Historians Freak Out About Freaking Out … Really …

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.

29 thoughts on “Historians Freak Out About Freaking Out … Really …

  1. Donald R. Shaffer January 27, 2015 / 3:31 pm

    Hi Brooks. I’m not irritated, or calling for retreat as Kevin would have it. We need to understand why the black Confederate myth exists. John Stauffer says its more than just a myth, and Jims Downs defends Stauffer’s methodology if not his conclusions per se. In the comments to my post, Matt Gallman has made some productive suggestions and I have responded with some of mine. Since you’ve dealt with Neo-Confederates more than any other academic historian I know, I’m sure you’d have some particularly valuable insights in this regard. Any thoughts?



    • Brooks D. Simpson January 27, 2015 / 3:45 pm

      I think we should approach this on two levels: the role that blacks, free and enslaved, played in the Confederate war effort; and the role they people imagined and argued they played, which one can take as spanning the last 155 years. After all, Stauffer, Downs, H. K. Edgerton, and various Confederate heritage folks are all arguing that something happened but draw different lessons from it. Stauffer and Downs would do better to address a broader audience (as Gallman’s ideas or Glenn Brasher’s work do) than to engage in spitball scholarly controversy. Given that Stauffer and Downs have been rather quiet, I think this was a case of hit-and-run, and a fairly cheap one at that.

      Note: I don’t employ the term neo-Confederates any more, and I have not used it in some time.

      • Lyle Smith January 28, 2015 / 9:36 am

        Neo-Confederate is about as accurate a label as no-go zone. So called neo-Confederates don’t advocate slavery so they aren’t like Confederates at all.

  2. Donald R. Shaffer January 27, 2015 / 4:09 pm

    Good questions all. But what I’d really like to understand why the myth of substantial numbers of black Confederate soldiers (either in 4, 5, or 6 figures) has found fertile ground in recent decades in American culture? Kevin Levin says this myth goes back to at least the 1970s, which sounds plausible. Which makes me suspect it is in some way a reaction to the Second Reconstruction of the post-World War II period and the growth of multi-culturalism.

    • Brooks D. Simpson January 27, 2015 / 4:42 pm

      Well, my response is that it was politically advantageous to various groups to make this claim in the same way it was politically advantageous for Douglass and others to offer their observations.

      My view is that as more people focused on the centrality of slavery in the coming of the Civil War some people found in “black Confederates” a way to counter that narrative in the same way that they found “Grant was a slaveholder and Lee wasn’t” advantageous. Add to that a number of African Americans who became disenchanted with liberal politics and the CWM (Edgerton, for example, and Karen Cooper of the Virginia Flaggers) or who grew impatient with “southern whites racist, northern whites not” assumption that some people carry (not historians), and the need to argue for the existence of black Confederates (and the need to honor them) says that “our Confederate ancestors aren’t racist and neither are we,” followed by the usual invocation of political correctness, Yankee hypocrisy, and so on.

      Behind that is the assumption that if you criticize one’s ancestors, you are criticizing them … when people talk about “we” in discussing Confederate ancestors, then it’s really important to honor Confederate blacks and have one’s picture taken with Edgerton or Cooper. After all, when one declares “I’m not racist,” one betrays the underlying fear that one sure looks and sounds like one.

    • James F. Epperson January 27, 2015 / 4:42 pm

      Kevin has argued that it goes back to “Roots” and “Glory.”

    • Andy Hall January 27, 2015 / 6:00 pm

      The only thing that I’d add to what Brooks says above is that the “black Confederate” narrative did not arise tabula rasa — it’s a retooling of the “faithful slave” story that goes back to the antebellum period. In fact, some of the very same men who are described now as enlisted soldiers, enthusiastically fighting the Yankee invader, were being praised eighty or a hundred years ago for their undying loyalty to Massa and Missus. It’s the same basic narrative, outfitted in a new butternut uniform for a modern society that isn’t buying the happy slave shtick anymore.

      • OhioGuy January 27, 2015 / 10:39 pm

        Andy, I think you’ve hit on a very important aspect of this part of neoConfederate mythology. Black Confederates are necessary to continue the belief that all was well until the Yankees arrived and destroyed this idyllic GWTW society in which everyone benefitted. Why sure the slaves were as upset as old massa about these invaders and sprang to the defense of the motherland. It’s historically hogwash, of course, but it completes the narrative. With the narrowcasting today, I could even see it as a miniseries — Black Confederates in the Attic.

      • Donald R. Shaffer January 28, 2015 / 1:09 am

        Hi Andy. The black Confederate soldier is a retooling of the faithful slave myth. But there is a fundamental difference. The Civil War generation would have found the black Confederate soldier an obscene notion, since in their mind African Americans were utterly ill-suited for military service. Certainly, the myth of the black Confederate soldier is more plausible to a modern audience, but I am not sure it is merely this simple. In other words, we need to understand better why this myth has gained traction in modern American culture. Why even white racists need a black martial figure for the Confederacy?



        • Andy Hall January 28, 2015 / 7:36 am

          Adam Serwer said a few years ago that they were the Confederate heritage crowd’s “black friend,” who serve as a deflection against accusations of celebrating a slave-holding society.

        • John Foskett January 28, 2015 / 8:40 am

          Don: I think it’s rather simple. Most of those who perpetuate this junk live in the 21st century and recognize that, 150 years removed, there would be little if any tolerance for justifying a cause that was based on preservation of a system of human bondage (with the exception of a few margin-of-error wack jobs). So they use this fiction to “mitigate”/”sanitize” their commemoration of the CSA by trying to remove the race/slavery element from it. They fail to persuade historians with legitimate ACW credentials to validate this stuff, so they get assistance from those whose credentials lie elsewhere but who presume themselves qualified to weigh in. Hence the Stauffers of the planet. Just my opinion, of course. Our host has nicely exposed the significant flaws in his “research”.

      • Dan Weinfeld January 28, 2015 / 8:23 am

        In addition to Andy’s observation, I’ll add that an element of the credibility of the post-Civil War “faithful slave” story may arise from Southern whites’ self-serving explanation for the willingness of a minority of Southern blacks to vote as Democrats, even before the end of Reconstruction. While Democratic blacks may have attributed their votes to disillusionment with the Republican Party or dislike of particular Republican candidates, Southern whites may have interpreted such voting as representing some sort of Southern black loyalty or identification. When campaigning among black potential voters, some Southern white politicians certainly invoked nostalgia for imagined pre-emancipation comity among the races (“we know you better than those carpetbaggers who just want your votes.”)

        • Andy Hall January 28, 2015 / 10:40 am

          Yep. If you look at the laudatory write-ups of (as they were often called ) “old-time Negroes” in southern papers and publications like Confederate Veteran, they often cite not only the subject’s personal loyalty to his former masters, but also his political loyalty to the Democratic party during and after Reconstruction.

          • leo January 28, 2015 / 11:45 am

            History repeats itself!

  3. Eric A. Jacobson January 28, 2015 / 8:09 am

    “Why even white racists need a black martial figure for the Confederacy?”

    I’ll add my two cents. In my opinion, those who truly have deep down racist or bigoted notions today don’t promote this black Confederate nonsense. They are brutally honest, as even Dr. Hill represented lately. In fact, they are as honest in that vein as most of their ancestors were. They see nor saw any need to sugarcoat anything.

    Those who promote the black Confederate agenda are different. Some may have some just plain old ignorant bigoted notions like, for example, folks I grew up around in Minnesota who used to toss around this term or that, but when it came right down to dealing with someone who was not white they would not stand in the way of said person to do anything they wanted to. Same with the vast majority of heritage types today. They largely condemn slavery, racial injustices, etc., because they are products of the modern environment. Most of them can’t even fathom the thought of owing someone else, or standing in line to protest someone’s right to attend the school of their choosing. So, because they feel that way, they compensate. They are caught in a moral vacuum. They don’t feel the same way their ancestors did, but they have to pretend like they do. And so the black Confederate myth (along with the inclusion of Hispanics, Indians, Jews, etc.) makes them feel better.

    These folks can’t imagine their great great whatever being a complete bigot. I hear all the time how someone’s ancestor didn’t own slaves and so that wasn’t the reason for the political split which led to secession which led to war which led that ancestor to fight. But they never acknowledge that said ancestor, if he had the means, might well have purchased a slave. That is just a plain denial of the desire for upward mobility. Frankly, I and any other researcher knows as much about what went on inside an ancestor’s head 150 years later as any descendant does. Additionally, heritage types won’t acknowledge that Southern history doesn’t apply to just white Southerners who descend from Confederates. It includes blacks, white who defended the Union, and (gasp) whites and other minorities who have moved to the South since the Civil War or Reconstruction or post-Civil Rights. It also includes blacks who fled from the South in the early 20th century. Yep, that’s part of Southern history, too.

    Basically, I don’t see this back and forth debate as accomplishing much. I think Kevin has been pretty relentless about smashing this myth to pieces, and his research and approach to it has been solid.

    Call me a simple person, but some things are right there for everyone to see. I’m not so much concerned about why the myth exists, because it won’t change the minds of those believe it. I’m more concerned about obliterating the myth because that should be the fate of all good myths. The current and next generation just needs to know the facts which point to truth, and then the myth just dies a slow death…..

    • OhioGuy January 28, 2015 / 12:07 pm

      Eric, I tend to agree with what you say here. I think most southerners who believe the Black Confederate Myth aren’t racists, in any meaningful definition of the word. They want desperately to believe that their ancestors weren’t racists, so this myth helps them cope with that bit of cognitive dissonance between their own beliefs on race and what their good senses tell them that their ancestors believed. These same folks tend to emphasize that their ancestors didn’t own slaves, but they don’t like to dwell on the fact that the whole society that their ancestors were part of was based on the ” great truth,” as CSA VP Stephens once put it, that the white man is superior to the black man and that slavery was the backbone of the economy of the South. What, frankly, worries me more is the northerners who I’ve encountered who have bought into this myth. I had a less than cordial encounter a few years ago at a local Civil War Round Table when a woman — who was presenting information that she had carefully researched on forgotten United States Colored Infantry graves in some local rural cemeteries — made an off-handed remark that there were also a lot of blacks who fought on the other side in war. This woman was not a southern and was a trained archaeologist. I interrupted her presentation and told her that she didn’t know what she was talking about. I mentioned the very few confirmed cases that had been outlined in a magazine article in North and South magazine that I had read not too long before the meeting. I told her that you were — at most — talking about several hundred, versus about 180,000. She acted totally shocked at this news. This not the only time I’ve run into this type of ignorance in the contemporary Yankee population. So, I’m all with you in feeling the need to “obliterating the myth,” but I’m hoping it’ll be a fast rather than a slow death. But, I’m an optimist by nature.

      • John Foskett January 28, 2015 / 4:41 pm

        I’m not that optimistic. The folks pushing this fabricated tripe have too much “skin in the game” (pun intended). Once they confront the reality of why secession took place, the whole neat house of cards implodes.

    • John Foskett January 28, 2015 / 4:39 pm

      “Spot on”, as Planet Internet would put it. I’ve actually saluted those who in the past have posted comments on this blog site calling the Black Confederate Crowd out as a crew of posers. These posters at least have the “integrity” or respect for our collective intelligence to admit to their own racist views rather than lying to everybody (including themselves) with this contrived junk “history”.

    • Lyle Smith January 28, 2015 / 5:10 pm

      My experience as a Southerner is very much the same.

  4. leo January 28, 2015 / 8:29 am

    I am not a historian, but I would like to add my two cents to this discussion.

    H.K. Edgerton recently claimed 40 blacks rode with General Forest in one of his “reports from the front” posted on the Midsouth flagger Facebook page. He offers no evidence and I have found none in my research. In addition, Debbie Sidle, who runs the Midsouth flagger group, has claimed non-whites were in command of white troops during the Civil War. I researched this claim and found nothing to support it. I assumed she was referring to the Cherokee Braves, but still haven’t found anything substantial.

    My conclusion boils down to this.

    1. H.K. Edgerton is essentially running a business where he sells his serviced to various heritage groups to over cover from the racisms charge.

    2. Many of the heritage groups are motivated more on emotion than documented fact, thus any claim of racism/bigotry against their ancestors is taken as a personal affront.

    3. I believe many of the people drawn to the heritage movement do so in search of finding a sense of belonging. Finding a Confederate ancestor gives them a sense of belonging to something bigger than themselves and a connection to the past. I personally have four confederate ancestors I recently discovered. I’m not ashamed of them nor do I define myself by their actions. I also found a slave owner in my family tree. I’m embarrassed by this, but I’m not going to hide it or apologize.

    4. I have found no clear definition of “Black Confederate”, thus it is like nailing Jell-O to the wall. A “Black Confederate” could be anyone from a slave forced to construct a fortification to a personal body servant who followed their master to war. My personal definition is someone who willingly joined and supported the Confederacy, but I will leave that for the Historians.

    • Al Mackey January 28, 2015 / 10:07 pm

      Regarding the African-Americans with Forrest, it comes from a postwar interview Forrest gave: “When I entered the army I took forty-seven Negroes into the army with me, and forty-five of them were surrendered with me. I told these boys that this war was about slavery, and if we lose, you will be made free. If we whip the fight and you stay with me you will be made free. Either way you will be freed. These boys stayed with me, drove my teams, and better confederates did not live.” [N. B. Forrest, interview in Cincinnati Commercial, August 28, 1868]

      They were his slaves he forced to come with him, and he used them as teamsters, not as soldiers. Charlatans like Edgerton inflate the claim to Forrest having forty black soldiers who rode with him and engaged in combat. It’s certainly possible one or more of these teamster/slaves picked up a rifle and fired at a Union soldier in self-defense. It still doesn’t make them black confederate soldiers.

      • Jimmy Dick January 29, 2015 / 10:19 am

        Note the key element in this source, the word freed. Those particular individuals were rewarded for staying with Forrest with freedom. That goes directly against the purpose of secession. Were slave owners freeing slaves if they went with their masters to the army? No. If Forrest actually said this when he went into the army which he very well may have, he recognized what was going to have to happen if the CSA expected blacks to serve them willingly.

        I also note the words “drove my teams.” That tells us exactly what those individuals were doing for Forest. Had they been armed soldiers, Forrest would have used words that indicated they fought for him. He did not do so. That is not an afterthought, but a truthful reflection of what those men did for Forrest.

        • Al Mackey January 29, 2015 / 11:47 am

          And they didn’t have a choice of whether or not they were going. Also, their goal was not to support the confederacy. Their goal was to gain their freedom and not get killed along the way. Had they tried to desert to the Federals, Forrest would have killed them. They did this not out of any love for the confederacy or even for Forrest. They did this out of a desire to live as free men.

          • Jimmy Dick January 29, 2015 / 2:14 pm

            The bottom line is this is just another example where the black confederate myth falls apart upon the first examination of the sources.

  5. leo January 28, 2015 / 8:47 am

    I forgot to add number 5 and 6.

    5. I have noticed some of these heritage groups tend to attract bigots or people with bigoted views. When these bigots make their views known, typically through social media, the groups fail to disavow or distance themselves from the bigot. Thus, the heritage group loses any legitimacy in the “we aren’t racists” claim.

    6. Most heritage groups I have encountered seem to prefer confrontational tactics in expressing their views which only serve to make things worse (for them) in the long term. In addition, most of the focus in these groups appears to be centered on the display of the Confederate battle flag than actually preserving actual historical places. This, to me, is like focusing on the parsley on the plate and not the steak.

  6. leo January 28, 2015 / 12:27 pm

    I stumbled upon this and wanted to share. It is well reasoned, thoughtful, and something I feel worth reading.

    Link: http://beck.library.emory.edu/southernchanges/article.php?id=sc11-1_006

    Flag Waving Down South: Respecting the Past Without Offending
    By Jack Perry
    Vol. 11, No. 1, 1989, pp. 15-16
    What does the Confederate flag mean?
    In asking the question, I have in mind that some black representatives are objecting to the flying of the Confederate flag over certain state capitols. I have in mind that in the recent turmoil over racial hazing at The Citadel, some voices have called for the Confederate banner to be furled and for “Dixie” to go unplayed.
    I have in mind that different people see the Confederate flag quite differently–although their quarrel is not really over a flag from the past, it is over the uses of that past in the present.
    Does the Confederate flag stand for honor and States’ Rights and The Lost Cause? Or does it stand for the defense of slavery yesterday and the offense of racism today?
    May I tell you what the Confederate flag means to me?
    It means a great deal. I am proud of being a Southerner, proud that my great-grandfathers marched off from north Georgia under the Stars and Bars. The portrait of one, Gabriel Wilhite Grimes, my mother’s grandfather, is on my office wall, holding his rifle and his bayonet, wearing the Gray. Also on my wall are portraits of a number of Confederate generals–three of Lee, my hero–and a print of the Battle of Lookout Mountain. I call myself a Southern patriot. Patriotism, to me, means not nationalism in the sense of jingoism but rather profound love for one’s native place. I feel deep in me the love of the South.
    The South I love, nevertheless, has a past that gives me pain. A past that includes slavery, yes, but also that encompasses the Ku Klux Klan, lynch law, the Jim Crow system of segregation under which I grew up in Atlanta, the block-the-door reaction to the 1954 Supreme Court school decision, the resistance to the civil rights movement in the ’60s. It pains me that the Georgia legislature changed the state flag I grew up under–this was during the resistance to the civil rights movement–to install a Confederate battle flag that stood, I fear, more for 20th-century racism than for The Lost Cause. And if that Southern past gives me pain, so do lingering evidences of racism in the present.
    Despite that pain, I love the South. I take comfort in the faith that since Emancipation there has been, underlying all injustice and racial division, common ground of civility and friendliness and humor and Southernness and-yes–love, between blacks and whites in the South. I think that the ending of Jim Crow and the acceptance of racial equality in a spirit of tolerance is one of the great accomplishments of any nation in this century. Blemishes and irritants there are, but I see racial harmony in the South as a real thing, one that shines.
    “Ah,” you may say, “then you are a very idealistic man about the South.” Yes, Ma’am, I am. But I try not to be a fool, and I recognize that the Confederate flag is flown over some attitudes that ought to shame us.
    How would I feel about the South if I were black?
    Well, undoubtedly I would feel with ferocious conviction that slavery was a great evil–an evil that was ended not by Southern good will but by Lincoln’s Emancipation Proclamation and by the military defeat of the Confederacy.
    I would regard Reconstruction not so much as an occupation by alien forces as a setting of crooked things straight. I would look on the rise of Jim Crow, long after the war was over, as a resurgence of the racist evil that was at the heart of slavery. I would consider the hostile resistance to the civil rights movement in the ’50s and ’60s a sign that racial enmity dies hard.
    I would, I believe, look with pride on the accomplishment of legal equality by that movement, an on the gains in status and in political power by blacks since then; and I would, I hope, be proud of the friendships that bind so many blacks and whites in today’s South. But I would surely remain aware of painful economic constraints for too many blacks, and I fear I would be more than a little worried about the persistence of racism in a host of direct and subtle ways.
    Feeling that way, if I were black, I would look with a hard and cold eye on what often passes for Southern patriotism today. The Klan rallies carrying the battle flag. The pickup truck with the battle flag on the front tag and the rifle in the back window. The flying of the battle flag over state capitols.
    The politics behind the flag.
    If I were black, in short, I could not afford to be so idealistic about the South as this white boy can be.
    Proud as I am of being a Southerner, I would be foolish to shut my eyes to the racism in Southern history and to its persistence in some Southern attitudes today. We are capable of gentility and concord among blacks and whites, and therein lies one of the glories of the South. We are also capable of hatred and injustice, and the grave cries out against us if we forget it.
    The Confederate banner I cherish is of many colors.
    Hear what St. Paul saith: “Take heed lest by any means this liberty of yours becomes a stumbling-block to them that are weak.” If flying the battle flag of the Confederacy gives offense to our brothers and sisters, and if goads those who enjoy hatred into offensive acts, should we not furl the flag in public, and find other ways to show our respect for the Southern past? If the flag is in the heart, we need not fly it from our capitol flagstaffs to prove our patriotism. If Southerners of good will and good taste–and I dare to hope that there are at least a meaningful minority–cease to use symbols of the past to send intolerant messages into the future, I remain idealist enough to hope that the South as a whole will finally live up to our ideal of it.
    For of course flags are merely symbols. What we are talking about here ultimately is politics, political deeds, positions and laws and policies that affect how we live.
    I would love–wouldn’t you?–to see a message of good will between the races, in the South and beyond. Flying battle flags, and using race in politics, can be dispensed with. If we do not close our eyes to the dark side of our past, and of our present, the chances for wise choices will increase. And I say all that with a Southern accent.
    Ambassador Jack Perry, a retired diplomat, is director of the Dean Rusk Program in International Studies at Davidson College. His comments are excerpted from remarks previously appearing in the Charlotte Observer.

    • OhioGuy January 28, 2015 / 10:51 pm

      Where is the LIKE button? 😉

  7. Spelunker January 28, 2015 / 3:39 pm

    HK is not running a business.

    HK is the business.

    HK is the product, and HK is also the salesman.

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