Just The Facts, Please: A Note on Recent Discussions About Black Confederates … or … Civil War Cultural Historians Are Freaking Out

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.

Second, Stauffer attempted to address several issues of fact and interpretation. That discussion proved equally problematic.

One cannot read the story of John Parker without seeing that he was unwillingly impressed into action during First Manassas. No one would say that under such conditions his actions made him a soldier or constituted support for the Confederacy. Parker’s story actually supports the interpretations offered by Coates, Levin, and myself as well as other scholars, including Glenn Brasher. I note that Stauffer failed to acknowledge Brasher’s fine book.

Stauffer declares, “Confederates impressed slaves as laborers and at times forced them to fight. In effect, they put guns to their heads, forcing them to fire on Yankees.” Nothing new there. Coates, Levin, Brasher, and I would agree, and we’ve said this some time ago. Why Stauffer fails to acknowledge that is left for someone else to explain.

Nor is the information in Stauffer’s essay concerning Frederick Douglass’s 1861 observations about blacks serving in the Confederate army new. What is curious is that Stauffer, who had no problem linking to (and misrepresenting) this post, failed to explore what others have said about that observation. Douglass took stories that had circulated about First Manassas and repeated them in making the argument that since Confederate forces used black slaves as soldiers, so should Union forces. Where Stauffer stumbled rather badly was when he declared:

What were Douglass’ sources in identifying black Confederates? One came from a Virginia fugitive who escaped to Boston shortly before the Battle of First Manassas in Virginia that summer. He saw “one regiment of 700 black men from Georgia, 1000 [men] from South Carolina, and about 1000 [men with him from] Virginia, destined for Manassas when he ran away.”

Andy Hall did his typical scholarly sleuthing and discovered that Douglass first learned of this particular testimony in February 1862, so he could not have been referring to it in 1861. It is remarkable to note that in ensuing discussions about Stauffer’s piece that certain people failed to acknowledge Hall’s discovery, although I made sure to broadcast it in those venues. I’ll leave it to those people, several of whom have offered interesting insights about historical methodology, to explain why they have nothing to say about a very simple and straightforward evaluation of evidence.

Stauffer then cites a letter written by a Union soldier, William Henry Johnson, an African American who fought with the 8th Connecticut, who reported in a letter written after the battle:

It was not alone the white man’s victory, for it was won by slaves. Yes, the Confederates had three regiments of blacks in the field, and they maneuvered like veterans, and beat the Union men back. This is not guessing, but it is a fact.

It is also a fact that the 8th Connecticut was not at First Manassas, because it had yet to be formed. It is more accurate to say that Johnson was at First Bull Run as a soldier in the 2nd Connecticut Infantry, a 90-day unit (when it left service, he joined the 8th Connecticut). You can find the entire letter here. It’s perfectly reasonable to assume that Frederick Douglass drew on this letter (published in August 1861) in his September 1861 statement. Again, we await the identification of these three regiments. I’m sure the Confederate generals would have liked to have known about this.

Stauffer then tells his readers about the passage of confiscation legislation and the flow of blacks to Union lines (something I described back in 1990 in an article and in 1991 in Let Us Have Peace — and others have discussed as well), and reminds them of the actions of free blacks in Charleston in supporting the Confederacy in 1861 (something placed in context by the work of Michael P. Johnson and James L. Roark back in 1984 in this book and this book). He cites the story of free blacks in Louisiana volunteering to serve the Confederacy in 1861 (omitting that the offer was rejected). There’s nothing new about any of this inforamtion.

Stauffer offers as evidence of black Confederates two images that appeared in Harper’s Weekly that have long been the subject of discussion, although he shows no awareness of that fact. Apparently, if it appeared in Harper’s Weekly, it must be true, and that’s all he has to say about that. Here are the images in question: one published in 1862 and one published in 1863. I guess northern newspapers offering imaginative sketches are the best evidence of black Confederates, right?

Finally, overlooking the enlistment debate of 1864-65 as well as the raising of a few black companies in 1865, Stauffer claims that reports (as opposed to the reality) of black Confederates declined after 1863. He attributes this to the impact of US emancipation policy and to the resistance of slaveholders to Confederate impressment of slaves. Yet those people who have actually studied this issue know that black slaves remained with Confederate field forces after 1863. As Glenn Brasher suggested (and he beat me to this in social media), a more reasonable explanation is that starting with the recruitment in earnest of black soldiers by the United States in 1863 there was no need to tell stories about black Confederates in order to promote the cause of black enlistment in the North.

There’s a lot of work that needs to be done on the many aspects of the issue of how black labor supported the Confederate war effort, which is an entirely different question than whether blacks themselves freely supported the Confederate war effort and endorsed its objectives as well as the rationale for the Confederacy. These is reason to believe that other concerns were at work. One could also explore the functions of the debate over black Confederate service in the North. What can’t be denied is that John Stauffer’s presentation rests in the end on poor scholarship as well as poor scholarly practices in engaging the current discussion. One could point to other scholars, especially Bruce Levine, as having offered insights that bear on this discussion, and whose inclusion would enrich the exercise.

To date Stauffer has remained silent when it comes to defending his findings, following the pattern he established in 2011 (and in marked contrast to his willingness to attack other people’s work, as we see here and here). But other people have debated the merits of his new essay, or at least some have: others have engaged in a discussion that targets one of Stauffer’s critics, Kevin Levin, and that shows scholarly debate running off the rails on blogs and social media, including Facebook (which at times threatens to become the new usenet). Why are some Civil War cultural historians freaking out?

That, my friends, is the story I’ll tell another time.

31 thoughts on “Just The Facts, Please: A Note on Recent Discussions About Black Confederates … or … Civil War Cultural Historians Are Freaking Out

  1. Patrick Young January 24, 2015 / 2:09 pm

    I appreciated the book “Sick from Freedom” by Jim Downs, and I was surprised and disappointed to see him support Stauffer’s poor scholarship on Black Confederates. As someone who teaches law students how to examine and analyze evidence, I have to say that both men need some additional training.

    • Brooks D. Simpson January 24, 2015 / 3:04 pm

      Dr. Downs informs us on his FB page that he learned many things at Columbia. Elsewhere it’s evident that Stauffer and he go back a few years.

      The problem with his essay is not in his characterization of the structure of archives but in a flat refusal to deal with the nuts and bolts of evidence in this particular case.

  2. Kristoffer January 24, 2015 / 3:29 pm

    Some guy on Downs’ article commented and said he’s found a picture of a black Confederate soldier. This guy was supposedly in an Arkansas Confederate unit. Here’s the image: http://img837.imageshack.us/img837/874/s4i8.jpg

    • Brooks D. Simpson January 25, 2015 / 2:39 pm

      There’s been an interesting discussion of that image in several places, but nothing to confirm the racial identity or status of the person in question.

      • Leo January 28, 2015 / 6:49 pm

        I have experience with photography.

        I see nothing of substance suggesting the individual is Black. It is most likely a combination of a poor image combined with facial hair and someone with a farmer’s tan.

        If you look on the bottom right you will see Jason from the Halloween movies.

  3. Glenn B January 24, 2015 / 4:05 pm

    Brooks, as you know, I have largely (and purposely) kept my head down in all of this. But since you’ve pointed out here that I do have a dog in the fight in the form of my book (thanks for the shout-out) I will just step in gingerly and repost a link to an essay I wrote last spring for the Civil War Monitor. I think it makes clear how I interpreted these sources.


  4. Jarret Ruminski January 24, 2015 / 4:16 pm

    Stephanie McCurry dealt with this issue in “Confederate Reckoning: Power and Politics in the Civil War South.” Why would Stauffer even touch this subject without citing that book too?

      • Jarret Ruminski January 25, 2015 / 2:44 pm

        He mentions her in passing, but if he’s trying to argue that impressed slaves were soldiers, then her argument demands more attention.

  5. TF Smith January 24, 2015 / 4:28 pm

    You know, it comes down to something as basic as a roster – without one, no soldier gets paid; so until the roster of the 1st CSCTs or 1er Corps du Afrique du Virginie or the 1st Melungeon Rangers or whatever the hell these people imagine was in the field as part of the confederate army can be provided, they’re offering opinions divorced from facts.

    I think a large part of this (absent the outright Lost Causer types) is people like Stauffer, I imagine, have never been part of any military organization – if so, the realities of morning musters or the equivalent would have penetrated.

    Although presumably even English professors get a paycheck and have the regular monthly department meeting; this really is not that difficult. There’s a reason both the US forces, and the rebels, had these people called paymasters.

    • John Foskett January 25, 2015 / 9:23 am

      Precisely one of the (many) problems with this junk history. The basic proposition which these folks care about is the intriguing notion that lots of blacks fought for a cause which was premised on preserving their bondage. For the “neo-confeds” and Lost Causers, this helps them justify a delusion about why their ancestors went to war. For guys like Stauffer, it may be more a “thinking outside the box” self-image. But none of the indicia of organized, armed, volunteer “troops” exist – although they exist in exponential form for white Confederate troops and white and black Union troops. Rosters, unit photos, reports in the OR, journals, sketches – nothing. Put aside the fact that organized, armed black troops would have hit the most sensitive nerve imaginable in a fundamentally race-based society. Our host raises additional concerns about Stauffer’s work, however. It appears that he doesn’t do essential “get down in the weeds and probe” research. Moreover, it appears that he fails to ask appropriately skeptical questions about what he uses. Those are not good qualities for a historian. What we’re left with is that lots of blacks “served” the CSA cause. But lots of enslaved laborers “served” the Third Reich’s cause. An interesting fact but one which adds no support of any kind to what this crowd is grasping for.

      • Andy Hall January 25, 2015 / 10:45 am

        For the “neo-confeds” and Lost Causers, this helps them justify a delusion about why their ancestors went to war. For guys like Stauffer, it may be more a “thinking outside the box” self-image.

        For the Confederate Heritage folks, the existence of large numbers of patriotic African Americans willingly taking up the mantle of the Confederate cause helps remove the taint of chattel bondage. They believe in black Confederates because they need to, to maintain the hagiography of the Confederate cause.

        I think you’re right about Stauffer.

      • TF Smith January 25, 2015 / 9:07 pm

        Lots of horses “served” the rebel armies, as did mules, oxen, and various other livestock. Don’t think they had much agency in it, however.
        And “forced labor” does not equal “soldiers” in ANY army, ever.

      • Richard Scott Farris March 3, 2015 / 2:49 am

        Damn your lies to hell from whence they come John Foskett…Us “Lost Causers” are in reality Authentic American Patriots (aka “Unreconstructed Southerners”) who know WHO Founded [and attempted to preserve] America and WHY–unlike you yankee treacherous treasonous traitors…Mass-murderer Abe Lincoln and his northern Useful Idiots destroyed the voluntary Union [of Sovereign States under a Constitutional Democratic REPUBLIC] and enslaved us all (e.g. the “IRS” via the 16th Amendment, etc.)…You should be made to read the definitive book “The South Was Right!” [Ron Kennedy, 1994] once a week for the rest of your corrupt and incompetent earthly days and then–if you fail to recant and repent of your lies and crimes against Truth, Justice, and The American Way–it’s on to the maximum sentence in purgatory allowed by God under Heaven: As per the Primary Source of none other than the U.S. Federal Census from 1790 to 1860, on average never more than 6% of Southerners ever owned a single slave (94% did not), but in this small number of “Southern” slave-holders were included African-Americans, Native Americans, and Northern Americans (“absentee owners”)–while virtually all American slave ships were owned & operated via northeastern ports (e.g., Boston, Providence, New York, et al). The obscenely wealthy, corrupt and incompetent American Insurance Industry (also based in the northeast via Boston, Hartford, et al) made their foundational millions by insuring the American-to-West African slave ships for 200 years…Authentic Americans (“Unreconstructed Southerners”) rightly detest immature naive “politically correct” northern HYPOCRITES–and defiant belligerent racists of all colors. DEO VINDICE (“God Will Vindicate The South”)

        • Christopher Shelley March 3, 2015 / 3:00 pm

          Richard Scott Farris, excellent–well done! Usually it’s Foskett or Mike Rogers who come hard with the scathing over-the-top absurdist sarcasm (Brooks’ is too dry), but you mostly nail it. Calling Andy a “Yankee” below is particularly brilliant–an instant classic. You’re good enough to write headlines for The Onion.

          • John Foskett March 4, 2015 / 9:01 am

            Reminds me of a Warren Zevon song involving pot roast.

        • Jimmy Dick March 3, 2015 / 7:33 pm

          The South was Right! is a definitive book only when referring to the meaning of the word polemic. It is the poster child for shoddy research, terrible writing, and lying in order to make a buck. I picked up a copy because it was cheaper than toilet paper which is the only value the paper in that book has.
          I know when a book store has a copy of it because I always hear a sucking sound and smell the unmistakable aroma of fecal matter when I enter the building.
          I can also tell when people are using it for information because they make statements that are completely outrageous and easy to disprove.
          What a waste of ink in the book.

          • Bob Huddleston March 4, 2015 / 4:29 pm

            One of the last, if not the last slave ship sailing under the protection of the United States flag was the New York built yacht the “Wanderer” owned by C.A.L. Lamar of Georgia. He bragged about his exploits and when an over zealous deputy US Marshall seized some of the Africans on one of Lamar’s plantations, Lamar sued him for damages. The Marshall was a Georgian – but so was the jury that found the marshal guilty. Lamar was killed in early 1865 as a Confederate colonel. A brother was LQC Lamar, congressman and post-war US Supreme Court justice. C.A.L. Lamar was related by marriage to Howell Cobb. (see Tom H. Wells, _The Slave Ship Wanderer_, University of Georgia Press, 1987)

            The most famous slaver of all time, the “Amistad,” was built in Cuba to a Baltimore design. According to the reports made by the Royal Navy to Parliament, a third of the slave ships in the 1840s were built in Maryland – the famed Baltimore Clipper, originally designed as a privateer, made an excellent slave ship.(See Christopher Lloyd, _The Navy and the Slave Trade_, London, 1949 [the “navy” in the title is the Royal Navy])

            Yes, the majority of American slave ships were Yankee built, and, sadly, Yankee owned. But that was because most American ship building was north of the Mason Dixon Line. However, Baltimore and New Orleans were also major centers of the slave trade.

        • Bob Huddleston March 4, 2015 / 4:15 pm

          Quote: “virtually all American slave ships were owned & operated via northeastern ports (e.g., Boston, Providence, New York, et al)”

          As to the supposed Yankee influence forcing slaves on unwilling Southerners, when South Carolina reopened the slave trade in 1807-1808, *all* of the States, including South Carolina, had outlawed the importation of slaves from Africa before the Constitutional prohibition could be acted on – only South Carolina then reversed itself.

          From January 1, 1804 to the legal end of the Trade on December 31, 1807, 202 ships entered Charleston with slaves: three were French, 70 were British, 59 were from Rhode Island, four from Baltimore, two from Norfolk, one from Sweden, one from Boston, one from Connecticut – and 61 belonging to Charleston. (Speech of Sen. William Smith of South Carolina, _Annals of Congress_, 16th Congress, 2nd Session, pp. 73-77, Friday, December 8, 1820. The speech is online at the Library of Congress site, http://lcweb2.loc.gov/cgi-bin/ampage?collId=llac&fileName=037/llac037.db&recNum=2 [that’s a long one: I would suggest you copy and paste it!])

          Foreign countries: 74 (of these, 70 were British)
          Southern ports: 67 (of these, 61 were from Charleston itself)
          Northern ports: 61 (of these, 59 were from Rhode Island)

          Without reducing any of the culpability of Yankees (more specifically Rhode Islanders), it would appear that, of the last legal slave ships entering the United States, fully a third were owned by slave state entrepreneurs.

  6. Spelunker January 24, 2015 / 9:45 pm

    For a small fee, Black Confederates really do exist:

    Speakers Fee: $20,000.00
    Travel Expense: $.62 per mile X 2
    Food and Lodging not included


    • Andy Hall January 25, 2015 / 10:35 am

      I know that seems expensive, but he’ll recite bad poetry at no extra charge:

      • Richard Scott Farris March 3, 2015 / 3:15 am

        “Bad” Poetry?? You are a shame & disgrace, a scandal, and a tragedy Andy Hall. Only a foolish lying yankee fraud would slander such Noble Recitation–you mean GLORIOUSLY GOOD AND TRUE Poetry!!!…As per the Primary Source of none other than the U.S. Federal Census from 1790 to 1860, on average never more than 6% of Southerners ever owned a single slave (94% did not), but in this small number of “Southern” slave-holders were included African-Americans, Native Americans, and Northern Americans (“absentee owners”)–while virtually all American slave ships were owned & operated via northeastern ports (e.g., Boston, Providence, New York, et al). The obscenely wealthy, corrupt and incompetent American Insurance Industry (also based in the northeast via Boston, Hartford, et al) made their foundational millions by insuring the American-to-West African slave ships for 200 years…Authentic Americans (“Unreconstructed Southerners”) rightly detest immature naive “politically correct” northern HYPOCRITES–and defiant belligerent racists of all colors. DEO VINDICE (“God Will Vindicate The South”)

        • E.A. Mayer March 3, 2015 / 2:06 pm

          We’ll let the South speak for itself to show you a liar and a fool.

          “When in charge of the national census office, several years since, I found that it had been stated by an abolition Senator from his seat, that the number of slaveholders at the South did not exceed 150,000. Convinced that it was a gross misrepresentation of the facts, I caused a careful examination of the returns to be made, which fixed the actual number at 347,255, and communicated the information, by note, to Senator Cass, who read it in the Senate.

          I first called attention to the fact that the number embraced slaveholding families, and that to arrive at the actual number of slaveholders, it would be necessary to multiply by the proportion of persons, which the census showed to a family. When this was done, the number swelled to about 2,000,000.

          Since these results were made public, I have had reason to think, that the separation of the schedules of the slave and the free, was calculated to lead to omissions of the single properties, and that on this account it would be safe to put the number of families at 375,000, and the number of actual slaveholders at about two million and a quarter.

          Assuming the published returns, however to be correct, it will appear that *one-half of the population of South Carolina, Mississippi, and Louisiana, excluding the cities, are slaveholders, and that one-third of the population of the entire South are similarly circumstanced.*

          It will thus appear that the slaveholders of the South so far from constituting numerically an insignificant portion of its people, as has been malignantly alleged, make up an aggregate greater in relative proportion than the holders of any other species of property whatever, in any part of the world; and that of no other property can it be said, with equal truthfulness, that it is an interest of the whole community.” – J.D.B. DeBow, December 1860

  7. Spelunker January 24, 2015 / 10:16 pm

    “I estimate that between 3,000 and 6,000 served as Confederate soldiers. Another 100,000 or so blacks, mostly slaves, supported the Confederacy as laborers, servants and teamsters. They built roads, batteries and fortifications; manned munitions factories—essentially did the Confederacy’s dirty work.

    We know that blacks made up more than half the toilers at Richmond’s Tredegar Iron Works and more than 75 percent of the workforce at Selma, Ala.’s naval ordnance plant. And slaves grew the crops that fed the Confederacy. As Frederick Douglass noted, blacks were “the stomach of the rebellion.””

    Is it just me, or beyond the estimate (which means nothing), is he really is just saying that a lot of Blacks did all the other crap their owners were too busy to do because they were fighting? If there were 3,000-6,000 Black Confederate soldiers, there would be an abundance of records showing that, but in everything I have read, there are no records that show this to be the case. Is that correct? Anyone that’s not trying to fabricate a false narrative would be able to discern that this is total rubbish. Did you know that stores are well stocked in North Korea? No really. There are pictures on the internet. It’s true.


  8. Mike Crane January 25, 2015 / 10:15 pm

    I reviewed Colin Woodward’s “Marching Masters: Slavery, Race, and the Confederate Army during the Civil War” for a state historical journal. My review should appear this spring. He quite effectively covers the slave impressment, slave as servant in the Confederate army issue during the war. I found his argument that owners viewed having their slaves with them during war as safer than leaving them at home, where they might runaway or get swept up by Union forces. Woodward’s evidence consisted mostly of Confederate letters and diaries across a wide range of units and theaters.

    • Mike Crane January 25, 2015 / 10:18 pm

      I neglected to add that from my reading of his book, Woodward would almost certainly oppose Stauffer’s controversial assertions.

      • southernhistorian February 11, 2015 / 1:05 pm

        Mike, thank you for the mention. Indeed, I’m very dubious and critical of any claims about “black Confederates.” Where and when will your review appear?

Leave a Reply

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

WordPress.com Logo

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

Twitter picture

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

Facebook photo

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

Connecting to %s