In the introduction of his biography, The Ordeal of Thomas Hutchinson, Bernard Bailyn attempted to explain how distance from the historical event shapes the interpretation. According to Bailyn, early histories “that follow a great and controversial event are still a significant part of the event itself.” For the historian, “the outcome [of the event] is still in question,” according to Bailyn, and “emotions are still deeply engaged.” This emotional attachment to the event by historians “especially those involved in the event in question” leaves wide open issues relating to how the event will be explained, what aspects of it will be remembered, and which participants will be included and why. Throughout this early stage of historical interpretation assumptions and conclusions remain in flux. Only later is the historian able to see clearly from a more detached perspective where “earlier assumptions of relevance, partisan in their nature, seem crude, and fall away.” Bailyn’s characterization can easily be mapped on to Civil War historiography with one qualifier: Many Civil War enthusiasts have not made the jump from the first stage where their “emotions are still deeply engaged.” Members of so-called Southern Heritage groups are especially prone to this problem. Perhaps the clearest example of this can be seen in the continued debate surrounding black Confederates.
In a recent talk Gary Gallagher shared an encounter with an individual who claimed that upwards of 100,000 black soldiers fought for the Confederacy. In his typical witty way, Gallagher responded that it would have been news to Robert E. Lee. I am not interested in answering this complex question because I have not done any research and most of the secondary literature is inadequate. It is interesting that up to now we still do not have a serious study of this question. Yes, there are plenty of websites and other publications that include old photographs of black men with Confederate soldiers or collect anecdotal evidence, but of course this does not tell us anything interesting. Thousands of blacks traveled with their masters and worked doing all kinds of things in camp, on the march, and even on the battlefield. I for one will not dispute that on occasion, black men willingly fought alongside white Confederates. What I will not concede is there is insufficient evidence to conclude that substantial numbers did so in any organized manner. Not only do we need a study with sufficient data, but also a sophisticated analysis that can move beyond the overly simplistic language that continues to define the debate. As someone interested in Civil War memory I am much more interested in why some white southerners are so adamant that blacks willingly fought for the Confederacy on various battlefields.