The Sounds of Silence

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).

I have long believed that professional historians should engage these claims about black Confederate soldiers and expose them for what they are: see here, here, and here. I see no need to repeat myself (after all, John Stauffer will misrepresent it anyway). However, I have also long believed that it behooved people to construct a website where the examination of these claims could be gathered and examined in large part to serve as a resource for people inclined to conduct their research on the internet. I stand by that position: there really is no need to repeat the same arguments endlessly. That both Stauffer and Downs take on certain people and then head for the hills when those people respond tells me that they are simply unable to engage in scholarly debate (or perhaps extremely unwilling to do so, given how their arguments have been taken apart so readily and so easily). Indeed, as Kevin Levin pointed out, their performance offers recent defenders of Civil War military history an ideal example of the ignorance they identified and criticized: we would be wise, I think, to heed Megan Kate Nelson’s advice not to treat Stauffer’s contribution as a representative piece of responsible scholarship by a cultural historian, and I would say the same goes for Downs’s criticism of Levin. (UPDATE: See here for a discerning assessment of Downs’s argument.)

I see nothing wrong with subjecting the claims made by Stauffer and Downs to scrutiny and criticism. After all, they possess scholarly credentials (as Downs reminded some folks elsewhere). But I also understand the growing impatience about these sorts of exchanges among those people who think the claim that there were significant numbers of African American Confederate soldiers preposterous. Several of them have offered ways to understand the function served by the stories of black Confederates offered during the war in ways that responsible scholars of the Civil War should embrace. Others have speculated about how and why certain Confederate heritage groups going all the way back the veterans themselves fashioned and refashioned stories of blacks, slave and free, who were loyal to the Confederate cause (as opposed to being loyal to particular Confederates). Indeed, scholars looking to make a name for themselves as well as offer a significant contribution to the evolution of Civil War myth and memory should consider these topics.

It’s worth noting that the scholars most involved in this discussion on the internet have not given the topic of “black Confederates” the attention it once garnered over the past few years. Sometimes people who have commented on blogging principles and practices fail to notice that (and they in turn become the people who initiate a revisiting of the topic). This is all the more noticeable when such people otherwise claim to be arbiters of fashion, scholarly and otherwise, and and highlight what constitutes “cutting-edge” work. That discussion ought to subside as well, because that’s so 2011.

Historians soon learn that the job of correcting misconceptions is a never-ending one. I’m always puzzled that it is the people who correct the misconceptions and not the people who perpetuate them who come in for the most scrutiny from third parties (including one particularly clueless retired history professor from North Carolina who frequents Kevin Levin’s comments section, and who sounds like a young child who responds to everything with “Why?”). I’d suggest that everyone involved in these recurring patterns of controversy take a deep breath and figure out how to break these habits, which so often lead to so little. You don’t like what Stauffer and Downs have to say? Tell them. You don’t care that they are now silent? Tell them.


After all, you know how these things go:

Note the car.

9 thoughts on “The Sounds of Silence

  1. Mark January 29, 2015 / 10:23 am

    >> It’s worth noting that the scholars most involved in this discussion on the internet have not given the topic of “black Confederates” the attention it once garnered over the past few years. Sometimes people who have commented on blogging principles and practices fail to notice that …

    They probably fail to notice it because they’re enamored of romantic and idealistic notions of the warm feelings and smooth workings of supposedly ideal debates (of presumed past time that never was). So they believe that debate as they’ve always been (as opposed to a mythical therapeutic ideal) never actually convinces anyone and those engaged in actual debates are “talking past each other”.

    Correcting misconceptions is a never-ending one, but the dirty secret is that argumentation still works and still works the same way as it always did. So no doubt in the future this same issue will spring up again, but for now it seems some issues have come closer to attaining a consensus than those who disagree with the consensus want to admit. The same as it ever was, and a good thing that some still practice the art of debate. Good on those like Brooks, Kevin and others who hung in on this.

    • John Foskett January 29, 2015 / 11:07 am

      Good point. It reflects the basic truth that there are only so many times that’s it worth asking for some actual evidence and being met – every time – with crickets. You might as well try a dialogue with the flower pot on your front stoop.

      • Brooks D. Simpson January 29, 2015 / 5:27 pm

        Downs is so sore that he blocked me from his Twitter account, although I’ve never contacted him. Guess I struck a nerve.

        • John Foskett January 30, 2015 / 7:55 am

          That’s a trait shared by many self-infatuated people. They suffer from the cruel delusion that others crave access to their thoughts and opinions, so they cut that access off.

        • Mike Musick February 5, 2015 / 1:37 pm

          Beyond your being blocked from that Twitter account, has there thus far been any response from either Professors Stauffer or Downs to the barrage of criticism they’ve received concerning the articles in The Root and on The Huffington Post?

  2. Mike Musick January 29, 2015 / 1:31 pm

    Thanks so much for an “Update” link to an outstanding essay in a source of which I was previously unaware. The important points the writer makes cut to the heart of the matter.

    • John Foskett January 29, 2015 / 1:47 pm

      I agree. But it’s actually unnecessary to go to those lengths in discussing the “archive”, etc. If there were meaningful numbers of blacks voluntarily “serving” the CSA/enlisted as armed and organized units, we would have known that long, long ago. The absence of any of the traditional indicia – regimental roll calls, reports, payroll records, unit photos, correspondence about this or that battalion/company/regiment – coupled with the voluminously-documented fears in the CSA about Blacks Bearing Guns and opposition to manumission for military service, etc. already speaks volumes. Pushing spin about how the “archive” is created is good for one purpose – although it also increases the concentration of methane in the Earth’s atmosphere.

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