National Public Radio Falls For the Black Confederate Myth

If you want a sense of the growing level of acceptance of the black Confederate myth look no further than this NPR story.  NPR has now confirmed that the oldest living “Daughter of the Confederacy” is Mattie Clyburn Rice, who is the daughter of Weary Clyburn.  That name should ring a bell for many of you because I discussed his story in detail not too long ago.  This is not the first time that a major news outlet has fallen victim to this story and it won’t be the last.  I applaud Ms. Rice for working so hard to uncover a history that deserves to be told and that for far too long has fallen outside the boundaries of our national memory, but it is unfortunate that she fell victim to this narrative.

If you did miss those earlier posts, I highly recommend the following:

I enjoy listening to NPR, but this is just another example of the shallow reporting that typically goes into these stories.  Of course, it’s a compelling narrative.  How unlikely is it that an African American woman discovers that an ancestor served as a soldier in an army that fought to protect the institution of slavery and white supremacy.  Some may even see this as an inspiring story that transcends race.  Unfortunately, none of it is true.  Weary Clyburn was a slave and his pension was given by the state of North Carolina in recognition of his presence in the Army of Northern Virginia as a slave.  That story needs to be told if we are to have a better understanding of the relationship between African Americans and the Confederacy.

A quick read through this report suggests that NPR failed to do any fact checking.  They did talk to historian, Fitz Brundage, but all they had to do was consult with the North Carolina Department of Archives and History and talk with someone who can properly interpret the documents.  And there you have it, another major fail in the perpetuation of this insidious version of the loyal slave narrative.

p.s. What exactly is a “progressive historian” when it comes to this subject?

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56 thoughts on “National Public Radio Falls For the Black Confederate Myth

  1. Barbara A. Gannon

    I REALLY think the problem is that people refuse to understand what a slave is. No one wants to accept the fact that a slave was not a person with a bad job they could not leave. It was not a person who was at the bottom rung of Southern society or a person with a legal status-they are not. Chattel is property. This also explain the family values version of slavery where the African American family was better off under slavery. People would rather think there ancestors could and did make a choice in slavery, .Also, I am not a gender historian BUT, I also think they would rather have thought there ancestor as a Man, a soldier, than a slave a servant. Someone out there needs to look at notions of gender and the lost cause in the 20th and 21st century.

    Reply
    1. Kevin Levin Post author

      Thanks for the comment, Barbara. One other problem is the tendency to extend the history of slavery into the Civil War itself. I’ve said it before, but the subject of how southern blacks fit into the Confederate experience must be understood as part of the longer history of slavery in the antebellum South. What we need to better understand is how the war affected the institution of slavery as well as the master-slave relationship. I also like the idea of looking at the Lost Cause through the gender lens. Micki McElya does a little of that in her book, Clinging to Mammy: The Faithful Slave in Twentieth-Century America.

      Reply
    2. Andy Hall

      I meant to reply to this earlier, but didn’t get my thoughts together clearly enough. It may still be a ramble, but bear with me. You wrote:

      The problem is that people refuse to understand what a slave is.

      That’s right, but I think it goes farther than that. In some cases, it’s an active refusal to accept any historical narrative or perspective that depicts those men in the reality of slavery, as though saying “he was a slave” is itself an act of re-enslaving that man’s memory all over again. It is as though historians acknowledging the reality of slavery are endorsing it.

      When you combine this aversion to discussing or considering the complex and often ugly realities of the “peculiar institution,” with the propensity to draw simplistic pictures of the humble, brave and patriotic Southron ancestors, untarnished by any baser attributes or motivations, you get an environment that’s primed for the BCS meme to take off with a vengeance, unfettered by historical evidence or even logic. It’s much more appealing to talk vaguely about someone’s “service” or how he willingly “followed” his “friend” into the military than it is to deal with hard questions about personal agency, conflicted loyalties and intimidation, physical or otherwise.

      Reply
      1. Kevin Levin Post author

        I think you make and excellent point here, Andy. I would go so far as to suggest that once we hit 1861 there are no slaves in the minds of some people. They become “black Confederates” or fall under some other vague heading. It’s not simply an attempt to extend the loyal slave narrative, but a desire to see the war as completely independent from the institution of slavery. I don’t know if that makes any sense.

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        1. Andy Hall

          . . . a desire to see the war as completely independent from the institution of slavery.

          That’s the same thinking that’s driven the story of James Henry Brooks (a.k.a. “Jim Limber”) to become one of the more popular memes today among True Southons, as opposed to being a brief mention buried in a biography of Jefferson Davis. How could slavery have been a central element in the conflict when ZOMG Jeff Davis adopted a black child?!?

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          1. Kevin Levin Post author

            There is another story completely detached from any historical context. I would also throw in the old saw of Stonewall Jackson’s Sunday School, which is bandied about w/o any understanding of Christian paternalism in post- Nat Turner Virginia.

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  2. Chrisitne Smith

    I keep meaning to comment on these posts and then they get away from me on Facebook and I don’t. First of all, there is no such thing as a “progressive” historian. Adjectives don’t fit historians unless they refer to a time period in which that person specializes. I have always taken objection to the title “revisionist” historian, also. Seeing something with a different set of eyes is not necessarily a bad thing. As to the “Black Confederate” myth, I believe there were practically none, if any at all. I do know, however, that many black “man servants’ followed their masters to war as a matter of course; they were expected to do so because they were to obey their masters.. I go often to the Confederate Plot at Crown Hill Cemetery in Indianapolis, where the deceased prisoners from Camp Morton are buried in mass graves with markers for each state and the names of troops from each state on those markers. Listed on each marker are the names of several men whose rank is listed as “servant” who died and are buried there also. These men died in service to their masters, not the Confederacy, but I’m afraid too many have come to see enforced servitude as some type of enlistment and right to defend oneself by carrying a gun. Having said all that, I have difficulty speaking or thinking for anyone who lived in the past as to what he/she might have thought at any particular time, unless there is some verification that the person actually felt that way. I tend to not look at things as black and white issues, (no pun intended), but seek to understand what was being said and done. As I tell my students, understanding doesn’t mean condoning. Sorry to have gone on so long! Thanks, as usual, Kevin for another thought-provoking posting.

    Reply
    1. Kevin Levin Post author

      Thanks, Christine. The tendency among many heritage groups to speak for black southerners as loyal to the Confederate cause is incredibly disturbing.

      One of the things that we do have to acknowledge is that the relationship between Confederate soldier and servant allowed for a wide range of experiences. Even without the voices of the slaves themselves I am finding plenty of evidence that suggests that the experience away from loved ones and the many challenges of army life did bring the two close together on occasion in ways that could not be imagined before the war. That said, we should never lose sight of the fact that the slave was a legal extension of his master and the war placed his life in danger because of that fact. It’s a fascinating story and I am only beginning to sink my teeth into it.

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      1. Edwin Thompson

        You chose difficult subjects to blog about. This subject needs a Sigmund Freud. Slavery removes free will from an individual. Only the strong with opportunity resisted; like those slaves that rebelled in New York in 1712 or Nat Turner in Virginia in the 1831. It makes sense that some black Americans were broken by the system of slavery. So it is possible that they fought for their white owners. This is not any different that the Jewish people who were enslaved by the Nazi’s in WWII. Who knows what jobs those men had to perform in the concentration camps? You can visit the Holocaust museum in DC and there are photo’s of Jewish prisoners helping move people who had been murdered. The damage that must have been done to their souls is not comprehendible. And there are plenty of other examples in human history – but slavery in the USA and the Nazi’s are two examples we should understand. The farther we go back in history, the harder it is to get records.

        The truth is hidden in our minds. This woman believes her family history had people who fought for the confederacy – the real question is why she is proud of the fact. Why do some white people in the south think there is honor in celebrating the confederacy? Germans are still struggling with what they did in the 20th century and some Americans still do not accept our responsibility for 250 years of bondage inflicted on black Americans.

        I know a fine woman in her 80s who grew up in Atlanta in the 1930’s. After visiting her old neighborhood in 1995, she was amazed how black people (who now live in that neighborhood) were “not very nice”. She remarked; “they were much nicer when I was a child”. Probably true. Jim Crow laws will make you nice – if you’re on the abusive end of the laws.

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        1. Kevin Levin Post author

          I think the relationship between slave and master was complex so I tend to resist comparisons with Jews and the Holocaust. In fact, I don’t think the comparison helps at all. We know that some African American families buried their slave pasts following emancipation and that is not surprising at all. Some felt ashamed and did not want to pass certain stories down to children and grandchildren while others simply wished to move on with their lives. I am not surprised by Ms. Rice’s ownership of this narrative; after all, it is a story filled with bravery and battlefield heroics. A few years ago I interviewed a couple of reenactors from the movie “Glory” and all of them mentioned that their families did not talk about slavery. Thanks for the comment.

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          1. Edwin Thompson

            Understood – It sounds like many ex-slaves post civil war period did not leave much of a record; either written or oral. It is understandable – 250 years of bondage will not make a group of people proud. Perhaps Ms. Rice is looking for a small amount of pride – even if was for ancestors on the wrong side of human rights history.

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            1. Kevin Levin Post author

              One of the best examples of a black family that lost touch with their slave past can be found with the descendants of John Washington, who penned one of the few slave accounts about his life in Fredericksburg, Virginia. David Blight recently released the memoir as A Slave No More. My wife and I accompanied Blight, John Hennessy, and two descendants of Washington for a tour that included a stop at the place where Washington crossed the Rappahannock River to his freedom in 1862. Click here for a post on the tour.

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    2. Ray O'Hara

      “followed off to war” is a cute way of putting it.
      did they have any choice? no they didn’t, they were slaves and they did as they were told or they got a beating or worse.

      Reply
      1. Kevin Levin Post author

        Edward Porter Alexander meant what he said when he described his purchase of his body servant as an “appendage”.

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  3. Karl Gottschalk

    Yeah, maybe they should have checked the story out with Earl IJames of the North Carolina Museum of History. Oh, I forgot — his interpretation of the facts differs from yours, so he is ipso facto wrong. I say present the facts without interpretation and let everybody decide for himself. If you look back at history, facts lend themselves to very different interpretations, depending upon the times, what’s in style, etc.

    Reply
    1. Kevin Levin Post author

      I assume that you’ve gone through my posts on Clyburn and have noticed that I differ with Ijames over how to understand Weary Clyburn’s time in the Confederate army. You will notice that I provide reasons for my preferred view of Clyburn. You are free to disagree provided you explain your interpretation of the relevant primary sources.

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      1. Karl Gottschalk

        Kevin, as you say in one of your earlier missives on this topic, “Unfortunately, we may never be able to fill in the details of Clyburn’s life, which is itself part of the legacy of slavery and racism in this country.” Given this er, lacuna, it seems to me that the SCV’s interpretation is just as valid (or invalid) as yours, since as you say, neither of you have the facts and you are both equally ignorant as to what his real motivations were.

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        1. Kevin Levin Post author

          It simply doesn’t follow that because we don’t have all the facts we must remain silent about the information that is available. I’ve stuck close to two crucial aspects of the interpretation that has been pushed by both Earl Ijames and the SCV. First, Clyburn went to war as a slave and did not serve as a soldier. Second, Clyburn’s pension was not awarded to a former soldier, but a former slave. Do you have any additional documentation that is relevant to these two points? If not, then I don’t really see what point you are attempting to make.

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          1. Karl Gottschalk

            According to you, “The certification letter from the pension board describes Clyburn as a “body guard” rather than a servant or slave. Later Clyburn is cited for carrying “his master out of the field of fire on his shoulder” and for “personal services for Robert E. Lee””
            Whether or not he was on the muster role, it would appear that he rendered service to the Confederate cause. Whether he rendered that service willingly or not is unclear, since we apparently have no historical evidence either way. But he apparently did apply for a pension for his service, and some of his descendents apparently wish to honor that service. Perhaps we should respect their wishes.

            Reply
            1. Kevin Levin Post author

              The pension form does indeed reference Clyburn as a “body guard” but that should not be interpreted as a soldier. The pension board makes that point explicit in dealing with his application. I do not know on what basis the story of Clyburn rescuing his master is based, but I know of no documents that shed light on Clyburn’s perspective. There is no disagreement among archivists at NCDAH as to Clyburn’s legal status during the war. I would suggest that you consult with them if you have concerns about what I’ve said here. They were kind enough to share with me the documents that I cite in the posts as well as background on the various agencies referenced.

              I have never denied the right of descendants to celebrate and commemorate their ancestors. What I have suggested, however, is that those commemorations be based on as careful a reading of the available historical evidence as possible. The SCV clearly did not do that in their commemoration, which included descendants of Weary Clyburn.

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              1. Karl Gottschalk

                Well, if I had an ancestor who was buried in a Confederate uniform, perhaps I would deduce that he sympathized with the Lost Cause. I think we can agree that Nat Turner this guy wasn’t!

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                1. Kevin Levin Post author

                  I make no claim as to why Clyburn was buried in a Confederate uniform nor do I know how he came to possess it. In a number of cases slaves (camp servants) were given uniforms by their owners and I found one case where the slave actually earned enough money to purchase one after doing work for other soldiers in camp. In this case his owner was not pleased, but decided approve the purchase.

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  4. Ray O'Hara

    When the likes of Melissa Harris-Perry a very liberal Black Studies Professor at Princeton
    adopts the BCM the game changed. No longer are the proponents Southern Whites trying to whitewash slavery as a cause but now Black academics are joining them , not to downplay slavery but to “set the record straight” and to correct the downplaying of Blacks in American History which has ignored their contributions.

    Dealing with them will take much more tact and patience than dealing with some SCV member.

    Reply
    1. Kevin Levin Post author

      I’ve heard from a couple of people about Harris-Perry’s apparent endorsement of this narrative. If I remember correctly, she has made comments while being interviewed on MSNBC. As far as I know she has not done any serious research on the subject nor do I know what secondary sources she has consulted. It would indeed be embarrassing for a Princeton professor to buy into this silliness, but again I do not know the details.

      Reply
      1. Ray O'Hara

        Anybody pushing the BCM hasn’t done close research.
        It’s not an historical debate it is a political debate.

        Reply
        1. Kevin Levin Post author

          There is certainly a great deal of politics involved, but in this particular case we also have a genuine interest in wanting to share family history and a news outlet that also wants to share what it believes to be a forgotten narrative.

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  5. London John

    A tangential detail: I get the impression from this and other cases on this site that when a former Confederate officer or his family felt an obligation to his war-time personal slave, he or they repayed that obligation by nominating the former slave for a Confederate pension, payed for by all the taxpayers of the state, rather than by making him an allowance out of their own pockets. Is this correct, and if so isn’t it a bit odd?

    Reply
    1. Kevin Levin Post author

      If you look on the pension applications most of them ask that an officer or owner confirm that the individual was present as a body servant or in some other role. The application process is quite interesting and tells us quite a bit about the power structure during the Jim Crow era. Keep in mind that the forms were filled out by whites so their choice of language is also quite revealing. Thanks for the comment.

      Reply
    2. Andy Hall

      There’s a lot of loosey-goosey stuff in Confederate pensions (and presumably Union pensions, too) when you get down into the weeds of them. They’re not the simple, ironclad verifications of a man’s service (either as a soldier or a servant) as many believe, and like any bureaucratic process, they’re only as reliable as the people implementing them — which is to say, they’re very imperfect. Richard Quarls, for example, initially had his Florida application denied when the War Department pointed out that his witnesses, based on their own service records, could not have been present to witness the claims made in the application. The War Department subsequently awarded him the pension, it seems, based on the record of J. Richard Quarles, Richard Quarls’ former master. The War Department apparently overlooked the fact that Private Quarles had been killed in the war; perhaps those records had not yet been paired with the regimental muster roll cards. In any case, Mr. Quarls (the former servant) got his pension, and now lies under an SCV-sponsored headstone bearing the first initial J and the rank of Private.

      In the case of Thomas Tobe in South Carolina, he was awarded a pension on the basis of a claim to have served in Holcomb’s Legion, even though there’s no CSR reflecting that, and (as far as I can tell), his witnesses were not in that unit either. Under the application process there, they merely swore that “they know of the their own knowledge” that was the case, and they (perhaps tellingly) left the company and regiment blank on their part of the affidavit.

      Keep in mind that although Confederate pensions were approved at the state level, and (sometimes? always?) verified by the War Department, the actual processing, collecting affidavits and so on was handled locally, usually at the county level. This process, like everything else in government, lends itself well to both mistakes and “gaming” of the system, both for good and ill. Pensions are very useful documents in sorting out an individual’s wartime history, but they’re also often flawed, and need to be acknowledged as such.

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      1. Kevin Levin Post author

        Thanks, Andy. I should point out that I’ve found some of the same problems in a batch of North Carolina pensions that I am hoping to use in the book.

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        1. Dan Weinfeld

          The deeper you get in the pensions files, the more interesting and complex they become. Elderly men are refighting personal battles and resentments that have lasted fifty years: one man accusing his brother of faking service, claims that groups of men are inventing entire companies to get pensions, bitter allegations and rebuttals about desertion, the uncertain status of homeguard and “horseguard” units, etc. To add to this swirl of information, consider the surprising (to me at least) level of illiteracy of the men and their vagueness about basic information such as their own birthdates.

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          1. Kevin Levin Post author

            You are absolutely right. The pensions are a minefield, especially when it comes to trying to piece together stories of former camp servants. They must be used as part of a larger mosaic of primary sources to get anything close to an accurate and even then your conclusions are usually heavily qualified.

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  6. Bryan

    Maybe we know different people, but the ones I know can differentiate between the different services blacks played, for the South, in the war. Also, people are quick to dismiss those that tell stories of black soldiers. There are plenty of stories to hear. Nelson Winbush, whose grandfather (taken in as a servant) fought under General Forrest and later became the unit’s chaplain. H.K. Edgerton’s ancestor. Also, you can’t forget about a man named Holt Collier, who was a trusted sharpshooter under General Forrest. Look them up and then try to convince them or their decendants that their Confederate service does not constitute being a soldier. Sorry for potential typos, but I am writing on my phone.

    Reply
    1. Kevin Levin Post author

      Hi Bryan,

      Thanks for the comment, but I am not sure what point you are trying to make here. Family stories have their place, but they constitute one piece of a robust historical interpretation. Any evidence, whether it is print or from an oral tradition needs be corroborated. The story of Silas Chandler had a very rich oral tradition, but this past week we learned that almost none of it is true. This is the first that I’ve heard about one of H.K. ancestors serving in the Confederate army. Perhaps you can provide the link. You can search this site for posts about Nelson Winbush and Holt Collier. All of this has been addressed.

      Reply
      1. Rob Baker

        Kevin I have been informed of H.K.’s ancestor, yet every time I press for that information I receive nothing in return. Every re-enactor and SCV member ‘knows’ he has an ancestor, but no one seems to know who that is.

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        1. Kevin Levin Post author

          I wouldn’t put much stock in it. Seems to me that if he had an ancestor that served as a black Confederate soldier with the relevant documents we would know about it. My guess is that his ancestor was a fugitive slave, who worked for the Freedmens Bureau after the war. :-)

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        2. Andy Hall

          Given the general absence of traditional forms of documentation available for BCS (e.g., compiled service records from NARA), I’d really be interested in seeing what folks like Winbush, Edgerton and other African Americans submitted to establish their membership. I doubt most people could join based solely on my recollection of a story my granddaddy told me, eighty years ago, when I was five.

          One other aspect of this is that, according to their website, proof of service includes “an approved pension for the veteran or his widow.” This makes no distinction between a soldier’s pension and a servant’s pension, though whether that’s just imprecise language or by design, I have no idea.

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    2. Bryan

      My point was that just because you don’t want to accept the possibility that blacks fought for the Confederacy doesn’t mean it didn’t happen. Just from a quick search, Mr. Edgerton says his grandfather served as an aid to a surgeon. He was probably the surgeon’s slave. HK speaks of him fighting. Do I have documentation? No, but I am also at work with only a phone to look things up with. I can look later.

      I have one question for you though about requiring documentation for something have happened.

      Do we have documented proof of Jesus or God? Some would say yes. Some would s say no.

      Reply
      1. Bryan

        Also, don’t forget that many CSA documents were destroyed when Richmond fell and was burned. We will never know what was there.

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        1. Kevin Levin Post author

          Yes, the Richmond fires did cause a great deal of damage, but there is no reason to believe that such a fire destroyed anything related to the existence of black Confederate soldiers before March 1865. Do you really want to suggest that such a fire just happened to destroy all the documentation related to the existence of these men. Thanks for the suggestion, but I am not too concerned about such a scenario. What about the personal correspondence of Confederate soldiers. Perhaps you know of some examples, but I have never seen a letter or diary that points to the existence of a single black man serving as a soldier.

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          1. Bryan

            I will have to wait until I get home, but I have seen letters (from Northern soldiers) talking about black Confederate soldiers they faced in battle.

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            1. Kevin Levin Post author

              We’ve all seen the Union accounts, which typically are pulled from the OR and cut and pasted on hundreds of websites. They are mostly observations by individuals without and corroboration. I appreciate you stopping by, but I suggest you pick up a copy of Bruce Levine’s Confederate Emancipation (Oxford University Press, 2007).

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              1. Bryan

                I find it interesting that, while spending so much time “debunking” the myth of black Confederate service you recommend that book. While not having read out yet, I read the many reviews. It spears to be a well written book. But contrary to your assertions, apparently, the author acknowledges the fact that blacks did serve a soldiers.

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                1. Kevin Levin Post author

                  Perhaps you should read it. As I’ve said over and over before, no one is arguing that a few black Southerners did not manage to find their way into Confederate ranks. We know this to be the case because there are a number of accounts of men being forced out of the army once their racial identity was discovered. I am interested in the claims that imply large numbers of blacks serving as soldiers.

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                  1. Bryan

                    Ok. I didn’t know the numbers was your issue since I saw no mention of it til now. As for the numbers? I don’t know. Personally, I don’t know about them being as low or as high as I’ve seen. My guess is, like the truth, it’s probably somewhere in the middle. But yes I plan on reading the book.

                    We may have differing views on the war and rolls of it’s participants, I’ve enjoyed the polite and intelligent discussion.

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        2. Andy Hall

          Many records were destroyed, but a great man more survived. Importantly, this is a plausible explanation for missing records of individuals, but much less so when we’re talking about (supposedly) thousands or tens of thousands of men. (Unless, of course, one wants to go full-bore conspiracy theory and claim the War Department systematically removed and destroyed those records to keep anyone from finding out about those black Confederates, which I’ve actually heard suggested once or twice.)

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      2. Kevin Levin Post author

        Bryan,

        I am going to leave the question of evidence for “Jesus or God” because it has nothing to do with the issue at hand. To be honest, I am not interested in Edgerton’s claims. I would be interested in any documentation he might have about his ancestor. He has his own website which means it would be very easy to share it with the rest of the world.

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        1. Bryan

          I would beg to differ. The point was that just because you don’t have documented irrefutable evidence of his existence, doesn’t mean that he didn’t exist. The same could be said for the service, as a soldier, of blacks in the Confederacy.

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          1. Kevin Levin Post author

            You said: The point was that just because you don’t have documented irrefutable evidence of his [Jesus] existence, doesn’t mean that he didn’t exist.

            But we do have evidence of his existence. You can start with the gospels. Whether you believe the evidence to be sufficient to prove certain things about his life is an interesting question, but the evidence is there.

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      3. Bryan

        Someone can correct me if I am wrong, but aren’t there Confederate documents held in Washington that haven’t been released? Like I said, I may be wrong, but I thought I read that somewhere.

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          1. Mike Musick

            There are few things I can comment on with absolute authority, but Bryan’s question about possible Confederate documents held in Washington that have not been released is one of those rare things. No, there are no such documents that are unavailable to the public.

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        1. Andy Hall

          Don’t know what Confederate documents those would be, or why they’d be held.

          There may be some confusion about the compiled service records (CSRs) at NARA. Mike Musick explained to me recently that years ago the UDC donated funds to have all the Confederate CSRs microfilmed. These films, subsequently digitized and indexed, are now available online through Footnote/Fold3.

          Microfilming of Union records, on the other hand, has not had a similar sponsor, so those records are fragmentary, with entire states missing, and likely to remain so for the forseeable future. Those CSRs have to be ordered on paper copies directly from NARA, at (IIRC) $25 each.

          Reply

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