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.