Black Confederates at Radford University?

Update From Professor Sharon Hepburn: Before things get out of hand, I need to clarify things since this is completely unintentional. It seems my mistake was to write the abstract too quickly without proofreading it adequately. There should have been a qualification along the lines of “some claim it is likely that thousands…” This is not my primary field of research, just meant to be a community talk regarding general black participation in the war. I was asked to discusss African Americans in the Confederacy–which encompasses a great deal of different kinds of service. Since I do not research this particular topic I personally cannot make any claim as to the numbers and did not mean to. This is not even a field of research I plan on pursuing. My current research is on the 102nd USCT, a Union regiment, but I was asked to say some things about blacks and the CSA. Most of what I discuss is body servants, impressed slaves, etc., not soldiers per se. I apologize for any miscommunication or confusion in this matter.

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From the 4th Grade we head on over to Radford University, where Dr. Sharon A. Roger Hepburn, Chair and Professor of History is scheduled to give a public address titled, “African American Confederates” at the Radford Public Library.  The talk is being sponsored by the Radford Heritage Foundation and Sun Trust.  Here is the description:

Just as African Americans aided both the Patriots and the Loyalists during the American Revolution, they supported and fought for both the Union and Confederacy during the American Civil War. The Confederate States of America benefited from its slave population throughout the war. Most cooks in the Confederate army were slaves. The Confederate army used slave teamsters, mechanics, hospital attendants, ambulance drivers, and common laborers. Slaves constructed most Confederate fortifications. Wealthy slave owners often went to war with their body servants who kept their quarters clean, cooked for them, washed their uniforms, and performed other menial duties. While most of this work was extracted involuntarily through coercion, there were African Americans throughout the south who willingly supported the Confederate States of America in various ways, including fighting for them. Although the exact numbers are widely disputed, it seems likely that several thousand African Americans provided military service to the Confederate army. Join Dr. Sharon A. Roger Hepburn, Chair and Professor of History at Radford University, to learn more about the various ways in which African Americans played a vital role for the CSA. Sponsored by the Radford Heritage Foundation and SunTrust. For more information, contact Scott Gardner, 540 731 5031

As I read through this for the first time I thought to myself that perhaps the general public will be treated to a thorough examination of how the Confederate war effort utilized slave labor in various forms.  In other words, the first part of this description is spot on, but the claim that several thousand African Americans provided military service to the Confederate army sticks out like a sore thumb.  This wouldn’t bother me so much if we were talking about Earl Ijames, but Professor Hepburn is a trained historian.  Now, it could be the case that Hepburn did not author the above description.  Hepburn is the author of Crossing the Border: A Free Black Community in Canada (University of Illinois Press, 2007) so it is clear that she understands the research process and probably did not rely on an Online search for her information as in the case of our 4th Grade History textbook author.

What I would like to know is what is the evidence (primary or secondary sources) that supports such a claim?  I am familiar with the relevant scholarly research on this and related subjects and I am confident in stating that there is absolutely no evidence that would support such a claim.

11 comments… add one

  • Harry Oct 20, 2010

    Why Kevin, “it seems likely”. What don’t you get about that? “It seems likely.”

    There it is.

  • Marianne Davis Oct 20, 2010

    Have you contacted Dr. Hepburn? She may not know how this is being set up. If she does, let’s see her pony up her research. It would be an academic coup, no?

  • Nat Turners Son Oct 20, 2010

    I agree with Harry She says “it Seems likely! “

  • Tim Thornton Oct 20, 2010

    Where did you get that description? I haven’t been able to find it anywhere else?
    When and where did it originally appear?

    • Kevin Levin Oct 20, 2010

      It was emailed to me from a member of the Virginia Sesquicentennial Committee.

  • Sharon Hepburn Oct 21, 2010

    Before things get out of hand, I need to clarify things since this is completely unintentional. It seems my mistake was to write the abstract too quickly without proofreading it adequately. There should have been a qualification along the lines of “some claim it is likely that thousands…” This is not my primary field of research, just meant to be a community talk regarding general black participation in the war. I was asked to discusss African Americans in the Confederacy–which encompasses a great deal of different kinds of service. Since I do not research this particular topic I personally cannot make any claim as to the numbers and did not mean to. This is not even a field of research I plan on pursuing. My current research is on the 102nd USCT, a Union regiment, but I was asked to say some things about blacks and the CSA. Most of what I discuss is body servants, impressed slaves, etc., not soldiers per se. I appologize for any miscommunication or confusion in this matter.

    • Kevin Levin Oct 21, 2010

      Professor Hepburn,

      Thank you for taking the time to clarify for my readers. You will notice that I’ve included your comment at the top of this post to note the correction. With all of the attention being given to this subject it is imperative that we challenge these pernicious myths. Of course, I don’t need to remind you of this given your position and scholarship. Thanks again for the comment.

  • Sharon Hepburn Oct 21, 2010

    Thank you for including my statement. You don’t need to post this or anything, I just wanted to thank you. I now have yet another real life learning lesson for my students–always proofread! I am generally fanatic about proofreading and making sure there are no mistakes in what I send out before I do, but I wrote that abstract in about five minutes, in the office, with, I’m sure, students waiting to speak with me about something and sent it too quickly. Again, I do apologize for any misunderstanding.

    • Kevin Levin Oct 21, 2010

      Not a problem and best of luck with your presentation. I think you are right that the interesting aspect of all of this is the various ways that slave labor was utilized by the Confederate army. What most people miss is that this subject is properly understood as an extension of slavery and the master-slave relationship. The relevant question is how the war challenged the master/slave relationship.

  • Marianne Davis Oct 21, 2010

    I’m so pleased to see Dr. Hepburn’s clarification. We can all get busy or sloppy with our words, and civilized people allow others to correct themselves and move on. It is so satisfying that your blog has not only erased a potential citation for the SCV and its ilk, it has added another academic voice in support of the facts of African-American participation in the Civil War.

    • Kevin Levin Oct 21, 2010

      I couldn’t agree more, Marianne. Given the correction it’s clear to me that Professor Hepburn’s talk will be well worth attending and I wish her all the best with it.

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