Ann DeWitt and Kevin M. Weeks Misrepresent Bruce Levine

Update: Bruce Levine emailed the following to me: “Of course — as would (should?) be clear to anyone who hears or reads the text of my short talk — my point was that facts like the ones I cited are today misconstrued as proof for the preposterous claim that the Confederate army included thousands of black soldiers. That two people who enthusiastically participate in this kind of shameless distortion of historical facts should do the same to my own expose of such chicanery just seems par for the course.”

I assume there is nothing worse for an author than to be misquoted or, even worse, have your own words used to support a position that is contrary to your own personal view.  In the case of a historian this is tantamount to having years of hard work misunderstood and manipulated for some other purpose.  This has happened to my good friend, Ken Noe, as well as Ed Bearrs, who has been misquoted on numerous websites that promote the black Confederate myth.  The latest victim is Bruce Levine, who is the author of one of the only scholarly studies of the debate surrounding black enlistment in the Confederate army [Confederate Emancipation: Southern Plans to Free and Arm Slaves during the Civil War] and is a vocal critic of the black Confederate narrative.

Imagine my surprise when I discovered that Entangled in Freedom authors, Ann DeWitt and Kevin M. Weeks, have cited Professor Levine in a way that supports their own interpretive and factual claims on the website for their book:

. . . and some slaves served as personal servants to white soldiers.  It was not unusual for such slaves to be given uniforms; and occasionally, one of them even picked up and fired his master’s musket at northern soldiers.  Thereby, perhaps, winning for themselves some additional approval and trust from the white confederate soldiers all around them . . .  These things are well known facts.  They are not controversial. Nobody that I know of denies them.

The passage was pulled from a presentation that Professor Levine gave at the recent Virginia Sesquicentennial Conference held at Norfolk State University.  You can watch the video here, which should leave little doubt as to Levine’s position.  I’ve written extensively about this book and its authors so there is no reason to repeat myself.  Either DeWitt and Weeks made a conscious decision to misrepresent Levine’s position or we are left with the more likely conclusion that the two are incapable of even the most rudimentary analysis of a historian’s interpretation.  Either way they have misrepresented his position and the passage ought to come down.

17 responses... add one

I found a quote in an 1890 newspaper attributed to “somebody.” –
A truth half-told
is a lie bold.

An historian’s worst nightmare, indeed.

Would you recommend Levine’s book? I’d be interested in a more scholarly look at the “black Confederate” issue.

I would too. I was at the presentation at Norfolk and was fortunate to have a couple of opportunities to talk to him during break. He’s an extraordinary scholar, writer, and speaker.

Either DeWitt and Weeks made a conscious decision to misrepresent Levine’s position or we are left with the more likely conclusion that the two are incapable of even the most rudimentary analysis of a historian’s interpretation.

Almost certainly the latter. If you look elsewhere in the website, it’s clear that Ms. DeWitt — I don’t know what Mr. Meeks’ role in this project is, apart from writing angry letters to his critics’ employers — has no real understanding of the sources she quotes or the historic roles she’s describing:

So what is the definition of a body servant? A body servant is a gentleman’s gentleman. These African-American men, whether freedmen or slaves, dedicated their lives to the service of men who in some form or fashion shaped the United States of America. In 21st century vernacular the role is analogous to a position known as an executive assistant—a position today that requires a college Bachelors Degree or equivalent level experience. Ask any salesman. You cannot secure an appointment with a senior executive without getting approval from his or her executive assistant.

I deplore slavery. However, my point is that these body servants did break ground in establishing the importance of the role in 21st century context. Body servants were trusted advisers and confidants to Confederate Generals such as Robert E. Lee, “Stonewall” Jackson, and Nathan Bedford Forrest to name a few. . . . Even President Barack Obama, the 44th President of the United States, travels with a staff of 500 people.

I suspect that you are right. They seem much more interested in writing something that will help to foster racial understanding among young adults, which I wholeheartedly support. Unfortunately, they are working through a subject and a discipline that they clearly do not understand.

There’s an interesting degree of presentism in that statement, comparing these “body servants” to executive assistants or an entourage. I’m not sure whether or not she is trying to rosy up the past or if she just doesn’t really understand the problem with making parallels like that.

As an example: The executive assistant’s freedom to choose his/her career track aside, Ms. DeWitt seems to imply that the current need for a Bachelors Degree gives a certain level of respectability or prestige to the 19th-century “equivalent.” Of course, the problem with making that parallel is that most of her “body servants” were forbidden to be educated. The rolls just aren’t the same.

I think to say that it reflects an “interesting degree of presentism” is an understatement. I interpret it as evidence that DeWitt and Weeks haven’t taken the time to read much of anything (primary and secondary sources) on slavery.

Fair enough, I was trying to be diplomatic about it…. Not sure why. It’s a terrible comparison but, as Mr. Lynch just posted, it makes for comedy gold.

I can imagine Nathan Bedford Forrest’s “entourage” created quite a stir when they joined him at the local pub for a night of drinking and carousing with women!

I totally understand, but spend some time with my older posts and you’ll get over trying to be “fair” quite easily. :) It is sad.

Kevin-I’ll accept the parallel as soon as Weeks and DeWitt can show me a single example of when a modern executive can do any of the following in relation to an executive assistant:

1. Sell, lease, or bequeath the assistant to another executive, particularly one in another state.

2. Sell, lease, or bequeath one, more, or all of the assistant’s parents, spouse, children, other relatives or friends, to another executive, especially one in another state, and deprive them of any means to remain in contact with the assistant.

3. Inflict corporal punishment or even physical punishment so severe that it results in the assistant’s death without the executive facing criminal or civil conviction or, likely, even charges.

4. Track down the assistant with dogs and guns if the assistant goes somewhere without the executive’s permission.

5. Use the assistant as collateral for a loan or as stakes in gambling and have to turn the slave over if the creditor forecloses or the executive loses the wager.

Ms. Blough: my thoughts exactly. I cannot believe that anyone who has studied the
history of slavery in this country could come up with such a ridiculous comparison.
Unfortunately, with today’s impulse to “correct” history I fear for the worse – what in the world is going to happen when future educators start teaching this nonsense?

Her equation of “body servant” with “executive assistant” is comedy gold. I can see Lee stepping out of his campaign tent and walking up to a slave sitting at a desk: “Pompey, I need to dictate a memo, and then get me the numbers from the Wilson account.”

–ML

That’s it! Sort of like a cross between Gods and Generals and The Devil Wears Prada.

–ML

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