Update: My request has been passed on to Dr. Robertson by the Virginia Sesquicentennial Commission. Update #2: Thanks to Tom Perry for providing the following link, which includes an interview with Robertson in a Virginia newspaper: The claim is rejected by most historians, including local history expert James Robertson. “It’s blatantly false.” Robertson is a distinguished alumni history professor at Virginia Tech, an author and was even appointed by President Kennedy to be the executive director of the U.S Civil War Centennial Commission in the 60’s. “It implies men who were in slavery would want to fight for the country that enslaved them, which really is illogical.”…. “This is not to say there were not thousands of blacks in the Confederate Army, but they were performing camp chores, hospital attendants, cooks,” said Robertson. “I spent eight years of my life putting together a 950 page biography of Jackson and I can tell you he did not have any black battalions, any black units serving under him.
The debate about black Confederate soldiers that was recently stirred up by a brief reference in a 4th grade Virginia history textbook shows no sign of letting up. Editorials continue to be published and various interest groups have firmly dug in their heels. The contours of this debate beautifully reflect the fault lines that continue to divide Virginians over how to commemorate the Civil War. These fault lines will continue to flair up when emotionally-charged topics such as this one are introduced, and it is likely that our reliance on sound historical scholarship will be pushed further away. This is one of those topics where everyone is an expert.
If there is one history professor whose reputation has survived intact it is Professor James I. Robertson of Virginia Tech. Professor Robertson has taught at Tech for most of his career and is responsible for one of the largest and most popular survey courses on the Civil War. He has built his scholarly reputation on books about Civil War soldiers, Stonewall Jackson, and the Stonewall Brigade. In terms of his service to the public, Prof. Robertson served as the Executive Director of the Civil War Centennial and is currently a member of the Executive Committee of Virginia’s Civil War Sesquicentennial Committee. He has taken the lead in highlighting the importance of education for this sesquicentennial commemoration. Well, this is the ultimate teaching moment.
Virginians of all walks of life are familiar with Professor Robertson from the members of the SCV and UDC who have enjoyed his close friendship to listeners of National Public Radio, who tuned in on Friday mornings for his lively Civil War stories, to the countless students who sat in his survey course at Virginia Tech. Professor Robertson has an opportunity to comment on what I believe to be an important subject in terms of its influence on how we remember the past, how we think about the craft of history, and how we educate our children. This issue matters.
No one is better positioned to respond to the assertion that two battalions of black Confederates served under Stonewall Jackson. Actually, Robertson’s position has already been made public by Professor Sheriff, who contacted him in the writing of her initial letter about the book. His understanding of this particular topic should be made public. However, let’s not stop there. I encourage Professor Robertson to provide Virginians and other interested parties with an idea of where the scholarly community stands on the subject of black Confederates. How should those with a sincere interest proceed in learning more about this subject? What should we read? I ask this as a concerned historian, educator, and adviser to the Virginia Sesquicentennial Commission. Make no mistake, I am not endowing Professor Robertson with infallible knowledge of this subject. He is one among many scholars, who can comment intelligently about this particular subject. However, it goes without saying that his is a voice that will be heard for the reasons stated above.
Perhaps Professor Robertson could write an editorial for a major Virginia newspaper, which could also be made available on the Virginia Sesquicentennial Commission’s website. Again, as an influential member of the Commission and as someone who has encouraged others to use this opportunity to educate this is not the time to stand on the sidelines. There is way too much at stake.