What I Learned About Black Confederates At Harvard

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.

 

103 thoughts on “What I Learned About Black Confederates At Harvard

  1. BorderRuffian

    From Stauffer’s abstract-

    “But according to African Americans themselves, writing during the war, **thousands of blacks did fight as soldiers** for the South.”

    What did he present to support this statement?

    Reply
  2. Andy Hall

    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.

    This is the essential crux of the matter for me. There are plenty of anecdotes about men who picked up a weapon in the midst of a fight, or took the opportunity plink a careless Yankee with a borrowed rifle. No question, that happened from time to time. But there is also no question that these men’s actions were considered notable or unusual at the time, which is in large part why they were mentioned in correspondence and news items at the time. Even Robert E. Lee is said to have made jokes about African American servants’ pretensions to be soldiers. This stuff isn’t difficult, if you only listen carefully to what those old guys said — and notably didn’t say — at the time.

    Did Professor Stauffer give any indication that he’s engaged in some larger project, or was this talk a one-off?

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    1. Kevin Levin Post author

      Any discussion of how blacks fit into the Confederate army must begin with an understanding of how they were perceived by their fellow whites and how these perceptions changed during the course of the war.

      This is not part of a larger project.

      Reply
  3. Donald Shaffer

    Kevin: sounds like the presentation was basically nothing really new or all that controversial. It also makes me wonder how Stauffer got on the Harvard faculty and received tenure there.

    Don

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  4. Kate Halleron

    In the course of the research I’m doing for the book about my great-great-grandfather, I have sifted through approximately 500+ CSRs. Number of black soldiers found? Zero.

    I did find a woman soldier, though.

    While fully cognizant that this is far from a scientific sample, the fact that I’ve been actively *looking* for Black Confederates and have found none except the one I began with is telling, I think.

    The idea that thousands of blacks willingly took up arms for the Confederacy is a LIE, and a Big Lie, at that.

    I’m disappointed that professors at Harvard are doing such sloppy research. If academics cave to the Big Lie, what hope is there for us amateurs?

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    1. BorderRuffian

      Native Guard units in Louisiana totaled about 2,000 men and they willingly took up arms for the Confederacy. And you have the Creole Guards of Mobile and the companies formed in Richmond in 1865. It is not a Big Lie.

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      1. Kevin Levin Post author

        Please get your facts straight. The Native Guards never served under the Confederate flag; in fact, they were expressly forbidden by Confederate authorities. A few of their numbers did end up in Confederate ranks, but many more eventually joined the Union army following the fall of New Orleans in the spring of 1862. Everyone knows about the small number of men who were recruited during the last days of the Confederacy. And you wonder why no one takes you seriously.

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        1. London John

          It might be worth noting that a member of the LNG who went over to the Union at the first opportunity was Joseph T Wilson, who wrote “The Black Phalanx”. That has a chapter “The Confederate Service”, which illustrates who a free southern Black considered to be a soldier at the time. TBP is exhaustive in the 19thC way, so surely if the numerous BCs had existed Wilson would have mentioned them.

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          1. BorderRuffian

            Wilson was not a member of the Confederate NG. When the war broke out he was a seaman on a whale ship out of New Bedford, MA. He made his way to New Orleans about September 1862 and enlisted in the 2nd LA NG (Union). In his company were a few former members of the Confederate NG.

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        2. London John

          There’s no reason at all you should ever have read any of my occasional comments on this blog, so may I repeat what I posted in May: “The LNG story illustrates how it is possible to make a statement that is not strictly false but conveys a falsehood. As I understand it, the LNG were never mustered into the CSA but as Louisiana militia were mobilised for the defence of New Orleans, where they went over to the Union en masse at the first opportunity. So if a “Black Confederates” advocate said that all those free African Americans “served in the Confederate armed forces” it would be true for the interval between mobilisation and going over to the Union. I dare say a lot of BC statements are like that.”
          It’s a rare pleasure for me to be proved right, so thanks, Border Ruffian

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          1. BorderRuffian

            LJ:
            “…they went over to the Union en masse at the first opportunity…”

            This is not true. Far from it. But if you want to continue to believe it…that’s OK.

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                1. Kevin Levin Post author

                  Not sure I understand the question. Isn’t there sufficient meaning in the fact that they did not serve under the Confederate flag?

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                2. Ray O'Hara

                  Well to the SCV types it would mean what they are trying to prove through the BCM, they believe if they can find a Black Confederate that it proves the ACW couldn’t have been about slavery.

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      2. Andy Hall

        I would encourage you to read up on them in Hollandsworth’s The Louisiana Native Guards: The Black Military Experience During the Civil War. They did offer up their services, but were never taken into national service, and were continually shunted aside even by Louisiana authorities until they were finally disbanded when Louisiana reorganized the state militia as a “whites only” organization in early 1862.

        Your phrasing, that they “took up arms for the Confederacy” is particularly relevant, because Hollandsworth notes correspondence between Native Guards officers and state authorities, complaining that even after months of drilling, many of the Native Guards had not even been issued weapons..

        The case of the Louisiana Native Guards is an important one, but not for the reasons usually claimed by advocates of BCS. It’s a great case study on how Confederate state and national authorities, when presented with an organized body of African American volunteers, hemmed and hawed and finally “reorganized” them out of existence, rather than figure out how to actually use them in the field in defense of the Confederacy.

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        1. Kevin Levin Post author

          I will just follow up your comment by noting that most of the recruits in March 1865 were prevented from taking up arms and for a period of time were kept in guard houses. I second Andy’s encouragement to read Hollandworth’s book. It’s a manageable book; in fact, you can probably read it in one or two sittings.

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  5. Karl Gottschalk

    Just as W.E.B. duBois and John Hope Franklin reclaimed African-American history from the Dunning School, it is heartening to see scholars stepping forward today to reclaim the contributions of African-American slaves and free men to the cause of the Confederacy from white scholars who think they are doing African Americans a favor by attempting to sweep such contributions under the rug in the name of political correctness. The Southern Confederacy could not have fought as long and hard as it did without the contributions of African Americans, slave and free alike, and it is time that this is recognized.

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    1. Kevin Levin Post author

      Who is “attempting to sweep such contributions under the rug in the name of political correctness”? No one denies that African Americans were essential to the Confederate war effort. The issue is how they contributed as well as their status. What a silly comment that once again fails to deal with anything substantial.

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    2. Andy Hall

      It is heartening to see scholars stepping forward today to reclaim the contributions of African-American slaves and free men to the cause of the Confederacy from white scholars who think they are doing African Americans a favor by attempting to sweep such contributions under the rug in the name of political correctness.

      Ludicrous. Serious academic historians (white and black) have been publishing on this subject, in all its complexity, for nearly a century, going all the way back to Charles Wesley and Bell Wiley, right down through James Brewer, Ervin Jordan, Bruce Levine, and Stephanie McCurry.

      Professor Stauffer’s talk yesterday, as Kevin describes it, seems to have been little more than a polished summary of the same oversimplifications and half-truths that are scattered across the web, with (1) no original information or interpretation added, nor (2) any attempt to evaluate or assess the material offered. I would expect more in terms of original research, frankly, from a talk given at a CW round table by some local history buff, than what Professor Stauffer reportedly gave yesterday at the Harvard Faculty Club. It seems a little embarrassing for all parties. — or should be, anyway.

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    3. Brooks Simpson

      I gather that Karl endorses John Stauffer’s talk, then. Do you think it’s good scholarship, Karl? Do you agree with his findings? What about his use of accounts that others have already examined and come away with a far different impression? Do you endorse his mishandling and misrepresentation of these accounts as sound scholarship, especially as he leaves the impression that he is aware that the very evidence he cites has been questioned? Or do you just endorse anything that fits your prejudices?

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  6. Karl Gottschalk

    Kevin, glad that you found my comment amusing. If the only argument is whether we call African-American contributors to the Confederate war effort “soldiers” then that is a very narrow discussion indeed. Far more interesting to me is the extent to which they contributed and why they did so. Perhaps Drew Gilpin Faust will write one of her celebrated monographs on this topic — seems like it would be right up her alley.

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    1. Kevin Levin Post author

      Given the gross distortions surrounding the presence of these men as body servants and impressed slaves I would suggest that it is much more important than you seem to think.

      You said: “Far more interesting to me is the extent to which they contributed and why they did so.”

      We agree. Slaves contributed quite a bit to building a southern agrarian economy before the war and they also contributed to the Confederate war effort as well. The latter grew out of the former.

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    2. Mike Musick

      Mr. Gottschalk refers to arguments over the meaning of “soldiers” as “a very narrow discussion indeed.” Narrow, however, is not synonymous with “unimportant.” If we ignore precise definitions, we are launched on a sea of subjectivity. The Confederacy followed the precedent set by the U.S. army following the War of 1812 in not enlisting blacks as armed soldiers, and did not change its policy until the war was almost over. The U.S. army, in contrast, changed its policy, and enlisted and armed African Americans much earlier, and by the tens of thousands. I have seen no credible documentation to suggest that anything approaching a significant number of blacks served the Confederacy as armed soldiers, the excellent study by the late Art Bergeron on Louisiana notwithstanding. One might argue that every human being is significant, but when writing on millions of individuals historians ordinarily and of necessity ignore numbers that are by almost any standard miniscule.

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      1. Kevin Levin Post author

        Mike,

        Nice to hear from you and thanks for adding your voice to this discussion. I am running out of steam. :-)

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  7. Karl Gottschalk

    Kevin, I think that you and I agree on many points. The idea that there were regiments of African-American soldiers fighting for the Confederacy is laughable, but the idea that African Americans made major contributions to the Confederate war effort, both on the battlefield and on the homefront, is a much more valid proposition, and should be fleshed out in detail from the historical record.

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    1. Kevin Levin Post author

      That is what I am attempting to do, Karl. In fact, I’ve made that point over and over. What I have a problem with is when those contributions are fabricated and distorted. I assume you have a problem with this as well.

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    2. Andy Hall

      There’s plenty of real scholarship on the role African Americans played in the Confederate war effort, though it’s still a very fertile ground for new examination.

      What needs pushback, though, is the way the “black Confederate” meme has been twisted and contorted by heritage groups, to fit a broader agenda to deflect attention away from the institution of slavery as central to the Confederacy. It is, in many respects, a continuation of the “faithful slave” narrative that has been promoted since the war itself, now brought up-to-date and outfitted as a soldier in a fresh, butternut uniform. The standard tropes about black Confederates really serve the larger purpose of pushing slavery off to one side, something black Confederate advocates can acknowledges was a Bad Thing in the abstract, but still insist it has no particular relevance to the Confederate military or to the war itself. Establishing the existence of black Confederate soldiers is important, then, because it allows its proponents to imagine an integrated, tolerant and progressive military effort, black and white brothers standing side-by-side, united in their patriotism and love of the South against the wicked Yankee invader, etc., etc.

      There are really two things about this approach that are, to me, revealing as to how shallow it really is. The first is that the loudest proponents of black Confederates seem to do very little to tell these mens’ stories in detail; they mainly focus on checking off new names as “black Confederates” and moving on to the next list.

      Second, they’re virtually silent on the tens of thousands of African Americans who were hired out by their owners — or rounded up under various conscription measures — and put to work building fortifications, digging trenches, and a hundred other activities to support the war effort. The black Confederate advocates are all too happy to boast about Weary Clyburn or Holt Collier or Bill Yopp, but anyone who’s looked at the period knows that those stories are far, far outnumbered by those of (mostly anonymous) laborers, whose involuntary and coerced contributions to the Confederate war effort were enormous, but whose service cannot possibly be twisted to fit the chosen image of dedicated and willing patriots so central to heritage groups’ chosen historical narrative.

      Reply
      1. Karl Gottschalk

        Andy, would you say that Gates and Stauffer are promoting and doing “real scholarship”, or do you think they are twisting the Black Confederate meme as you describe above? Or do you think they are just misguided? Curious minds want to know.

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        1. Kevin Levin Post author

          Can you point to any serious scholarship conducted by Stauffer or Gates? I know of nothing. Curious minds want to know.

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          1. Karl Gottschalk

            What an odd question. I was asking Andy his opinion, not expressing my own. You should read more carefully. In any case, Gates is probably the most prominent African-American public intellectual in America and has authored and edited dozens of books, many touching on African-American history–you can look it up. And I believe that Stauffer is the proud author of a tome on the well-known Free County of Jones. But do correct me if I’m wrong!

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            1. Kevin Levin Post author

              But what does this have to do with the issue of black Confederates? Perhaps you can point us to their publications that bear on this particular subject. I am well aware of their respective CVs and I’ve read one of Stauffer’s books.

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              1. Karl Gottschalk

                Gee, and here I thought your question was “Can you point to any serious scholarship conducted by Stauffer or Gates?” Perhaps you should have asked what you meant to ask. I know of no scholarship by these folks on this topic, and am still not sure what your question has to do with my question to Andy.

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        2. Andy Hall

          From what I’ve seen, neither of them have shown any close familiarity with the source material, or have looked at the evidence in a hard way. They’re both serious academics, but in this case they’re simply repeating tropes and dubious claims long made by others. A lawyer would say they’re not doing “due diligence” on the topic.

          That’s what’s troublesome to me about both men — their names and positions lend credence to the meme, without any indication that they themselves have done much more on the subject than click around the web.

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  8. Rondina Muncy

    I would think that if a soldier, no matter what color, could be shown through the use of original documentation to have been mustered in, then that would acceptable proof. No enlistment, no muster roll, no pension–not a soldier. This does not dispute that some black men were put in the position of fighting for the Confederacy, but does delineate whether they could be called a soldier.

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    1. Kevin Levin Post author

      You are correct. The bigger issue, however, is that the status of southern blacks in the Confederacy was dictated by a culture that was rooted in slavery and white supremacy. Beyond the question of whether individual blacks managed to serve as soldiers there is the more interesting question of what their presence meant to themselves as well as to white southerners.

      Reply
  9. Rondina Muncy

    Kevin, I was addressing the “proper definition of a soldier.” Perhaps you would remain rooted in a debate over the conceptualization of what a soldier is. What a man thought of himself or his family and community believed of him or what oral history dictates–this is opinion. If I want to know whether a man was enlisted I look at the records.

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    1. Kevin Levin Post author

      Rondina,

      Make no mistake, I am also interested in what the unit records tell us about their racial profiles. In that regard, however, we already know that there were very few blacks enlisted as soldiers. One of the ways we know this is through accounts of light-skinned blacks being drummed out of service once their identity became known. I was simply pointing out that the employment of slaves in various capacities provides historians with an opportunity to explore the master-slave dynamic in a new environment.

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  10. Will Hickox

    “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.”

    How can they reconcile this with the tradition of heroic Southern yeomen defending their hearths and women from the Yankee vandal hordes?

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  11. Donald Shaffer

    Karl Gottschalk needs to be careful about citing Stauffer’s book with Sally Jenkins on the Kingdom of Jones as evidence of his authority as a scholar. This is a work that arguably should be described as historical fiction masquerading as straight history. Vikki Bynum has taken apart Stauffer and Jenkins for this book and rightly so (http://renegadesouth.wordpress.com/tag/john-stauffer/) and Kevin also has provided a good critique on this work (http://cwmemory.com/2009/07/30/a-statement-about-the-state-of-jones-dispute/).

    As indicated before, I find it sad that the most prestigious university in America is giving Stauffer credibility as a tenured member of its faculty.

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      1. Donald Shaffer

        Skip Gates is a distinguished scholar, but a fallible human being like us all. Some of things he’s done of late are questionable. As Stauffer is a tenured member of the faculty and working on a subject that Gates’ specializes in and oversees as a program at Harvard, Gates no doubt has little choice but to give Stauffer a soapbox. I’d be curious what sort of relationship Gates has with Stauffer and his candid opinion of the man’s work. If I could invite him over to my house for a beer to discuss the matter, like Obama, I would.

        I also suppose we should all remember that John Stauffer is not a historian per se, but comes from English and literature, where the line between fact and rhetoric has gotten blurry in recent decades.

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        1. Kevin Levin Post author

          I would agree, Don. In fact, the end of Stauffer’s talk was not a recap of his conclusions and methods, but a drawn out literary critique that went way over my head. I still have no idea what point he was trying to make and I made it a point to listen as carefully as possible.

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        2. Karl Gottschalk

          So, Skip Gates is a”distinguished scholar” except when he disagrees with you — then he’s a “fallible human being”==sure thing, Donald.

          By the way, the exchange you link to on Stauffer’s book looks to me more like a catfight among historians than a serious academic critique. In fact, this kind of exchange contributes mightily to the public’s growing disregard of history and historians and the gradual disappearance of the Liberal Arts in academe..

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          1. Kevin Levin Post author

            You are putting words into Don’s mouth. That’s not the point he is making. Read it again. As far as I am aware, Gates has not done any research on this subject. Once again are you aware of anything that would be relevant to this subject? It’s a simple question.

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            1. Karl Gottschalk

              Is there something you didn’t understand in my answer above that causes you to ask this question again? Or did you just not see my answer above? Or have you forgotten that I have already answered this question?

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          2. Donald Shaffer

            Just to clarify, I was speaking of Gates’ actions not his scholarship. To whit, losing his cool with the cop who mistook him for an intruder in his own home. Also, for not challenging the heritage group on his PBS show. However, I can see how I might have made the same mistakes as Gates under similar circumstances. A person can be a fallible human being and a great scholar–the profession is full of them.

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          3. Donald Shaffer

            P.S. I might add that Bynum’s dispute with Stauffer and Jenkins was not your typical academic “catfight,” which is usually a dispute over interpretation not facts. To oversimplify, Vikki Bynum basically called out Stauffer and Jenkins for making up evidence. For putting words into the mouths of real people, when they didn’t have documentary evidence those real people ever said those things. I seem to recall it was fabricating evidence that got Michael Bellesiles’ tenure revoked at Emory. The cases are not exactly the same, but similar enough that it’s worth mentioning. I’m sure Stauffer believed he was taking literary license, but if that is true he shouldn’t have presented his and Jenkins’ book as history, but as historical fiction.

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            1. Karl Gottschalk

              So, are you saying that Harvard should fire Stauffer? Or is it your position that Harvard just has more lax academic standards than Emory does?

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              1. Donald Shaffer

                Like I said, I think the cases are similar but not the same. I don’t think Stauffer should be at Harvard, but Michael Bellesiles would likely still be at Emory if he hadn’t ticked off the National Rifle Association. They were the ones that called into question whether his evidence existed leading to a formal investigation and pressured Emory’s administration to revoke his tenure. Stauffer merely had Vikki Bynum critique his work, and while Bynum is a terrific scholar, she doesn’t have the money, power, and ability to generate fear like the NRA. Which allows the dispute to be characterized as just another silly scholarly squabble instead of a distinguished topic expert proving a professor from a top university arguably perpetrated what amounts to scholarly fraud.

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                1. Karl Gottschalk

                  Sounds like maybe you think Bellesiles should not have been let go by Emory, but that Stauffer should have been fired by Harvard? “.Scholarly fraud?” Apparently Skip Gates doesn’t think so. Wonder what Drew Gilpin Faust’s take is? As a Civil War historian, she should be aware of this controversy, wouldn’t you think? And as President of Harvard, if she suspected fraud she would be in a position to do something about it.

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                  1. Kevin Levin Post author

                    Karl and Don,

                    Thank you both for your comments, but I am uncomfortable with this thread about Stauffer and academic integrity. It really has little to do with the substance of this post.

                    Reply
  12. FWT

    Stauffer and Gates are both serious scholars, and I hope you will welcome them respectfully to this debate. I think it’s also more than a bit patronizing to suggest that Gates was somehow tricked into believing a deception by the SCV during his Lincoln documentary. Rather, he only approached their claims with an open and curious mind and generally resisted making a judgment that either affirmed or attacked them. There’s nothing wrong in going to “see what the noise is about” and hoping others will discuss and scrutinize it further.

    On the subject of academic Civil War historians though, I do think you understate the general consensus of hostility that exists around the topic. Even when the McPherson types acknowledge there were a handful of blacks who made it into the Confederate ranks , it’s almost always done begrudgingly after being pressed and treated dismissively. It usually comes across like this: “well, I suppose there might have been a few here and there, but nothing important or worth discussing any further,” and is followed by a blanket denunciation of the “Black Confederate Myth.”

    I think what scholars like Gates and Stauffer are saying is this (1) yes – we should discuss them further, (2) yes – even if they’re just “a few,” it is an important issue to research and understand them if we want anything even resembling a truthful picture of the issue, and (3) it’s a fairly big self-contradiction to say “sure, there were a few” in one sentence and then call it all a “myth” in the next.

    They also raise an important point about the McPherson crowd. Their fundamentally dismissive approach is nothing new, and in fact it’s been taken to task by other academic historians before in published, peer reviewed presses long before the age of blogging.

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    1. Kevin Levin Post author

      Thanks for the comment. I welcome anyone to this debate who is serious. Both Stauffer and Gates certainly have the ability to contribute something meaningful to the discussion. I have never suggested otherwise. The problem is that Stauffer’s contribution in his talk yesterday doesn’t get us very far and even confuses some fundamental issues. Other than that I don’t know of anything produced by Gates or Stauffer that adds much of anything to the discussion. Are you aware of a relevant publication? Second, I never suggested that Gates made a mistake by attending the Weary Clyburn ceremony. What I am suggesting, however, is that Gates apparently did little to follow up on the history of Clyburn. I also suggested that perhaps he left believing that Clyburn was, in fact, a Confederate soldier.

      I think Civil War scholars “begrudgingly” admit to a few soldiers because they understand why this narrative is being pushed so hard. I have always admitted that there were probably a few, but that is only to admit that racial profiling was often very difficult throughout this period. For an excellent book on this I suggest reading Martha Sandweiss’s Passing Strange. I support any research that helps us to better understand the racial profile of Confederate armies. Always have and always will.

      By the way, LLH’s reference is a strawman argument. Find me a historian who actually says that not one black man served openly as a soldier in the Confederate army.

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      1. FWT

        I’m certain some here will try to excuse away McPherson’s well known “It’s pure fantasy” quip about Black Confederates to the Wall Street Journal, but the simple truth is blanket statements like that are much closer to an outright denial than an begrudging concession of “a few.”

        McPherson either meant to convey an outright denial, or he spoke carelessly. In either case though, it makes Hewitt’s characterization accurate.

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        1. Kevin Levin Post author

          I will leave you to obsess about James McPherson. Let me know when you approach is understanding of the relevant primary and secondary sources and perhaps I will care. He is absolutely in line with recent scholarship when describing the black Confederate narrative as “pure fantasy”. Advocates of it don’t simply claim that one or two existed because that will not get them to their preferred conclusion, which really has nothing to do with black service at all. Their goal is to distance the Confederacy from slavery.

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          1. FWT

            McPherson’s an “eminent scholar” of the civil war, is he not? If that’s the case then his opinion carries a lot of weight. And if he’s choosing his words on this topic carelessly, he’s only contributing to the ways in which it is misconstrued.

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            1. Kevin Levin Post author

              Like I said, I don’t believe he is being careless. Historians such as Robert Krick, who is one of the foremost authorities on the Army of Northern Virginia has basically made the same point.

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    2. Will Hickox

      “…it’s a fairly big self-contradiction to say “sure, there were a few” in one sentence and then call it all a “myth” in the next.”

      No contradiction there. The myth is that large numbers of blacks willingly served in the Confederate Army as soldiers.

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      1. FWT

        Then you need to specifically say that the “myth” is with the large numbers claim. Otherwise it is a contradiction, and every bit as misleading as the worst of the worst SCV Geocities websites.

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        1. Kevin Levin Post author

          Perhaps you should take the time to read more of what I’ve written on this subject. I have been consistent throughout.

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  13. Matt Gallman

    Kevin

    It would be interesting to have you say more about what Stauffer was trying to accomplish in this talk. I am particularly interested in the extended literary analysis that you describe as concluding the talk. (Needless to say, talks often end with the key conclusions that the speaker is trying to bring out.) My guess is that a lunchtime talk like this was probably an opportunity to try out new ideas rather than the occasion for presenting completed conclusions. [I don't know Stauffer at all and have paid no attention to his dustup with Bynum.]

    I’m particularly interested in this talk, because it dovetails with some things I’ve been working on. Just finished reading The Liberator for the war years. There are MANY references to blacks fighting for the Confederacy, and many other discussions of the possibility that they will fight for the Union and/or the observation that it was not 100% obvious to all which side offered the best opportunities for the future. This, then, is a really interesting discourse – largely within the free black community – about the nature of loyalty and the choices that people might make in the face of oppressors of different sorts.

    Is it possible that Stauffer is most interest in engaging with the contemporary black discourse about purported black Confederates, and what that discourse tells us about their own notions of identity? That printed discourse, which was almost exclusively among free northern blacks (and white abolitionists) was not really very contingent on the empirical issues about the number of black Confederate soldiers or even how we should define what a soldier is. The interpretive question in that conversation really is more interested in how – and why – contemporaries made these statements. We know Douglass’s famous statement was factually incorrect, but that doesn’t make it uninteresting or unimportant as a piece of that wartime discussion.

    So, could you offer more about what Stauffer was actually trying to convey in a theoretical and interpretive sense?

    Reply
    1. Kevin Levin Post author

      Hi Matt,

      Nice to hear from you. I wish I could recall his concluding remarks, but they just didn’t stick at all. I may have been so worked up by much of his analysis that it may have been difficult for me to concentrate after 35 minutes. You may want to contact him to see if he might be willing to share it with you. He didn’t seem to be in any hurry to publish it or continue work on the subject. You said:

      “Is it possible that Stauffer is most interest in engaging with the contemporary black discourse about purported black Confederates, and what that discourse tells us about their own notions of identity?” I think that is exactly what he is interested in and I should have made that point in my post. The problem was that he didn’t do much to flesh it out; rather, he got stuck on individual accounts such as John Parker and how it is somehow representative of these men.

      I’ve seen some of the same accounts from The Liberator so I can’t wait to see what you come up with in terms of what they tell us about black loyalty. I completely agree with you that this question is much more important than anything having to do with whether there were a certain number of black Confederates. In fact, there really was very little need for him to make any claim about whether these men existed in certain numbers.

      I am really sorry that I can’t be more helpful. Unfortunately, I’ve never been very good at listening to people read long papers.

      Reply
  14. Allan

    Great post, but I must object to the misuse of the phrase “statistically insignificant”. What statistical test are you applying, in which a point estimate of 3000 black soldiers cannot reject the null hypothesis of zero black soldiers at a 95% level of confidence? [I'm not arguing that there were any black soldiers, but if there were none, it's because 3000 is a measurement error, not because that number is "statistically insignificant".]

    Reply
    1. Kevin Levin Post author

      You will have to ask Stauffer what he meant given that I was quoting him. As far as I can tell he hasn’t applied anything that vaguely resembles a statistical test.

      Reply
    2. Matt McKeon

      Forgive the use of technical terms, but when Dr. Stauffer used the term, “three to ten thousand” he was, mathematically, pulling numbers out of his ass. If pressed, I doubt he could explain why he used those numbers instead of the equally precise “a whole lot” or “scads and scads” or made an argument whether it was closer to three or ten thousand.

      Reply
      1. Kevin Levin Post author

        In our discussion after the talk he pretty much admitted as much. I suggested that there is really no reason to get into the numbers game when you don’t even have a coherent definition of what constituted a Confederate soldier. Unfortunately, both Gates and Stauffer needed to be reminded of this.

        Reply
  15. Sherree

    I am late to this discussion, Kevin, yet would like to add a few observations, if I may.

    Hopefully, the issue of “black Confederates” will be successfully wrested from the faithful slave narrative and all derivatives thereof, and also from counter narratives that have, by necessity, arisen to debunk the black confederate myth of slaves who chose to fight to remain enslaved. The real history is not only powerfully resonant and critical to the narrative of our nation, it is also much more interesting.

    Case in point:

    One of my ancestors was in a battle in which USCT troops were involved, and in which USCT troops were murdered. Yet, after the Civil War, he began a lifelong friendship with a black man which resulted in my family’s connection to the African American community of our area to this day. This is remarkable, given that this ancestor fought on the side of the Confederacy, and that many other white men in the post war years did quite the opposite. What did this one man learn as he faced USCT troops? Certainly, it seems, he learned, at the very least, that they were men and that they were soldiers, which, translated after the war, apparently and conceivably, into his understanding that southern black men who had been slaves yet who stayed in the South after the CW were also men, if he did not know that already. To me, this is what I think when you speak of the real narratives that we need to reveal, address, write, and celebrate. As I have said to you before, those in the South who were given the privilege of being a part of the black community always knew who held the high moral ground. And that ground was held by the African American community because the arc of the moral universe does indeed bend toward justice. The ACW did change the master/slave relationship in every way, including, of course, by ultimately ending slavery. Each side—Confederate and Union—knew that they had to have the black man to win. Even the Confederacy figured that out, but too late (thankfully) Your scholarship and blogging, and that of Brooks, Andy, Vikki, Don, Robert, and so many others is paying off. Even Harvard is paying attention.

    Reply
  16. Tom Ward

    Kevin, a great topic and discussion.

    A couple of things that I think are relevant to this discussion–as it applies to both Staffuer’s talk and the issues of “Black Confederates” as whole–seem to need elaboration. First, is this issue of the “symbolic value” of these alleged Black Confederates. Is the symbolic value that 3,000-10,000 African Americans served as Confederate soldiers? Putting aside the issues that have already come up in the thread of what defines a soldier and where the hell he came up with such absurd numbers (10,00o? really?), is, even if true (!), what does it mean? We certainly know that thousands of slaves were pressed into service for the Confederate forces, and many were at or near the front lines. If, for argument’s sake, some raised arms against the Yankees (either because they were forced to by their owners or whomever was in charge of them, were defending themselves in the chaos of a firefight, or because they believed they were defending their homes and families (as the ne0-Confederate argument holds), it doesn’t matter. They were slaves–they did as they were forced to do.

    Secondly, an issue that is always overlooked is the concept of who exactly was “black.” We operate in this country on the “1-drop rule”–that anyone with one drop of black blood is black, but that identification does not always fit, and certainly does not in this debate over “Black Confederates.” This issue is particularly relevant in the case of the Louisiana Native Guards (none whom would have identified themselves as either “black” or “Negro”; they were creoles, coloreds, mulattoes, octroons, quadroons–”Gens de Color Libre”). All were free, and some even owned slaves. To make a blanket statement about “Black Confederates” is therefore totally misleading and inadequate. Is the free son of a wealthy planter and his slave, who “looks white” and goes with daddy and his white brothers to fight, really “black” in the same way a slave is? Are these the types of men who fell into Stauffer’s 3,000-10,000? What symbolic value would Stauffer attach to them?

    Finally, this “debate” over Black Confederates always seems to be framed in the motivations of the Black Confederate soldier, with the neo-Confederate argument being that “if blacks fought for the Confederacy, then the war could not be about slavery.” But as Kevin rightfully points out, “Any discussion of how blacks fit into the Confederate army must begin with an understanding of how they were perceived by their fellow whites.” The Confederate government forbid the enlistment of any blacks into the military (until the last days of the war). That is the relevant issue. To arm black men–free or slave, willing or unwilling–was not only terrifying to most Southern whites, it was anathema to Confederate ideology of white supremacy, as to make the slave a soldier was to acknowledge him as a man and an equal.

    Sorry for the long post. I went out for a run right after reading your blog (though the trenches of Spanish Fort, where U.S.C.T. fought all-white defenders of Mobile in 1865) and had a lot of time to think about it.

    Hope Boston is treating you well–it sounds as if it is if you are already hanging out at Harvard’s Faculty Club!

    Reply
    1. Kevin Levin Post author

      Hi Tom,

      It’s great to hear from you. As I mentioned in a previous comment I think Stauffer is interested in the symbolic value that reports of black Confederates held for Douglass and other writers in the North during the early stages of the war. The problem is that Stauffer never pushed forward to analyze this to any great extent. To be honest, I had difficulty following his argument throughout the talk, which is why I am hoping the video of his presentation will be made available soon. The distinction between an impressed slave and soldier was completely lost on Stauffer. You make an excellent point about the issue of race, which I’ve raised over and over on this site. One of the reasons we know that blacks enlisted is through accounts that reference the removal of these men once their racial identity was exposed. Of course, that leaves open the possibility that others did serve on a very small scale for whatever reason.

      As to your last point during the Q&A I asked why no one has come across a letter or diary from a Confederate soldier pointing out the presence of black comrades. Gates tried to suggest that Confederate soldiers would have no reason for doing so, which makes absolutely no sense when you pluck the question out of the historical context. Given antebellum laws against the arming of African Americans such a sight would have attracted a great deal of attention. Confederates commented in great detail about black Union soldiers one would think that at least one would mention black Confederate soldiers.

      Great to hear from you. Unfortunately, it doesn’t look like I am going to make it to the Southern this year. My year off from teaching comes with a tighter budget. Send our best to Margaret. Next time you are in Boston we will hang at the Harvard Faculty Club. I should be able to get back in. :-)

      Reply
    2. Ray O'Hara

      The 1 drop rule prevailed in the South especially back in those days.
      It is the underlying issue in the musical Showboat, a great movie if you’ve never seen it.

      the CSA kept records of unit rolls and they survived the war, yet even with those records no one has been able to name a single Black Confederate, odd all the records of the White Soldiers survived but none for the Black soldiers.

      as for an occasional slave picking up a gun, I’d point to the Stockholm Syndrome. Slaves that went off to war with their Officer who owned them were trusted and well treated compared to a common field hand. In the heat and confusion of battle that one might pick up a gun to defend his master is not surprising. I would imagine T.J.Jackson’s Slave “Old” Jim would have defended Stonewall even to the point of his life.

      As I see it the issue isn’t to uncover an interesting historical tidbit, the BCM is being driven by a modern political agenda to change what the war was about., basically “how could the war have been about slavery when Slaves fought for the CSA?” and that sentiment is the problem

      Reply
  17. Lisa Laskin

    Hi Kevin,
    Thanks for this good review. I’d have liked to have been there! Couple of thoughts . . .

    Stauffer’s background is in literature. That doesn’t excuse his shallow treatment of the topic, but perhaps answers the question as to why he is tenured here, as a professor of English and of African and African-American Studies, not history. At Harvard, AAAS is rather distinct – for better or for worse- from the History Dept. There are cross-appts. but Stauffer isn’t one of them. In fact, there is not much teaching of the CW here right now, probably because the main CW historian here is otherwise occupied.

    It is too bad she wasn’t there, because I think she’d have had some very interesting things to say, and as important as Southern heritage is to her, I think she’d have supported your position.

    I am also mystified as to why he takes up this topic. I would have liked

    Reply
    1. Kevin Levin Post author

      Hi Lisa,

      Thanks for taking the time to comment. I assume you are referring to Drew Faust? Unfortunately, I didn’t get the sense that there were any historians in the room. Hey, I did get to hang in the Harvard Faculty Club and that was pretty cool.

      Reply
      1. Lisa Laskin

        Yes, Drew is about as serious a CW scholar as they come, I guess, but other than her there are not a lot of folks doing that stuff here. I hope she sticks around when she steps down as Pres. because we have had a void since Bill Gienapp passed away.

        Reply
        1. Kevin Levin Post author

          As I said, the absence of anyone from the history department was noticeable. Over the weekend I caught one of Gates’s PBS specials where he follows a celebrity’s family tree back as far as possible. One interview was with Malcolm Gladwell and at one point Gates discovered that an ancestor of his owned slaves. Gates asked him how he felt about that, but the question was asked without any context or analysis of who these people were as well as how Gladwell’s ancestor became a slaveowner. He loves stories that smack again our popular accounts or assumptions about the past.

          Reply
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  19. BLACKMAN

    As a black man I find this discussion very interesting. While doing research on my family history, I found that some of my ancestors were “FREE,” prior to the Revolutionary War, many of them could read and write and owned land. There were thousands of FREE Blacks prior to the Civil War. I also came across a document where a group of southern FREE Blacks viewing the North as a threat to their states rights offered to fight against them.

    Whether or not some White southerner decided to call them a “soldier,” or whether they viewed themselves as “confederates,” or just FREE southerners doesn’t mean a ball of crap. If I am a Union soldier and I look across the battlefield and the guy shooting at me is Black then guess what, a Black dude is fighting for the Confederate army. Its really as simple as that.

    Only a small percentage of Whites in the south owned slaves according to W.E.B. DuBois. Enslaved Blacks competed for manual labor with poor Whites who made up the majority of Southerners. Yet the poor Whites were fighting in the interest of the wealthy Whites who owned slaves and against their own interests and in many cases that continues today.

    Even in recent times you have iconoclastic situations where Blacks are members of the Tea Party and conservative Republican groups. And while they receive no official recognition, does that mean we will say 200 years from now that they were only cleaning up the rooms and fixing meals for Republicans?

    During World War II, the Tuskegee Airmen were kept in segregated quarters and prevented from joining the war effort for the most part of the war. Later they distinguished themselves and still they could not sit in the White quarters or were considered “soldiers,” by many Whites in the military. Would we say that they were not soldiers?

    Writing history is simple, but living it is quite different and subtle. Everything is not in Black or White when living…no pun intended. The relationships between Blacks and Whites then were just as complex as they are now and crossed lines all the time.

    Does this mean that there were thousands of Black confederates? I sincerely doubt it. Does this mean that there were thousands of enslaved Blacks and FREE Blacks who fought against the North, regardless of how Whites defined them? I have seen enough research to say so.

    If you look at the former British Empire, one of their regular ploys was to create and use troops from the nations they conquered against their own people. This strategy goes back thousands of years and ain’t nothing changed but the weather.

    Blacks fought in the Revolutionary War on both sides and they were not fighting so some White man might call them “soldier,” or to be “American.” They were fighting on both sides for the same thing FREEDOM.

    Reply
    1. Kevin Levin Post author

      Thanks so much for taking the time to comment. You said: “Does this mean that there were thousands of enslaved Blacks and FREE Blacks who fought against the North, regardless of how Whites defined them? I have seen enough research to say so.”

      It depends what you mean by “fought against the North.” Thousands of African Americans were certainly utilized by the Confederate government/military in various capacities, but they were not considered to be or treated as soldiers.

      Reply
    2. Ray O'Hara

      Can you name any. the CSA records survived the war and those who fought for the CSA are known. But all we ever get on the Black Confederates is anecdotal stories and when a name actually surfaces closer examination finds that they weren’t soldiers but “personal Servants”{slaves} taken along by their owner and if Southern Whiutes were so accepting before the war why did Jim Crow land so quickly after it?

      As for “only a small percentage of Southerners owned Slaves” that is called”factual lying”.
      Is not the wife of the plantation owner also a slave owner:? are not his Children? Are you Married? would you dare tell your wife she doesn’t own the house you live in? are your children free-loading interlopers?

      Reply
    3. Michael Douglas

      ” I also came across a document where a group of southern FREE Blacks viewing the North as a threat to their states rights offered to fight against them.”

      Would you mind citing some of the sources you’ve used in your research, such as the above-mentioned document? I’d be interested in checking some of these myself. Like you, I trace part of my ancestry back to free blacks and “mulattoes” who lived in Virginia and North Carolina dating from the colonial period (in fact, it’s possible that we are related if you’ve Artis, Tyler, Bass, Anderson or Weaver ancestors from the region).

      Now, in the case of my families, they left North Carolina as laws and culture became more restrictive and draconian regarding people of color in the period leading up to the War. My g-g-g- grandfather and his brothers eventually joined the USCT in Indiana and Michigan. According to my family’s oral tradition, they “got out [of NC] while the gittin’ was good.”

      I’m interested in learning about any free blacks who stayed to fight for the Confederacy. Would you mind sharing your sources? Thanks!

      Reply
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  22. Evan

    I just came across this post while searching for something else. You’re right, it is foolish to compare coercion in a volunteer army to slavery. Does most of your (and, implicitly, my) discomfort about this argument come down to who is making the claim of Black Confederates? I would be much more interested in African Americans under the umbrella of the Confederate Army if it wasn’t so closely tied up with Lost Cause ideas about faithful slaves, dastardly Yankees, and what the war was over. On the other hand, I’m cautious not to assume that all African Americans sensed the conflict in the same way, predicted the same outcome, and took the same actions. I think you’re rightfully cautious to disclaim that some number of African Americans were in the Confederate Army “for one reason or another.” The unfortunate connotations around Black Confederates limits what could be a very interesting discussion of irony. Anyway, a belated thanks for a good post.

    Best,
    Evan

    Reply

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