The Internet can be a wonderful source for reliable and important information on historical subjects. It can also be, and often is, a source for misleading and damaging information about the past. There is no better example of this than the divisive topic of “black Confederates.” Misinformation abounds on sites organized by individual SCV chapters as well as private individuals. There is no quality assurance mechanism and a search engine’s ranking algorithm has nothing to do with veracity. In the case of black Confederates the problem is not simply that the information is unreliable, but that it is easy for it to spread, which in turn compounds the problem. A quick tour of black Confederate websites reveals that many of these narratives or snippets of evidence are cut and pasted from one website to another.
Not only are the many poorly-constructed narratives filtered around without any attempt at analysis, but individual historians have also fallen victim to this practice. I’ve already mentioned the case of Ed Bearrs, who has regularly been singled out as a historian who has acknowledged the existence of these men. Even worse, he has been quoted over and over as having implied some kind of conspiracy to keep these stories under wraps. There is no evidence that he has ever said such a thing and I’ve learned through reliable sources that he has denied ever suggesting it.
The other example that continues to pop up involves historian, Ken Noe. In fact, it’s latest appearance can be seen in a comment left on this blog over the weekend. A reader by the name of Gary Adams left a comment that included your standard list of references to supposed cases of black Confederates. The reference in question was to Ken’s excellent study of Perryville. As usual there was no attempt by this reader to provide any context for the items on the list. In fact, I am fairly certain that this is just another example of cutting and pasting on the web. Those of you familiar with this debate will see all of the standard references, including Frederick Douglass’s famous second-hand observation. Ken has responded numerous times and even issued a statement on his own website. I was pleased to see that Ken took the time to address Adams’s comment:
It never ends, does it? Mr. Adams, among your sources, you quote me. And I assure you, I never wrote what you said I did. Years ago, someone took a quotation out of my Perryville book, _deliberately_ rewrote it, and stuck it on an internet site to “prove” the existence of willing black Confederates. The original poster dropped it once I mentioned the word “lawyers,” but as I can see, it’s still out there wherever you cut-and-pasted it from. Kindly don’t “quote” me again. Knowing this, too, perhaps the question you should be asking is this, if one of these internet quotations was deliberately falsified, how much should you trust the other ones? Because I assure you, I just spent seven years reading thousands of Confederate soldiers letters, and I didn’t find one writer who described “black Confederate” soldiers in action.
As many of you know I recently agreed to write a book-length study on the history and memory of “black Confederates” for Westholme Publishing once I finish my Crater study. One of the things I plan to do is construct a companion website for the book that will take a close look at some of the most popular black Confederate websites. I don’t believe for a minute that most people who leave these kinds of comments intend to deceive anyone. It’s more likely the case that they simply do not know how to evaluate historical sources and websites in particular. It’s probably too late to make much of a dent into the lies and distortions that can be found on these sites, but that should never stop us from producing reliable history and challenging this nonsense whenever possible.