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are to American history what the Chupacabra is to zoology, hovering in that misty no man’s land between solid historical content and pseudo-historical memory.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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Filed under Civil War, History and Memory

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