I had a great time in Cambridge earlier today where I took in a talk by John Stauffer on the subject of black Confederates. The talk was held at the Harvard Faculty Club, which was quite impressive. They served a really nice lunch before the talk and the room was packed with about seventy people. This is clearly an important subject, even at Harvard. 🙂 I was pleased to hear Stauffer mention my blog as well as some commentary by Brooks Simpson at the very beginning of the talk.
The talk itself failed to add anything new to the discussion. In fact, I would go so far as to argue that Stauffer needs to step back and think more carefully about some of the fundamental questions involved, specifically when it comes to the proper definition of a soldier. Earlier on he suggested that anywhere between 3-10,000 black Confederate soldiers served in the army, but he never qualified this with anything approaching an analysis of what the concept means. While Stauffer went on to note that this number is statistically insignificant he did argue that they held “immense symbolic value” though I am still unsure as to what he meant. He quoted from a few primary sources pointing to the existence of these men, which included the infamous Douglass quote as well as a soldier from Connecticut.
His representative example of a black Confederate turned out to be none other than John Parker, who briefly manned a Confederate battery at First Manassas. Parker was the subject of a recent Disunion post by Kate Masur. Even a cursory glance at the historical record indicates that Parker was a slave. Stauffer admits this, but goes on to contend that his presence with the artillery battery rendered him a soldier. During the Q&A I pointed out that at no point in Parker’s account does he suggest to being a soldier. In fact, he admits that his freedom lay just across the field in a Yankee camp. Not only does he not consider himself to be a soldier, but there is no evidence that the white soldiers considered him to be a soldier. I went on to suggest that our understanding of a soldier in the Confederate army ought to be built around their own understanding of this status. Stauffer attempted to deal with this by drawing a comparison between slaves and soldiers, suggesting that all soldiers are coerced at some level. Interestingly, this is one of the more popular arguments from the Southern Heritage folks.
What I had the most trouble with, however, was the apparent mistrust of Civil War historians, who have apparently too quickly given the back of their hand to the possibility of black Confederate soldiers. Once again, no one has suggested that a few black southerners did not manage to join the ranks for one reason or another. Both Henry Louis Gates (who introduced Stauffer) and the speaker suggested as much. At one point Gates suggested that James McPherson’s dismissive attitude can be explained by not wanting to admit something that would threaten his view of the war as a Second American Revolution for African Americans. No, McPherson’s stance can be explained by his deep understanding of the relevant primary source material. The same can be said for Bruce Levine and others.
That Gates takes such a position is remarkable given his own exposure to the distortion machine that is the Sons of Confederate Veterans. During the filming of his PBS series “Looking For Lincoln” Gates attended an SCV ceremony in Raleigh to honor Weary Clyburn. The only thing I can think is that Gates left this event believing that a black man had served as a soldier in the Confederate army. Unfortunately, nothing could be further from the truth. The available evidence clearly shows that Clyburn was a slave. At one point Gates asked me if I believed that no black men fought in the Confederate army as soldiers. I responded by pointing out that I have very little interest in numbers and that the question we should be examining more closely is how the war effected the master-slave relationship and how the Confederacy managed slavery and race relations during the war.
Afterwards I had a wonderful talk with some of the people in the audience and at one point Gates approached me to thank me for my questions and invited me to future lectures. That was very kind. Later on John Stauffer approached me and we talked for about an hour about his presentation as well as other related subjects. I thoroughly enjoyed our conversation.
I know this is a brief summary, but this really did hit on the major points of the talk.
All in all I had a very nice day in Cambridge.