Walter Williams on Ignorance

Professor Walter Williams is an economist who teaches at George Mason University. He has frequently written on the subject of black Confederates, and he took the opportunity recently to do so yet again.

walter Williams
Dr. Walter Williams

Dr. Williams is quite fond of the notion that large numbers of enslaved African Americans voluntarily and willingly served as soldiers in the Confederate army during the American Civil War. He is also quite fond of recycling the same material time and time again in support of that claim.

Click here to read a short piece from 2000. Then click here to read a piece from earlier this year. That piece just appeared again here.

You may notice that Dr. Williams claims that the death of Anthony Hervey, an African American who shared Dr. Williams’s views on black Confederate soldiers, “was in no small part caused by the gross level of ignorance, organized deceit and anger about the War of 1861. Much of the ignorance stems from the fact that most Americans believe the war was initiated to free slaves, when in truth, freeing slaves was little more than an afterthought. I want to lay out a few quotations and ask what you make of them.”

Well, since Dr. Williams thinks this is a matter of life or death, I think it fair to respond to his request that I say what I make of his quotations.

First, Dr. Williams quotes Frederick Douglass’s 1861 statement: “There are at the present moment many colored men in the Confederate army doing duty not only as cooks, servants and laborers, but as real soldiers, having muskets on their shoulders, and bullets in their pockets, ready to shoot down loyal troops, and do all that soldiers may to destroy the Federal Government and build up that of the traitors and rebels.”

Well, I believe several people have already said a great deal about that quote. Surely Andy Hall did, here and here.  So have I. So what do I make of this quote? Not much. Douglass picked up on various rumors in the press to make the case that since blacks were in the Confederate army, the Union army ought to follow suit. The press reports and the research done on them suggest that reports of a significant presence of black Confederate soldiers on the battlefield was, to put it kindly, highly exaggerated.

Dr. Williams then quotes New York Tribune publisher Horace Greeley to the same effect in 1862. Of course, Greeley said a lot of things, and some of them were true. But I don’t know what we are to make of an assertion without any supporting evidence. What Ta-Nehisi Coates said seems to me to be sufficient.

Dr Williams then cites Dr. Lewis Steiner’s comment about 3,000 blacks among the soldiers of the Army of Northern Virginia as it marched through Frederick, Maryland, in September 1862. We’ve discussed that document here.

Then we have a short report about blacks in Petersburg volunteering to help out. We’ve seen that recycled as well. What do we make of it? Good question. What happened to these men?

Finally, Dr. Williams reminds us that “Dr. Leonard Haynes, a black professor at Southern University, stated, ‘When you eliminate the black Confederate soldier, you’ve eliminated the history of the South.’” Unfortunately, we don’t know where he got that quote, or whether the professor said it at all.

At least the professor has dropped one of his claims. He once told us that “General Ulysses Grant’s slaves had to await for the Thirteenth Amendment for freedom. When asked why he didn’t free his slaves earlier, General Grant said, ‘Good help is so hard to come by these days.'” I wonder why he no longer cites this. Perhaps this is because the evidence against this is rather overwhelming?

Nevertheless, all this is rather important to Dr. Williams. As he declares, “Black civil rights activists, their white liberal supporters and historically ignorant Americans who attack the Confederate flag have committed a deep, despicable dishonor to our patriotic Southern black ancestors who marched, fought and died not to protect slavery but to protect their homeland from Northern aggression.”

Now, I understand that Dr. Williams is an economist, which may help explain why he finds evidence so challenging. That’s because he makes claims that are not supported by the very evidence he cites, and because he fails to take a critical look at the evidence he cites. But this does not deter him from repeating himself, as if that alone makes for a persuasive argument. Then again, he isn’t alone. Professor John Stauffer of Harvard University falls prey to the same shortcoming, and he claims to be a historian. You’ll recall that Stauffer and a colleague performed a scholarly hit-and-run last year, making claims and pointing fingers, only to slink away silently when challenged.

Perhaps Dr. Williams is different. Let’s see whether that’s the case. He freely shares his e-mail address at the end of his pieces. Here it is: Write him. Share this post with him. Ask him what he makes of it. Let’s see what he says. After all, he wanted to lay out a few questions and ask what readers made of them.

Remember, Dr. Williams says that someone lost his life in large part because of ignorance. We can’t have that, can we? Enlighten him.

29 thoughts on “Walter Williams on Ignorance

  1. OhioGuy March 9, 2016 / 11:29 pm

    Years ago I had a brief email exchange with Dr. Williams on some statements he had made about the Civil War while a guest host on a conservative talk radio show. My conclusion was that this otherwise quite brilliant man had a complete blind spot on this issue for some psychological reason I could not comprehend. His understanding of more recent history was quite good. His book The State Against Blacks made a compelling case for the negative effect that government economic policy and social programs over the last 60 years have had on the African American family and its social and economic viability. In this book he cited credible data and came to well reasoned conclusion. I hope others have better luck than I had in removing this historical blind spot which seems to involve more Lost Cause mythology than an educated man should have rattling around in his head. 🙂

  2. Rblee22468 March 10, 2016 / 3:55 am

    For such a supposedly “smart guy”, Williams should spend just a few minutes on Google looking into the death of Hervey. The accident was caused by driver error (Hervey was the driver, he over corrected after driving off of the road for unknown reasons). Although there were reports that they were run off the road, the police found no evidence of a second vehicle and even news reports state that a witness could not corroborate that story.

    As for the black Confederate soldiers:

  3. Sandi Saunders March 10, 2016 / 6:01 am

    It would do no good to engage Mr. Williams. His confederate support is based in his disdain for the federal government and like so many, it is a crutch for the “right-wing” political movement. He has a vested interest in the Federal being the enemy and creating or perpetrating myths to sustain that is just all par for the course. Facts, evidence, proof and the truth are truly irrelevant to these folks.

    • Brooks D. Simpson March 10, 2016 / 12:40 pm

      On the contrary, I think it would be a good thing to engage him. Let’s see whether he’s willing to be engaged.

      • Rblee22468 March 10, 2016 / 12:57 pm

        No response to mine…

        • Brooks D. Simpson March 10, 2016 / 1:11 pm

          That’s fine. No response is also a response, and people will know that he’s too skeered to defend his assertions. Ask John Stauffer.

          • OhioGuy March 10, 2016 / 1:41 pm

            As i recall when I had my email exchange with Dr. Williams he took a day or two to respond, so I wouldn’t expect an immediate response. Let me also add that my correspondence with him was not over the issue of black Confederates, but over a statement he made on the aforementioned radio show that the root cause of the Civil War was not slavery but states’ rights. I pointed out to him that the state right they were most interested in preserving was the right to hold blacks in bondage. He would not concede the point. I found that troubling.

          • Brooks D. Simpson March 10, 2016 / 5:35 pm

            One could argue that’s interpretation. This is a matter of evidence.

          • OhioGuy March 10, 2016 / 6:53 pm

            One could argue that . . . but there’s a lot of evidence to support the contention that slavery “was somehow the cause of the war.” 😉

  4. hankc9174 March 10, 2016 / 6:59 am

    at the time i commented on one of the site’s carrying his column:

    ‘Williams runs these same quotes out every couple of years to generate some more heat rather than light.

    surely, by now, in his cut’n’paste opinion, he knows the analysis behind the statements he quotes. By not providing historical analysis he gives a dishonest, at best, view of history.

    Bothe Steiner and Douglass were pushing for the active enlistment of afrcan-americans in the US Army to fight the confederacy.

    what better way to highlight this than to claim that slaves were being used to fight *against* the USA?

    the issue’s scholarship long predates Williams’ first column on the topic. But, he discards, rather than weighs, evidence.

    It’s a good thing he’s an economist and not a historian. ‘

    • BorderRuffian March 11, 2016 / 4:05 pm

      “Both Steiner and Douglass were pushing for the active enlistment of afrcan-americans in the US Army to fight the confederacy.”

      Douglass- yes.
      Steiner- no.

  5. John Foskett March 10, 2016 / 8:57 am

    Common sense has emigrated en masse from this country. Does this cat ever – I mean, ever – deal with the utter lack of photographs, rosters, post-combat corpses, mention in the OR, war correspondent sketches, etc. etc.? I’m trying to figure out why that nitwit Cleburne was pushing his proposal in 1864 and why that nitwit Davis was opposing it when the CSA’s ranks were already filled with these folks. This simply proves that having an advanced degree is no guarantee that one has the basic mental equipment to navigate the real world. And, yet again, no one disputes that an isolated black American may have taken up arms for the Confederacy. There were random Jewish and Slavic members of the Wehrmacht in WWII.

    • Rblee22468 March 10, 2016 / 9:59 am

      But… But… The Yankees used their magic fy-arr to burn all of the records of all of the blacks. The Yankee magic fy-arr can tell what color you are. Yankee fy-arr can pick and choose which records to destroy en masse and which to spare. That’s the only logical explanation. If it were not for the Yankee cover-up, they’d be able to show you proof.

    • James F. Epperson March 10, 2016 / 10:57 am

      Mr. Foskett, you simply do not understand the full story: One reason—perhaps THE reason—that the Confederacy lost is that they devoted so many resources to insuring that no evidence of these black Confederate soldiers was left behind. Special details disposed of corpses, and whole armies of censors worked to intercept any letters home that told of their existence.


      • Leo March 10, 2016 / 3:10 pm

        The SCV is propagating some wild numbers along with other blatantly false nonsense about the Confederacy in their campaign to save the Mississippi flag. They are selling it as “reconciliation”. Andy poked fun at this jewel from a Memphis camp that I’ve also seen Mississippi base heritage groups circulate.

        Where do you hide 114,000 troops? That’s bigger than the Army of the Potomac!

        • Andy Hall March 10, 2016 / 5:51 pm

          “The SCV is propagating some wild numbers along with other blatantly false nonsense about the Confederacy in their campaign to save the Mississippi flag.”

          I think they’re completely as a loss. They’ve spent so many years fluffing each other with nonsense that they have no idea how to communicate with people who aren’t already bought into it.

          • Leo March 11, 2016 / 8:22 am

            I am sure they believe their own propaganda because it is being promoted in a full-court press here.

            The Mississippi SCV has already hosted Andrew Duncomb and Arlene Barnum as speakers to push the black confederate myth. I assume they have undercut HK in what he charges because HK has not been here in several months.

            At least one TV station in the state has already run a “special” on the subject. In fact, most local media outlets are not challenging any of it with the exception of the Jackson Free Press. The Spokesman for the SCV was recently interviewed by a Jackson State University television program where he said the Civil war was a dispute over money and slavery was a secondary issue.

          • Andy Hall March 11, 2016 / 10:14 am

            One of the things that gives the “black Confederates” story legs is that it has a slightly conspiratorial appeal — “this is what the history books won’t tell you,” etc. That’s very attractive to people who don’t have any real knowledge of the subject going in, but who feel like they want to be informed.

  6. hankc9174 March 10, 2016 / 9:54 am

    and when the columnist does is so poorly in a matter where I know the subject matter, how does that affect my view of their other columns?

  7. Guillermo Diaz March 10, 2016 / 10:58 am

    Mr. Simpson,

    I enjoy your articles (even when i don’t always agree with your assessments)

    I believe Southerners should be able to defend the cause without trying to use the blacks fought for us argument.

    Having said that, being an economist myself, i found this quote of yours very strange:

    “Now, I understand that Dr. Williams is an economist, which may help explain why he finds evidence so challenging.”

    Economist are for the most part very analytical and data (evidence) driven.

    Guillermo Diaz

    • Brooks D. Simpson March 10, 2016 / 12:31 pm

      And sometimes economists are very model-driven and embrace theory at the expense of fact. Dr. Williams takes it a step further. The only thing I know for sure about some economists is that they are masters of other-hand analysis … as in, “On the other hand …”

      Just don’t get me started on political scientists.

      • Guillermo Diaz March 16, 2016 / 6:42 am

        I concur that some economist are very model-driven, but the good ones know that the facts should support the theory and not the other way around.

        Still, i feel that you stating that an economist is not fit to write about history was uncalled for. I respect your opinion if that is your opinion.

        We all have our differences with certain professions, i am not a fan of Lawyers talking economics but i did read some good ones and will not disregard their options just because they are lawyers.

        Hopefully i was able to express my opinion correctly (as English is not my first language)


        • Brooks D. Simpson March 16, 2016 / 11:27 am

          I think we can agree that Dr. Williams is not a good historian. His handling of evidence gives me pause if we are to judge his credentials as an economist … because, as you say, good ones know that the facts should support the theory …

          Clearly Dr. Williams is too skeered to deal with public criticism of his work.

          • Guillermo Diaz March 16, 2016 / 11:39 am

            Fair enough, i have to say i am not familiar with his work (as an economist or historian), other than your comments about his historical research skills (or bias).

            Just wanted to be sure you were not saying that economists can not write good history books 🙂

          • John Foskett March 17, 2016 / 7:33 am

            There seems to be something about economists in the Mises crowd and their inability to apply good historical method in research and analysis. Another example comes readily to mind.

          • Jimmy Dick March 17, 2016 / 11:08 am

            Response to John:

            I think it has a lot to do with the political and economic ideology of the Mises crowd. In order to convince people their economic ideas are correct, they have to have a history to root their ideology in. Unfortunately for them, the real history was not working in their favor, so they decided to rewrite it to suit their ideology.

            Convenient of them, but also unethical.

  8. Leo March 10, 2016 / 12:14 pm

    The death of Anthony Hervey was caused by an automobile accident. To be more precise, Anthony was driving recklessly – as stated by witnesses – and lost control of the SUV he was driving. The Mississippi Highway Patrol conducted an investigation and found NO EVIDENCE of a second vehicle involved in the wreck and NO WITNESSES came forward with information on a second car.

    As for the black confederate nonsense, several historians have already debunked that myth, so Mr. Williams obviously has an agenda other than historical accuracy.

  9. Yeah, to get paid to write by moneyed White racists who seem unconcerned that Black Conservatism (or, more accurately, the Black wing of American Movement Conservatism) has almost zero currency with Blacks. William F. Buckley tried to flatter Thomas Sowell as a “civil rights activist” on an episode of Firing Line (I watched that episode when it first broadcast) and Professor Sowell just smiled demurely. I read his response as that of a man who was insulted by an intended complement. I knew even then that Sowell had no friends among that cohort of politically active African Americans, of which I was and am one.

    You know what? I suspect that Professor Sowell knew this as well. After all, where were his followers? Where are Professor Williams’s. This, I think, is part of the source of the sourness of Black Conservatism. “Name” White reactionaries can draw crowds, but Black ones? Most of the time, Black reactionaries can only be the warm-up act for the White reactionary star waiting in the wings. When the White reactionary walks to the stage, the Black reactionary greets him or her, then walks off to collect his or her check. Williams’s media fame is (was?) limited to his role as fill-in for Rush Lamebrain.

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