Black Confederates In a 7th Grade Classroom (After-Action Report)

A few days ago I mentioned that I was in contact with a 7th grade history teacher in Boston, who wanted to introduce the subject of black Confederates as part of a unit on the Civil War.  Well, today the instructor reported back with a detailed overview of the lesson.  I think it’s a wonderful example of how this subject, along with the related issue of media literacy, can be introduced at the middle school level.  A number of school districts in Virginia have had difficulty addressing the recent scandal involving the 4th grade history textbook that included false claims about the service of slaves in the Confederate army. This need not be the case.  In fact, it’s a golden opportunity to address some of the fundamental misconceptions of the war as well as the veracity of the sources of these claims.  Here is an example of a teacher making a difference.

Again, Kevin, I owe you tremendous thanks for your guidance on this topic; your suggestion to follow the UVA lead on “Retouching History” along with your own coverage of the websites purporting to educate the online community about Black Confederates were invaluable. Here’s a detailed overview of what we’ve been up to:

1) For homework last Thursday, I asked kids to conduct some research into the topic of Blacks fighting for the Confederacy. In case you want to see how I framed the question, here’s the text of the email I sent them:

During the flag project, Heather sent a representative of the Sons of Confederate Veterans an email asking for his perspective on the Confederate flag. In Mr. Barrow’s response, he mentioned that one way to show that the flag is not necessarily a symbol of slavery is to consider that Blacks actually fought for the Confederacy; if this was the case, he reasoned, how could the cause of the South been to preserve slavery?

This presents an interesting opportunity. Let’s figure out if he is correct in his statement that large numbers of Blacks fought for (not against) the South.  Your homework, then, is to conduct about a half an hour of research into the topic of Blacks fighting for the South.

1) See if you can determine:

–if blacks fought, approximately how many of them fought
–when they were part of the Confederate army– for the whole war? for part of the war? when, exactly?
–other details that would help a newcomer to this topic feel better informed.

2) Keep track of your sources. For each source you find, evaluate its reliability through whatever means you think is appropriate.

–list the address of the website
–does it seem to have a bias?
–are there links to other sites? If so, can you make any observation about those links?
–any other clues that would help you evaluate the reliability of the site?

2) In class on Friday, I began by showing what I found when I did a google image search for “Black Confederates.” One of the photos that pops up is the one misidentified as “1st Louisiana Native Guard.” I printed out copies of the photos scrutinized in the UVA study, put kids in groups, and had them play detective to identify all the similarities and differences they could; this took a while. After we talked about their observations, we moved on to interpretation, discussing what the story could be behind these photos; most theories involved the “Louisiana” photo being the real one (probably due to the fact that it is “dated” 1861), and the later versions being forgeries or, alternatively, proof that the soldiers had defected to the North later in the war. I then walked through the real story, as uncovered by that study; the impact was clear.

3) For homework that night, I asked kids to write a paragraph about what they thought the point of the class was. Most “got” it. I also asked them whether what they had learned in class cast any doubt on the validity of their research into the question of Black Confederates; most indicated that this was the case.

4) In class, I started by showing a video mined off of YouTube called “A Tribute to our Black Confederate Heroes.” If you haven’t seen it, you should take a peek; the song is particularly unsettling– even offensive, I think– in its depiction of the faithful slave. I let that sink in and then showed the first few frames again, asking what the message of the video was and then asking more pointed questions to expose its lack of credibility– such as, “What are the names of the people in these photos? Where did they serve? How long did they fight? etc. etc. The kids got the point that should be instinctive– that there’s no citation at all, no reason whatsoever to accept these images as any sort of documentation of the “Black Confederate Hero.”

Then I showed them the Petersburg Express web page, picking it apart per your guidance in your video.

Finally, I showed the first five minutes of Levine’s talk and then presented some quick facts to summarize my understanding of the topic.

5) A follow-up question on the quiz tomorrow asks them to imagine that they go back to the mock Supreme Court hearing that kicked off this whole thing. They are to imagine that the student who wore a Confederate Flag to school were to again argue that the flag is a symbol of Southern heritage– distinct from any sort of association with slavery–and that as proof of that statement, large numbers of Blacks fought for the Confederacy. How would they now respond to that argument?

Civil War Memory has moved to Substack! Don’t miss a single post. Subscribe below.

5 comments… add one
  • TheRaven Feb 21, 2011 @ 20:56

    Excellent post. That Boston teacher is doing great work. History used to teach critical thinking skills? Awesome!

  • Ron Nurmi Feb 17, 2011 @ 14:44


    This is off topic of you interesting blog, but last night the Des Moines Civil War Round Table had a presentation by Professor William Thomas, UNL on his new book about railroads in the Civil War period–it was excellent. After the meeting we were discussing blogs and I mention I followed Civil War Memory and then was informed you had been a student of Professor Thomas. It is a small world.
    Ron Nurmi Des Moines Civil War Round Table.

    • Kevin Levin Feb 17, 2011 @ 15:03

      I took a summer seminar with Professor Thomas back in 2001 at the University of Virginia. It was co-taught with Gary Gallagher. Will is a great guy and I have no doubt he gave an excellent talk or your CWRT.

  • Bob Huddleston Feb 17, 2011 @ 13:06

    In an age of “teacher bashing” it is always wonderful to see what great teachers are doing!

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *