Black Confederates In Virginia Textbooks

Many of you wonder why I am so focused and committed to challenging the mythology of black Confederates.  In recent weeks I’ve written about the sale of toy soldiers at the Museum of the Confederacy, a brief reference in a NPS handout in New York City, and, of course, the anticipated release of Ann DeWitt’s and Kevin Weeks’s Entangled in Freedom. I hope this story puts to rest any doubt as to why it is important that we remain vigilant.  This narrative will only become more prominent over the next few years during the sesquicentennial.  I am posting this story in its entirety from the Washington Post.  Thanks to William and Mary History Professor, Carol Sheriff, for pointing out this problem and to Kevin Sieff for writing such a thorough article.

A textbook distributed to Virginia fourth-graders says that thousands of African Americans fought for the South during the Civil War — a claim rejected by most historians but often made by groups seeking to play down slavery’s role as a cause of the conflict.

The passage appears in “Our Virginia: Past and Present,” which was distributed in the state’s public elementary schools for the first time last month. The author, Joy Masoff, who is not a trained historian but has written several books, said she found the information about black Confederate soldiers primarily through Internet research, which turned up work by members of the Sons of Confederate Veterans.

Scholars are nearly unanimous in calling these accounts of black Confederate soldiers a misrepresentation of history. Virginia education officials, after being told by The Washington Post of the issues related to the textbook, said that the vetting of the book was flawed and that they will contact school districts across the state to caution them against teaching the passage.

“Just because a book is approved doesn’t mean the Department of Education endorses every sentence,” said spokesman Charles Pyle. He also called the book’s assertion about black Confederate soldiers “outside mainstream Civil War scholarship.”

Masoff defended her work. “As controversial as it is, I stand by what I write,” she said. “I am a fairly respected writer.”

The issues first came to light after College of William & Mary historian Carol Sheriff opened her daughter’s copy of “Our Virginia” and saw the reference to black Confederate soldiers.

“It’s disconcerting that the next generation is being taught history based on an unfounded claim instead of accepted scholarship,” Sheriff said. “It concerns me not just as a professional historian but as a parent.”

Virginia, which is preparing to mark the 150th anniversary of the beginning of the Civil War, has long struggled to appropriately commemorate its Confederate past. The debate was reinvigorated this spring, when Gov. Robert F. Mc­Don­nell (R) introduced “Confederate History Month” in Virginia without mentioning slavery’s role in the Civil War. He later apologized.

The Sons of Confederate Veterans, a group of male descendants of Confederate soldiers based in Columbia, Tenn., has long maintained that substantial numbers of black soldiers fought for the South The group’s historian-in-chief, Charles Kelly Barrow, has written the book “Black Confederates.”

The Sons of Confederate Veterans also disputes the widely accepted conclusion that the struggle over slavery was the main cause of the Civil War. Instead, the group says, the war was fought “to preserve their homes and livelihood,” according to John Sawyer, chief of staff of the Sons of Confederate Veterans’ Army of Northern Virginia. He said the group was pleased that a state textbook accepted some of its views.

The state’s curriculum requires textbook publishers and educators to explore the role African Americans played in the Confederacy, including their work on plantations and on the sidelines of battle. Those standards have evolved in recent years to make lessons on the Civil War more inclusive in a state that is growing increasingly diverse.

When Masoff began work on the textbook, she said she consulted a variety of sources — history books, experts and the Internet. But when it came to one of the Civil War’s most controversial themes — the role of African Americans in the Confederacy — she relied primarily on an Internet search.

The book’s publisher, Five Ponds Press, based in Weston, Conn., sent a Post reporter three of the links Masoff found on the Internet. Each referred to work by Sons of the Confederate Veterans or others who contend that the fight over slavery was not the main cause of the Civil War.

In its short lesson on the roles that whites, African Americans and Indians played in the Civil War, “Our Virginia” says, “Thousands of Southern blacks fought in the Confederate ranks, including two black battalions under the command of Stonewall Jackson.”

Masoff said of the assertion: “It’s just one sentence. I don’t want to ruffle any feathers. If the historians had contacted me and asked me to take it out, I would have.”

She added that the book was reviewed by a publisher’s advisory council of educators and that none of the advisers objected to the textbook’s assertion.

Historians from across the country, however, said the sentence about Confederate soldiers was wrong or, at the least, overdrawn. They expressed concerns not only over its accuracy but over the implications of publishing an assertion so closely linked to revisionist Confederate history.

“It’s more than just an arcane, off-the-wall problem,” said David Blight, a professor at Yale University. “This isn’t just about the legitimacy of the Confederacy, it’s about the legitimacy of the emancipation itself.”

Pulitzer Prize-winning historian James McPherson of Princeton University said, “These Confederate heritage groups have been making this claim for years as a way of purging their cause of its association with slavery.”

Masoff said one of her sources was Ervin Jordan, a University of Virginia historian who said he has documented evidence — in the form of 19th-century newspapers and personal letters — of some African Americans fighting for the Confederacy. But in an interview, Jordan said the account in the fourth-grade textbook went far beyond what his research can support.

“There’s no way of knowing that there were thousands,” Jordan said. “And the claim about Jackson is totally false. I don’t know where that came from.”

The book also survived the Education Department’s vetting and was ruled “accurate and unbiased” by a committee of content specialists and teachers. Five Ponds Press has published 14 books that are used in the Virginia public school system, all of them written by Masoff.

Masoff also wrote “Oh Yuck! The Encyclopedia of Everything Nasty” and “Oh Yikes! History’s Grossest Moments.”

28 responses... add one

Thanks for bringing more attention to the problem with the textbook. Of course this will be discounted as revisionists by the actual and original revisionists. Then, of course, Jordan’s remarks will be ignored and/or forgotten by the same people who like to cite his book as support for their larger than reality beliefs. Great catch by Carol, by the way. Great Prof. under whom I had the chance to study for a semester.

Good point about Prof Jordan. His book “Black Confederates and Afro-Yankees in Civil War Virginia” IS cited frequently by those who push the black Confederate soldier myth. I was wondering if anyone was ever going to interview him and get response to this.

“Just because a book is approved doesn’t mean the Department of Education endorses every sentence,” said spokesman Charles Pyle.

What the hell was the vetting process for then? That is a ridiculous statement. Approval means endorsement in this case, I think.

That’s it. I will not be sending my twins to public schools where I live in Virginia. I think I need to move to Charlottesville and send them to your academy!

On a serious note, this disturbs me greatly. It is one thing when the SCV directly promotes a revisionist version of the War through publications and the Internet, but another thing when those same materials are integrated into a text book written by a non-historian, approved by the state Education Dept. and a special committee of educators, and passed off as historical truth to future generations. Sometimes I wonder why you seem so preoccupied by this issue; I think this type of development confirms why.

“I am a fairly respected writer.”

Hm. She doesn’t think much of her own self, does she?

Two battalions under Jackson? Must have been ghost battalions, they managed to hide themselves so well.

I’m appalled by the inclusion of this section in the Virginia textbook, don’t get me wrong, but there’s something equally disturbing in the vitriol surrounding this new end of the debate…

You emphasized Sieff’s characterization: “But when it came to one of the Civil War’s most controversial themes — the role of African Americans in the Confederacy — she relied primarily on an Internet search.” David Woodbury, likewise, discounts her methodology, “because the author did her research on the internet….” Jimmy Price derides her for, “allegedly [doing] most of her research on the World Wide Web….”

I do much of my scholarly research on the web. I have access to some of the most comprehensive academic stacks in the world thanks to Google Books and Archive.org. I have access to some of the richest American archives thanks to LOC and NARA’s efforts online. I can read and search newspaper articles thanks to Google News’ archives feature. I think it is important not to outright deride the use of the internet as a research tool. But, just as with any published work, one must remain skeptical of the source and its motives before trusting it. The internet has opened up a wealth of primary and secondary sources to the average researcher, lowering the opportunity cost oftentimes to zero.

I know you know this, Kevin. I know you teach this as well. But it always bears repeating.

I don’t think that the internet failed Masoff. She could have easily done the same work by picking up some of the discredited published works on Black Confederates which you’ve helped to debunk. I think, instead, Masoff’s sense of skepticism, something every historian should cultivate when inspecting secondary and primary claims, failed her. Yes, she used the internet, but the internet is not the bogeyman in this case as some are painting it.

Sorry to rant. I’m a net native. I’m very sensitive to derision of my homeland.

Thanks for the comment, but I don’t think David and Jimmy are discounting the usefulness of Online databases. I rely heavily on them myself. The problem here is with the way in which search engines are being misused. My guess is the author plugged “black Confederates” into Google and waded through the first sites listed. Most of them are sponsored by the SCV and many of them are simply cut and pasted from one to another. I agree that Internet did not fail Masoff; rather, she failed to use it properly.

Like I said, I’m sensitive on the issue, and I am fairly sure that they’re not attacking databases and access to primaries. But in the academic world, where Wikipedia is panned as completely useless and students get comments back (as one in the office I work did yesterday) to “not use any internet sources,” the line blurs between common sense criticism / teaching students to have critical eyes and a knee-jerk xenophobic rejection of the internet, good and bad.

I’d wager that a quick hit of Google is exactly what she did. But that is far different than, “Internet research,” in my and I’d think in the majority of your readers’ books. What she did was a cursory internet search. I know it’s semantics, but I think it’s important semantics.

I know we chiefly agree on this. In the end, Masoff failed to show due diligence and Virginia failed to catch her laziness. In my mind, she enters the hall of lazy-researcher shame with Doris Goodwin and Stephen Ambrose, from hence she shall never return.

More than that, did everyone else notice those weasel words, “outside mainstream Civil War scholarship.”? Does that make it avant garde, cutting edge? How about just plain wrong? Say what you mean, gentlemen.

Wow, this represents a failure of process on so many levels. It is pretty clear that the alleged reviewers for the education department did not in fact read the book manuscript. I think this kind of thing happens more often than we would like to admit.

I blogged on this subject myself this afternoon.

Having worked as a writer-for-hire/contributor on more than a dozen reference and young adult books, I can comfortably say that things like accuracy and critical thinking are almost always sacrificed for speed. It doesn’t matter what company you’re talking about: the editing phase is rushed and perfunctory. Forget independent fact-checking. Just doesn’t happen. In most of the projects I worked on, there was little contact or feedback from the editorial staff. And the whole advisory board model? Might as well not exist.

I don’t have a problem with non-specialists like Ms. Masoff taking on projects like this (and perhaps I say that because I’m technically a non-specialist myself; I only have a BA in history). Writing for children, especially young children, is a skill in itself, one that most professional historians are not trained to write well. But if a book is going to be produced by a non-specialist as a standard textbook, it requires stricter editorial control and fact checking than in a normal title.

In short: really glad I don’t have a kid in public school here in Virginia.

Heather-I agree with what you said and would add that the younger the children involved, the more important the editorial control and fact-checking. I don’t think your average 9 year old has the tools and experience to critically evaluate statements in their history textbooks.

I think this could actually be a good learning experience for those 9 year olds though in teaching them that while the internet is a wonderful tool, just because someone posts something on the internet doesn’t mean that it’s accurate. The internet is a neutral medium for transmission of content, just as the spoken word in person, writing on paper, telegraph, telephone, radio, and TV are. The content has to be evaluated on its own merits, independent of the medium of communication.

Margaret,

I recently took part in a roundtable discussion about social media for the Civil War Preservation Trust’s annual Teachers Conference. I said next to nothing about social media. Instead, I did my best to push teachers to focus on teaching their students how to use search engines so they don’t end up in just this kind of situation. You are absolutely right that it could be used as an ideal case study.

Kevin-The internet has been a godsend to lawyers doing research. One of the biggest benefits is the fact that Shepherd’s Citations are available online. Shepherd’s is the service that tells you the prior and subsequent history of a decision and when, where, and how it has been cited in other reported decisions. It’s been available in print for many decades and is so essential that it is also a vert (to shepherdize a citation) but it was clumsy and difficult and you were always afraid you’d miss an update. It’s a truism that if you find a case that seems to support your position perfectly, you need to be particularly careful in checking it out since things that appear to be too good to be true generally are. If you are writing briefs, either trial (court or administrative) or appellate, the costs of sloppiness are high. I managed through very hard work and colleagues who can proofread for content as well as form not to be on the receiving end myself, but I’ve watched other attorneys being hung, drawn, and quartered by appellate judges for such lapses. It’s excruciating.

I think teaching a student good research skills, not just in form but being able to critically analyze source material, is something that will be useful to them for the rest of their lives no matter what line of work they enter, including totally non-academic pursuits.

Agreed. I think teachers should frame this around becoming a responsible and informed citizen.

I was so pleased to learn of someone successfully challenging the content of a text book. It is one of the most agregious mishaps we experience, mis-informing our children. Those of us associated with Brown v. Board of Education have the same problem and have yet to met with success in convincing a text book company to correct their entry about Brown v. Board of Education. Most text books tell children that my father the late Oliver Brown, filed this case on behalf of my eldest sister Linda, when in fact he did not.

Brown was a class action law suit initiated by the NAACP in five locations, Delaware, Kansas, South Carolina, Virginia and Washington, D.C. Yet text books seldom if ever include this fact. I don’t want to go on and on, but I would be remiss by not mentioning that text books seldom write about the leadership of this legal action Thurgood Marshall….
Anyway you get the picture. It is laudable that someone stood up for hisroric truth.

Thanks for taking the time to comment, Cheryl. I certainly can understand your desire to see that our textbooks get the story right. I do think that despite this story we are on the right track.

Thank you so much for commenting, Mrs. Henderson. That was why I appreciated Richard Kluger’s classic work, “Simple Justice” which covers the complexity of the litigation that culminated in the decision known as Brown v. Board of Education and starts off with the South Carolina plaintiffs and the enormous risks they took by making a stand in such a brutally segregated state. It also impressed me with the brilliance and courage of the attorneys for the NAACP Legal Defense Fund and of the legal strategy they used to educate the federal courts to get the judges and justices to understand that separate was inherently unequal. It had a huge impact on me when I read it when I was in law school.

To Levin and others who seems to have a Northern bias view. People of the South do not fabricate the fact that there were Confederate black soldiers who were mustered. I don’t know the numbers any more than any of you but they were by Congressional Record and Northern accounts of the day, and not by some historian born decades later after these men are in their graves. What is fabricated though is your perception that people from the south use this to down play slavery or the only reason of the war, when there were many others. Reasons that many of you fail to acknowledge or discuss. This is solely about history and facts, and the fact is the North cared less about slavery. Lincoln claimed early on that the war was not about slavery but secessionist. He also returned run away slaves back to the South and their masters at time of war. If you ask me your sole purpose is wanting to deny a black man as a Confederate soldier to perpetrate a myth that the North fought primarily and initially to end slavery. In essence your denial of the black community their history on both sides if the war is not only an affront to the truth, but is also racist. It is also of my opinion that anyone who agrees with you on this particular matter are racist too.

Thanks for taking the time to comment. I’ve written extensively about this subject on this blog. You should check out this page for a sense of the scope of that content: http://cwmemory.com/black-confederate-resources/

Your points about Lincoln and the North have little to do with this subject. I agree with you that many people have an overly simplistic view of Northern war aims, but I fail to see how it connects to the subject of the place of African Americans within the Confederate war effort. You chose to respond to a post about a claim contained in a history textbook. No serious historian (northern or southern) agreed with those claims. Your speculation as to my interest in the subject could not be further from the truth, but I am not going to indulge you by offering an explanation since given the content of your comment it will likely not receive any serious consideration. Thanks again for the comment.

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