Entangled in Nonsense, Fantasy, and Really Bad History

Here is another selection from Ann DeWitt’s and Kevin Week’s Entangled in Freedom, which tells the story of a black Confederate soldier by the name of Isaac.  In this scene Isaac and his master, Abraham Green, have just arrived at the camp of the 42nd Regiment Georgia Volunteers.  The soldiers in camp are surprised to see a black man, but decide to make him their chaplain after they learn that Isaac has memorized the Bible.  But wait, it gets better.  This scene takes place as an officer in the 42nd explains to the men why Isaac and Abraham have both been given permission to stay in the officer’s quarters.

“You are putting me in a very strange predicament,” said Sergeant Major Hart.  Facing the crowd Sergeant Major Hart said, “Soldiers, let me introduce to you Sergeant Major Abraham Green and Chaplain Isaac who hail from Oxford, Georgia.  Because we are tight on space here at this training camp, I have invited both to stay in the officer’s quarters.”

“Permission to speak Sergeant Major,” said a First Sergeant at the front of the crowd.”  I am First Sergeant Russell.  This is the war of the Confederate States of America.  Only one-tenth of the people in the state own slaves…and for the most part that’s the planters.  As for the men in my tent, we don’t own any slaves.  Have you read the latest Harper’s Weekly newspaper?” he asked pulling out a torn sheet.

“What does an article have to do with where Sergeant Major Green and Isaac sleep?”

“Let me read to you an article from Harper’s Weekly newspaper.”  Lifting the newspaper clipping and shouting to the top of his authoritative voice for the seventy-six men of the 42nd Regiment Georgia Volunteers Company E to hear, he said, “The correspondent of the New York Herald, in one of its latest numbers, reports that the rebels had a regiment of mounted black men armed with sabers at Manassas, and that some five hundred Union prisoners taken at Bull Run were escorted to their filthy prison by a regiment of black men.”

The 42nd Regiment Georgia Volunteers Company E cheered.  Master Green winked at me and smiled.  Sergeant Major Hart asked, “What’s your point?

First Sergeant Russell said, “If these black rebels can fight for the honor of the Confederacy, I don’t see why our chaplain can’t be living amongst the soldiers.  After the prayer, we in Company E took a vote, we want Chaplain Isaac to be assigned to our company and be assigned to my tent.”

Listening to this news was baffling to me.  Learning from the First Sergeant, I asked, “Permission to speak, sir.”  Yes, Chaplain Isaac.”  Did I just hear that there are black rebels riding horses for the Confederacy?”

“Well, Harper’s Weekly states that the New York Herald newspaper gave that report.”

“Did I also hear that a regiment of black rebels took 500 Union soldiers to a Confederate prison?

“I am with you, Chaplain Isaac.  I heard the same thing.”

Master Green said, “This can’t be true.  Jeff Davis has not given the order for black soldiers to fight in the Confederacy.”

Sergeant Major Hart said, “Sounds like your courthouse and other courthouses in the south are enlisting black rebels just the same.  Look at this.  The enlistment on this report just says Isaac Green.  No one would ever know from this paper that Isaac is a black rebel.”

Master Green said, “I’ll be.  I agreed for Isaac to be a chaplain because I didn’t think he could fight.  Isaac is the best rider in Newton County.  If you boys want to win this war, I suggest that Isaac be assigned to the mounted cavalry because we need skilled riders to travel the rugged terrains at Cumberland Gap.”

First Sergeant Russell added, “Yeah, but we can’t force Chaplain Isaac to fight because look at this.”  The soldier pulled out another clipping from Harper’s Weekly.  “This shows a picture of a Confederate captain pointing a gun and making two slaves load a cannon.”

Master Green said, “That’s propaganda.  No one wants to believe that there are some areas in the south w[h]ere whites and blacks get along fine.  I’m not saying it’s perfect for Isaac.  I am saying that loyalty delivers a great prize.”

First Sergeant Russell said, “Regardless, in the 42nd Regiment, we have to work together, and every man has to want to fight in this battle.  What do you say Chaplain Isaac?” (pp. 46-47)

Yes, a truly remarkable and disturbing excerpt.  Notice that DeWitt and Weeks offer their own explanation as to how black men ended up as enlisted soldiers in the Confederate army.  First, local courthouses were clearly formally enlisting them all over the South without any knowledge on the part of the Confederate government.  More importantly, they can always point out that lack of any racial identification on the enlistment papers if asked to provide evidence for the presence of black soldiers.

It’s pretty clear to me after reading the first 50 pages of this book that DeWitt and Weeks are interested in using this story and their limited understanding of the broader history of this subject to foster reconciliation between the races.  If it can be shown that the most divisive period in America’s racial past  included a great deal of interracial cooperation than perhaps we can do so today.  Reconciliation and understanding between the races is certainly a worthy goal, but you can’t get there by distorting the past and that is all they are doing in this book.

Searching for Black Confederates: The Civil War’s Most Persistent Myth

“Levin’s study is the first of its kind to blueprint and then debunk the mythology of enslaved African Americans who allegedly served voluntarily in behalf of the Confederacy.”–Journal of Southern History

Purchase your copy today!

29 comments… add one
  • Larry Cebula Oct 3, 2010 @ 9:59

    Good to see this series climbing up the Google ranks–and the author protesting that climb! I hope in the end you will write a review of the entire book, title the post something like “A Review of Entangled in Freedom” and put that up. I think it would quickly establish itself as the first hit for the book and would perform an important public service.

    • Kevin Levin Oct 3, 2010 @ 10:01

      Hi Larry,

      I am now using what is called the Genesis theme, which allows for fairly extensive SEO controls. This simply means that I can title the post whatever I want, but take care of search ranking concerns behind the scenes.

  • Matt McKeon Oct 3, 2010 @ 9:42

    Instead of “Entangled in Freedom” why not call it “Freedom is Slavery” and have done with it.

    Instead of “Entangled in Freedom,” because that title, “Entangled in Freedom” isn’t a good title.

  • Ryan Quint Oct 2, 2010 @ 18:14

    The good news about this horrible book is that because of this blog, if you Google the book’s title, this article is sixth in the list of results.

    • Kevin Levin Oct 3, 2010 @ 1:18

      That’s the idea.

      • mcvouty Oct 3, 2010 @ 5:28

        I suppose then we should be using the name of the book, Entangled In Freedom, as much as possible in these comments. Because Entangled In Freedom is an insult to everything people in both the South and the North fought and died for. And you can quote me on the back jacket of the book Entangled In Freedom. Part of the Street Life Series. Youth Edition. By Ann DeWitt’s and Kevin Weeks. Entangled In Freedom.

  • Margaret D. Blough Oct 2, 2010 @ 17:15

    This goes beyond alternative “history” to dangerously misleading blatant misrepresentation of the historical record..

    I think an important book to read is Frederic Bancroft’s classic work “Slave-Trading in the Old South” to understand the nature and extent of the economic role that slavery played in the South. It wasn’t just the families of slave owners (going by titular ownership leaves them out of the %). It included people who furnished goods and services including legal and banking services to both the slave owners and the slave traders. Furthermore, there was a massive industry in leasing slave labor. It was a way of (1) providing income for family members of slaveowners. It wasn’t unusual for a will to leave slaves to women and/or minor children for the precise purpose of leasing them out and providing a regular income for the woman and/or children; (2) it enabled small slaveowners whose primary use of slaves was for agricultural work to not only get additional income from the slaves but to temporarily transfer the expense of the upkeep of the slave(s) to another during slack times, and (3) especially in the 1850s, when slave prices skyrocketed, it provided whites who could not afford to purchase a slave outright, a foothold in the slaveowning elite. As more than one scholar has demonstrated, the slaveowning South was a slave society, with the patriarchal master/slave relationship the foundation of the society.

    One of the reasons that some, particularly in the Deep South, vehemently argued for the re-legalization of the African slave trade was that prices were getting so high that many non-slave owning whites could no longer believe that they and/or their children could ever hope to aspire to the slave-owning caste. Reopening the African trade would push prices down and also have more manageable non-Westernized slaves.

    As James Hammond made clear in the Mudsill section of his infamous King Cotton speech, the key to planter control of the non-slaveholding white, particularly the poorer ones, was to put blacks and keep blacks in a subordinate caste below even the poorest white, whose skin color was his badge of status and bond with richer whites.

    Another thing that the book omits was that, in many slave states, it was illegal to teach slaves to read. Black preachers were particularly suspect because of their broader contact with slaves and their knowledge of inconvenient (for whites) portions of the Bible like the Book of Exodus. One who had actually memorized the entire Bible would be particularly suspect.

    Also, most of the South was very Protestant. Familiarity with the Bible was not exactly unusual.

  • mcvouty Oct 2, 2010 @ 15:40

    Also: Entangled In Freedom? I’m sure everyone else has given up trying to decode this title, but I’m up at night, tossing and turning, trying to figure it out! I can only assume that Isaac’s victory will come when he can finally get untangled from this pesky “freedom” nonsense and go back to liberating servility.

    Hey, there’s the title for the Reconstruction Era sequel: Liberated In Servility!

  • Michael Lynch Oct 2, 2010 @ 14:52

    I laughed so hard I cried.

    “Hey, look at this thing in Harper’s Weekly that talks about black Confederate soldiers! Let’s do that!”

    A few paragraphs later: “Hey, look at this other thing in Harper’s Weekly that shows Confederates forcing blacks to load cannons! Sounds like propaganda.”

    Geez, is Harper’s reliable, or is it not?


  • George Geder Oct 2, 2010 @ 10:04

    Holy Jesus, Holy Jesus!

    Next, they’ll write about ol’ Jim Crow and how the Northerners got that all wrong, too.

    Don’t let this book get near any children!

    “Guided by the Ancestors”

  • mcvouty Oct 2, 2010 @ 7:37

    You have to hang on at least until they meet up with Howell Cobb. I can already imagine the exchange:

    Cobb: “You cannot make soldiers of slaves, or slaves of soldiers. The day you make a soldier of them is the beginning of the end of the Revolution. And if slaves seem good soldiers, then our whole theory of slavery is wrong.”

    Russell: “But Isaac has memorized the Bible!”

    Cobb: “Oh! Well, then!”

    • Kevin Levin Oct 2, 2010 @ 7:45

      Even better, imagine a conversation with Patrick Cleburne after his proposal had been issued. Cleburne on meeting Isaac: “Why the hell didn’t someone tell me that local enlistment centers had already begun recruiting slaves?”

      • MAHistorian Oct 2, 2010 @ 9:22

        To paraphrase, the Joker, from The Dark Knight: Why So Historically Inaccurate?

        I must say that when I first read, of Sargent Russell, reciting the Harpers Weekly’s story, about five hundred Black Confederates mounted on horseback, at the First Battle of Bull Run, and a regiment of Black Confederate soldiers, leading five-hundred Union soldiers, as prisoners of war, I could not stop laughing. Laughing not only, at sheer nonsense and fantasy, of this pure fictional Harpers Weekly’s story, but I cannot fathom, at the sheer audacity and outright dishonesty about the history of the first major battle of the war.

        Do the authors really expect that readers, some of whom, do not have a deep knowledge of the Civil War, will accept that somehow, one of the most documented and reported events, in United States history, from not only Northern and Southern reporters but also from European reporters, could have miss documenting and reporting this factoid until they found it?

        My only answer is that the authors assume that readers will accept this nonsense and fantasy. This passage, in the novel, reminds me of comic books that I read when I was a kid. In fact, from my perspective, this novel is a comic book, therefore, I expect that Superman, Batman, Wonder Wonder, or Spider-Man, to show up somewhere, before Mr. Levin finish (if he wants to finish) this comic book novel.

        So I ask, the Joker’s question again: Why So Historically Inaccurate?

        • Kevin Levin Oct 2, 2010 @ 10:27

          Remember, this is a children’s book. They will accept this story and its broader narrative without question.

          • MAHistorian Oct 2, 2010 @ 12:30

            Mr. Levin, I stand corrected. Your’re right, it is a children book, or rather, a historical fantasy book written for children, who will accept its historically inaccurate narrative, without question.

        • Tom Oct 2, 2010 @ 15:14

          Comparing this to a Superman or Batman comic book is kind of an insult to comic books.

      • mcvouty Oct 2, 2010 @ 9:46

        “…and that the people of Newton County have been conspiring for years to educate them — and teach them how to CONDUCT THEMSELVES!”

        Well, at least the 10% of true humanitarians and visionaries who rescued them from the auction block.

        Anyway, keep up the good work. I wouldn’t even know where to start on something like this.

      • Andy Hall Oct 3, 2010 @ 9:23

        I’m looking forward to the scene where, having memorized the Bible, Issac gives Cleburne a lecture on certain passages in the Book of Leviticus.

        Yeah, that was an extraordinarily cheap shot.

  • Jonathan Dresner Oct 2, 2010 @ 4:58

    Is the Harpers Weekly available online?

  • MississippiLawyer Oct 2, 2010 @ 4:49

    My favorite part is the first sergeant saying “Only one-tenth of our people own slaves” or whatever. Yeah, I’m sure that was common knowledge among the average confederate soldier.

    • Kevin Levin Oct 2, 2010 @ 4:55

      But more importantly, it is reflection of their overly simplistic understanding of the role of slavery and race in antebellum Georgia. Non-slaveowners were intimately connected to the preservation of slavery and white supremacy in numerous ways.

      • MississippiLawyer Oct 2, 2010 @ 19:09

        Joseph Glatthaar’s “General Lee’s Army” book does a great job of discussing soldiers’ connection with slavery. I believe he states that 5 out of every 9 men who joined the ANV from 61-62 lived in a household with slaves.

        • Kevin Levin Oct 3, 2010 @ 1:16

          Yes, it is a must read.

  • Matt McKeon Oct 2, 2010 @ 4:27

    The point of writing a fantasy novel is they can avoid actual history. They can make up any fact or build any strawman they want. It’s directed at children, whom they presume won’t have enough education to contradict it. And we can see from the this excerpt, the real point is to rehabilitate the Confederacy, not tell the story of a black person.

    The only question in my mind is: Are they believers? Or cynics?

  • Tim Abbott Oct 2, 2010 @ 4:15

    Very telling that Isaac is bound to Abraham. I wonder if God will tell the father to sacrifice the son? And if there are any rams tangled in thickets in the vicinity of the 42nd Georgia that he could employ as a substitute?

  • Marianne Davis Oct 2, 2010 @ 4:02

    Every time I am introduced to one of these distortions my first reaction is fury. How dare they twist what we do know of the past, or just lie, usually to make a point about the present. But as I continue looking at the growing list of such distortions, I find that my reaction is turning to great sadness. If the motives you impute to the authors of “Entangled in Freedom” are valid, we all have reason to be sad. Apart from the insane presentation above that Southerners who did not hold slaves believed in racial equality, and local draft boards were busily arming men held in bondage, they are saying something tragic about contemporary race relations. Reductio ad absurdum, they ask, “Please don’t hate black Americans, we fought with you to deny our own freedom and humanity.”

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