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.
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.