Dear Professor Gates

Correction: One of my readers noticed some very sloppy writing in this post that I wish to acknowledge and correct. I wrote that the SCV did not reference Clyburn as a slave, which is untrue. Interviews with members do include such a reference. What I should have said was that there was no clear reference to his status in the brief clips that show the actual ceremony. Even Earl Ijames references Clyburn as a slave, but like the SCV their  language is unclear and inconsistent, which was the point I was trying to make. The crucial distinction between a soldier and slave has all but been lost in all of this.  Thanks to the reader for keeping me honest and I apologize for the confusion.

I wanted to share some thoughts with you about last week’s talk by John Stauffer on black Confederates.  I had a number of problems with his presentation, which you can read here.  One of the questions I’ve had since the talk is why the W.E.B. DuBois Institute would be interested in such a subject and then I remembered that you have had some exposure with this narrative, most recently while filming your PBS documentary, Looking For Lincoln.  As a former high school history teacher I want to thank you for this series.  At the time I was teaching a course on the Civil War and historical memory so the show fit in perfectly.  My class was able to watch individual segments as a basis for further discussion or other activity.  We all thoroughly enjoyed it.

During Professor Stauffer’s talk you referenced the series and your surprise at finding yourself in the middle of a ceremony to honor an African American as a Confederate soldier.  Your brief comment, however, did not indicate that you were aware of the history that went into the verification of this individual as an enlisted soldier.  If you are then I apologize, but for what it’s worth I thought it might be helpful to review this case.  [You can watch the video by clicking here.  Scroll down to "Lincoln and the Beginning of the Civil War" and begin at the 4:22.]

The individual who was honored was Weary Clyburn.  Clyburn was a cook for his master, Frank Clyburn, who served in the 12th South Carolina.  He was one among thousands of slaves who were forced to follow their owners into the army.  There is no evidence that Clyburn ever held the rank of soldier.  There is no evidence that he ever thought of himself as a soldier and there is certainly no evidence that any white soldiers believed him to be a soldier.  His obituary makes this perfectly clear.  We also have a pension application from the North Carolina Department of Archives and History, which was submitted by his wife after Clyburn’s death.  It makes clear that he was not a soldier.  The Sons of Confederate Veterans chose to honor Clyburn as a soldier and not once referenced his true status.  This is nothing less than a gross distortion of the past that unfortunately involved his descendants and it is being repeated on an alarming basis.  The fruits of their work can be seen in the controversy surrounding the inclusion of a reference to an entire division of black Confederate soldiers under the command of Stonewall Jackson in a Virginia 4th grade textbook.

In attendance that day was an archivist from NCDAH by the name of Earl Ijames.  He has claimed to have done extensive research on this subject, but to this day has failed to publish anything in a scholarly journal.  Ijames carried out the “research” for Clyburn, but because he has not published his findings it is impossible to pin down where he stands and I suspect this created sufficient room for the SCV to conduct their charade in Raleigh.  I was sorry to see that you referenced Mr. Ijames in a footnote in one of your recent books.  Imagine my surprise when I was asked to respond to this fn in a recent interview on The Takeaway radio show.   I have followed up on many of Ijames’s claims by going to the archival sources with the help of his fellow employees at the NCDAH, who are also frustrated by his public statements.  Not one case has pointed to the existence of an enlisted soldier.  As I tried to point out to Professor Stauffer last week – definitions matter.  White southerners were very clear in defining the proper scope of what it meant to be a soldier.  They were consistent from the beginning to the end of the war and their public debate over the recruitment of slaves as soldiers in 1864-65 underscores the cultural importance of that definition.

Finally, I want to state that the dismissal of some of the more extravagant claims about black Confederates by Civil War scholars such as James McPherson has nothing to do with not wanting to soil an emancipationist narrative of the war.  The insinuation smacks of an ad homenim attack and fails to acknowledge the amount of work that McPherson and other scholars have done in this particular field.  Ask anyone who has spent considerable time in the records of Confederate armies (Gary Gallagher, Robert K. Krick, Ken Noe, Peter Carmichael, J. Tracy Power, John Hennessy, to name just a few) and they will tell you pretty much the same thing.

The only question I really have is whether your understanding of this subject goes beyond the work of Ijames and an SCV ceremony.  If so, I would love a reference list of primary and secondary sources.  I don’t mind admitting that right now I am operating under the assumption that the best Civil War scholarship has shown that apart from a few exceptions African Americans did not serve as soldiers in Confederate armies.

In the end, Professor Stauffer failed to add anything new to this field of study.

27 thoughts on “Dear Professor Gates

  1. Arleigh Birchler

    I watched that show in Professor Gates series on “Looking for Lincoln”. I think I saw the entire series. My memory is poor, but I do not remember him (or anyone else) saying that Weary Clyburn was “enlisted”. I am sure that it is likely that someone in the segment may have said that, but it did not impress me and I do not recall it. It did impress me that Professor Gates was willing to even mention a subject as controversial as this one. I think that showed courage and honesty on his side.

    I realize that you think that I believe or promote the idea that there were thousands of African=Americans enlisted in the Confederate Army. I do not and never have. I do believe that the South could never have continued the struggle as long as they did without the work of African=Americans, no matter what their motivation might have been. I see this as an affirmation of African=Americans, and not espousing any political or social ideology.

    The thing that makes me very angry is when people try to use the War Between the States as “proof” that their ideas about twenty-first century are the right and noble truths. I most see this in folks from “Southern Heritage” groups, but also from folks on the other side. The “Civil War” happened 150 years ago. Even in the years right after the end of the War folks switched sides and political parties. Some of the greatest Confederate heros became Republicans and supporters of the US government. The issues today are very different then they were then. Theology has continued to progress.

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    1. Kevin Levin Post author

      Gates intentionally steered clear of making judgments throughout the series and that is what makes the series valuable. He was interested in surveying how various individuals and groups remember Lincoln. I have absolutely no problem with that. The video in the post clearly shows that that SCV believed Clyburn to be a soldier. Just listen to the language used. I am simply asking about the scope of Professor Gates’s understanding of this subject.

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  2. Ray O'Hara

    unfortunately I was unable to make Stauffer’s talk so I was unable to ask him this question.
    How would you grade a student’s work if they based their case on an unsourced second hand report?

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  3. Eaker

    “He has claimed to have done extensive research on this subject, but to this day has failed to publish anything in a scholarly journal.”

    Funny. Could not the exact same thing be said about you, Kevin? And most of the other bloggers here who share your view?

    If you have research to publish in something a little more prestigious than a personal blog then by all means show your cards. But don’t nitpick others on a test you can’t even pass yourself.

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    1. Eaker

      I should also mention that Weary Clyburn’s status as a slave was NOT concealed at the time the marker was placed on his grave, despite your repeated insinuations otherwise.

      In fact, it was stated out in the open in the second sentence of the news story about it. The same news story Earl Ijames was quoted in.

      http://www.news-record.com/content/2008/07/17/article/colored_confederate_has_his_day_in_monroe

      “Mattie Clyburn Rice of High Point will take part in an unusual ceremony today, but then, she’s an unusual woman.

      She’s the 87-year-old daughter of Weary Clyburn, a “colored Confederate,” a slave who served in the Civil War.”

      Nor did the SCV official they interviewed dispute he was a slave. In fact he even stated what most historians acknowledge about black confederates:

      “Rice feels the same. That’s why she’s agreed to allow the Sons of Confederate Veterans and the town of Monroe to honor her father’s memory this afternoon.

      SCV officials say it’s rare for their organization to pay tribute to a former slave. “They are few and far between,” Michael Chapman, commander of an SCV group near Monroe, said of today’s ceremony.

      Contrast that directly with what you claimed above in your letter to Gates:

      “The Sons of Confederate Veterans chose to honor Clyburn as a soldier and not once referenced his true status.”

      Your claim about the SCV, it would seem, is inaccurate, though only you can tell if that inaccuracy is willful or by mistake.

      Throughout the rest of the interview Ijames also repeatedly identifies Clyburn as a slave and relates a story about how “Weary carried his master off the field under fire” – not the type of language you’d use if you were trying to pass Weary Clyburn off as free despite the fact that he was a slave.

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      1. Kevin Levin Post author

        I linked to some of those same stories at the time of the ceremony, but can you point to any point in the ceremony itself where Clyburn was referenced as a slave? One speaker does reference that Clyburn rescued his master while another SCV representative suggested that thousands of slaves and free blacks served in the ranks. It’s incredibly confusing and lacks any consistency. Clyburn did not “serve” in the Confederate army if by serve you mean as a soldier. It seems to me that the SCV is playing loose with the historical record. Is the SCV really now in the business of honoring slaves as slaves? There were thousands of slaves who functioned as body servants and tens of thousands more that were worked through impressment laws. This is no new discovery. What possible reason might the SCV have for focusing on Clyburn apart from the rhetoric of the loyal slave who saved his master from harm’s way?
        Why is it that so many of these stories include rescue stories?

        You are correct that Clyburn was referenced as a slave so that is sloppy writing on my part. Again, what I am trying to get at, however, is that the language being used here seems to collapse the distinction between slave and soldier. Thanks for the comment.

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        1. Eaker

          Legitimate critiques of the way the SCV plays its “black confederate” cards are a fair point of discussion. But you specifically said “The Sons of Confederate Veterans chose to honor Clyburn as a soldier and not once referenced his true status.”

          That is simply not true, as Chapman’s interview with the news story on the ceremony proves. Even if you think the SCV plays fast and loose with words on other things that does not give you the right to do the very same thing, which you did here.

          You owe it to your readers to correct and clarify your claim about the SCV’s position.

          And you owe it to Professor Gates to apologize for the insinuation that he reached an erronious interpretation about Clyburn’s status, when in fact Clyburn’s status was widely and publicly reported at the time.

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          1. Kevin Levin Post author

            I just did. I don’t know what conclusions Gates drew from the event. That was part of the point of the post. Does he believe that Clyburn was a slave or soldier? I don’t know.

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    2. Kevin Levin Post author

      You are absolutely right and you are free to consider or ignore what I’ve written. The difference, however, is that I have shared my thoughts and research on this issue in a public forum. Earl Ijames has never done anything along those lines apart from his public presentations.

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  4. Arleigh Birchler

    My position is one that I do not think anyone will agree with. I would really like to see the day when the NAACP and the SCV have joint events, meetings, and festivals. On that day I will believe we have made progress.

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    1. Sherree

      Arleigh,

      It may come as a surprise to you, but I agree with you. The question remains, however: what would it take to make this happen?

      1) The SCV would need to declare that slavery was the root cause of the Civil War.

      2) The SCV would need to advocate that the Confederate Battle Flag be retired to a museum.

      3) The SCV would need to assign full responsibility for the refusal to end the institution of slavery, as had been accomplished throughout many parts of the world by 1861— and in the US as well—to white southerners. (Yes, there is plenty of blame to go around, but let’s begin with ourselves.) Then—then, perhaps—the lion could lie down with the lamb, so to speak; the legacy of the descendants of Confederate soldiers would finally be true and complete; and we could all live Dr. King’s dream of the children of former slaves and of former slaveholders sitting down at the table together. Otherwise, we will continue to do what we have always done–talk past each other, argue, flame, and (potentially) destroy our nation.

      I commend your work against the KKK, Arleigh. Also your horticultural work with native plants of North Carolina, I believe?

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      1. Kevin Levin Post author

        I’m with Brooks on this. Who do these groups represent. The idea seems to be predicated that they represent a significant portion of their respective communities. Do we really believe that the SCV represents white Americans, white southerners or even the descendants of Confederate veterans. How about the NAACP? I guess there is some symbolic value, but it seems to be a stretch to me.

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        1. Sherree

          Kevin,

          I understand your point—and Brooks’s original point. That is why I laid out what is, in all actuality, a plan that will never succeed.

          However, it ought to succeed—that is my point.

          No, the SCV does not represent a broad spectrum of people. The organization certainly takes up a lot of the oxygen in this discussion, however, so it is relevant. Also, I do believe that very few people make the fine distinctions that separate white southerner from white southerner. Thus, we have a media that readily picks up the SCV narrative and often bypasses the serious work that is going on in the South and elsewhere concerning CW memory.

          My challenge to the SCV is what it has ever been since I began to read your blog: what, precisely, does the organization intend to do to really help achieve racial justice, since some of its members claim that they are doing so–sometimes in the name of Dr. King.

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          1. Arleigh Birchler

            I got Brooks comment and question first thing today. I had a short response in mind, but when I got on I saw that most of my points had already been made much more eloquently than I ever could. I would probably have just cut and pasted a part of Dr King’s: “I Have a Dream” speech.

            It is very true that the SCV and the NAACP both represent only a small fraction of the people who could contribute to each group. I think that a lot of the reason for that is the enmity between the two. That is self-perpetuating and it will take a giant break-through to have it happen.

            I think that both Kevin and Brooks have fine minds and that their heart is in the right place. I also feel, however, that they have bought into the eternal warfare between Southern Heritage and African-Americans. I have been unable to show them that Southern Heritage is Black History, and Black History is Southern Heritage, neither can stand alone, and by itself is weak and powerless.

            (and Yes, my main interest these days is studying Carolina Native Plants, and trying to grow a few in my backyard)

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            1. Kevin Levin Post author

              Arleigh,

              You said: “I also feel, however, that they have bought into the eternal warfare between Southern Heritage and African-Americans.”

              No, not at all. In fact, that is just the point that I am trying to make. It seems to me that pitting the SCV and NAACP against one another implies some sharp division between white and black Americans over the Civil War memory and I that is not so apparent to me.

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              1. Michael

                Kevin,
                You said: “It seems to me that pitting the SCV and NAACP against one another implies some sharp division between white and black Americans over the Civil War memory and I that is not so apparent to me.”

                While neither the SCV or NAACP are supreme arbiters of the perceptions of their respective constituencies, I would submit that there is indeed a “sharp division” between white and black Americans regarding Civil War memory for the most part. Perhaps my perceptions are overly colored by my current location (Missouri), but my experience is that the two don’t even agree on the most basic question, that being the root cause of the War. Without fail, any black person I talk to here says that it was slavery. Except for some of my more educated co-workers (who are historians or archivists), the white people around here say it was really about states’ rights, or they take an apologist attitude (e.g., “slavery was not as bad as it’s made out to be and besides most people didn’t own slaves and many in the North owned slaves.”).

                I’m 58 years old. Except when talking to educated or educable people, I’ve seen this same dichotomy between the races most of my life on this subject. Childhood in Kansas (it was a subject because of the living memory of slave ancestors as well as memory of USCT ancestors), growing up and living as an adult in California, and now here in Missouri.

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            2. Brooks D. Simpson

              Arleigh, all I can say is that your claims are self-serving and reflect a fundamental ignorance of what I have been saying about “the South.” However, if you don’t understand that black history is fundamentally part of American history, not simply southern history, then I think we’re wasting our time by focusing on the NAACP and SCV. That’s part of the problem, not part of the solution. As for “heritage,” well, like opinions, everyone has their own, usually fashioned to serve their own needs. My other observation is that there’s too much posturing in these discussions, and I am reminded of that whenever I see Arleigh post.

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        2. Brooks D. Simpson

          It is precisely in this claim to “represent” that certain groups lay claim to being players in the discussion and suggest that they need to be consulted and placated in any supposed “solution.” That other people accept those claims simply restricts their ability to proceed creatively and constructively to address far more fundamental challenges. You could bring these two organizations together, pretend that they reached a common understanding, and it actually wouldn’t change anything but the predictable media circus that masquerades as serious coverage.

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    2. Karl Gottschalk

      Arleigh, I agree with you. I am not optimistic that this will happen, but it would be a hell of a fine thing if it did — a signficant step towards the vision of Dr. King.

      Who do the two groups represent? I would say that the NAACP represents the interests of African Americans in the U.S., while the SCV represents the “heritage” of those who fought for the Confederacy in the Civil War. These two groups working together would represent one hell of a step forward in resolving what W.E.B. du Bois called the problem of the Twentieth Century — the problem of the color line.

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      1. Kevin Levin Post author

        Given the membership numbers that I’ve seen I would suggest that they don’t even begin to represent the heritage of those who fought for the Confederacy. Each organization represents the interests of its members.

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            1. Karl Gottschalk

              Kevin, in my opinion it doesn’t really matter what percentage of the relevant populations these groups “really” represent. To me, such a reconciliation would be of great symbolic significance and a real indicator of progress. If you don’t see this, I guess I’m not going to convince you.

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  5. Arleigh Birchler

    I have never known why I don’t like baseball. I always assumed it was because I am no good at it, or any other competitive team sports. Still I have heard that kids who are not good at a sport or who may lack physical ability can make up for it by rigorous training and exercise. I always found it more enjoyable and fulfilling to sit in the two-room school house and read books the teacher had stored away.

    When I was doing a few graduate courses in Psychology I came across the idea of zero-sum games, and how they affect social interaction. That seemed like a likely reason (in 20-20 hindsight) why I did not like team sports. I really don’t care whether or not “my team” wins. I just enjoy learning about the world and offering my opinion if it seems that a group wants to hear it.

    Reply
    1. Kevin Levin Post author

      If only the rest of us could find a way out of the fray to the kind of complete objectivity that you claim to possess. :-)

      Reply

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