What Will Become of the Black Confederate Controversy?: A Response

Matt Isham has published a thoughtful post in which he assesses the black Confederate controversy over at A People’s Contest.  While I appreciate Matt’s positive assessment of the attention that I’ve given the subject over the past few years, his critique misses the mark.  Consider the following:

Of course, the person who has done yeoman work on this issue is Kevin Levin at Civil War Memory. He has challenged black Confederate mythmakers with vigor and gusto for several years now and shows no signs of slowing down, as he will be publishing a book on this subject soon (find his latest post on the topic here). Levin consistently has pointed out the basic historical illiteracy of the mythmakers, particularly their inability to understand how 19th century Americans conceived of citizens, slaves, and the citizen-soldier.

This, of course, is all well and good, especially the heavy lifting Mr. Levin has done on this issue. After all, it is one of the most important aspects of our mission as educators to expose the public to the fraudulent nature of such myths as the black Confederate story. I wonder, however, if historians are not in danger of sinking down into the mire of this debate by continuing to pay attention to every continued claim from the mythmakers and supporters and every rebuttal in the blogs and the news media. To be honest, I’m not sure where I stand on this, but I feel as though this debate is beginning to yield diminishing returns. Surely, the public has been educated about the debate and the shortcomings of the black Confederate thesis. Carrying on the debate with members of the Sons of Confederate Veterans and other true believers yields nothing, for they are resolved to support their position regardless of whatever evidence and logical analysis is marshaled to expose the fallacy of their belief.

The one point that I completely agree with is that attempting to engage in discourse with the SCV is futile.  Than again, the energy that I expend on this subject is not intended for the SCV or the relatively small number of vocal diehards out there.

My problem with Isham’s analysis is that he offers up nothing specifically that would allow us to measure for “diminishing returns.”  If it’s simply our inability to get through to the SCV than not only are our prospects diminishing, they have already flat lined.  Let me suggest that the battle is twofold: Yes, on the one hand we need more scholarship on the subject that is accessible to Civil War enthusiasts who are generally interested in this subject, but unfortunately, reliable studies published in traditional format will have little to no impact on this controversy.  I hope that my own research will help to fill this void, but that in and of itself will not solve the root problem, which as I recently pointed out in the New York Times, is digital literacy.

Approaching the problem from this angle provides us with a different perspective, one that acknowledges the value and importance of responding to as many of these outlandish claims on blogs and news media.  This controversy is as much about digital literacy, hyperlinks and search engine rankings as it is about content.  Having to constantly respond to the same tired and confused claims about armed slaves can be nauseating, but it is absolutely necessary in establishing both presence and reputation.  Search engine rankings have been shaped in recent months by the contributions of myself and others around the Civil War blogosphere and elsewhere.  Anyone interested in Silas Chandler will have to consider the numerous posts on the subject on this blog, which hopefully offer both a reasoned response to the mythmakers and a reasonable alternative interpretation based on available evidence.  In the end, however, the content is irrelevant if the website is not firmly established and sensitive to positive SEO practices.

Where I agree with Isham is in the implicit assumption that our response ought not begin and end with a critique of every new claim.  We have to offer a robust and creative response that introduces more sophisticated content and interpretation as well as helpful strategies for assessing digital sources.  That has been my goal over the past year.  I recently took a shot at creating short video tutorials that offer an introductory overview of how to assess some of the most popular black Confederate websites [see here and here].  Not long after I made these videos I was contacted by a 7th grade teacher in Boston, who used the tutorials to teach the subject and digital literacy to his students.  I hope to build on these videos once the school year ends as well as continue to work with history teachers on the importance of emphasizing digital literacy in the classroom.

I suspect that much of the anger directed at me from certain camps reflects an awareness of the small digital space in which they operate.  It is safe to assume that no one is asking a passionate contributor to a Facebook group page or listserv to write for publication or work with teachers.  At the same time we would be making a big mistake to dismiss those sites as ineffectual.  In fact, they constitute the front line in this ongoing controversy.

[image courtesy of University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign Library]

66 comments… add one

  • Barbara A. Gannon May 8, 2011

    You are absolutely right, I would say that I have heard more, not less, about black confederates recently than I had in the past. We ARE not at the point of diminishing returns. I wish we were.

  • Andy Hall May 8, 2011

    You and Matt are both correct in recognizing that the True Southrons™ will not be swayed by evidence or reason; their conviction comes from a deeper place that is impervious to those things. It is not a matter of evidence, but a matter of faith.

    Matt suggests that “historians are. . . in danger of sinking down into the mire of this debate by continuing to pay attention to every continued claim from the mythmakers and supporters and every rebuttal in the blogs and the news media.” I see his point, and that’s a large reason why historians line Levine and McCurry try to keep out of the weeds of the discussion while at the same time remaining adamant about their position on it. There’s no professional up-side for them to get into an online pissing match with the Facebook crowd.

    But I still think it’s important to push back, when possible, about specific claims. Most of the “evidence” presented for BCS is so fragmentary that it cannot be either directly corroborated or refuted, but when it can, it needs to be looked at closely to see if it holds up. Almost invariably, it doesn’t, and opening up what evidence there is — in its entirety — is something that needs to be done. Not in a shrill, name-calling, wave-of-the-hand dismissive way, but in a methodical, comprehensive way that says, “this claim is incorrect, and here’s why.”

    I haven’t been entangled in this nonsense for nearly as long as Kevin or some others here, but I don’t think we’ve hit the point of diminishing returns, either. I do have a sense that the increased public exposure to the discussion, due in large part to the sesquicentennial, is helpful. I’ve already begun to get the feeling that advocates of BCS, having been repeatedly challenged on claims that this or than African American man was considered by his contemporaries to have been a soldier, have taken to insisting that specific, contemporary definitions are irrelevant, admitting that BCS perhaps didn’t serve in the tens of thousands as some have claimed, and a few are now opting for vague terminology like “black Southern loyalist,” applying it to civilians who had no connection to the army in the field at all. Maybe I’m imagining it, but that does seem to be a shift in the parameters of the discussion, one necessitated in part by direct challenges to claims for BCS, in such cases (Silas Chandler, Richard Quarls, James Kemp Holland) where sufficient record exists to counter such claims.

    In short, I think pushing back against the BCS narrative works. That narrative really is an impressive tower, constructed of Jenga blocks of misunderstanding, selective editing, and, in a few cases, outright fraud. The more this discussion gets out in the open — or more specifically, turns up in Google searches — the better.

    • Kevin Levin May 8, 2011

      Hi Andy,

      You nailed, but you nailed it, in large part, because you operate in this digital/social media environment, which means you understand how this information is disseminated. It’s important to remember that very, very few people will ever get around to reading Levine or McCurry. In fact, it’s not a leap to suggest that traditional scholarly studies will continue to have very little impact on the general public. If anything, our websites have probably done more to introduce this scholarship beyond the walls of academia beyond what the authors themselves could have imagined. That’s not necessarily a criticism, but an honest evaluation of who reads our blogs and where this discussion is located.

      We are nowhere near reaching a point of diminishing returns. Such a view reflects a limited understanding of the many digital tools that can be utilized to share history Online.

  • Matt Isham May 8, 2011

    Kevin,

    I enjoyed this insightful critique in response to my blog post. For one thing, it revealed to me that I should have been clearer and more precise with my language in that post. When I spoke of “diminishing returns,” I did not intend it in regard to the effectiveness of discountenancing the black Confederate myth in the public debate (though, I can see how my meaning was not clear). I think the work that you, Andy Hall, Bob Moore, Brooks Simpson, and others have done on this topic have yielded great results, and your collective use of digital media to educate Civil War enthusiasts and the public at large stands as an excellent model for academic historians who might (and should) want to reach a broader audience.

    Rather, I meant to speak of the diminishing returns felt by several, possibly many, academic historians who, as Andy said, are trying to “keep out of the weeds” of this discussion, in part because they feel it will eclipse other points they wish to make about the war. I think most academic historians have welcomed the sesquicentennial as an opportunity to speak on a whole range of Civil War issues to a broader audience. Yet, I know a few of them feel a bit stymied in that effort by the attention this debate has garnered in the major media outlets.

    You make an excellent point that the more pressing issue here is digital illiteracy. None of the few academics who’ve complained to me about the questions they’ve received on the subject of black Confederates utilize digital media to my knowledge. Your response gives me pause and makes me wonder if the real issue here is not the ongoing black Confederate controversy itself and your successful role in making this a vibrant public debate, but how academic historians (including myself) can learn to embrace and master digital tools both to participate in these public debates and encourage other public discussions that would give wider exposure to their thoughts and their scholarship.

    Thanks for providing an incisive critique as I continue to puzzle over this issue.

    • Kevin Levin May 8, 2011

      Hi Matt,

      Great to hear from you. You said: “Your response gives me pause and makes me wonder if the real issue here is not the ongoing black Confederate controversy itself and your successful role in making this a vibrant public debate, but how academic historians (including myself) can learn to embrace and master digital tools both to participate in these public debates and encourage other public discussions that would give wider exposure to their thoughts and their scholarship.”

      I think this is exactly where our energies need to be focused. Even a cursory education in digital literacy would steer most people away from most of the websites devoted to this subject.

  • Matt Gallman May 8, 2011

    I have stumbled upon this interesting discussion from “the other shore” in a sense. Kevin’s final comments raise all sorts of interesting issues (all of which are probably discussed to death on other blogs). Specifically, there seems to be some suggestion about who “the public” are and what they are reading, and there is perhaps a subtext – and this is a timeless one – about how “academic historians” are somehow out of touch with reality.

    Personally, I think that the “social media” in all its manifestations are fascinating and swell. I am not on Twitter and don’t follow Ashton Kutcher, but I have no doubt that my life is less full for that. Seems to me that there all all sorts of interesting ways to be entertained and share opinions with folks. But I am not sure about the idea that the sharing of opinions is the same as learning stuff. And I am not convinced that as a professional historian I should care one way or the other.

    I have no doubt that if I googled around a bit I could find a bunch of blogs and chat groups dedicated to discussing the Lakers: How Gasol should be traded, how Bynum should be shot, and who should replace Phil Jackson. I am sure that on those blogs and chat groups there are folks who speak with great authority and knowledge. I am equally sure that Mitch Kupchak is completely indifferent to whatever they say.

    I am positive that I could find dozens of chat groups and blogs (with highly nuanced identities) dedicated to the fake moon landing, Obama’s Kenyan birth, and the undeniable fact that if they had really killed Osama they would show us those darned pictures. All power to all of them, I have no doubt that they are having fun. [I did google "fake moon landing" and "black confederates" and they turned up similar number of hits. Go figure.]

    So, what about Civil War historians of various stripes? I teach and write about the Civil War, and like many of my colleagues I speak to “the public” in various venues. No doubt McCurry and Levine do as well, probably with greater frequency and to larger crowds. Quite a few of us spend lots of time working with high school and grade school teachers. And one can make a pretty darned good argument that teaching in colleges and universities is yet another avenue to reach the “public.” [Needless to say, folks who work on the Civil War get more of those speaking invitations than folks who do equally good work on less popular topics. Nobody believes that this is a measure of merit. Not every topic worthy of historic evaluation will yield the same number of readers or 'hits,' I don't think that is the measure of the historian.]

    Who do blogs and the social media reach? I have no specific information on that, but I definitely suspect that they are not reaching the general public any more than those Laker blogs are reaching everyday fans. Surely lots of folks read them. On the other hand, I have had an awful lot of conversations with folks about the Civil War and I don’t recall anyone ever actually mentioned a Civil War blog. My guess is that the world of CW blogs it is an interesting – and fun – conversation involving a fairly limited slice of highly interested folks, who are very interested in a fairly narrow slice of the history. The overwhelming majority of professional CW historians pay no attention to CW blogs. I don’t think that that suggests anything about the fate of humankind. I just think that they (we) have different hobbies.

    What do folks who read CW blogs learn? I have no doubt that they learn all sorts of interesting and provocative stuff. One of the fascinating virtues of the social media is that it is such a democratic setting. There is no vetting process, no external reviews. Bloggers can blog whatever they want and some people will believe that since it is on the internet it must be true, It is apparently largely free of the hierarchy of credentials. it isn’t like the historian blogging from Yale (if there is such a person) someone is presumed to be better informed than the teenaged reenactor from Bayonne. It is up to the reader to weigh things. I am sure that some readers are very careful about assessing what they are reading, and presumably others are less so. That is the nature of the beast.

    Personally, I am on line nearly every day but I very rarely stumble into the world of CW blogs, except when a link from some other internet source leads me to a particular post. Awhile ago I heard that a friend of mine who writes military history was getting slapped around by some CW bloggers. I did look into that. Why? Because I thought it would be amusing (it was). I bounced from blog to blog, following links to folks who were spitting mad at my friend, The posts reflected the democratizing nature of the blogosphere. They would say things like “Bob (not his name) and I don’t agree on this point” as if Bob even has any idea what is being said, or would care if he did, It is as if I went to one of those Lakers sites and announced that “Phil and I just don’t agree about the Triangle Offense.” It is great to have a forum to present my opinion, but I would be on thin ice if I believed that Phil cared what I thought.

    So, are the blogs burning up with talk of “black Confederates”? I have no doubt. Are these a measure of public opinion? I have my doubts. Should Stephanie McCurry care? I don’t think so, Does she? I feel pretty sure that she doesn’t.

    • Kevin Levin May 8, 2011

      Response to Matt Gallman,

      Thanks for taking the time to comment on this issue. That said, I have to say that the substance of your comment seems to reflect the amount of time you’ve spent in the world of social media and in thinking about the extent to which the turn toward digital formats has changed how information is collected and disseminated. In other words, your comment tells us much more about your own Online preferences and academic preoccupation than it does about the reality on the ground.

      I also think you fail to grasp the broad range of readers of CW blogs, which includes some of the most respected NPS and academic CW historians. In fact, the number of academic bloggers continues to grow both within the field of Civil War history and beyond. Both the Civil War centers at Penn State and Gettysburg College now manage group blogs and the SCWH has acknowledged the popularity of blogs by choosing to advertising on my site. Blogging is one among many digital platforms that can be utilized to engage an audience.

      You are right to point out the limitations of blogging in terms of its lack of vetting, but there are ways to sort our the few sites that include thoughtful critical analysis and content from the rest. Regardless of whether Levine or McCurry care about the Online world there is plenty of evidence to suggest that this particular discussion is being driven by a growing number of websites (not blogs). Like I said in my previous comment, their books are not responsible for shaping the public discourse on this subject. As a high school history teacher and historian I am focused on this particular subject because it combines both my interests as a historian with an interest in digital literacy, which is not being taught in our schools. You may see this world as simply a chance to track gossip about a colleague, but I am hoping to help people sort through the subject of black Confederates and steer them in the direction of reliable sources. In that sense my blog is an extension of my classroom.

      Thanks for the comment, Matt, but I do hope that at some point you take the opportunity to explore this digital landscape further.

  • Matt Gallman May 8, 2011

    Kevin

    As the saying goes, you are welcome to your own opinion, but not your own facts.

    When you presume to lecture me (or any other professional historian) about the “digital landscape” you are just making my point for me.

    You are precisely like the guy who wants to lecture Phil Jackson about the Triangle Offense.

    I spend a huge amount of my professional time reading electronic sources. Do you not get that? Professional historians are taking advantage of all the great resources that are available on line. For my own work, that includes 19th Century newspapers and journals and pretty much every novel published in America during the century. Meanwhile, there are all sorts of wonderful sources for scholarly essays on line. In short, I read both primary materials and scholarly works on line all the time and I use them in my teaching etc.

    I have no doubt that there is all sorts of interesting stuff in CW blogs, but the suggestion that folks who do not read blogs very often are somehow deficient in “digital literacy” is absurd. Yes, it is insulting, but it also falls under the category of “who cares? it is just another silly opinion by a blogger. Professional historians have “digital literacy.” Perhaps that is why most don’t mess with blogs. They have other hobbies when they are not doing their work.

    Agan, I think that blogs are an excellent hobby. But anybody who believes that blogs are somehow related to “digital literacy” are just living in a bizarre world that is unrelated to the real stuff.

    Nobody alive could read all the great scholarly stuff that appears in the major journals. Right now we have two top Civil War journals, a superb journal of 19th Century American History, the Journal of Southern History, the Journal of American History, unending state historical journals, and an amazing list of topical journals. I sure as heck don’t pretend to keep up with all the wonderful stuff that is written in my field. And since I am getting old, more and more of my professional life is devoted to reading – and evaluating – stuff that is not yet published.

    So, yeah, I have digital literacy But I apply those skills in my research. Blogs are a diversion. If I want Brooks S or Mark G to amuse me, I will look at their blogs. If I want to learn from them I will (re)read their wonderful books.

    So, I take your point that there are people out there who read CW blogs and that is how they learn about history. And insofar as we hope that they learn good stuff, we celebrate good blogs. But this idea that somehow “digital literacy” means reading blogs is just pure silliness.

    • Kevin Levin May 9, 2011

      Matt,

      Thanks for the follow-up. First, I wouldn’t dream of lecturing Phil Jackson on anything related to basketball. My intention was not to lecture you. You were the one who reduced blogging to a gossip column and in this comment you seem to suggest that it is characterized best as a form of amusement.

      I am not in any way trying to reduce this discussion down to blogs. Blogging is one digital platform in a broad web spectrum that includes such diverse platforms as Omeka and Delicious (social bookmarking). Many of these tools improve traditional research and teaching practices and a few offer the potential to revolutionize what we do as historians. I am in no way suggesting that you are a digital illiterate. That said, this landscape is much larger than those websites/databases that allow us access to both primary and secondary sources. I was thinking more of those tools that allow for a certain amount of creativity in how we collect and present those resources.

      Again, this is a discussion that goes much further than blogging. I love blogging, but it is only one aspect of my Online presence. Much of it centers on my classroom where I can bring these tools to bear to assist my students in better understanding what it means to do history.

      It’s fine with me if you think that blogs are a diversion. You would not be the first person to say it and at times I find that I am even distracted by them. That doesn’t change the fact that for a growing number of academic historians they are more than a “hobby.” I’ve read and learned a great deal from reading the many fine books and articles written by Simpson and Grimsley. I also read their blogs, which have also taught me a great deal. They are not mutually exclusive choices. Both formats offer something substantive to consider.

      Thanks again for taking the time to comment, Matt. We will have to get together for a drink at the next Southern. :)

  • Brooks Simpson May 8, 2011

    Matt Isham says:

    “Rather, I meant to speak of the diminishing returns felt by several, possibly many, academic historians who, as Andy said, are trying to “keep out of the weeds” of this discussion, in part because they feel it will eclipse other points they wish to make about the war. I think most academic historians have welcomed the sesquicentennial as an opportunity to speak on a whole range of Civil War issues to a broader audience. Yet, I know a few of them feel a bit stymied in that effort by the attention this debate has garnered in the major media outlets.”

    Matt Gallman observes:

    “On the other hand, I have had an awful lot of conversations with folks about the Civil War and I don’t recall anyone ever actually mentioned a Civil War blog. My guess is that the world of CW blogs it is an interesting – and fun – conversation involving a fairly limited slice of highly interested folks, who are very interested in a fairly narrow slice of the history. The overwhelming majority of professional CW historians pay no attention to CW blogs.”

    Interesting to contrast these two positions. Apparently most professional Civil War historians reportedly don’t pay much attention to something many of them reportedly claim is a major distraction from their efforts to talk what they want to talk about.

    Perhaps Matt Gallman can explain to me why, if professional historians don’t pay attention to these blogs, the Society of Civil War Historians advertises on Kevin’s website. And I’ll be sure to tell the professional historians who discuss my blog with me that they are part of a select minority, to say nothing of those professional Civil War historians who compose online articles and participate in various blogging exercises, including the people listed here:

    http://www.washingtonpost.com/blogs/house-divided

    It’s always a bad idea to generalize from personal experience … and we won’t have to worry about the Lakers for a while.

  • Carl W. Roden May 9, 2011

    The problem is that denial of the service of African Americans in the Confederate army serves a political agenda, not history…with the benefit of such denials only going to white supremacist ideals and black power cultism.

    • Kevin Levin May 9, 2011

      If the available evidence indicates that the individual in question was never enlisted as a soldier than your vague references to “white supremacist ideals and black power cultism” is irrelevant.

      You seem to forget that it was the Confederate government and army that denied these men the right to enlist as soldiers and they did so because of their “white supremacist ideals.” :)

    • Brooks D. Simpson May 9, 2011

      Yes, Carl … you have no political agenda. You’re as pure as the driven snow.

      • RICHARD WASHBURN May 16, 2011

        Except that in the raid on Murfreesboro, Tn by Gen. N.B. Forrest according to the Official War Records, the Commanding Union Officer noted that there were blacks in arms against union forces.
        ~I am aware that the Confederate Governtment did not allow blacks to be in arms in the Army until 1865, but the fact is that it happened. it is similar to todays situation that women are not allowed to be in combat arms, but they are involved in combat.

        • Kevin Levin May 16, 2011

          It is not like the situation today where women serve in the military. The difference is they serve openly in the military and with rank. No one denies that their may have been a few black men who were able to enlist and serve in the ranks as soldiers, but based on all that we know they are few and far between. Re: the Forrest affair, you are going to have to do better than offer a vague reference to a Union officer. We know which units were with Forrest at Murfreesboro, so you should be able to follow up and identify specific individuals through a careful examination of the enlistment papers and other relevant documents. Have you done so or are you just repeating something that you read somewhere?

          • RICHARD WASHBURN May 16, 2011

            it is in the official war records of the rebellion, but its well documented that he brought all but one of his slaves with him and had them fight along side him in several instances.

            • RICHARD WASHBURN May 16, 2011

              and what i mean with the comparison, is that the vast majority of blacks that serve were only in support roles, like women today. yes the majority of that was more than likely impressioned into the service, but some were not but at the same time the majority of whites were also impressioned into military service at that time.

              • Kevin Levin May 16, 2011

                The overwhelming majority of blacks who were present with the Confederate army were slaves and not soldiers. The women in the military today serve as soldiers. Again, your comparison makes absolutely no sense. You continue to make broad generalizations without providing any concrete examples along with the necessary evidence. I think you mean to say that most blacks were impressed into performing certain services. Their legal status remained as slaves.

                • RICHARD WASHBURN May 16, 2011

                  yes but not all, thats all im saying and that they fought in combat, but may not have been regular combatives

            • Kevin Levin May 16, 2011

              No evidence or references to relevant secondary sources. Without it your claims mean very little.

            • Andy Hall May 16, 2011

              I think you are making a common error, taking “official” in the title of the Official Records to mean endorsed, verified, confirmed factually accurate. The OR are “official” in that they are official documents, reports, dispatches, etc., as opposed to private correspondence — letters, diaries, and the like.

        • Andy Hall May 16, 2011

          There are a dozen or more anecdotal accounts like that in the OR, drawn from Union reports. What’s lacking is contemporary corroboration from officers on the Confederate side, who would have had far more direct, first-hand knowledge of the the use of African Americans in direct combat roles. And it’s not just the OR, either — Confederate references to BCS are mostly absent from private correspondence, as well.

          As Kevin suggests, the analogy to women serving in today’s U.S. military is flawed. While there are restrictions on women serving in certain combat roles, and women do, nonetheless, get caught up in combat, women in today’s military serve openly and publicly. They hold rank, they took the oath, and are widely acknowledged. BCS, by contrast, seem to have been a secret even to Confederates themselves.

  • Mary Ellen May 9, 2011

    In my mind, the long-range problem is that children in particular are disposed to trusting belief in whatever they read on the web. If we don’t teach them digital literacy, then we risk reinscribing in our culture echoes of the historiographic problems that have long bedeviled our understanding of the antebellum, Civil War, and Reconstruction periods. Kevin has me convinced that an important way of going at this problem is to make sure, as a parent and constituent of a school community, that our children learn digital literacy. Digitial literacy is important for a host of reasons, at that. As a parent of schoolchildren, I’m now inspired to raise the issue of teaching digital literacy with administrators in my school district. Thank you.

    • Kevin Levin May 9, 2011

      Hi Mary Ellen,

      Thanks so much for taking the time to comment. Best of luck to you and please keep us updated on your progress.

  • Matt Gallman May 9, 2011

    Wow. An interesting 24 hour visit to the blogosphere!

    In my posts above I tried to raise three questions for discussion, prompted by my reading of what Kevin had written:
    (1) Are readers of CW blogs a good approximation of “the public” when it comes to public opinion? I posited that perhaps CW blogs attract people who are particularly interested in the CW, and perhaps in particular topics. That is, there is an awful lot of “public” out there who I don’t imagine are reading blogs.

    (2) Are professional historians really missing out if they don’t spend much time reading CW blogs? Here my point was that there is an unending material out there that we can read. We don’t read it all, We make choices among worthy things.

    (3) Is the failure to blog or to read blogs really evidence of a lack of “digital literacy”? My argument is that there are an awful lot of ways that one might engage with electronic resources and/or the internet, both in their research or their pedagogy or just for edification. Blogging (or reading blogs) is not the measure of digital literacy

    My comments engendered responses from Kevin and from my old buddy Brooks. And, better yet, Brooks linked the discussion on his web page, which provoked a bunch of responses over there.

    Lots of interesting stuff, although almost nothing that really responded to any of those questions. In fact, most of the responses have almost no relationship to what I actually wrote. All in good fun.

    Kevin (twice) claims that I said that blogs are only for “gossip.” I wrote nothing of the sort; I intended nothing of the sort; I thought nothing of the sort. Yet he said it twice.

    Brooks elects to quote a piece of a paragraph and pretty badly distorts what I was saying.

    Over on Brooks’ site things are even more amusing. He and at least one of his colleagues are clearly unhappy with me for using the term “hobby.” I didn’t see that as an insult. But I am not wedded to the term. It seems to me that most people who blog do so because they enjoy it. It appears to be a labor of love. I doubt if many are gaining direct professional benefits from blogging, but I don’t know. Happy to retract the word. One person prefers the term “practitioner.”

    A fellow named Jimmy Price suggests that I think “blogging is for the ignorant masses.” That is a really incredible distortion of what I said. I said that blogs are presumably more interesting to some people than other people. Not based on their ignorance but their interests.

    Robert Moore seems to think that I posted that nobody blogs out of Yale, when I said no such thing. I used the hypothetical of a Yale blogger on the CW, “if there is such a person” (note: does David Blight blog?) Mr Moore goes on to conflate “blogging” with all uses of digital methods while seeming to imply that folks who do not go about doing history the way he does it are Luddites.

    and on and on. As Brooks notes, it all amuses me immensely.
    [Brooks - I don't even remember what it is that you say you and I recall differently! Were cigars involved?]

    I’d welcome any thoughts that anybody on either blog wants to say about those three questions. But if you folks persist in taking shots at me persoally (especially the ones based on things didn’t say) rather than talking about serious issues you are really making my point for me.

    But hey, it is all in good fun.

    • Kevin Levin May 9, 2011

      Hi Matt,

      First things first. You said: “Kevin (twice) claims that I said that blogs are only for “gossip.” I wrote nothing of the sort; I intended nothing of the sort; I thought nothing of the sort. Yet he said it twice.” I was responding to your reference to following a series of posts involving a personal dispute between two historians. Your comment came across as suggesting that this was the only reason to read blogs. I apologize for the confusion, but I would suggest that you might take more responsibility for the overall tone of your remarks. Now to your questions.

      1. It is difficult to accurately map my readership which on average numbers between roughly 1,000 and 1,300 people each day. What I can tell you is that my readers include some of the most respect scholars in the field of Civil War history as well as a wide range of public historians and k-12 educators. My blog has also attracted a core group of Civil War enthusiasts who are passionate about the subject and who read books. I know this based on my Amazon.com affiliate status.

      2. It’s not up to me to decide whether Civil War historians are missing out if they do not read blogs. I’ve never drawn a conclusion one way or the other. What I have suggested is that blogging offers a number of opportunities to engage a wide range of people who share the same interests. In addition, I’ve written extensively about the opportunities that social media and other digital tools offer practicing historians and educators.

      3. I don’t know how to respond to your last question because I have never suggested that the failure to blog or read blogs reflects a lack of digital literacy. I tend to refer to digital literacy when discussing the challenges associated with the collection and assessment of digital sources.

      I hope that helps, Matt.

    • Brooks D. Simpson May 9, 2011

      For my replies to what Matt Gallman now says were the three points he wanted to raise in response to Kevin’s post, see:

      http://cwcrossroads.wordpress.com/2011/05/09/three-observations-from-matt-gallman/

      Matt seemed to take offense that I did not offer responses earlier. Now that he’s rearticulated his points in direct, concise fashion, I have.

      But hey, it is all in good fun.

      • Kevin Levin May 9, 2011

        I am also confused by Matt’s short list of questions. It’s difficult to respond to something that you’ve never claimed in the first place.

        • Brooks D. Simpson May 9, 2011

          I’m amused. After all, Matt said: “But if you folks persist in taking shots at me persoally (especially the ones based on things didn’t say) rather than talking about serious issues you are really making my point for me.” So you think he’d be especially aware that it’s bad form to make comments based upon things people didn’t say.

          So I assume that it’s all in good fun, because I can’t take it seriously. I’m sure I’ll be told that by saying that, I’ve made his point for him, although maybe he’ll first share with us the point that he was making in the first place, so I’ll know I’ve made it for him.

          Good fun indeed! :)

  • Brooks D. Simpson May 9, 2011

    “Brooks elects to quote a piece of a paragraph and pretty badly distorts what I was saying.”

    How so?

    Let’s take what I quoted, sentence by sentence:

    “On the other hand, I have had an awful lot of conversations with folks about the Civil War and I don’t recall anyone ever actually mentioned a Civil War blog.”

    That’s your experience. Would it be wise to generalize from it? No. I’ve had people who are not bloggers mention blogs a great deal. So our experiences differ. All I said was that I would advise not generalizing from personal experience. Anything wrong with that? Have you been misquoted or misunderstood?

    “My guess is that the world of CW blogs it is an interesting – and fun – conversation involving a fairly limited slice of highly interested folks, who are very interested in a fairly narrow slice of the history.”

    And that’s your guess. Is that misrepresenting you? Did you mean something else by “guess”?

    “The overwhelming majority of professional CW historians pay no attention to CW blogs.”

    Now, that’s a flat statement, not a guess. I have no idea upon what it is based.

    I simply pointed out the the organization that purports to represent professional CW historians advertises on Kevin’s blog. Do you disagree with that? Now, it’s reasonable to ask why that organization would make that choice if a majority of professional CW historians did not pay attention to blogs. Perhaps we’ll learn why.

    I also directed readers to a blog site where many professional CW historians have contributed blog entries (I could do the same for the NY Times). By the way, one of the members teaches at Yale University. Any misrepresentation there? Please explain why.

    So what we are left with is comparing Matt Gallman’s statement that most professional historians don’t pay attention to blogs with Matt Isham’s observation about professional historians and the subject matter taken up by blogs. I found the two observations interesting when taken together, but I don’t think either party was misrepresented.

    Maybe Matt Gallman’s claim is that I misrepresented the Lakers. They sure did a fine job of representing themselves on Sunday.

    In short, Matt Gallman claims I badly distorted what he had to say. He does not elaborate. I leave it to the rest of you to determine whether I’ve been fair or not.

  • Matt Gallman May 9, 2011

    You guys crack me up. I am loving this.

    In response to my comments (that were only about Civil War blogs) Kevin posted:
    “I have to say that the substance of your comment seems to reflect the amount of time you’ve spent in the world of social media and in thinking about the extent to which the turn toward digital formats has changed how information is collected and disseminated. In other words, your comment tells us much more about your own Online preferences and academic preoccupation than it does about the reality on the ground.” and then, at the end of the same post:
    “Thanks for the comment, Matt, but I do hope that at some point you take the opportunity to explore this digital landscape further.”

    Forgive me for reading these passages and concluding that you were suggesting that because I don’t blog or spend much time reading CW blogs that I am somehow a digital moron and you are somehow a digital guru. You surely seemed to be drawing a conclusion based purely on my comments about the value of blogs (thus my #2 above).

    And on the “gossip” thing: I was referring to how CW bloggers were highly critical of an article by a colleague, while in the process just completely distorting what had actually been said. I wasn’t talking about gossip. I was talking about how I personally read them because I thought they were funny. It is, after all, all about being amused.

    Brooks: Re: mischaracterizing what has been said. You ended your first critique last night by noting: “It’s always a bad idea to generalize from personal experience …” Since you are the resident blog deity presumably you can get away with that here, and we all just laugh. But come on. When you are wearing your professional historian hat you know that “generalize from [limited data]” is a term with a meaning. You quote me saying two things. The first was:
    “I have no specific information on that, but I definitely suspect that they are not reaching the general public any more than those Laker blogs are reaching everyday fans. Surely lots of folks read them. On the other hand, I have had an awful lot of conversations with folks about the Civil War and I don’t recall anyone ever actually mentioned a Civil War blog.” Except you omitted my first two sentences!! I wasn’t offering a “generalization” (a technical term that has an actual meaning. I was asking a question, noting that I didn’t know the answer, and adding my own observation about folks who are part of “the public” who do not appear to be involved with blogs. And, to make things more amusing, five minutes ago on your own blog you posted that YOU AGREE WITH ME!!! Your quote: ” I don’t know of anyone who has made the claim that the readers of Civil War blogs are an approximation of “the public” when it comes to public opinion.” That is precisely the argument I was making. I had understood Kevin to be arguing that “the public” was talking about black confederates based on blog posts and internet hits, and I was merely asking if that is a good measure of the public. Now it is clear that we all three are in perfect agreement:

    Second, I offered the bald assertion that: “The overwhelming majority of professional CW historians pay no attention to CW blogs.” That is a thoroughly undocumented assertion. (I figured, when in Rome.) But “overwhelming majority” does imply some sort of meaning. I’d say that 70% would surely be an overwhelming majority. Does anybody actually think that more than 30% of professional historians read CW blogs?

    Last, both Kevin and Brooks offer the fact that the SCWH has advertised on Kevin’s (excellent) blog as evidence that professional historians read blogs in substantial numbers. I was not in the room when that decision was made, but I have been in many rooms when academic historians have suggested running ads or in some other way “reaching out to bloggers.” That was always in the context of seeking subscriptions or conference attendees. The tone is always perfectly respectful, but the folks having that conversation are speaking of “others.” That is, folks commonly talk about strategies for getting non-professional historians to read the Journals and attend the conferences I am sure that SCWH would love to have bloggers subscribe to the new journal and attend the conference and join the Society. The first issue of the Journal has some great articles. Are bloggers blogging about them?

    • Kevin Levin May 9, 2011

      Matt,

      It looks like there has been some misunderstanding on both sides of this discussion. That is always unfortunate. I responded directly to your three questions and I will leave it at that. I stand by my response to Matt Isham.

    • Brooks D. Simpson May 9, 2011

      Clearly Matt Gallman is one of the thirty percent (his estimate) of professional CW historians who “pay attention” to Civil War blogs, because he’s posted several times here within 24 hours and commented on his previous reading of blogs. Otherwise it would be amusing indeed to offer the comments thread here as an example of a professional CW historian not paying attention to blogs and what they have to say.

      I didn’t see anyone calling you a digital moron or Kevin a digital guru, and it is you who called me “the resident blog deity.” For a guy who says that taking potshots at other people simply proves their points for them, well, what you have to say and how you say it might say something about you. But I’m sure that you would claim that I’m twisting what you’ve said, and so I await your next clarification of what you’ve said.

      There’s a job in the White House press office for you, Matt. All in good fun, of course. We all just laugh indeed. Well, maybe 30% of us do. The other 70% aren’t paying attention.

      Well, this has been interesting. As for me, I prefer the exchange between Kevin and Matt Isham, which I think offers a far more constructive path to follow, and that’s given me food for thought.

      “the resident blog deity” … hmmm. Never been called that before. It’s a useful blurb.

      • Jimmy Price May 10, 2011

        “Clearly Matt Gallman is one of the thirty percent (his estimate) of professional CW historians who “pay attention” to Civil War blogs, because he’s posted several times here within 24 hours and commented on his previous reading of blogs.”

        That was the point behind my “ignorant masses” question.

        But at least I can tell people that I’ve been quoted by Matt Gallman now…

    • Brooks D. Simpson May 9, 2011

      Matt Gallman claims: “Last, both Kevin and Brooks offer the fact that the SCWH has advertised on Kevin’s (excellent) blog as evidence that professional historians read blogs in substantial numbers.”

      I have said no such thing. Again, Matt, for someone angry with how others supposedly misrepresent your own comments, you seem perfectly willing to do the same thing. When in Rome, indeed. In fact, Matt, I haven’t said anything about professional CW historians reading blogs at all. But don’t let that minor fact deter you. I’ve had people put words into my mouth before that I’ve never said.

      “That is, folks commonly talk about strategies for getting non-professional historians to read the Journals and attend the conferences I am sure that SCWH would love to have bloggers subscribe to the new journal and attend the conference and join the Society.”

      I’m sure this exchange will encourage that.

      • Kevin Levin May 9, 2011

        I should state for the record that I approached the SCWH re: advertising. As a member I receive the quarterly newsletter and noticed an announcement from the president who intended to try to expand membership. I suggested that advertising on CWM might help to achieve that end.

      • Matt Gallman May 9, 2011

        Brooks!

        You do realize that the stuff you posted last night is still on the page right above this, right?

        This is what you wrote in response to my assertion that most professional CW historians don’t attention to blogs:

        “Perhaps Matt Gallman can explain to me why, if professional historians don’t pay attention to these blogs, the Society of Civil War Historians advertises on Kevin’s website.”

        I read that to be an argument (which Kevin also made) that the SCWH ad was some sort of evidence that the professionals are “paying attention” to blogs. If you want to tell me that you meant something entirely different, that is fine with me. This is a silly point to argue. You can say that you meant whatever you want. And Kevin can say that the posts I quoted weren’t examples of him lecturing me about the vast potential of the digital world. Sure, I misunderstood.

        I am pleased that the three of us now say that we agree on the three questions I raised.

        • Brooks Simpson May 9, 2011

          First, Matt Isham raised the point about the nexus of blogging/black Confederate debate/professional historians. I found that very interesting. So clearly there’s been some carryover, where professional historians need not be reading something to pay attention to it–at least in the minds of some people.

          Paying attention is not the same as reading. I think there are very few CW blogs that professional CW historians visit, let alone become regular readers. But I know they are aware of them and they do pay attention to their existence and the general thrust of what’s going on, even if they are not regular readers. It’s always nice when one’s peers read what one writes, but my peers are not my primary audience, and there are better ways for me to reach that audience. Then again, I know that the truth is that our peers often pay attention to books they really haven’t read. Whether they are willing to admit that is another thing altogether.

          Again, however, paying attention to something is not the same as reading it. Ironically, as this exchange circulates through the profession, more professional CW historians will take a look at blogs, and more will start to read them. However they come to do that, I hope they reflect on some of the more important issues about how historians should interact with this medium and how they might use it to their advantage … and not just for research or for classroom exercises.

          As for the three questions, I thought you offered unexceptional observations that bordered on the patently obvious. If that’s really all you were wanting to discuss, then a lot of people have gained a different impression. If that’s enough to bring this to an end, then I have nothing more to say.

  • Matt Isham May 10, 2011

    I wish I had had the time to check back into this discussion over the last 24 hours, rather than somewhat hastily reading through it this morning. This has been a very provocative and thought-provoking discussion, and I wanted to share a few thoughts on the discussion and the ideas that shaped my initial blog post that led to Kevin’s response.

    I don’t necessarily disagree with Matt Gallman’s assertion that the readers of Civil War blogs do not represent the public at large or even that segment of the public interested in the Civil War. I do think, however, that such blogs and other forms of social media will assume an increasing importance and prominence in the years to come. The predilection of younger generations for online content over printed material like newspapers and magazines suggest that they will prefer this format where possible to seek out intellectual and scholarly material, for better or worse. Because of that, I believe that it is important for academic historians to engage this media and to come to their own conclusions about whether or how various digital media formats might further their educational mission or the broader dissemination of their research.

    I write all of the preceding as a digital neophyte myself. I am too old to have “grown up” with digital media, and my son spends too much time running around outside to have gained the computer skills that would allow him to explain this all to me. That said, I enjoy trying to learn how various digital formats might enhance my teaching and public outreach. Blogs in particular serve another function than simply communicating with the public (no matter how dubious that term might accurately be in this case). While CW blogs, including the one for which I write, might often indulge in trivia, I think they also can serve as a true forum for exchanging serious ideas and proposing questions that can meaningfully influence public outreach and even scholarship.

    I posed the question about the black Confederate controversy, because I’ve been wondering how scholars might use digital media effectively to reach a wider audience and share their insights, without being eclipsed or sidetracked by popular issues that do not have much resonance in the academy itself. To what extent should scholars feel it their duty to participate in discussions of such popular subjects? When does that participation become unavailing and simply distract people from other, perhaps more valuable issues, that scholars would like to bring to the public’s attention?

    Finally, this discussion has been spirited and educative. Matt Gallman raises an important point, one that I did not consider much in my initial post: we should not delude ourselves about the size or make-up of the audience we interact with through digital media. Rather, for digital tools to be effective, we should “know” our audience. Who exactly is “consuming” our information? Who is responding to it? What other online venues is it migrating to through backtracks and links; in other words, how far is our reach? Kevin also raises the important point that this rapidly evolving world of digital media provides a tremendous opportunity for scholars and educators to engage with a broader public, one that likely will rely increasingly on digital media for information with each passing generation. Ultimately, I wonder how we might make use of these media to connect with popular debates about history without diluting the impact of our scholarly output.

    • Brooks D. Simpson May 10, 2011

      Matt–I think one of the answers I can offer deals specifically with the black Confederate question. On your blog you’ve been treated to one of the better-known hit-and-run commenters already. Kevin has several regulars (and has gained some infamy in certain circles, which I envy). Indeed, the responses to the original post help illustrate the point I want to make. Although we talk much about blogging as a blogger addressing an audience (composed of lurkers as well as people motivated to respond), the comments section often drives conversations in different directions, entailing a certain commitment of time and energy. I see much of the discussion over black Confederates as reactive and repetitive. That’s in keeping with the comments section as a sort of discussion group/news group (people keep returning to the same topics, new people ask old questions, and so on). I’ve already discussed with Kevin, Andy Hall, and others a need to move ahead, to offer a different online means of addressing these issues and making sure that the result gets due attention on search engines, etc. That way, there’s something to refer folks to right at the beginning, instead of simply repeating what has been said before in reaction to a new assertion, sometimes offered by someone who simply wants to stir up a little controversy or who sees historical understanding as an expression of personal identity and belief. Otherwise, the discussion cycle will become endless, and yes, I do think at that point it will become a distraction with diminishing returns. Even those people familiar with the digital landscape know that much awaits to be discovered, and that there will be new tools to assist in doing the work.

      Finally, I don’t think one should confuse “commenters” with “the public” or even “audience.” The lurking audience is substantial and includes many people whose names one would recognize. It also includes people who come to a conversation or a post down the road after things have moved on.

      • Matt Isham May 11, 2011

        Brooks, thanks for that response. That is an excellent point about the tendency of commenters to drive conversations in certain directions that a blog writer might not intend. One sees right away in such instances, as you point out, that following them in those directions and engaging those conservations takes more time and energy than one ought to commit. Perhaps the most interesting aspect so far of my recent foray into blogging for the Richards Center is trying to grasp what digital tools might best serve to engage in these public debates without bogging down in the endless discussion cycles to which you refer.

        • Kevin Levin May 11, 2011

          Matt,

          You said: “Perhaps the most interesting aspect so far of my recent foray into blogging for the Richards Center is trying to grasp what digital tools might best serve to engage in these public debates without bogging down in the endless discussion cycles to which you refer.”

          This is an important point. It’s important to keep in mind that most of these new web2.0 tools need to be experimented with to measure how well they achieve the goals set out by you and the Richards Center.

  • Timothy Orr May 10, 2011

    Another interesting discussion. I don’t want to fall on either side of the debate just yet, but I am curious about a comment that Matt Gallman asked in his initial post. How do we know what the public thinks about black Confederates (or any CW issue for that matter)? Like it or not, I think this is an astute question and it deserves a thoughtful response. The dispute seems to be a matter of degree, the degree to which the BCs myth, or any CW myth, prevails in the “general public,” or however we want to phrase it. The Matt(s) seem to suggest that CW mythology is limited to a few fringe groups, unrepresentative at best, while you and some others who have posted here say that CW mythmaking is more prevalent than the Matt(s) let on. How do we assess what people know about the CW and what do they learn about it? It seems this debate turns on this question of blogs. How do we assess what people learn from CW blogs? I imagine that, as a blogger, you have been thinking about ways to quantify your assessment of what blog-readers learn. How many people do you reach and what do they learn? What is your methodology in determining this answer?

    • Kevin Levin May 10, 2011

      Thanks for the comment, Timothy. I think it is difficult to gauge how prevalent the black Confederate myth within the general public. Matt is probably correct in assuming that its advocates represent a relatively small, but vocal minority. I have suggested just that in previous posts. That said, this has never been my primary concern. What matters is that this vocal minority has managed to dominate the Online debate and has had some success in mainstreaming this interpretation. Most news articles about this subject include a reference to the UDC or SCV and writers rarely follow up by consulting with more reliable historians. The Virginia textbook fiasco here in Virginia speaks for itself. That is going to take some time to correct given that a number of counties are continuing to teach from the book and I have received emails from a number of concerned parents. So, I don’t know if I have said that CW mythmaking is more prevalent. What I have suggested is that this specific myth has gained some traction. I have tried to respond to as many of these claims as possible, both here on the blog and in newspaper and radio interviews.

      As to your question about what people learn I have absolutely no idea. Keep in mind that many of the hits that this site receives are the result of a wide spectrum of web browser searches. It’s difficult to base any answer on those readers who leave comments because they represent such a small subset of my audience. The site has a loyal following of Academic and public historians, k-12 teachers, and a core group of passionate Civil War enthusiasts, who read a great deal and demand solid content. Sorry that I can’t give you a better answer.

    • Brooks D. Simpson May 10, 2011

      “How do we assess what people know about the CW and what do they learn about it? It seems this debate turns on this question of blogs.”

      It doesn’t need to. One could see this observation as applying to a lot of endeavors, and we could even ask it of historians themselves.

      “The dispute seems to be a matter of degree, the degree to which the BCs myth, or any CW myth, prevails in the “general public,” or however we want to phrase it.”

      I didn’t see it that way. Matt Isham’s point seemed to be different, as was Kevin’s response to Matt Isham and Matt Gallman’s observations.

      Here’s how I see it: historians should think about the audience they want to reach, the points they want to make, and then choose the media/medium that is best suited for the task. Kevin’s point from the beginning has been that as more people turn to the internet for their primary source of information (and in many cases it’s their first option), they come across these websites that talk about black Confederates. I’ve received inquiries from people who are asking questions based upon the information they come across on the internet, and (surprise, surprise!) it may not be accurate. Given the preference most professional CW historians (to borrow an expression) show for writing books and articles in scholarly journals, with some penetration into the buff magazine market and mass media, it’s a fair question to ask as to whether they are passing up opportunities to educate others through online sources and conceding the field to this so-called “fringe.” The Virginia textbook debacle serves as a telling example of the consequences. It may not be so much as constructing a notion of what the general public knows (I don’t think that will get us very far) as where that public goes for information, and whether historians are there to meet them at the point of inquiry.

      • Kevin Levin May 10, 2011

        Brooks,

        That is exactly my position.

      • Raffi May 11, 2011

        Professor Simpson,

        You write:
        “How do we assess what people know about the CW and what do they learn about it? It seems this debate turns on this question of blogs.”
        It doesn’t need to. One could see this observation as applying to a lot of endeavors, and we could even ask it of historians themselves.

        I’m not sure I understand: just because it’s not asked often enough, it means the question can be ignored?

        Moreover, I find that your logic trips on itself: you later state that “it’s a fair question to ask as to whether they are passing up opportunities to educate others through online sources” — fair enough, but how can one assess the success of the opportunities to educate through these online sources, if we do not address the first question? As you know, successful education is dependent upon the audience actually grasping what is being put forth, and therefore to evaluate opportunities to educate, we must evaluate how well the intended audience/pupils are receiving the message.

        Indeed, as more people turn to the internet for information, the more these black Confederate sites have an impact. Obviously we can’t control the content of these sites (nor should we), so the question becomes if it’s worth fighting them. So it’s important to understand who it is that goes to these sites, and what it is they pick up from it (how many people that see it believe it? and to what degree?), and most importantly to your point about education: how many of these people who visit such sites are even open to education? Or do they have a conclusion in mind already and only find what they already believe (which means they will find a forum to do that through, no matter what, online or not)? These questions require evaluation as suggested by Professor Orr, in order to answer the question of whether it’s worth rebutting these sites (i.e. are their audiences even open to our interpretation? and thus, is it worth our resources? or are we better off spending those resources elsewhere?) — which gets precisely to the heart of your question: “it’s a fair question to ask as to whether they are passing up opportunities to educate others through online sources and conceding the field to this so-called ‘fringe.’ ” Is it worth the fight?

        A larger point (and not speaking directly to your point, but related): in my opinion, the more we argue with them on their terms, the more we create that there is a “debate” and legitimize their position, and the more we lose the fight, because unfortunately the people who want to believe this black Confederate stuff would accuse us of ignoring evidence, etc. This is always their accusation, no matter how strong your argument is. Thus, my new approach is this: ok, fine, so 10 zillion African Americans fought for the Confederacy, but really that’s irrelevant to why the Confederate States of America was established as a nation (i.e. to protect the institution of slavery), if we look at any/all of its foundational documents. In other words, it is impossible to be accused of ignoring their evidence, because I am acknowledging their evidence, and then refocusing the question to the heart of the matter (since I think the number of black Confederates is irrelevant to why the CSA was established). Unfortunately, I think by arguing on the numbers of black Confederates, we argue on their terms (i.e. implicitly acknowledging the number of black Confederates who enlisted is connected to the question about how important slavery was to the Confederacy). I think the answer is irrelevant: whether 0 black Confederates, 10 of them, or a million of them, what does not change is this: all the forming documents of the CSA explicitly state why the CSA is formed. Period. This has absolutely nothing to do (and cannot be changed) with the number of black Confederates that “fought for” the Confederacy. Thus, I think it’s time we don’t get sucked into the neo-Confederate Red Herring paradigm of the importance/relevancy of the number of black Confederates, but it’s time we simply point out the CSA’s foundational documents.

        • Brooks Simpson May 11, 2011

          Reread the comment. All I’m saying is that we don’t know what “the public” (a construct) knows about the Civil War, period. To somehow use that as a point of departure about blogs makes no sense to me. Indeed, what I find most interesting about this thread is the number of times discussions go off in directions that have had nothing to do with Kevin’s position, a position which the people who actually blog appear to understand.

          Usually it’s bloggers who are engaged in navel-gazing. In this case, it’s people who don’t blog who seem to want to hold forth on blogs.

          So I’ve asked a question, and people would rather debate the question than offer an answer to how to we assess the state of public understanding about the American Civil War. Answering that question would raise new questions (including defining “the public” in a useful way). Instead, I see people telling other people how to do their work or dismissing their endeavors. Whatever. I’d rather just move ahead and do my work, knowing full well that since you can’t please everyone, you should make sure that you at least are at peace with what you do.

          • Brooks D. Simpson May 11, 2011

            I’d also point out that it seems to me that Raffi hasn’t really been reading my blog closely. Otherwise, he’d come across this:

            http://cwcrossroads.wordpress.com/2011/02/09/greatest-hits-from-civil-warriors-so-what-an-observation-on-the-debate-over-black-confederates/

            In short, we’re simply covering old territory once more. I’ve looked at the percentage of my posts that touch on this issue, and I’d suggest that what I’m seeing is an incomplete rendering of my position in order to take it on. How many times do we have to see these strawmen arguments appear?

            Hey, if you don’t like what I blog about or my approach to history, then you don’t have to read what I have to say. But I get to decide what I want to talk about. You don’t. If you don’t like that, too bad. And each post that says “Gee, by taking these people on you just gives them more attention” is ironic … because we wouldn’t be talking about talking about black Confederates if we weren’t being told not to talk about it so much in comment after comment. Just do your own work.

        • Kevin Levin May 11, 2011

          Hi Raffi,

          Nice to hear from you again and thanks for the comment.

          You said: “…fair enough, but how can one assess the success of the opportunities to educate through these online sources, if we do not address the first question? As you know, successful education is dependent upon the audience actually grasping what is being put forth, and therefore to evaluate opportunities to educate, we must evaluate how well the intended audience/pupils are receiving the message.”

          There has been a great deal written about both the benefits and pitfalls involved in utilizing social media and other digital tools in education. The studies are so vast that I wouldn’t know where to begin in referring you to relevant sources. As to my site, I find it extremely difficult to measure its educational value beyond the messages I receive from historians, k-12 teachers and others who have found the site to be valuable for one reason or another.

          You said: “Indeed, as more people turn to the internet for information, the more these black Confederate sites have an impact. Obviously we can’t control the content of these sites (nor should we), so the question becomes if it’s worth fighting them.”

          I tend not to characterize my commentary concerning these sites as a “fight.” My goal has always been to offer interested readers thoughtful commentary that almost always includes references to legitimate historical studies for further reading. Strictly speaking I do not consider these websites to be engaged in offering competing interpretations because most of the authors are not engaged in historical discourse as we understand it. Rather, I am attempting to create a digital space that is grounded in serious thought and an awareness of the relevant historiography. Hopefully others will see this as well and pass along the URL to interested parties. I don’t really understand why I have to concern myself with who goes to these sites or what assumptions they bring to them as well. I blog because I am interested in exploring these issues and as I stated earlier I hope others find the content to be helpful.

          Finally, I could ask the same questions about applying “resources” to your dissertation or anything else you will write for a scholarly community. Is the historiography that your dissertation challenges really worth the fight, Raffi? I could make an argument that the resources applied to addressing this particular issue is more important than what you are bringing to your own scholarly output. Don’t get me wrong, I embrace the scholarly debates and on occasion I’ve even contributed to them through my published work, but I find my work on this blog and beyond to be much more rewarding and even meaningful.

          As to the question of number, I rarely get into serious discussions about such a silly question. My number one priority has been to try to steer this discussion in a way that addresses the kinds of broader concerns that you reference in your comment. I feel confident in stating that the value of this blog site has already been demonstrated.

          Thanks again for the comment, Raffi.

        • Will Hickox May 11, 2011

          “Thus, my new approach is this: ok, fine, so 10 zillion African Americans fought for the Confederacy, but really that’s irrelevant to why the Confederate States of America was established as a nation (i.e. to protect the institution of slavery), if we look at any/all of its foundational documents. In other words, it is impossible to be accused of ignoring their evidence, because I am acknowledging their evidence, and then refocusing the question to the heart of the matter (since I think the number of black Confederates is irrelevant to why the CSA was established). Unfortunately, I think by arguing on the numbers of black Confederates, we argue on their terms (i.e. implicitly acknowledging the number of black Confederates who enlisted is connected to the question about how important slavery was to the Confederacy). I think the answer is irrelevant: whether 0 black Confederates, 10 of them, or a million of them, what does not change is this: all the forming documents of the CSA explicitly state why the CSA is formed.”

          But by “acknowledging their evidence” you are implicitly agreeing with them, and the Black Confederates myth gains traction. I think the numbers are very, very relevant. A commenter on Brooks’ blog recently claimed that 190,000 blacks fought for the Confederacy. This would have been 20-25% of Confederate military strength–hardly an irrelevant figure. This is a flagrant falsehood, and we as historians (or in my case, students) have a duty to combat it.

          • Kevin Levin May 11, 2011

            Good point, Will. Referencing 190,000 black soldiers is clearly off the deep end, but I’ve found that relatively few people make such absurd claims. Andy Hall recently suggested that a new strategy is more subtle: rather than refer to BCS they are now being called Southern Black Loyalists. My choice to refocus the discussion around the question of how the war challenged the master-slave relationship is more a matter of wanting to reach out to those who are sincerely interested in the broader question of how black Southerners found themselves involved in the Confederate war effort.

            • Raffi May 11, 2011

              Kevin,

              Thanks for clarifying how you evaluate. I think that’s exactly what Tim was asking, and if you look again over my point, I was not saying your evaluation methods are useless, but rather I was directing my comment primarily at Brooks Simpson for brushing aside Tim Orr’s question and essentially implying it was an unworthy question.

              As for asking me, too, if “it’s worth the fight” — remember that I did not say that the blogging world is not worth doing (as you do), but what I said very clearly was that I was asking the same question Brooks Simpson asked (and you agreed with him too) — and what I pointed out to Brooks Simpson was that Tim Orr’s question was crucial to answering his question (even though he brushed Tim Orr aside). Note, that you proved how critical Orr’s question is to Simpson’s question by having now answered Tim’s question in order to answer my question (and I was simply repeating Simpson’s question).

              I hope that clarifies what I meant. I think you misread my comment, Kevin. And I think you proved Tim’s point in your reply to me.

              • Kevin Levin May 11, 2011

                So long as we are all happy. Thanks again, Raffi.

              • Brooks D. Simpson May 11, 2011

                “I was directing my comment primarily at Brooks Simpson for brushing aside Tim Orr’s question and essentially implying it was an unworthy question.”

                Oh, good grief. Whatever. I simply said that Tim’s point could be directed with equal justice at any form of historical scholarship and could be framed far more broadly. I thought that was obvious. So to use it as a way to get at blogging seemed to me nonsense, and to complain about that seems to me to be nonsense as well, as is this additional nonsense about who proves whose point in reply to whom.

                Again, good grief. I’ve never seen so many people so determined to misread what someone says in order to try to make a point. Just watch.

            • Will Hickox May 11, 2011

              I get your point. The sly switch to “Southern Black Loyalists” shows that your efforts (and those of Hall, etc) are indeed bearing fruit and changing the focus of the “fight”/debate/discussion.

  • Raffi May 11, 2011

    Will Hickox,

    I disagree. And here is why: the extreme fringe (as Kevin points out) of declaring 190,000 black Confederates is so far gone, you are arguing with someone who will never listen to your evidence. Read again what I said, that was precisely my point.

    Moreover, you are missing the big picture if you get sucked into arguing over numbers with them. These people argue for black Confederates why? What is their larger point? Their larger point is to say that slavery was not important to the CSA. Thus, while you are busy arguing on their terms on their paradigm and creating a forum of debate so these people are heard (instead of letting them just talk to each other), I would rather get to the heart of the matter and point out the irrefutable official CSA documentation that explicitly states why the CSA was formed. To me, that undermines their larger point, and thus defeats their argument.

    Put another way, the “number” of black Confederates is simply the means to an end — the end/goal being that the CSA was not a nation fighting for preserving the institution slavery. So, I like to go for the goal, because once again, they will simply say to you that you are denying their evidence and put you in some liberal conspiracy or something — but if you acknowledge them and calm them down, and then show your own evidence in return (evidence that gets to the heart of the matter), you will defeat their argument another way. This is a classic tactic taught in leadership development (which I have done much of), and I have used it successfully countless times while working at Gettysburg since 2004 (please note this is my personal opinion/approach and not representative of GNMP).

    If you get bogged down in the question of “how many?” black Confederates, there is simply no way to convince each other, nothing concrete (unlike say, showing first hand primary sources from the CSA and its components in 1860-1861, which are indeed concrete). It is almost like on a battlefield, when 2 people get bogged down arguing over whether one guy (or small unit) was 15 yards one way or 20 yards the other way (a debate that has no end), while missing the larger substantive point of the significance of the action in that particular area of the battlefield. You must keep in mind the big picture, and not get caught in the trees, so to speak.

    And in this case, I think the tactic I suggested gets to the heart of the matter. The very motivation (and asserted conclusion) by those who make the argument for black Confederates.

    • Kevin Levin May 11, 2011

      I think that is a good point, Raffi. You are absolutely right that the BCS claim is made for instrumental reasons. The fringe would argue anything as long as it gets them to their preferred conclusion, which is that slavery/race is irrelevant to understanding the Confederate war.

    • Will Hickox May 11, 2011

      I will just have to bow to your expertise in leadership development. I guess I simply don’t have The Right Stuff–I would find it extremely difficult to essentially say “ok, maybe you’re right, but let’s talk about something else…”

    • Brooks D. Simpson May 11, 2011

      You know, if the advocates of the argument that there were significant numbers of blacks (enslaved and free) had only themselves as an audience, there might not be a problem. But it doesn’t work that way. I get inquiries all the time about this issue from someone who comes across one of these sites on the internet. I’ve had to respond to fabricated photographs. I’ve had to deal with all sorts of nonsense about this issue.

      You have your approach, Raffi, and other have their approaches. That’s true with many things in historical scholarship. Why does this bother you?

      One often argues with others, not because they hope to convert someone to their point of view, but because of the impact of the discussion upon third parties. Different people have different approaches. Some look at the handling of evidence; others look at the wider import of the argument. Some of us (including me) do both.

      I strongly disagree with your preferred approach when it comes to talking to third parties. If you say simply “but what does it matter?” then you’ve chosen not to contest the evidence at all, leaving the original claim intact. So people go away noting that you haven’t challenged a bogus claim at all. Yet historians always engage themselves in challenging bogus claims and flawed accounts. As you should know, just spend a half hour on Little Round Top and listen as the guides (NPS, GBG, and others) challenge Warren’s account or Chamberlain’s account or whatever (really, folks, do this some time … spend a half hour between the Warren statue and Hazlett’s cannon, and you’ll see what I mean). I could with equal truth say “so what?” After all, the Rebs never took the summit, and the rest is simple squabbling.

      No one’s getting bogged down in anything except for what its becoming an increasingly bizarre set of exchanges here in which I’m hearing people hold forth on how to do things their way and how other ways are simply flawed. To point out that their own reasoning may be flawed is dismissed; to point out the growing number of straw men being erected is ignored. I don’t see anyone getting bogged down in numbers. I see people discrediting flawed accounts and mistaken assertions, and historians always have done that. I see historians using that as a point of departure for broader inquiries of the sort Kevin’s suggested. In short, I see regular historical practice being carried out using new media.

      Finally, I don’t see that Raffi’s decision not to take on the evidence offered by proponents of black Confederates while asking “so what” is not likely to leave any impression on the minds or opinions of the proponents of the argument. They will simply walk away and chortle that you didn’t discredit their evidence, so they must be right. That persuades me that Raffi’s fundamentally misframed his whole line of inquiry, because I think the audience to reach are the people who want to learn, not the people who’ve already made up their mind. So he con continue to do what he does, and I’ll continue to do what I do. I’m not bothered by what he does, and I don’t especially care if he’s bothered or disagrees with what I do. That gets to the heart of the matter.

      • Raffi May 11, 2011

        Professor Simpson,

        You will note in my initial response to you that this line of thought (to which you now replied) is really not the focus of my post — and I even stated that it is not directly addressing your prior point. Thus, while I see where you are coming from on this issue (though I still disagree, in that acknowledging what they said is not the same as agreeing with it), I must tie it back to what started this whole thing with Tim Orr, your response to Tim Orr, and my subsequent reply to that: evaluation.

        That you are arguing now was a tacked on point I made, as I clearly pointed out when I first made it, and this discussion has shifted due to what Will Hickox understandably decided to address (i.e. one strand of something I said). My main reasoning to you, as you will see above in my first reply, had much more to do with the issue of evaluation as described by Tim Orr.

        And as I pointed out in my very first comment, in order to answer your very valid posed question, one must first answer Tim Orr’s question (the very question you seemed to brush aside in your reply to Tim Orr). I will let the main point of almost all my paragraphs in my first comment (in reply to you) do most the explanation so I don’t repeat myself. However, I would like to add, too, that once again your comments reveal the important of what Tim Orr articulated. You said: “One often argues with others, not because they hope to convert someone to their point of view, but because of the impact of the discussion upon third parties.” Indeed, Professor Simpson, and the only way to learn about the “impact of the discussion upon third parties” is to find a way to evaluate it. Otherwise, we have no idea how well the “education” (to use your term from your initial reply to Tim Orr) is succeeding — how effective it is — what “impact” it has.

        Thus, once again, your comments to refute Tim Orr, in my opinion, trip up on their logic, and prove Tim Orr’s point. And I think Kevin Levin’s healthy stab above (in response to me) at possible tools for evaluation also revealed that.

        • Brooks Simpson May 12, 2011

          I appreciate your perspective. I don’t share your reasoning or your characterization of my viewpoint. You continue to misread what I’ve said as a way to set up your argument, and I won’t waste any more time dealing with such misrepresentation.

  • Matt Gallman May 11, 2011

    If one were to construct a model attempting to explain how information on something like Black Confederates reaches “the public,” what might it look like?

    I’d start by trying to divide the public into categories.

    Here is a stab at that:
    (1) THE COMPLETELY UNINTERESTED. These would be folks who have never heard or noted the term at all, and probably don’t care much. My guess is this is a considerable group

    (2) THE HIGHLY INFORMED. This would be folks who have made it their business to investigate a bit, either in books or on the internet or whatever. My belief is that folks who take the time to assemble evidence would have the raw data available to make a wise assessment. I’d say that folks who are really deeply invested in the idea that there were tens of thousands of armed black Confederates are willfully choosing to ignore the counter-evidence and arguments (although I could be wrong here)

    (3) THE PERSON WHO HAS HEARD THE TERM BUT HASN’T LOOKED INTO IT. This might be the person who sees a sign for a lecture, or a headline, or a title on facebook or whatever. My personal concern (perhaps too strong a word) is that that person, who hasn’t actually read anything one way or the other, has internalized the idea that this is a debate or a controversy. That is, they – like all good open-minded Americans – believe that there is some reason to believe that there were “black Confederates” because folks are debating the topic.

    (4) THE CASUAL RESEARCHER, PART I. This is the person who hears the term “black Confederate” and googles it. As noted here, that googling is liable to turn up web pages that are making the case for tens of thousands. (ie the crazy people). That sort of seems to be what the person who wrote the Virginia textbook did. They also might turn up this web site. Or perhaps they’ll read a few. That person is likely to get bad information. Digital literacy would help.

    (5) THE CASUAL RESEARCH, PART II. I suspect that lots of folks are like me. When faced with something I want to find out about, when I am not really deeply invested in the answer (like who played bass for the Rolling Stones over the last 40 years) I turn to Wikipedia. If you search “black confederates” on Wikipedia you get directed to a decent discussion of the topic.

    (6) THE STUDENT RESEARCHER, This is a variant on the Casual Researcher. What if a student is doing a research project on this topic? How can folks engaged in pedagogy help shape what they learn? This is a tricky one I suppose. My simple answer has been to restrict students to .edu and .gov sites. That obviously weeds out good stuff while including bad stuff, but it has some virtue. I do know know if there are useful rules of thumb for tellling a high school student how to assess the quality of the information on a blog, for instance. The quality obviously varies tremendously, but what are the markers that tell us that?

    Okay, so my back-of-the-envelope model has six categories of members of the public.
    Personally, I am most concerned about those folks in Group #3, who are not really going to look into the question but who are likely to internalize the notion that this is a point where there are legitimate arguments on both sides and that it is essentially an open question. My only suggestion to address that would be to use the word “MYTH” after “Black Confederate” in lecture titles and so on.

    Be interested to see what folks think

    • Kevin Levin May 11, 2011

      I’ll have to give this some thought, but here are just a few comments. First, we could apply this model for just about any subject. I agree that based on how you’ve set it up (3) represents the challenge, but I would deal with it by going after (6) which is our profession. I wouldn’t know where to start in trying to reach those who fall into that category. What I can do is develop the digital literacy skills of my students and the teachers that I work with through Teaching American History Grant Workshops and other organizations. This is what I hope to continue to focus on in Boston.

      There are plenty of things that can be done on the high school level; unfortunately, school systems are not addressing the importance of digital literacy. Students in my American Studies class actually had to build websites that conformed to acceptable standards of research and presentation of that work for an Online audience. Teachers can have students evaluate websites based on certain standards. The possibilities are endless.

      As for blogs, I tell my students to stay away from them, including this one. It’s not that I don’t want them reading this site, but that a visit here does not represent the end of their research. They must include sources that have gone through some type of peer review process. This is one of the reasons why I consistently reference published studies in my posts.

      Even my advertisements are mean to help readers locate the best published (digital and traditional) sources. :-)

  • TF Smith May 12, 2011

    Not to get all Godwiny and everything, but isn’t ignoring the liars implicitly endorsing them?

    There is a lot to be said for challenging the David Irvings of the world – no matter what their particular lies are – to provide factual evidence to support their claims…

    As an example, there were three factual histories of AA troops in the USA (both the USCTs and others) published by AA historians and AA-centered presses in the 19th Century – where are the equivalents from the slaves who allegedly were fighting for Dixie?

    …the world wonders…

  • RICHARD WASHBURN May 16, 2011

    “end/goal being that the CSA was not a nation fighting for preserving the institution slavery.”

    The CSA was a collective, and the collective was part of the point. Some states did move for seccesion on the premise of keeping slavery, but not all states voted to secede on that topic. Then the creation of the “CSA” wasnt to perpetuate a single states view but to try and unify the independant states to ward of the enemy.

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