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.