There are plenty of black Confederates to be found on the Internet; in fact, they seem to run rampant in the world of cyberspace.  The number of men in Lee’s Army of Northern Virginia fluctuates widely depending on the number of black Confederates believed to have served.  Sifting through the mire of shoddy websites is one of the most difficult and time-consuming tasks.  This is especially true in the world of the Civil War.  In a sense the Internet embodies the democratic principles that we hold dear and gives meaning to the notion that "everyman his own historian."  However, this democratic tendency comes with a price.  Historical truth or any related epistemological notion will mean very little if individual Internet sites cannot be properly evaluated.

Most of my students use search engines such as Google and click on one of the first five sites that appear without any understanding of why they make the top of the list.  Despite PageRank being the most important method Google uses to rank websites, it is not the only one. Other factors taken into account when calculating the Google rankings include: the contents of the title bar of the site; the page’s meta tags; how many times the keyword is in the content of the page and the text used in the links coming to the site (anchor text).  The point is that Google does not evaluate the content of the website directly.  In other words, the first five sites may be more unreliable than those sites listed on p. 10.

Uncovering the publisher of a website is one of the most important ways to evaluate its reliability.  I tend to steer my students away from websites that are published by individuals and organizations other than historical societies and institutions of higher learning. 

Let’s consider the issue of black Confederates as an example.  As I stated at the beginning of this post most of the so-called evidence for this can be found on Internet sites.  Consider the Petersburg Express site, which includes a page titled "Who Is Hiding This Southern History?."  The page includes a number of photographs of black men in Confederate uniforms along with a number of passages that include no interpretation whatsoever apart from the conclusion that they demonstrate that a certain aspect of history has been intentionally ignored.  Here is a very simple way of evaluating this site.  Go to www.easywhois.com and type the url www.petersburgexpress.com into the search bar that says "domain name".  The results will include the individual or organization that applied for the domain name.  You can now search the individual or organization and inquire into their credentials.  What qualifications, if any, in the field of history can be demonstrated that would validate the information provided on the website?  Who exactly is Ashleigh Moody and what are his credentials?  Do you have any reason at all to trust the content of the website based on the credentials uncovered?  You can also find out which sites are linked to Petersburg Express by going to Altavista.  In the search bar type "link:www.petersburgexpress.com" which will take you to the websites that are linked.  A great deal of information can be discerned based on the quality of websites linked. 

You can also do this for the 37th Texas Cavalry, which is another one of my favorite sites. This site contains a number of pages on so-called black Confederates and is even sponsoring a monument to honor their service, which is reminiscent of the move in the 1920s by the U.D.C. to construct a faithful slave memorial in Washington, D.C.:

Time is, indeed, running out for the chance to Remember and Honor the tens of thousands of Black, Brown, Red and Yellow Southerners and those of foreign birth who wore the gray and fought to defend their homes and families. There are those who are making concerted efforts to abolish or deny documented evidence of their service.

So, what are we to make of this site?  The easywhois search reveals one Michael Kelly and the altavista search for links shows roughly 90 sites.  I don’t know what qualifications this individual has or anything else about the reliability of his "research."  This is one place that you will continue to find the image of the 1st Louisiana Native Guards being used as evidence for large numbers of black Confederates.  This has been discredited by any number of scholars.  I completely steer clear of sites created by individuals and "organizations" that I cannot identify and I recommend demand that my students do the same. 

No doubt many of you are far ahead in ways to evaluate websites, but most people don’t know the first thing about vetting Internet sites.  Following these suggestions is a first step.

12 comments add yours

  1. When I taught, I used to tell my students (as a start) to use sites that ended in .edu or .org as a preliminary gauge as to credibility.

  2. I remember a student doing research on Lawrence of Arabia coming up with the Institute of Historic Review article. The first few pages were a standard bio of Lawrence, but I thought, wait for it, and sure enough it finished with the Zionist Cabal conspiracy stuff.
    Nice suggestions about students using the web.

  3. The music accompanying “Who is hiding this black southern history” is Lennon’s “Imagine.” I’m guessing the irony escapes the webmaster.

  4. Kevin,
    The expose of the doctored photo has been out for a while: is the 37th website still carrying the photo as genuine?

  5. I can’t go along with the recommendation to steer clear of sites created by individuals, in fact I take personal unbrage to it. (www.mdgorman.com) I also have found that FAR too few universities or libraries have the resources to construct useful sites that are broad-based. See for instance the National Archives’ site, which is a shameful abdication of the prominence they should hold in cyberspace. I have come to the conclusion that rather than steer away from individuals’ sites, we should use them as teaching tools – how better to evaluate a historical document than to learn to spot bias? We could all read Longstreet’s memoirs, for example, but that’s just as biased as most websites. I have deliberately avoided putting up a bio of myself on my site, though I have pretty sound credentials, since I believe that the work of transcribing primary sources should stand on its own – editorializing versus fact should be readily identifiable. I would hope people would suspect any editorializing on my site (I’ve avoided it as much as possible), and trust the first person accounts. Now back to topic: here’s what I’ve been able to find on the tiny number of black Confederate units that formed in Richmond just before the end of the war: http://www.mdgorman.com/Events/black_confederates.htm I HAVE been greatly dismayed that some of the information I dug up and shared with the public has been used for dark purposes, but it’s part of the story, and I put it up there for that reason. If the FEW citations I was able to find doesn’t say something in and of itself, I can’t really help you. Thanks for the nice blog!

  6. Mike, — Nice to hear from you and thanks for taking the time to comment. I surely did not intend for you to feel offended in any way. Your site is first-rate because it includes an excellent range of online primary resources. At the same time I hope you can appreciate the challenges that a high school history teacher faces in the course of a given year. I do indeed teach skills to my students for the purposes of screening websites. Still, I do steer them away from sites run by individuals for the reasons stated in the post. Many of my students – even with the screening lessons – are simply unprepared to tackle much of the content.

    Thanks again for writing.

  7. I wasn’t serious about the offense from you, let’s just say I can tell when its paper-writing-time for students when my inbox gets filled with high-schoolers demanding my bio, and all but accusing me of manufacturing sources. Talk about annoying! An student actually told me that I’d have to send my “crentials” or else HE couldn’t use my site. Needless to say, that one went unanswered. But I do wonder if in a few years, the ability to vet online sources will be more widespread…I think on this level we’re experiencing growing pains. I guess it boils down to this: even though it looked like a newspaper, I was able to tell at a very young age that the Weekly World News was not where I’d find my most reliable facts. Sometime soon, the same thing has to happen internet-wise. Kudos again on a great blog, and thanks for your excellent talk at the Round Table this year. I wish I’d had a teacher as passionate as you in high school – I might never have felt the need to fill in the blanks and become an historian!

  8. http://www.ncdcr.gov/news/2003/opa_2-26-03.pdf

    Hello Kevin

    Spent some time at the NC archives today and I asked them about blacks in the confederate army. Mr. Ijames was kind enough to talk to me and show me some entries in the official records of the war. Put a link to a paper he wrote. I explained to him that “My Civil War” was one devoid of blacks on the battlefield with the exception of Union Troops. My interest is in eastern nc where I have been doing research for the past seven years. This part of the state, in particular the northeast had a large free black population since before the revoluntionary war. Their reactions to the war are of interest to me.

    Maybe you can suggest a book for me. I am looking for a well researched book on why Lincoln made the decision to go to war. Even after the firing on Fort Sumter could he had done anything to keep a state like NC in the union? Interested in his decision making style.

    Thanks

  9. Hi Mr. Phillips: I am reading “The Age of Lincoln” now, and it may be of value to you as you research why Lincoln made the decision to go to war.
    Regards,
    JM

    PS: Mr. Ijames helped me out quite a bit 2 summers ago as I did dissertation research in Raleigh, what a nice guy.

  10. What about the decision of Jefferson Davis to go to war. It was he, afterall, who ordered the firing on Fort Sumter.

    Regards,
    Cash

  11. Thanks for the book suggestion. I will get copy. NC refused to send troops when Lincoln asked for them but could he have kept NC neutral or was the drumbeat of war to strong.
    I find Eastern NC to be incredible. You take a county like Bertie. Half the county went with the Confederates, half with the Union. It had a free black population that predated the Revolution and slaves. Bertie had it all.

    Mr. Ijames was great.

    Thanks
    Richard

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