The North Carolina Museum of History’s Loose Cannon

I hope everyone who had a chance to listen to Earl Ijames’s presentation last night on “colored Confederates” had a good time.  Unfortunately, I don’t know if I will ever have the opportunity to attend one of his talks in person, but I have learned quite a bit about his research and interpretation from various news items in which he is quoted.  While I agreed to take part in a public forum with Mr. Ijames at an upcoming academic conference it does not look like it will happen.  To be honest, I am much more interested in having Mr. Ijames present his work in a peer reviewed journal so that it can be judged by the historical community as a whole.  We are unlikely to see that any time soon as well.  In the mean time I will continue to share what I consider to be some of the more outlandish claims that Mr. Ijames has made over the past few years in various public settings.

The following news item takes us back to a presentation given by Mr. Ijames in November 2008 as part of the Dr. Charlotte Hawkins Brown Museum Legacy Lectures Series.   According to the article, Ijames said the following:

“There are people out there who have made their careers out of saying that there was no such thing as colored Confederate soldiers,” said Earl Ijames, curator at the North Carolina Museum of History. “As a historian, I want the records and facts to speak for themselves.”…. “As a state archivist and as a curator, I have had access to a lot of documents and records that proves a part of our history, on one hand is controversial and has been deliberately swept over, and on another hand, we still have vestiges in this state that are alive and kicking.”

Mr. Ijames needs to provide examples of who these people are that intentionally denied this history.  If this claim makes any sense at all Mr. Ijames should be able to cite at least one example for public scrutiny.  As bad as that is consider his claims about this history.

Confederate pensions were initially for soldiers who were injured in war and could not work. In 1927, the law was written to allow ditch diggers of color to receive pensions, but not Black Confederate soldiers. As the law evolved, pensions could be administered to soldiers who were too old to work, then to widows of soldiers from the Civil War. “I found just fewer than 200 colored Confederate pension applications, but many people did not know of the pension claim. There were many colored soldiers who served but were not documented on rosters.”

This claim about pension records has already been addressed here, here, and here.  Pension claims do not indicate service as a soldier.  Enough already!

Records that Ijames came across indicated that in 1862, a Confederate steamer was captured by the Union navy and 29 Black servants were taken as prisoners of war. “Now, I just find it hard to believe that there were 29 servants on a small steamer. I believe that some of those servants were actually soldiers but the Confederacy did not want the Union to know they had Blacks in the army,” Ijames said.

This is truly a remarkable claim for a historian to make.  So, the evidence that Ijames has available suggests that the men in question were slaves, but he believes they were soldiers because he believes the Confederacy was trying to keep their real identity a secret.  I would love to know what evidence Mr. Ijames has that would support such a claim.  This wouldn’t even be acceptable as an argument from one of my high school students.  Do I really need to debate someone who feels comfortable making this kind of claim?

As I stated before, I would have no problem if we were talking about a private individual; however, Mr. Ijames is an employee of a public institution.  The North Carolina Museum of History and Office of Archives and History have a responsibility here.  Are we in the historical community supposed to believe that Earl Ijames speaks for the museum and the rest of the public historical community in North Carolina?  Is this the level of scholarship that they expect from their employees and is this the level of scholarship that we would find in other historical areas?  I find it impossible to believe that I am the first historian to raise questions concerning Mr. Ijames’s “research.” No doubt, I am the first historian with a blog to do so and I will continue to make public these ridiculous claims until action is taken.  None of this would be necessary if after 15 years of research something was made public in the form of a peer reviewed essay.

Until then one must assume that the North Carolina Museum of History has a loose cannon on their hands.

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15 comments… add one

  • Margaret D. Blough Feb 19, 2010

    Mr. Ijames is big on demanding apologies be given to descendants. It seems to me he owes apologies to the descendants of those Union soldiers who were killed at places like the Crater where even Confederates like Porter Alexander who came from a slaveholding family and owned slaves himself admitted that Union soldiers who were attempting to surrender were killed if they were black when they would have been taken prisoner if they had been white instead. I would like to hear him try to explain this letter in the OR from Kirby Smith to Richard Taylor, son of former U.S. President Zachary Taylor and brother of Jefferson Davis’s first wife:

    >>HEADQUARTERS DEPARTMENT TRANS-MISSISSIPPI,
    Shreveport, La., June 13, 1863.
    Maj. Gen. R. TAYLOR, Commanding District of Louisiana:
    GENERAL: I have been unofficially informed that some of your troops have captured negroes in arms. I hope this may not be so, and that your subordinates who may have been in command of capturing parties may have recognized the propriety of giving no quarter to armed negroes and their officers. In this way we may be relieved from a disagreeable dilemma. If they are taken, however, you will turn them over to the State authorities to be tried for crimes against the State, and you will afford such facilities in obtaining witnesses as the interests of the public service will permit. I am told that negroes found in a state of insurrection may be tried by a court of the parish in which the crime is committed, composed of two justices of the peace and a certain number of slave-holders. Governor Moore has called on me and stated that if the report is true that any armed negroes have been captured he will send the attorney-general to conduct the prosecution as soon as you notify him of the capture.
    I have the honor to be, general, your obedient servant,
    E. KIRBY SMITH,
    Lieutenant-General, Commanding<<

    or this one, written a couple months earlier,

    HEADQUARTERS THIRD MILITARY DISTRICT,
    Pocotaligo, April 20, 1863.
    Brig. Gen. THOMAS JORDAN, Chief of Staff:
    GENERAL: I have the honor to report that Capt. James Lowndes, assistant adjutant-general, and Lieut. George S. Worthington, aide-de can, p, were sent as bearers of a flag of truce to Port Royal Ferry in compliance with instructions from department headquarters. These officers were instructed by me to refuse to communicate with any officer of the negro regiments, as they have been proclaimed outlaws and felons by the President of the Confederate States.
    It is true that this outlawry extended to the general commanding, but I could not but regard it as offensive and insulting that the immediate agents engaged in these organizations should be sent to receive a flag of truce dispatched from my headquarters.
    In cases of necessity, where charity to the dead and wounded required immediate action, I would feel forced to treat with any representative the enemy might choose to send. But no such necessity now exists, and among the considerable forces now assembled in our front their commanding officer should have chosen some one for the purpose of communication not obnoxious to the well-known sentiments of the authorities of the Confederate Government. The enemy had been notified the day previous that a flag of truce would be sent with a communication for their commanding general. Captain Lowndes was met by an officer who announced himself as Colonel Higginson, of the First South Carolina Regiment. He was rowed to the bulkhead by a negro in the full uniform of a sergeant of infantry. His regiment is known from his special reports to be composed of negroes. Captain Lowndes informed him of the instructions from my headquarters, forbidding him to hold communication with any officer of a negro regiment, and returned. Colonel Higginson stated that he would communicate to the commanding general of the United States forces the refusal to communicate wit h him and the reasons assigned.
    I have the honor to be, general, very respectfully, your obedient servant,
    W. S. WALKER,
    Brigadier-General, Commanding.<<

    • Kevin Levin Feb 20, 2010

      Thanks for the OR references. Part of the problem with most of these claims is that they fail to address the obvious contradictions/conflicts with sources such as the ones you provide. Somehow we are supposed to rethink the place of slavery in Southern society in a vacuum without inquiring into broader questions.

      • Margaret D. Blough Feb 20, 2010

        Kevin-You’re welcome. I left out the cite on the W.S. Walker communique which is . It’s an interesting cameo appearance by Thomas Wentworth Higginson. I wondered how much more infuriated Gen. Walker would have been if he’d realized that Higginson was a Unitarian minister from Massachusetts and a leading abolitionist (in fact one of John Brown’s “Secret Six” and considered by some to be the most radical) and his regiment consisted of former slaves. Higginson, on the other hand, must have rather enjoyed himself making the Confederates squirm.

  • Michael Lynch Feb 20, 2010

    His assumption about the “soldiers” captured on the steamer reminds me of an adage used by New Testament scholar John Meier: “What is gratuitously asserted may be gratuitously denied.”

    –ML

    • Kevin Levin Feb 20, 2010

      Hi Michael,

      At first I did a double-take as if to ask, “Did I really just read that?”. But if you step back it makes perfect sense. As far as I can tell Ijames has never had to engage serious scholars on this topic. He presents his “research” to popular audiences and there may be a temptation to stretch the interpretation for the purposes of entertainment.

      The only other alternative is that he really doesn't know how to engage in serious interpretation. Either way it's disturbing.

  • leewhite Feb 20, 2010

    Kevin, Well I just did a talk on real African American soldiers, the 44th USCT. In my research for the talk, I found this in regards to when part of the regiment was captured at Dalton, GA in October 13, 1864;

    “The separation of these white officers from their negro commands was an interesting as well as a sickening scene to our southern boys. The white officers in bidding farewell with their colored men showed in no uncertain way their love and devotion to the colored race. Their hearty handshakes and expressions of sorrow over their separation will never be forgotten.” Spencer Tally, 28th TN

    Doesnt seem like they cared for the comradery displayed between those white officers and the former slaves they were commanding.

    • Kevin Levin Feb 20, 2010

      Interesting passage. On the one hand I am not surprised by the reaction of Confederates. That said, the relationship between the white officers and black Union soldiers stands in sharp contrast to what happened following the Crater. There are a number of accounts of white officers stripping themselves of their rank so as not to be connected to them.

      • Jonathan Dresner Feb 21, 2010

        Could that be because they expected the CSA forces to treat them like black soldiers if they were so identified?

        • Kevin Levin Feb 21, 2010

          Correct. The Confederate government made it explicit that white officers would be treated as having led servile insurrection.

          • Jonathan Dresner Feb 23, 2010

            Thanks. That does make the Dalton event quite striking. Also makes the whole black Confederate soldier thing that much more absurd…

            • Kevin Levin Feb 23, 2010

              Yes, you would think so. However, in the world of Civil War history anything is possible. :D

  • Marianne Davis Feb 20, 2010

    If there were black soldiers and sailors fighting for the CSA in 1862, why would the Confederate Congress bother arguing the issue into the closing weeks of the war? Why would the the Confederate House approve raising a quota of black men from each state, and the Senate quash it? Why would Virginia pass its own law for the enlistment of black men on the 13th of March, 1865? It does seem like a great deal of palaver if black soldiers were already serving with their masters, doesn't it? We have to wonder if the NC Museum of History vets Ijames' work, or if perhaps the NCMH is in the back of a Stuckeys in suburban Raleigh.

    • Kevin Levin Feb 20, 2010

      You would think that such questions would be sufficient to cause one to take a step back and reassess. However, in the world of Civil War mythology this is business as usual. Thanks for the comment.

  • Roy Clement Jr Feb 24, 2010

    I have been a reader of Shelby Foote for many years and have watched many of his narrations on the history channel and he himself has told of a meeting between Jeff Davis and General Lee when Lee first
    took command of the Army Of Northern Virginia. Gen. Lee requested the drafting of every black man
    between the ages of seventeen and thirty seven because Lee new than that the south did not have the
    man power to win the war with the north. Jeff Davis immediately got up from his desk and closed the
    door and said to Gen. Lee do you know that there are men out there in that hall that would hang you
    if they were to hear you say that. Jeff Davis lost the war for the south right than and there.

    • Brooks D. Simpson Feb 24, 2010

      Of course, I note that this is a recollected conversation. I don't see where either participant recalled it. Shelby Foote may be an entertaining storyteller, but he's not a primary source.

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