stonewall Jackson had been at Gettysburg. Usually, the person asking the question has Jackson replace Richard S. Ewell as a corps commander on the afternoon of July 1 and believes that Jackson would have attacked the Union position on Cemetery Hill, usually with the assumption that such an assault would have been successful, etc.
This exercise is so inherently problematic as to suggest that it is useless unless someone would rather deal with history as they fantasize about it as opposed to understanding what really happened and why (which would take actual work as a reader and researcher). Continue reading
They say if you don’t succeed, try, try again.
Apparently John Stauffer thinks so, because today on The Root he offered a slightly different (and somewhat better developed) essay sharing his perspective on Black Confederates.
Stauffer’s strained effort to construct a strawman of scholarly controversy in order to frame his contribution would be understandable if it came from someone of lesser talent, but I think we are entitled to expect more from him. Continue reading