How Best to Respond to the Black Confederate Narrative

I have been giving this question some thought since our recent discussion surrounding the upcoming movie about Patrick Cleburne and the broader black Confederate narrative.  As many of you know I’ve been committed to responding to some of the more outlandish claims in the news and on numerous websites.  My goal has not been simply to deny these claims, but to work to steer the debate in a direction that may help us to better understand the complexity surrounding the question of how the Confederate war effort challenged the slave – master relationship as well as broader issues of race relations in the South.  I feel comfortable in concluding that between these posts and the intelligent discussion that almost always ensues that this site offers the most thought provoking commentary to be found on this issue on the Web.  That said, I am very much aware of its limitations.

First and foremost, Civil War Memory was never meant as a place to showcase my scholarship in a finished form on any subject nor was it meant to be considered as a digital history site.  Yes, I regularly share ideas that I am working on and excerpts from finished projects, but I am not doing history here in a strict sense.  I’ve always thought of my blog as a place to share ideas about teaching, the books I am reading, the news items I come across and a host of other concerns.  Some of these threads are relatively short while others are quite extensive.  In other words, I think it would be a mistake to treat this site as a legitimate secondary source of any kind.

That said, I do think that the extended thread on black Confederates offers the interested reader a great deal to consider.  A number of posts explore the terms employed in this debate while others counter claims made about specific individuals.  In fact, we’ve not had one example of a supposed black Confederate hold up under close scrutiny.  I want to thank those of you who have helped to hunt down the necessary archival materials, work that should have been carried out by those making the claims.

Still, as I pointed out there are limitations to what a blog can do in addressing these issues.   Most importantly, blogs easily lend themselves to partisan bickering since they can be attributed to an individual or organization.  In the eyes of most observers all is equal on the Web.  Anyone and everyone can establish their own website and/or comment on a subject regardless of their background and competence.  That is both a blessing and a curse.  I’ve met some very talented and smart people through this site, but I’ve also been forced to deal with outright incompetency.  The black Confederate issue provides us with a case study of the pros and cons of the dangers and possibilities associated with the Web. 

What is Needed

I would like to see a college or university take on a digital history project that addresses a number of aspects concerning this subject.  A university-sponsored project would not only bring the necessary financial resources to bear, but would work to diffuse much of the partisanship by bringing the discussion from a .com to an .edu.  It would also introduce a segment of the general public to the burgeoning field of digital history.  Keep in mind that I am not suggesting that the debate would end.  In fact, I am not in any way interested in convincing the most partisan on both sides of the table to reconsider their positions.  There is a segment of this community, much of which you can see in action on the websites that supposedly explore this subject, that have a need to believe in their preferred view.  I am interested in seeing a reliable website constructed for those who are approaching this issue for the first time and/or who are sincerely interested in understanding the complexity of the history rather than engaging in petty questions that are mired in a language that reveals little.

I am encouraged by the website, Retouching History: The Modern Falsification of a Civil War Photograph, that was researched by two scholars at the University of Virginia’s Digital Media Lab.  It’s a solid piece of research.  There are a couple of things that I like about this site.  First, it provides readers with the relevant resources and references as well as a sophisticated argument that must stand or fall based on the evidence and argument provided rather than anything external.  Just as important is the attempt to address the ease with which historical evidence can be manipulated in a digital format.  This latter point may be one of the most important.  A digital history project on this subject could take on the way in which evidence is treated on the vast majority of websites.  Let me point out that I don’t believe for a minute that most people intend to mislead their readers by falsifying data or intentionally ignoring relevant arguments and scholarship.  The problem is more a matter of not understanding historical analysis and/or the broader historiography.  How many websites out there do nothing more than bring together various images and short references and present them as a coherent argument?  They typically lack any kind of analysis or context and any attempt to challenge such an approach is often interpreted as a political attack rather than as part of an ongoing dialog that is necessary to any serious understanding of the past.  You can see this on the many websites sponsored by the Sons of Confederate Veterans as well as on sites where you might expect a slightly more sophisticated treatment [Hat-tip to Brian Downey: Notice that a website operated by Wes Cowan is asking for $1,000 for a supposed photograph of a black Confederate soldier w/o one shred of evidence related to the man depicted in the image.].

Along these same lines I would love to see a case study that explores the prevailing narrative that can be found on most of these sites.  I am convinced that a significant percentage of these sites are the result of the webmaster’s ability to cut and paste.   Again, I do not believe that the author’s of these sites intend to deceive; rather, and as I pointed out earlier, they lack the analytical skills and knowledge of the subject.  A serious digital history project could help to educate the public on how to judge websites that purport to be engaged in legitimate/serious historical scholarship.

The other important function for such a site could be in challenging claims about the status of specific individuals.   What I find most disturbing about many of these sites is the haphazard way in which evidence is handled.  Evidence is treated as a means to making claims about broader issues of race/slavery and the Confederacy, but very little time is spent with the evidence itself.  A narrow focus on the evidence would serve to remind those interested that this subject, like all subjects, hinges on the amount and quality of evidence that can be utilized.  Individual case studies could serve as models of historical analysis and over time would lead to an important database accessible by the public.  As I pointed out earlier, this would happen away from the partisan bickering that continues to shape much of the discussion and would force the reader to focus on what matters: evidence and interpretation.  From this perspective, broader questions of numbers, loyalty, and the more emotional needs of vindication take a back seat.

Just as important, a narrow focus would allow us to concentrate on the individuals themselves.  It is unfortunate that given all of the attention leveled on these men that we know so little about them.  Case studies would be much more effective in helping us to better understand their experiences based on the available evidence.  It’s time that we take these men seriously rather than manipulate them for our own purposes.

Conclusion

There are a number of institutions that could take on such a project.  The University of Virginia’s Center for Digital History would be ideal, but it could also find a home at George Mason University’s Center for History and New Media as well as the Center for Civil War Research at the University of Mississippi.  I don’t see such a project as working to confirm or deny the existence of black Confederates.  The choice itself points to the essential problem with this debate.  We need to approach this subject from the ground-up.  Let’s start with the available evidence and apply the kind of attention and analysis that it deserves and let’s do it in a way that focuses on history rather than external questions that tend to distract.  If we start on a local level we will have a much easier time coming to terms with broader issues of how the war affected slavery in the Confederacy as well as race relations during wartime.

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24 comments… add one

  • Harry Feb 8, 2010

    I try not to confuse wants with needs (as in “Do we really need another book on Gettysburg” as oppsed to “Do we really want another book on Gettysburg”). With black Confederates, while I get irritated when I hear folks go on and on about how they “know” there were many “black Confederates” and that the “truth” has been “suppressed”, I think I've come to the realization that these folks are going to believe what they want to believe, and that no amount of argument, regardless of its passion or dispassion, is going to change them – in fact, their position is constructed in such a way that discussion is only going to reinforce in their minds its validity. While within our rather confined universe this is a hot topic, it's not one that appears to be seriously considered by the general public to an extent that really concerns me. So, I think what happens is either choir preaching, or punching water men. I don't know that addressing this issue rises to the level of “need”, despite how much we may “want” to do it. I could be convinced otherwise, though.

    • Kevin Levin Feb 8, 2010

      As I stated in the post, Harry, I am not interested in convincing the partisans. I honestly could care less about those people. The question is what can be done for those folks who are sincerely interested in this subject. I think a digital history site that had the backing of a research institution would be extremely helpful, not simply as a way to educate the public about a complex topic, but to demonstrate how historical evidence is properly handled and interpreted. I don't really want to get into a discussion about want or need. The question is whether it would be helpful to various groups. I am suggesting that it would. Finally, I agree that my characterization of this as a “narrative” is stretching, but I like to think my point is clear.

      Thanks for the comment, Harry.

  • Harry Feb 8, 2010

    I guess I also have an issue with calling it a ” blakc Confederate narrative”. It seems a very generous application of the word “narrative”. I guess I expect a little more coherence in a narrative.

  • davidsilkenat Feb 8, 2010

    I have to agree with Harry that it is unlikely that those who want to believe in the myth of black Confederates would be persuaded by a book or a website. For the most extreme advocates of this position, a website (especially one with an .edu suffix) would only confirm their belief that academics were suppressing the truth.

    On the other hand, I have to agree with Kevin that we should not allow this damaging mythology to go unanswered. Our objective should be to persuade those who haven't really thought about the issue to look at the evidence. Responding Patrick Cleburne movie seems like the perfect opportunity for us to respond to this issue. We all know that movies have shaped the popular conception of the Civil War far more than any academic work, from Birth of a Nation and Gone with the Wind to Glory.

    • Kevin Levin Feb 8, 2010

      Thanks for the comment. Let me just state clearly once again that I have no interest in trying to persuade the usual suspects in this debate. I am focused on those who are looking for reliable information on this subject. I agree that critiques of movies that touch on this subject would also be worth looking at in a digital format.

      • Harry Feb 8, 2010

        I guess what I don't understand is what is “worth”? I have a hard time conceptualizing the extent of the problem here. Who exactly is looking for more and reliable information? Are we making mountains from molehills? You know, they made a movie about Confederate soldiers who were zombies too, if I recall (they did one with Nazis, too). Do we “need” to investigate that further? Kevin, I'm not asking these questions to belittle the topic (though my illustrations are purposefully and admittedly extreme). I think in order to determine if and how to proceed, you have to know why you're proceeding. What are the consequences of not exploring this in greater and systematic detail? Are the perceptions of black Confederates held by anyone other than a fringe element ones that need changed? Is there something in what we already can see that tells us this is something that needs to be explored further? Like everything, it's a question of priorities. I'm on the fence and could be tipped either way (that is, toward fishing or toward cutting bait.)

        • Kevin Levin Feb 8, 2010

          Gotcha Harry. Excellent points. Given my preoccupation with this issue I may indeed be blowing it out of proportion. While I agree that relatively few people have views on this subject the issue has become more public in recent years. Consider the number of examples where the Sons of Confederate Veterans have honored slaves or free blacks as soldiers even with insufficient evidence. These stories make the newspaper and are read by the general public with little understanding of the issues involved. That's just one example. A quick perusal of my posts on the subject over the last few years would yield plenty of other examples.

          In addition, I think this is an ideal subject for a digital history project. Like I said, it could highlight the challenges of presenting history in a digital format. That is the lesson I take from the Louisiana Native Guard website that I discussed. The subject also sits at the intersection of a number of broader topics that are going to be widely debated through the Civil War Sesquicentennial. It connects to the subject of slavery, the Confederate war effort, race relations and historical memory. Again, I think a digital history approach could be an effective way of introducing those interested to the challenges of historical analysis and interpretation.

          Finally, couldn't we ask some of the same questions about your own digital project on Bull Run? Do we really need a site that brings together the various reports and other sources related to the battle? I don't expect you to answer that question. You do it because you perceive there to be a need for this information and are trying to help people understand the battle better. I think a site a digital history site on black Confederates could help those interested to better understand a wide range of issues that have for a long time been misunderstood by the general public. Hope that helps and thanks again for the comments.

          • Harry Feb 8, 2010

            I don't mind answering the question, because a) I've asked it myself and b) I was thinking about it when I was typing my previous comment. I don't know if there is a “need” for Bull Runnings. I know lots of people like it (“lots” being a relative term), but I don't know if they are better for having read it. Maybe the concept is important – and I'm not saying it is – as far as making information more accessible. There certainly are more projects like it now, but mine was not the first. I don't know if Bull Runnings is important – I suspect it probably isn't, and I know for sure some people are certain it isn't. If it's important at all, maybe it's as a part of a collective importance of projects like it.

            I “do” the site for purely selfish reasons. I like to do it. I may even need to do it. I think if anything important comes from it, most likely it will be that it helped someone produce something important. I'm OK with that.

            • Kevin Levin Feb 8, 2010

              That was more of a rhetorical question given your initial comment. I say this with all due respect to you, but it seems to me that you are not being entirely honest about your project. It seems clear to me that we do what we do because we believe there is some value to it. Why do we have to shy away from that? No, it's not going to save the world, but the two of us are serious about our respective interests in the war and we hope that others will be as well.

              Thanks again, Harry.

              The question was raised in a previous thread as to how best to deal with the black Confederate narrative. I offered this post as one suggestion that could bear some fruit.

  • Brooks D. Simpson Feb 9, 2010

    I warned you about Wes Cowan. :)

  • Paul Taylor Feb 9, 2010

    Over the months and years I have watched and read the whole “black Confederate” debate on CWM with much interest. I was particularly struck in this post by your remark, “There is a segment of this community, much of which you can see in action on the websites that supposedly explore this subject, that have a need to believe in their preferred view.”

    The “need to believe in their preferred view” regarding black Confederates is something I've often wondered about and struggle with a reason as to why it is so. Oh, I'm sure the devoted will say they are simply seekers of truth. I'm also sure that such critiques and retorts can and probably have been made in other more important areas of “personal faith,” such as religion and politics. For me anyway, the “need to believe” in those areas is far more understandable than something as innocuous as Civil War history. As for this issue, why do you think it is so essential for some 21st-century men and women to believe with such fervor that there were “black Confederates.” I'm sure it's to steer away from slavery being the fundamental cause of the war, but again, in your opinion, why is such a desire so near and dear 150 years after the fact?

    I guess I just don't get it their fervor. Didn't Robert Krick, one of the foremost Confederate authorities, already say that there may have been a relative handful of true “black Confederates?” If he's right, that's a far cry from the tens of thousands who clamored to put on the blue uniform or risk their lives riding the Underground Railroad.

    My apologies if this question has been thoroughly addressed in the past.

  • Marc Ferguson Feb 9, 2010

    “I don’t see such a project as working to confirm or deny the existence of black Confederates. The choice itself points to the essential problem with this debate. We need to approach this subject from the ground-up.”

    How would such a website be conceptually framed? If it truly doesn't take a stance, and is from the ground up, shouldn't/wouldn't it engage with the broad issue of understanding the roles and experiences of blacks with Confederate armies? That's a very large, and profoundly important area in need of research. If the website were engaged in examining claims of “black Confederates,” then wouldn't it, to some extent, have already conceded a large amount of conceptual and interpretive ground just by accepting the terminology? I, for one, think the term itself is misleading regardless of whether or not a handful of men who were categorized as “black” by 19th century racial criteria managed to enlist one way or another.

    • Kevin Levin Feb 9, 2010

      Good question. I don't know what we would call such a project, but I don't really see this as a problem. Perhaps the site would accept the terminology simply as a way of attracting readers (SEO) in its sub-heading. Of course, I agree that the term is misleading and a non-starter given the complexity of the subject. I will have to give this some more thought. Thanks

  • EarthTone Feb 9, 2010

    Kevin,

    I like your suggestions/proposals, and I hope someone proceeds with them.

    I especially like the idea that you are not merely focusing on an examination Black Confederates (BCs) in isolation, but rather, you are looking at the general idea of how memory is formed, and how myths can become memory when based on… let's call it “bad history.”

    This way, people can learn larger lessons about the creation of historical memory that go beyond the subject of BCs.

    ***
    I understand the concern of some folks that the subject of BCs might be too esoteric/non-important a subject to warrant the kinds of things Kevin is proposing. My knee-jerk reaction is, there is so much esoterica in historical study, looking at this subject couldn't be any worse. I mean, any day now, I expect a book on how Lincoln getting a “D” on his report card in a 4th grade class totally altered his perception of reality and maybe perhaps was the ultimate cause for his desire to preserve the Union at all costs… or maybe not.

    On a more serious note: as has been acknowledged universally, the role of blacks and slaves in the Civil War, in general, hasn't received as much attention or research that many of us would like. I see this as part of a larger effort to address that. A small part, perhaps, but a useful one nonetheless… I would consider it one of many steps in the right direction.

  • Brooks D. Simpson Feb 10, 2010

    Exactly how do we know the race of the person in the image? After all, it's been touched up with a mild colorization, including making the cheeks a bit rosier.

    Wes Cowan is really something of a joke.

    • Kevin Levin Feb 10, 2010

      The sad thing is that I don't think he had anything to do with the description, which suggests that he has little interest in how his name is used to market artifacts.

  • Craig Feb 10, 2010

    I've just finished reading Ned Sublette's book 'The World That Made New Orleans'. The book covers the period between 1720, when the French first established New Orleans as a penal colony, and 1820, eight years after Louisiana achieved statehood and New Orleans became the biggest slave market in the United States.

    I think it's fascinating that New Orleans capitulated to the north as soon as Farragut could get a navy vessel up the river in 1862, while the nearby city of Mobile remained Confederate until after Lee had surrendered in April 1865. The British staged a massive assault on New Orleans in 1815 and were easily repulsed by Andrew Jackson and a handful of pirates. How is it that Farragut encountered so little resistance?

    How exactly did slavery as practiced by the French and the Spanish differ from that practiced by the English and the Dutch? Why were there more free people of color living in New Orleans in 1862 than in all of the rest of the United States combined? How many of those free people of color in New Orleans owned slaves? How many of them owned slaves legally? What does it mean to be emancipated? How is it different than being deported to Haiti or Liberia? Can a case be made that slavery actually ended during the French Revolution and not the American Civil War?

    The rivers that flow into Mobile Bay originate in what Sublette called the Upper South. The river that flows through New Orleans originates in Canada and provided all of the Old Northwest with access to the Gulf. Without Mobile the southern cause was lost. Without New Orleans the north had no chance in hell. When Vicksburg fell in the summer of '63 thousands upon thousands of slaves in Mississippi, Arkansas and Louisiana were abruptly emancipated with the immediate prospect of death by either disease or starvation. The Union army had no clue what to do with them all. The Confederacy had people in New Orleans who understood the concept of free people of color. It also had a much clearer sense than the north of the mindset of masterless slaves. They lost the war when they failed to match the Union's offer of freedom, but freedom restricted to those 'liberated' slaves who had served the Confederate cause in uniform.

    Look at the numbers for black enlistment in the Union army. Kentucky enlisted far more black soldiers than any other state. The masterless slaves of Mississippi, Arkansas and Louisiana went up the river to enlist. How many would gladly have gone to Texas or Alabama to wear grey instead of blue if the promise of freedom had been on the table?

    • Kevin Levin Feb 10, 2010

      Thanks for the comment, Craig. Sounds like an interesting book. You've laid out a number of important questions for anyone interested in better understanding the city's racial dynamic. It also functions as a warning that we shouldn't be so quick in using NO as a case study for rest of the South.

    • Leonard Lanier Feb 10, 2010

      Take Sublette’s claims with a large grain of salt. The evidence does not support some of the ideas presented in “The World That Made New Orleans.”

      Consider that claim about free people of color: that more lived in “New Orleans in 1862 than in all of the rest of the United States combined.” Well, according to the 1860 Census, 18,647 free blacks lived in Louisiana, with 10,939 of those living in New Orleans.

      By way of comparison, the 1860 Census lists the free black population of Maryland at 83,942. The free colored population in Baltimore alone numbered 25,680, more than twice the number of free blacks living in New Orleans. Even in Virginia, which mandated that manumitted slaves leave the state, the free black population came to over 58,000 in 1860.

      By way of disclaimer, all these figures come from UVA’s Historical Census Browser, http://fisher.lib.virginia.edu/collections/stat….

      • Craig Feb 11, 2010

        That was my claim and my sloppiness. Don't blame it on Sublette. My apologies for the exaggeration. His research was for the period between 1720 and 1820. There were lots of changes demographically in the U.S. and a considerable increase in mobility between 1820 and 1860. The book culminates with the Louisiana Purchase and the resulting Creole immigration from Cuba to New Orleans in 1810 followed by the Battle of New Orleans.

        Sublette points out that Baltimore was a primary destination for large numbers of those, white, black and in-between, fleeing the turmoil of the Haitian Revolution, particularly between 1790 and 1810. Entire plantations relocated to Maryland directly from what eventually became Haiti, so there were other parts of the U.S. shaped by the French practice of slavery that resulted in substantial numbers of free people of color. The influx didn't come to New Orleans until the Spaniards expelled the French Creoles who had taken refuge in Cuba. An account of the effect of the Haitian Revolution on Baltimore and the Chesapeake Bay would also be enlightening and compelling reading, particularly with regard to Louisville and the state of Kentucky as the center for enlistment of colored troops in the Union army.

        Cleburne's proposal, as I understand it, would have enlisted slaves for the southern cause directly from the plantations, so the social and demographic dynamic for an army of colored Confederate forces would have diverged sharply from what developed over the course of the war in the north. My contention is that the fall of Vicksburg did present a significant opportunity for the south to avail itself of Cleburne's plan.

        My Civil War ancestor served with a regiment that spent four months in Vicksburg, a year and a half in Little Rock, ten days in New Orleans, two months in Mobile and a month in Brazos Santiago, so he didn't really take part in the Civil War. But his wife's brother did. He fought Cleburne at Bald Hill.

        • Leonard Lanier Feb 12, 2010

          Once again, let's go back to the census. In 1790, 8,043 free blacks lived in the state of Maryland. That's a full year before the outbreak of the slave revolt in Saint-Domingue. I admit, some refugees from the French colony did enter the United States through eastern seaports like Baltimore and Norfolk, but the number is extremely small. Southern slave-owners feared that unruly slaves from Saint-Domingue could pose a threat, so Congress banned the importation of slaves from the French colonies. To allow the Saint-Domingue refugees to enter Louisiana, the territory's governor, William Claiborne, actually petitioned the government for a periodic exemption to the ban.

          For more information about slavery in Louisiana and the Saint Domingue refugees, see

          Berlin, Ira. “Many Thousands Gone:” The First Two Centuries of Slavery in North America. Cambridge, MA: Belknap Press, 1998.

          Dessens, Nathalie. From Saint-Domingue to New Orleans: Migration and Influences. Gainesville, FL: University of Florida Press, 2007.

  • acwresearcher Feb 17, 2010

    Interesting post, but I, like Harry, can't help but wonder who is actually looking for this type of information. I have the students in my Civil War class working on a semester long research project that will culminate with a written essay and visual presentation of their research. My students, in picking their topics, expressed a wide interest in many topics, people, battles, technology and even race issues. I had one student suggest conducting research on the Klan, but she later decided against that. Middle school students tend to select topics strictly for the reaction they perceive it might bring to them as individual students conducting the research, even if the topic might be controversial or have a marginal amount of primary and secondary sources to support it. Not one student in this class of 27 (two more were added this week so my observation here might change, though I hope not) has even breached this topic as a possibility for a project. I have an inquisitive group of kids, most of whom want to take advantage of the opportunity to take a class like this in middle school. Perhaps that is why they have selected other topics, but it still seems to me at least one student might have approached me with this topic if a large number of people beyond the usual partisans truly cared. That has not happened, at least not yet. I'll keep you posted should one of the two recently added students offer this subject up for a potential project.

    • Kevin Levin Feb 17, 2010

      I'm not surprised that none of your students has taken on such a project since they probably know nothing about the issue. None of my students on the high school level know anything about it before I introduce it to them. I never suggested that this was one of the high profile debates about the Civil War within the general public, just that it might make for an interesting digital project. The subject, however, does intersect with a number of crucial questions about slavery and the war.

      Nice to hear from you.

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