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. Megan Kate Nelson, who had earlier responded to the Gallagher/Meier and Hess pieces, now turned the focus of her blog Historista to challenging Levin’s post in an offering originally entitled “Civil War Military Historians are Freaking Out Again and It’s All John Stauffer’s Fault.” As Nelson observed of Stauffer’s effort, “It did not take very long for a number of Civil War historians to protest these conclusions, and to persuasively dismantle Stauffer’s argument piece by piece.” However, she also claimed that “this latest fracas also brings up interesting questions about the uses (and misuses) of evidence in Civil War history, and about what actually constitutes ‘evidence’ — and who gets to analyze it.” Apparently, Stauffer, as a “cultural studies” scholar, used fragmentary reports in the northern press to prove something as objective fact as opposed to exploring why people told such stories (as Glenn Brasher has suggested elsewhere), and in so doing had erred. So far, so good. In fact, “Stauffer’s sweeping claims in this essay — and his inability to prove them with literary evidence — just make it harder for cultural historians who are researching and writing Civil War history to make a case for their approach.” That also makes sense to me.
But what Nelson found even more objectionable was Levin’s statement that Stauffer’s mishandling of evidence “ought to be seen as a warning to anyone who makes the decision to wade into a new field of historical inquiry”–a claim Nelson asserted resembled notions of gatekeeping. That touched a nerve, as Nelson made clear. She chose to remind us of recent work by several able scholars that “bring new methodologies to bear on long-standing questions; they use print, visual, and material sources in addition to the OR and soldiers’ diaries and letters in innovative ways. They heed no warnings.”
All of this seemed to make much out of little and to take Levin’s invocation of Gallagher and Meier to a place that I did not recognize, an impression reinforced by the overwrought title. Levin was neither gatekeeper nor traditional military historian, and he was not “freaking out” in the manner ascribed by Nelson to such people. Many of these issues were hashed out on Facebook pages and thus were not apparent to readers of the comments section of Nelson’s blog. In response to those observations she toned down the title of the entry but otherwise stood firm. Nevertheless, it was very clear that she was not endorsing Stauffer. She stated that his “essay is on the extreme end in terms of its massive leap from evidentiary base to argument — and military historians should not use it as representative of Civil War cultural history more broadly.” In other words, don’t use Stauffer as a strawman to take shots at cultural historians writing about the era of the American Civil War.
It was left to historian Jim Downs to celebrate Stauffer’s methods at Huffington Post. Casting aside Nelson’s own assessment (as well as other posts that took apart Stauffer’s essay), Downs went after Levin:
He is asking Stauffer to retrieve archival evidence from the 19th century that fits a 21st century definition of soldiers. He is asking Stauffer to practice historical research that privileges white, Confederate record-keeping over the ways that black people observed, wrote, and remembered the war. He is asking Stauffer to play according to the rules in which traditional historiography, often the purveyors of epistemic violence, define evidence and engage in archival collecting.
There was something bizarre about this declaration. First, anyone familiar with Levin’s work knows he holds to 19th century definitions in his discussion of whether African Americans were Confederate soldiers. It was Stauffer, in fact, who embraced a more presentist definition of “soldier” that distorted historical accuracy. Second, Downs dismissed as unreasonable the notion that one might check military records to see whether certain people were recognized by the Confederate army as soldiers. That struck me as odd. For example, regardless of how John Burns defined his actions on July 1 at Gettysburg, he did not become a “soldier” in the only eyes that matters–those of the Army of the Potomac. Nor do people get to redefine Jennie Wade as support personnel simply because she was baking bread for Union soldiers when she was killed on July 3.
Matters did not improve.
Doing black history means more than just finding black people in the archives and stating whether they did or did not do something, it means engaging a whole host of questions that range from the Confederates’ use of the bureaucracy to track black experience in the same way as they charted white people’s experience; it means understanding that enslaved people’s decisions to join the Confederacy as soldiers might not fit either the past or the present’s definition of soldiering and that it may not fit into the frameworks of how we understand enlistment in general. Stauffer rightly gestures toward this mode of analysis by placing enlistment in the context of the Atlantic world where enslaved populations joined military campaigns for all kinds of idiosyncratic reasons that challenge our definitions of war, slavery, and emancipation.
This approached the bizarre. Armies get to determine who are soldiers in those armies. Other people may perform tasks akin to those performed by soldiers, but that does not make them soldiers–except, I guess, in the eyes of Jim Downs and many of the proponents of what we’ve come to call the myth of black Confederates. We do not know when the Sons of Confederate Veterans will ask Downs to share his embrace of their reasoning that any service performed by enslaved blacks in Confederate military service makes them black Confederate soldiers, but we know that many of them read this blog, so the idea’s now out there. It is Downs, in short, who imposes 21st century definitions on 19th century circumstances. Other historians are trained to disparage that practice as presentism, but Downs has assured people that he is a trained historian who learned a great deal in graduate school at Columbia.
Nor did Downs actually engage the issues he calls on historians to engage–not at all. Rather, he declares that “Stauffer smartly reaches for a range of other sources to support his claim: cultural memory, printed images, and other cultural ephemera.” However, “smartly” would not be the word used by Levin, Nelson, or myself.
The debate about Black Confederates tells us more about us than it does about them. It uncovers more insight about how we write about the past than the actual events that transpired. It exposes more about the political imperatives that shape how we want to see the past rather than the ways that the past may have wanted to be seen.
That observation has been made before, although probably not as Downs hopes we will understand it.
Lost in all this was Downs’s sound (if not exactly new) observation that archives and record-keeping reflect cultural hierarchies and betray their prejudices and values. Had he actually addressed specific issues, I might have been more favorably impressed. For example, where would we find evidence about three black regiments reported to have served the Confederacy at First Manassas? Are those regiments visible to some people (and historians) and not to others? They seem more visible to Union soldiers than to Confederate soldiers, for example. Nor did he make the case that what exactly about Stauffer’s argument and use of evidence merited the conclusion that he had “smartly” reached for anything. There’s a lot of reaching in Stauffer’s piece, of course, but that has nothing to do with Downs’s use of the word.
Neither Stauffer nor Downs has responded to the criticisms offered about their essays in the comments section.
I’m sure this isn’t over yet. Stay tuned.