Thanks once again to Andy Hall at Dead Confederates for once again taking the time to expose the house of cards that is the myth of the black Confederate soldier. This is another example of a website that purports to be educational, but is really nothing more than a list of names by state, most of which are clearly referenced as slaves – both body servants and impressed. There is almost no serious analysis nor is there any indication of the methodology utilized to order, catalog, and interpret the men listed. Somehow the facts are suppose to speak for themselves, whatever that means. The site is called Southern Heritage Advancement Preservation and Education (SHAPE) and is run by George Purvis. You will also find such lists on other websites along with the same shoddy or limited analysis.
In this case Andy decided to look at the list from Texas and chose to follow up on an individual listed by the name of Peter Phelps. Keep in mind that Andy did not scour through names only to uncover one problematic case; rather, Phelps was chosen owing to his connection to Galveston County. Not only did the case for Phelps as some kind of loyal black Confederate or whatever you want to call him fall through, it turns out that he is not even black. Purvis simply cut and pasted a note from the Texas State Library and Archives Commission that suggested that the men listed were “a list of soldiers and widows believed to be African-American that applied for Confederate pensions.” Andy ought to be commended for doing the kind of research that Purvis is probably incapable of doing, but what is striking is how quickly these stories almost always fall apart. I’ve seen the same thing in the case of my own research into the lives of Silas Chandler and Weary Clyburn, to name just a few.
What is most disturbing is that the purveyors of these sites are not really interested in their stories. They are little more than names on lists that somehow demonstrate the preferred categories of loyalty and fidelity to the Confederate cause that lay behind these sites. These men are simply being used as a means to an end. Andy sums it up like this:
It really does seem that advocates for BCS don’t really give two shits about these men’s stories, so long as they can check them off as one more black Confederate soldier/body servant/teamster/”black Southern loyalist.” In the case of Peter Phelps, two minutes on sites like Ancestry or Footnote would have exposed the error. But that sort of due diligence, it seems, is too distracting, taking time away from the real priority of such sites — making more lists.
Purvis’s site once again highlights the dangers of surfing the web without even a cursory understanding of how to evaluate digital sources. [see here and here] Who is George Purvis? What is his background in historical research? Is there any indication that he remotely understands how to interpret the primary source material that is collected on his website? In short, is this website a reputable digital source?
For someone who is beginning to search for resources on the web I would suggest taking a few simple steps to narrow your search to sites that have some kind of institutional affiliation. In class I almost always advise my students to stick to websites that are affiliated with an educational institution [.edu]. With Google this is easy to do.
Place the following in the search field: “black confederate site:.edu”
Of course, this does not negate having to evaluate the results [see here and here], but it does avoid the most problematic sites on the web. You can substitute .edu with .gov or .org, but once again it is important to evaluate these sites as well. Check out these basic search tips as well. You may also want to stick to Google Scholar as a way to begin to filter out certain websites.
I am the first person to admit that such a strategy misses very reputable sites such as Dead Confederates, but for students and others who are coming to a subject with little background or understanding of the methodology behind the subject in question the narrow search easily outweighs the potential harm of relying on websites that have not been peer reviewed or are not associated with a reputable institution. My students are not allowed to utilize .com sites and even my own blog as research sources unless they can demonstrate the validity of the site.
I am not even scratching the surface of digital literacy here, but even the most simple of steps can help to prevent disaster. We do not have to engage the web as sponges that soak up and treat all digital information as equal.
[image from Tech Ed-dy]