Over the past few weeks I’ve used Ann DeWitt’s website as a case study of what is wrong with the current debate about black Confederates as well as the pitfalls of doing online research on this specific subject – a fact that was confirmed this past week.
This morning I was browsing the Virginia Sesquicentennial Commission’s Facebook page when I came across this response by G. Ashleigh Moody to a story about Carol Sheriff. Moody is the registrant for the Petersburg Express website, which includes a great deal of information concerning black Confederates. His response provides us with another useful case study of what is wrong with the popular debate about this subject as well as the dangers of researching this topic online:
What most college professors will probably not share with their students: As you will find documented here [Petersburg Express] are hundreds of Black Confederate SOLDIERS from Petersburg Virginia. documented from just one Virginia city. And William and Mary is “just down the road” from Petersburg! Amazing! …. These are the stories that bring people together, not the Neo-Yankee version of the South that we are having to endure today. We could do with a lot less “presentism”!
Well, Petersburg Express is just a click away so why don’t we take a little tour of what they have to say about black Confederates. The first thing you will notice is the claim made by Ed Bearrs that has already been challenged on this site. Beyond that this is a fairly typical black Confederate website. Notice the hodgepodge of primary source passages that contain absolutely no analysis or context as well as the photographs, which suffer from the same. Included are references to Richard “Dick” Poplar and Charles Tinsley. Even more disturbing are the links to that bastion of scholarship known as Dixie Outfitters and H.K. Edgerton’s, Southern Heritage 411. This is cut and paste history at its worst and done on a 4th grade level.
Let’s take a look at one example. The editors of this website chose to use the popular photograph of an officer and a black man in Confederate uniform. This is an odd choice for a page titled, “Petersburg Black Confederates” because the two men are not from Virginia. The man sitting is Lt. J. Wallace Comer of the 57th Alabama and the individual standing is his body servant/family slave, who is identified as Burrell. The website identifies the black individual as “Heroic Henry Comer” though no references are included so for now I will refer to him as Burrell. [Note: My information about Lt. Comer and Burrell are from Ken Noe’s new book, Reluctant Rebels (University of North Carolina Press, 2010). Petersburg Express also states that Burrell “carried this wounded officer 5 miles to safety, to medical care and saved the officers life.” Again, no sources are provided to confirm this story. There is nothing in Ken’s book that suggests that this slave saved Comer’s life, but I will wait for him to comment. According to Ken, Burrell was one of sixty-one slaves working on the family’s plantation. What is unfortunate is that this looks like a very interesting story about how the war challenged and shaped the master-slave relationship. According to Ken:
…Comer praised the man he brought as an exception to other slaves in camp. “If Burrell holds out fast full to the end,” Comer wrote from Kenesaw Mountain, Georgia,” & stick to me as well as he has done here to fore & I come out safe a mint could not buy him ther are very few Negroes in the army that are not worth enthying to their masters in times like this.” What especially delighted Comer was Burrell’s bravery. “Burrell is not afraid of anything,” Comer beamed, “he came to us the other day while we were on Picket…he said he wanted to kill One yankee before the war ended.” At some point in 1864, the two men even posed together for a photograph. Relatively relaxed, Comer sits in a chair, his hand on his sword and wearing his hat at a jaunty angle. To his right, Burrell stands awkwardly, hat in hand, wearing the Confederate private’s uniform routinely given to African Americans with the army. Yet, as Comer consistently maintained in his letter, Burrell was not really a soldier. He was still a “Negro,” while Comer remained among the “masters.” (pp. 43-44)
Again, there is a fascinating story here, but nothing that Moody provides gets us any closer to this important aspect of the past; in fact, it looks like the site contains basic factual mistakes. But wait, it gets worse. If you were to stumble on the Petersburg Express’s page on “Gettysburg’s Black Soldiers” you would also come across the same photograph. Underneath the caption is says the following: “Please Click on these two Confederate Soldiers for a heart warming story of a Black Southern veteran of Gettysburg and a Prisoner of War.” Clicking on it takes you two a page about Richard Poplar. The directive gives you the impression that you are clicking on an image that contains Poplar. This is so sloppy and careless that it is laughable.
Once again, Mr. Moody can whine and complain all he wants about “presentism” and “Neo-Yankees”, but in the end his site is useless as a historical source and serves as the perfect example of what went wrong this past week.