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).

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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.

Almost Never Wrong

Although Keith Harris’s Cosmic America blog is now a part of blogging past, Keith is still with us, and blogging once more at the clearly-labelled Keith Harris History.

I am told he is almost never wrong.

I know this may not be news for most of you, but it will be welcome news for others. Keith is to eyewear what Peter Carmichael is to scarves, or so I am told.

In almost related news, has anyone seen Dimitri Rotov?

Kevin Levin’s Missed Opportunity

Kevin Levin decided to forego staying at Gettysburg for this week’s events. Instead, he headed to Montreal, presumably to brush up on his sadly lacking hockey acumen, although anyone could have told him that Montreal is the last place a Boston Bruins fan (and I use this term very, very loosely) is welcome.

In choosing as he did, Kevin missed an excellent chance to enrich his study of Civil War memory, and, given his interests, he may have cause to regret nothing quite so much as the heaven-sent opportunity contained in today’s The Evening Sun, “serving the Greater Hanover and Gettysburg areas.”

Black re-enactor with Rebels says that ‘image needs to be portrayed’


Behind Confederate lines stands a man with blue pants, a white shirt and a black face.

Shane Williams, from Canton, Ohio is a Confederate re-enactor with 1st Tennessee Company H. He’s set up camp on the Redding Farm during the battle re-enactment recognizing the 150th anniversary of the Battle of Gettysburg.

Richard Adams, a private of the same company, said there aren’t enough black re-enactors in the Confederate ranks. And he believes there should be more to represent black people who served as slaves and, he said, might have fought.

“The way I see it, whether slaves were forced to fight or they were volunteers, it’s an image that needs to be portrayed,” Williams said.

Rachel Edgar, a Union re-enactor who passes bread to the troops, said she hasn’t heard of any black Confederate soldiers, but under rare circumstances, it could have been possible.

There are no historical accounts of black men under arms fighting for the Confederacy, but there are accounts of slaves staying in Confederate camps with their masters.

“Most slaves had never been off of their Southern plantations,” Williams said. “They didn’t know anything else. They came with their masters.”

Williams said many black men wanted to fight for what they knew was theirs — the land that belonged to their master.

“I’m going to fight for what I know is mine,” he said.

Historians say there were slaves whose primary loyalty was to their master or plantation, but the Confederate government refused to arm slaves.

Runaway slaves, or those liberated by Union soldiers, were far more likely to enlist in Northern regiments when the government accepted their service in 1863. By the end of the war, about 180,000 black men served in the Union army.

Williams’ role as a black Confederate soldier is met with some controversy among his friends. Williams also belongs to the 5th U.S. Colored Troops, Company G, an Ohio re-enactment group.

“Because most blacks in the South were slaves, they feel that it’s disrespectful to my heritage,” Williams said.

But, he said he wants to teach the public about U.S. history. He’s been a part of re-enactments for 10 years, and has portrayed a Confederate soldier for four years.

Many high-ranking officers had slaves with them in Gettysburg, working as servants and cooks.

Adam Bell, of the 33rd Virginia, Company E, said some slaves came simply because they liked their master and wanted to care for them, but it wasn’t incredibly common.

Mitch Riggs, a Confederate re-enactor with the 33rd Virginia Volunteer Infantry Company E, plays the part of a German soldier in a small Irish unit. He said too often people believe slavery was the only reason behind the Civil War, but many soldiers didn’t have a solid opinion on the matter.

“Not a lot of people know their history,” said Riggs,of Pulaski, Pa.

Few in the ranks of the Confederate army owned slaves themselves, and were poor farmers “one step above slaves,” Riggs said.

“A lot of them couldn’t write their names,” Daniel Hall said.

Hall, also in the 33rd Virginia Volunteer Infantry, said the original 60 men in the company previously were railroad workers.

“In railroad work, they wouldn’t want to lose a slave, because that would cost money,” he said. “If they lost an Irishmen, they wouldn’t have to pay anything.”

In the Union army, opinions on slavery weren’t all that different. Most Northern soldiers enlisted to save the Union, and some resented the increased attention on freeing the slaves later in the conflict. At the same time, a significant number of Union soldiers were committed abolitionists who saw the war as a struggle for freedom from the beginning.

There are not a lot of details on black men in the Confederate Army, and Williams doesn’t claim to represent a particular person within a specific unit. But, he plans to further develop his role.

“I’m not a slave,” Williams said. “I’m still researching.”

My, oh my. Here was your chance, Kevin.

Finally, for those of you wanting to have more fun at home, I direct you here.

A Primer in Basic Research

Over the last several weeks there’s been a rather heated exchange between several contributors to this Facebook group, which celebrates “southern heritage” (although it seems more like “Confederate heritage” to me) and a number of bloggers who have become known for their research disproving or qualifying claims about various supposed “black Confederates” (as in supposed soldiers).  There’s something to be said for the observation that this is an online debate and little more … except, of course, that so many students do so much of their research online these days that they are bound to come across this stuff, including claims about black Confederate soldiers.

Here’s an example.

Ann DeWitt, who is responsible for a leading website devoted to documenting the widespread existence of black Confederates in military service, shared her most recent research with her fellow Facebook compatriots (posting under the name “Royal Diadem”).  As she declares:

Captain P.P. Brotherson’s Confederate Officers record states eleven (11) blacks served with the 1st Texas Heavy Artillery in the “Negro Cooks Regiment.” This annotation can be viewed on See the third line on the left. Also, the record is cataloged in the National Archives Catalog ID 586957 and microfilm number M331 under “Confederate General and Staff Officers, and Nonregimental Enlisted Men.”

Could this be one of the types of regiments many Confederate historians have documented as part of Confederate History?

Well, could it?

Apparently not, according to Andy Hall, who began by taking a careful look at the document Ms. DeWitt shared with her friends.  Let’s look at it ourselves:

Hmm.  As Andy points out, somehow eleven black cooks for a heavy artillery unit stationed at Galveston, Texas, commanded by one Colonel Joseph Jarvis Cook, have been transformed into a “Negro Cooks Regiment.”

Read Andy’s post for the rest of the story.

As Gary Adams, the president of the Southern Heritage Preservation Group, says, in regard to a topic discussed here,

Everyone does realize one of the quotes here is a myth posted to demostrate why research from reputable sites is important.

Precisely.  Indeed, according to Mr. Adams, the discovery that Ulysses S. Grant did not actually say comments attributed to him moved him to create his group.  He should be applauded for that.

Now we’ll see what to make of his commitment to historical accuracy in this case … one celebrated on the Facebook page of the very group he founded to ensure a commitment to historical accuracy.

Update: Judging from this post, at least some of the members of the SHPG are aware of this misadventure in research.  We’ll see whether they have a commitment to real scholarship.


Debating Reenacting

Over the past several weeks there’s been a lively debate going on about reenacting in the blogosphere sparked by a commentary offered by Glenn LaFantaise, who is no stranger to stirring up controversy.  As one might guess, it was not long before various folks here and there responded to this provocative (and provoking) essay.  Among the more thoughtful responses is that presented by Dr. Timothy Orr, a history professor at Old Dominion University (in turn the comments section makes for equally good reading).  As Orr has also reenacted, he has a somewhat different perspective on the activity.

It’s always a little disappointing when these discussions fall back on the creations of various stereotypes, bearing in this instance the label of “academic historian” and “reenactor.”  The comments that come from constructing such strawmen tend to embitter the conversation.

I’ve never reenacted, and I don’t have any interest in doing so.  I know of some academic historians who have reenacted, and I’ve seen a diversity of reenactors whose attitudes on issues that tend to be hot button ones with academic historians vary, so it would be hard to generalize about the activity.  Personally, I’m always a little leery of those “living historian” labels, as there is wide variation in the quality of the information imparted by reenactors to the general public (as reenactors themselves admit).  Then again, the same is true among some of my colleagues.  Maybe this is another one of those stone soup discussions.

Making A List and Checking It Twice

Sometimes history repeats itself.

Readers of this blog will remember the visit paid by George Purvis and the “Southern Heritage Advancement Preservation and Education” group and its website.  Mr. Purvis claims he’s very interested in finding out evidence about black Confederates, and he’s currently engaged in making a list called “Negros in Gray.”  Mr. Purvis assures us that he “has spent countless hours researching what we have listed on this site, and we will continue to do so for the sake of educating our visitors and guests. We ask that you the viewer join us in applying as much factual detail to our site as possible.”

Well, Andy Hall appears to have taken Mr. Purvis up on his invitation.  The results are not good for Mr. Purvis.  Andy picked out a fellow named Peter Phelps, who was of interest to him because he hailed from Andy’s own county.  The result was a rather nice piece of research which nicely debunks Mr. Purvis’s claim that Peter Phelps was a black Confederate.

It will be interesting to see what Mr. Purvis says in response, or whether his fellow travelers, like “BorderRuffian,” scamper away again like cockroaches exposed to light.  For now, however, another Black Confederate claim is debunked.  Nice work, Andy.

What’s a Historian to Do?

In a continuing conversation over at Kevin Levin’s Civil War Memory, a commenter offers the following observation:

Indeed, as more people turn to the internet for information, the more these black Confederate sites have an impact. Obviously we can’t control the content of these sites (nor should we), so the question becomes if it’s worth fighting them. So it’s important to understand who it is that goes to these sites, and what it is they pick up from it (how many people that see it believe it? and to what degree?), and most importantly to your point about education: how many of these people who visit such sites are even open to education? Or do they have a conclusion in mind already and only find what they already believe (which means they will find a forum to do that through, no matter what, online or not)? These questions require evaluation as suggested by Professor Orr, in order to answer the question of whether it’s worth rebutting these sites (i.e. are their audiences even open to our interpretation? and thus, is it worth our resources? or are we better off spending those resources elsewhere?) — which gets precisely to the heart of your question: “it’s a fair question to ask as to whether they are passing up opportunities to educate others through online sources and conceding the field to this so-called ‘fringe.’ ” Is it worth the fight?

A larger point (and not speaking directly to your point, but related): in my opinion, the more we argue with them on their terms, the more we create that there is a “debate” and legitimize their position, and the more we lose the fight, because unfortunately the people who want to believe this black Confederate stuff would accuse us of ignoring evidence, etc. This is always their accusation, no matter how strong your argument is. Thus, my new approach is this: ok, fine, so 10 zillion African Americans fought for the Confederacy, but really that’s irrelevant to why the Confederate States of America was established as a nation (i.e. to protect the institution of slavery), if we look at any/all of its foundational documents. In other words, it is impossible to be accused of ignoring their evidence, because I am acknowledging their evidence, and then refocusing the question to the heart of the matter (since I think the number of black Confederates is irrelevant to why the CSA was established). Unfortunately, I think by arguing on the numbers of black Confederates, we argue on their terms (i.e. implicitly acknowledging the number of black Confederates who enlisted is connected to the question about how important slavery was to the Confederacy). I think the answer is irrelevant: whether 0 black Confederates, 10 of them, or a million of them, what does not change is this: all the forming documents of the CSA explicitly state why the CSA is formed. Period. This has absolutely nothing to do (and cannot be changed) with the number of black Confederates that “fought for” the Confederacy. Thus, I think it’s time we don’t get sucked into the neo-Confederate Red Herring paradigm of the importance/relevancy of the number of black Confederates, but it’s time we simply point out the CSA’s foundational documents.

I find this position problematic, and it frames the choices as either/or.  Either you contest the evidence someone offers (because you can demonstrate it’s false) or you set that aside and say, “so what?”

Readers of this blog already know that I have long ago raised the “so what?” argument, so I see nothing original in that.  But I think that simply going directly to “so what?” while leaving the evidence uncontested as the approach is simply wrong-headed.  Moreover, isn’t simply accepting the evidence as true a way to legitimize the evidence offered?  I’m very careful to say when I offer “so what” that the evidence is very much contested, but, for the sake of argument, I’ll stipulate it as entered into the record.

Inherent in this commenter’s claim is an accusation: replying to certain people gives them legitimacy and recognition, while ignoring it will leave it to die.  I’ve raised this question before, and there is a counterargument.  The notion that people who contest the claims concerning black Confederates are responsible for the fact that there is an argument (and one that some people speculate may distract professional Civil War historians from getting their own messages across) seems to me mistaken in its import, and I could with equal justice raise it about any issue.

I truly doubt that battling proponents of what’s becoming known in some circles as the myth of Black Confederates will cause many of them to change their minds.  As Andy Hall has argued, it’s an article of faith with them: good old “BorderRuffian”, for example, has left open the notion that one need not have served in the military to be a veteran (how do those of you who are veterans feel about that denigration of your service?).  But there are other audiences, other publics, other consumers of online information.  If we don’t contest the factual basis of these claims, the NPS finds itself supporting historical falsehoods; Virginia’s fourth graders are fed inaccurate history; and people turning to the internet for information will find fraud presented as fact, with nothing to contest it.

Contesting both the narrative and the supposed evidence adduced in support of these claims is what historians do all the time.  Should we let photographic forgeries and false claims go uncontested?  Would that be a good rule for historians to follow, period?  I don’t think so.  Oh, I don’t think we should spend every waking hour in a vigilant reactive mode, and I’ve seen idiots suggest, for example, that not contesting everything that falls out of the mouths of political candidates serves as a tacit endorsement of that candidate.

The commenter on Kevin’s blog later offered this observation:

Moreover, you are missing the big picture if you get sucked into arguing over numbers with them. These people argue for black Confederates why? What is their larger point? Their larger point is to say that slavery was not important to the CSA. Thus, while you are busy arguing on their terms on their paradigm and creating a forum of debate so these people are heard (instead of letting them just talk to each other), I would rather get to the heart of the matter and point out the irrefutable official CSA documentation that explicitly states why the CSA was formed. To me, that undermines their larger point, and thus defeats their argument.

Put another way, the “number” of black Confederates is simply the means to an end — the end/goal being that the CSA was not a nation fighting for preserving the institution slavery. So, I like to go for the goal, because once again, they will simply say to you that you are denying their evidence and put you in some liberal conspiracy or something — but if you acknowledge them and calm them down, and then show your own evidence in return (evidence that gets to the heart of the matter), you will defeat their argument another way.

Again, I’ve already raised the same point before, but I think this tactic is miscast as an act of persuasion directed at the person who believes in the Black Confederate story as an article of faith.  You may come away from this confrontation believing that you have defeated an argument, but how so?  Certainly the person with whom you are arguing doesn’t make that admission if that person is already committed to a position.  The only way any of that matters is when an audience eager to learn and open to discussion wants to weight the merits of various arguments, and one way to undermine the Black Confederate narrative is to undermine its evidence and logic (for example, if there were so many Black Confederates, why was not mention made of them in the debates over enlisting blacks in the winter of 1864-65?  Are you really going to tell me Robert E. Lee was not aware of their existence?). If one confines oneself simply to saying so what, then one’s given away a lot of history, and the presenter of the Black Confederate tale will simply dismiss you as “politically correct” and walk away, declaring that you had nothing … NOTHING … to say about their evidence, leaving the audience to scratch their heads.  Counter evidence, logic, and implications, and then you may be getting somewhere, or at least that’s what I think.  

What do you think?