Tag Archives: Black Confederates

I am sooooooo busted

A carefully laid and nefarious scheme of mine has come to naught, thanks to the diligence of a reader named “JosephineSouthern” who left the following comment on my last post:

“Your critque [sic] might have sailed past us with an ok except for your mention of Kevin Levin and andy hall. A dead give away [sic] for your progressive present-ism agenda. Sorry but you get a failing grade, a big fat F for your opinionated article!”

Curses!  Blast!  I had sincerely hoped that I might pull one over on the online reading public by pretending to discuss a historical novel while secretly foisting my leftist, progressive agenda off on an unsuspecting country.  And I would have gotten away with it, too, if I hadn’t mentioned Kevin Levin and Andy Hall, because we’re all secretly members of a cabal of Yankeefied, crypto-Marxist bloggers who use history as a front to destroy truth, justice, and the American way.

This is particularly galling because I have spent the past three decades posing as both a conservative and a southerner, solely for the purpose of infiltrating the ranks of freedom-loving believers in black Confederates.  Yes, the secret is now out.  My birth certificate and driver’s license stating that I am both a native and a resident of Tennessee, my high school years spent doing volunteer work for numerous conservative political campaigns, my vocal opposition to the Obama administration, my family’s longtime connections to conservative organizations and politicians all across the state…ALL LIES!  All an elaborate ruse to deceive you, the readers of this blog and subvert your minds with my progressive, presentist agenda!

And now all exposed as a sham, because JosephineSouthern has pegged me as a member with them of the Council of Progressive Presentist History Bloggers, which convenes every month in an underground chamber lit by torches. Kevin, dropping his guise as a mild-mannered schoolteacher, presides over our meetings while seated atop a throne of skulls flanked by portraits of Chairman Mao and George Soros.  After a rousing chorus of our anthem…

we proceed to old business, followed by the hatching of schemes to hasten the advent of progressive, presentist, agenda-driven history.  Then we usually break for coffee and finger foods.

Now that JosephineSouthern has outed me as a sleeper agent, I guess my days as a progressive historical blogger operative are numbered.  Maybe ACORN is taking applications.

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Black Confederates: Coming to a Gap near you

Most people think of Cumberland Gap National Historical Park as a pioneer site, but it was also a strategically important point during the Civil War, changing hands four times.

Just recently I stopped by the visitor center on my way back from lunch.  Imagine my surprise when I found Entangled in Freedom on sale in the gift shop.  This novel aimed at young readers is about a slave who accompanies Confederate troops into the field, and has generated some degree of controversy online because of its depiction of race relations in the nineteenth-century South and the nature of slaves’ participation in the Confederate war effort.  Kevin Levin and Andy Hall have addressed some of the book’s interpretive issues at length, so there is little need for me to go into them here.

Part of the book is set in and around the Gap, which is presumably why CGNHP is selling it.  What’s weird is that for a book that misreads some of the big issues involved in the Civil War, it includes a surprising amount of relatively little-known, arcane detail about local history and geography.

For example, there really is a cave in the mountain face, just above the old Wilderness Road, and incidentally this isn’t the first time a cave near the Gap has appeared in a work of fiction.  Cudjo’s Cave was a nineteenth-century novel set in the Cumberland Gap region which also featured an underground sanctuary, and coincidentally enough, it also featured a slave character.  After the war the real cave became a tourist attraction, and the proprietors re-christened it “Cudjo’s Cave” as a nod to the book.  Now it’s in NPS hands and has reverted to “Gap Cave,” its original name.

And there really was a massive cannon named “Long Tom” that soldiers pitched over the side of the mountain, at least according to local Civil War lore.  My hometown of Tazewell is correctly identified as the site of an engagement, and while we’ve got an interesting history of our own, we’re not exactly Sharpsburg or Chancellorsville.  Historical figures who were present at Cumberland Gap during the war appear in the book, too.

There are a few bits of trivia that are off.  The troops encamped at the Gap couldn’t have gotten water from Fern Lake, because it’s an artificial reservoir created in 1893, three decades after Union and Confederate forces were contending for control of the pass.  (The park is incorporating the lake into its boundaries as part of a 2001 piece of legislation, by the way.)  Still, it’s surprising to see Fern Lake mentioned at all.

All this credible detail within a context that misinterprets some of the fundamental issues of the war makes for an interesting case of the forest vs. the trees.

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From the dark recesses of cyberspace to your child’s brain

Here’s a reassuring item.

A textbook distributed to Virginia fourth-graders says that thousands of African Americans fought for the South during the Civil War — a claim rejected by most historians but often made by groups seeking to play down slavery’s role as a cause of the conflict.

The passage appears in “Our Virginia: Past and Present,” which was distributed in the state’s public elementary schools for the first time last month. The author, Joy Masoff, who is not a trained historian but has written several books, said she found the information about black Confederate soldiers primarily through Internet research, which turned up work by members of the Sons of Confederate Veterans.…

The book’s publisher, Five Ponds Press, based in Weston, Conn., sent a Post reporter three of the links Masoff found on the Internet. Each referred to work by Sons of the Confederate Veterans or others who contend that the fight over slavery was not the main cause of the Civil War.

Where would black Confederates be without Google?

Masoff is also the author of Oh Yikes!: History’s Grossest Moments. I wonder if this one made her list.

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Little soldiers are a big deal

The Museum of the Confederacy’s online gift shop is selling a black Confederate toy soldier.  Kevin Levin pointed out that this is a problem, but some of his readers think he’s making out of a molehill.  Let me tell you why I’m with Kevin on this one.

Folks who have never worked in museums may be surprised to learn that there is a bustling wholesale industry focused on supplying gift shops in museums, historic sites, and zoos.  Museum gift shop managers receive unsolicited catalogs in the mail from companies that specialize in providing them with souvenirs to stock their shelves.  These publications usually aren’t specific to certain types of museums.  You’ll find every conceivable type of item that any sort of museum might carry—plastic sharks, Martha Washington dolls, dinosaur key chains, reproduction parchment documents, Mona Lisa magnets, Tutankhamun pencil sharpeners, you name it. 

Museums will also get calls, letters, e-mails, and solicitation visits from manufacturers and sales reps who want them to buy their materials for re-sale in the gift shop.  Some of this stuff is educational, some of it’s innocuous, and some of it’s junk.

Knowledgeable visitors who find a dubious item for sale in a museum might wonder why curators or researchers would order such a thing inthe first place.  In most cases, they didn’t.  Gift shop managers usually aren’t curators or historians.  Museums are organic; like the churches described in Paul’s epistles, they’re full of different types of people with varying kinds of talent, each of which is distinct but necessary to keep the thing going. 

A lot of gift shop managers are often people with some background in retail who have been hired specifically to operate the store, or (and this is especially true in small museums) they’re people who wear a lot of hats—perhaps office manager, volunteer coordinator, membership services director, and gift shop manager combined.  They’re hard-working, knowledgeable professionals, and museums couldn’t operate without them, but sometimes they’re not as well-versed in the museum’s subject matter as a curator might be, and hence might not recognize why a particular item is inaccurate.

Sometimes gift shop managers will consult with curators about possible items.  At other times, curators will throw their two cents in whether anybody wants to hear it or not.   Back when I worked for a Lincoln museum, the curator explicitly vetoed a sample item we’d gotten in the mail because the packaging copy was riddled with errors.  Come to think of it, I used to gripe to anyone who’d listen about the quill pens we sold in the gift shop.  (Metal nibs were being mass-produced in America by the Civil War.)

Curators are particular about this sort of thing because when an otherwise harmless object finds its way into a museum gift shop, it gets a kind of implicit endorsement by the institution, whether the institution intended it or not.  This puts museums and historic sites in a difficult position.

Now, here’s the really critical point.  A whole slew of surveys and studies indicate that people are much, much more inclined to trust information they get from museums than from other sources, more so even than information they read in books.  People trust museums to a very high degree.  It’s as simple as that.

That’s why this little plastic soldier can have an impact out of all proportion to his size.  There simply weren’t large numbers of gun-wielding blacks in the Confederacy’s armies, but many people persist in believing that there were.  A souvenir in a first-rate museum (and the MOC is first-rate) could quite easily bolster this erroneous assumption. 

Someone pointed out that if there were even one enlisted black Confederate, then the toy is technically accurate.  I think that’s a stretch.  The toy still lends credence to the notion that such soldiers were common, no matter what the manufacturer’s original intentions were.  Of course, if the packaging had some kind of special label, then I could see the point.  (“The surgeon general warns that black Confederate soldiers were rare.  Use of this product may contribute to a belief that tens of thousands of slaves fought for the Confederacy.”)

I submit that this is worth talking about.  Conveying accurate information about the past is what history museums do.  Dubious souvenirs directly undermine the institution’s mission.  Too much work goes into mounting solid exhibits and programs to let something like a little plastic figure bolster an unsubstantiated myth.  If it’s worth doing, then it’s worth doing right.

Gift shops have the potential to do something more than generate revenue.  They can actually help fulfill a museum’s educational mission.  Good books, educational games, and accurate toys can disseminate information as well as bring in money.  We should be stocking the shelves with the same discernment and care that we use when filling exhibit cases.

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This is the sort of thing

…that’s just made for blogging fodder.  If  you follow the ACW blogs, then chances are you’re already aware of it.  If you don’t follow them—or comics, movies, and the careers of high-ranking Confederates who served in the Western Theater—then here’s the situation:

In 1864, Maj. Gen. Patrick Cleburne proposed that slaves be enlisted into the Confederate armed forces, in exchange for their freedom.  The scheme went nowhere, and Cleburne lost his life at Franklin.  About a century and a half later, Cleburne’s scheme became the basis of a graphic novel, which added more fuel to the ever-popular black Confederate controversy.  Now a film project based on the comic is in the works.

You’ve got the intersection of the past with popular media, memory, race, and myth—all of it steeped in controversy and played out within the context of a developing news story.  This’ll keep us history bloggers stocked with material for months.

Country singer, SCV member, and Civil War aficionado Trace Adkins is slated to play Nathan Bedford Forrest.  A quick Google search turns up this item from the Civil War Preservation Trust, reporting that Adkins was also a spokesperson at a CWPT news conference a couple of years ago.  Here’s an excerpt:

Joining Lighthizer at the news conference announcing the report was country music star Trace Adkins, whose great-great-grandfather served in the 31st Louisiana Infantry before being wounded and taken prisoner at Vicksburg, Miss. Adkins, an avid student of history said, ‘I’ve been a Civil War enthusiast all my life. When I visited the battlefield in Vicksburg and stood in a trench where my great-great-granddaddy stood, tears came to my eyes. As a father of five, I believe it is critical that I protect a legacy that belongs not just to my family but to our entire nation.’ 

I haven’t read the graphic novel yet, so I don’t know how it handles the contentious issue of race in the Civil War.  If the film makes it to the screen, it may well turn out to be a complete historical travesty that perpetuates one of the most irritating myths of the entire war. 

On the plus side, though, I think Adkins could do a pretty credible Forrest, with his imposing frame and unaffected drawl.  He’s also survived a nasty gunshot wound, something Forrest also pulled off in 1862.  That’s the acting equivalent of hardcore reenacting, I suppose.

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It’s all about the numbers

During the Civil War a few hundred women disguised themselves as men and fought as soldiers.  We know some of their names—Sarah Edmonds, Jennie Hodgers, Frances Clalin.  In some cases, we have photos, we have pension documents and other records, and we have enough biographical information to reconstruct their life stories.  So if you said that “women fought in the American Civil War,” you’d be right, at least in a very limited, literal sense.

But in a larger and more meaningful sense, of course, you’d be wrong.  Women fought, but in miniscule numbers, and against official policy.  If we’re trying to make general statements that really help us understand the war, then “women fought in the American Civil War” doesn’t get us very far.  These women are interesting figures, and they might reveal something by being exceptions to the rule, and that’s about it.

At the risk of beating a dead horse, here’s why I bring this up.  It bears on the heated discussion of black Confederates troops that’s been roaring through the blogosphere, especially on Kevin Levin’s Civil War Memory blog (see here, here, and here), but also on other history blogs (here and here). 

When we’re talking about black Confederate soldiers, it’s all about the numbers.  If you read statements in favor of the idea of widespread black participation in the Confederate armies, you’ll notice an unhealthy reliance on anecdotal evidence.  It’s always this first-person account from somebody’s ancestor, or that veteran honored at a ceremony decades later.  This simply won’t do.  The question isn’t whether or not there were occasions when African-Americans attached to Confederate forces fired shots in combat.  Such incidents could be nothing more than bizarre aberrations.  What’s important is whether or not there’s a pattern behind these incidents.  And a pattern can only be established with some hard numbers.  Unfortunately, many sources seem to pull the numbers out of thin air.  We get wildly varying estimates, with no explanation of how they were tallied. 

One website estimates that “over 65,000 Southern blacks were in the Confederate ranks. Over 13,000 of these, ‘saw the elephant’ also known as meeting the enemy in combat.”  Does “in the ranks” mean actually enlisted?  Soldiers aren’t the same as body servants, labor levies, free black sutlers or cooks, and others who accompanied the armies but didn’t serve.

Another website guesses that the figure could be “anywhere from 30,000 to 100,000,” an estimate so broad that it’s virtually meaningless.

By way of contrast, take a look at this post from Civil War Gazette.  This piece claims that “as little as under a hundred to as many as several hundred blacks may have actually engaged in combat for the South during the Civil War by actually carrying and discharging a weapon.”  The implications of figures like these are radically different from those quoted above.

What many supporters of the “black Confederate soldiers” notion are trying to achieve is a paradigm shift.  They want to challenge our notion that the war was fought over slavery and that the Confederacy’s aim was to preserve it.  If thousands upon thousands of black soldiers fought for the South, then we may indeed the makings of a paradigm shift—a Confederacy that relied heavily on black manpower to fight for its independence would be an interesting thing indeed.  If only a few hundred fought, we have nothing more than a curiosity.  We’d be talking about such a tiny percentage of the armies that it would have no real impact on our larger understanding of them.  The percentages would be comparable to those of women who fought in disguise, so it would make as much sense to argue that the Civil War was a co-ed affair.

Proponents of the notion of hordes of black Confederate combat troops need to show us where they’re getting these tens of thousands.  Give us some serious, transparent analysis, and then we’ll do business.

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History by fiat

One blog I always look forward to reading more than most others is Kevin Levin’s Civil War Memory.  I enjoy it as much for the active discussions in the comments as much as for Kevin’s invariably well-written and insightful posts.

One topic which always generates a lot of reaction at CWM is the subject of black Confederates.  Few historical topics stir up so much…well, horse-flop, for lack of a better term.  Black Confederates are to American history what the Chupacabra is to zoology, hovering in that misty no man’s land between solid historical content and pseudo-historical memory.  We desperately need more high-quality, rigorous work in this area, and nobody has been more persistent in calling for it than Kevin.

The problem with this issue is that so much of the evidence gets distorted and overstated, making it hard to arrive at any rational conclusions about the actual roles which blacks had in the Confederate armies, and in what numbers.  I think it’s pretty clear that a lot of African-Americans accompanied the armies for work details and as servants, and I don’t doubt that some black men saw action from time to time, under certain circumstances. 

The problem is that there’s such a tendency to stretch what the record actually indicates, and from what I’ve seen, the record indicates that armed service for blacks in the Confederacy was extremely rare, and that it ran directly counter to the intentions of the authorities in Richmond.  (See some of Kevin’s posts for more detailed examinations of this subject.)

A recent post at CWM stirred up some interesting discussion about how to counter much of the genuinely awful history that gets tossed around in these debates.  One reader made one of the most startling statements I’ve ever read with regard to contested history: “Think of it along the lines of those who work on Nazism and have to deal with Holocaust deniers. With that, maybe we should take EU approach to slavery deniers: outlaw them. …Yes, it’s that important.”  (Richard Williams of Old Virginia Blog, as you might imagine, doesn’t think this is such a good idea.)

The reader is, of course, referring to the legal penalties some European countries impose on those who deny the Holocaust happened or otherwise minimize it.  Probably the most famous instance of these laws being put into practice is that of author David Irving.  In 2006, in an Austrian courtroom, Irving plead guilty and was sentenced for remarks he made in a speech years earlier.  (He claimed that he no longer held the views expressed in those remarks, but that apparently wasn’t enough for the judge.)

One historian was surprised by the sentence (besides Irving), and that was Deborah Lipstadt, whom Irving tried unsuccessfully to sue when she included him in her book on Holocaust denial.  Here’s what she told a reporter about the verdict in Irving’s case: “I am not happy when censorship wins, and I don’t believe in winning battles via censorship… The way of fighting Holocaust deniers is with history and with truth.”

I couldn’t agree more.  It’s important to set the record straight when it comes to history, particularly when it comes to a myth as persistent as the notion of hordes of black Confederate troops.  But using the coercive power of the state isn’t the way to do it.

For one thing, it’s unnecessary.  The most effective remedy for bad history is good history.  History is a scholarly discipline, and one indicator of the health of any such discipline is the degree to which good explanations for the evidence thrive and bad ones don’t.  If a theory doesn’t make it, then it either hasn’t garnered the attention of scholars, or it just doesn’t hold up to scrutiny.  Regarding the notion that thousands of black Confederates willingly and zealously fought for the Confederacy, I think the case is clearly the latter.  Most reputable historians don’t promote the idea of thousands of black Rebel combat troops for the simple reason that the record isn’t consistent with that idea.  (And if you disagree with that statement, feel free to comment below with some compelling evidence.)

For another thing, the legal approach is kind of, you know, unconstitutional.  There’s that to consider.

The historian’s tools are, as Lipstadt said, history and truth.  If the weight of the evidence and the employment of reason lead inexorably to a conclusion, and they still fail to convince someone, then they just won’t be convinced.  The problem then will be one of perception, not historical interpretation—and certainly not one of law.  The historian’s job is to examine the evidence with a clear mind, find the explanation that best fits that evidence, and then present that explanation.  I’ve got enough faith in the discipline to think that sooner or later the best hypothesis will come out on top.

(Confederate battle flag image from Wikimedia Commons)

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It’s just a flesh wound

The historical blog world being a rather small community, I assume that most of the people who are reading this already know that the debate over those elusive black Confederate soldiers has stirred up again.  Check out Civil War Memory and the Old Virginia Blog if you want to jump in.

The black Confederate proponents remind me of some hockey-masked, machete-wielding lunatic from a slasher movie.  You can shoot him, burn him, drown him, run him over with a dump truck, and he just keeps coming back for more.  Right when you think he’s had enough, in that split second before the closing credits roll, he sits bolt upright, ready to wreak more havoc in the next installment.

I suppose we owe the persistent critics of pseudo-historical myths a debt of gratitude for fighting the good fight—or toting the weary load, as it were.  Of course, many criticisms have been levelled at the notion of thousands upon thousands of eager black Confederate troops, critcisms based on interpretation of evidence, the need for context, the selection of sources, and so forth.  And all those criticisms are right on the mark.  But will it make any difference?  Will it change any minds?  I doubt it.  There comes a point when evidence and argumentation becomes irrelevant, and that point comes when the problem is one of perception.

Let’s say you run into a guy who tells you that he makes extra cash by raising live dinosaurs.  He takes you behind his house, where he shows you a huge enclosure filled with alligators.  They’re everywhere, sunning themselves on logs and rocks, sliding through the water, strutting across the ground.  “See there?” he says, with perfect satisfaction.  “A whole pen full of dinosaurs.  Big, scaly dinosaurs.”

“Those are alligators,” you reply.

“What are you talking about?  Look at ‘em.  Big, mean reptiles.  Sharp teeth.  They lay big eggs.  Dinosaurs.”  And he’s as serious as a heart attack.  What do you do?  There’s no real response that you can make.  The difference in perception is so basic that communication is no longer possible.  And of course, the guy who sees the dinosaurs is convinced that he’s won the argument.

In that case, there’s not much left for you to do.  Maybe my slasher movie analogy was wrong.  Maybe a better illustration would be the Black Knight from Monty Python and the Holy Grail, still trying to come at the opponent who had already hacked off his arms and legs.

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