She’s Back

I haven’t commented on what Brooks Simpson refers to as “the gift that keeps on giving” in some time, but news that Ann DeWitt is once again posting is too good to pass up.  You know Ms. DeWitt as the person who discovered an entire regiment of black Confederate cooks and the owner of one of the most confused websites on this subject.  She is now posting under the name “Little Rebel” and it looks like Ms. DeWitt’s “research” interests have led her to a subject near and dear to my heart.

Yes, we all can’t wait for the next big discovery.  In the eight years that I’ve spent with Mahone’s men I have never come across a reference to anything other than body servants and impressed slaves.  This is not to say that Confederates under Mahone’s command did not have black soldiers on their minds.  They wrote a great deal about an entire division of black soldiers, who took part in the battle of the Crater and they wrote openly and approvingly about their massacre.  In all the letters, diaries, and postwar accounts penned by Confederates who were there not one mentioned their own loyal black soldiers.

Spend enough time with what Confederate soldiers actually wrote and you will have some idea of why the Confederacy struggled with the question of the enlistment of blacks.

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13 comments… add one

  • Andy Hall Aug 16, 2012

    I expect it will be more of the same — half-understood documents, sources that are cited as saying one thing when they actually say something else. It’s discouraging because the material actually present a much more complex and convoluted picture of the past than folks like “Little Rebel” conceive. But the goal here has never been to tell that story, or the story of these men as individuals; rather, it’s been simply to chalk up another “black Confederate” to prove some larger case on behalf of Confederate Heritage.

    I’ve said repeatedly that I believed Ms. DeWitt to be sincere and well-intentioned in her efforts, but I’m less certain of that now. She can’t or won’t answer criticism directly — recall when she complained to YouTube about your video critiquing her website, claiming it was a “copyright infringement” — and I don’t recall a single case where she’s publicly acknowledged and corrected even egregious errors — she just deletes the original post to cover her tracks. This is not the mark of someone who is serious about her research, or who is willing to have the quality of her work examined in the bright sunlight. Ms. DeWitt’s problem isn’t that scholars don’t take her seriously; it’s that she herself shows little evidence of taking her own work seriously.

    • Kevin Levin Aug 16, 2012

      I expect the same old half-baked interpretations as well.

      As for her website, there have been a few changes that can be traced to things that the two of us have pointed out on our websites. One example is that you will no longer find that ridiculous definition of a body servant in which she compares it to an office assistant or something along those lines. That she will not even post using her real name says it all.

      • Andy Hall Aug 16, 2012

        Like I say, she’ll cover her tracks. But it takes a certain scholarly integrity to say, “I was wrong about this and here’s the corrected information.” I don’t recall her doing that.

        That said, she still makes a direct (and false) equivalency between between a USCT soldier, Pvt. Lot Allen of the 21st USCT, and a cook, William Dove, with the 5th North Carolina Cavalry. (It was Dove, readers may recall, whose record DeWitt claimed said,” has no home,” and used that to spin an interpretation about Dove’s loyalty and commitment to the Confederate cause, when in fact the card read, “has no horse,” a highly-relevant fact in someone assigned to a cavalry unit.) Because both men worked as cooks, she argues that establishes that Confederate cooks were formally considered soldiers, as Allen was. What she ignores is the rest of Allen’s CSR, that makes clear that he (unlike Dove) Allen was formally enlisted, but could not keep up with drill and other duties as an infantryman, and was eventually assigned as a cook to move him aside. Allen was eventually discharged early for being too old and inform for service as a soldier.

        Folks over at SHPG don’t have a lot of use for folks who approach their understanding of the past from an academic standpoint, or who bring a lot of formal credentials to the table. But the one great thing about serious scholarship is that it tends to weed out the bullshit artists pretty quickly, and sort out those who actually understand and know the topic, versus the poseurs who bluff and bluster and hope no one looks behind the curtain. I had to laugh out loud, recently, when someone over there put out an urgent call for original Confederate sources that document actual cases of black soldiers, in the ranks. For all the months and years of belligerent name-calling and dismissal of “deniers” and the “axis of fascism,” they couldn’t provide a single one, and suggested instead that the person contact poor Nelson Winbush, who must surely be getting tired of being the go-to guy for people who can’t or won’t do their own research.

        That’s all you need to know, really, about the state of scholarship on “black Confederates.” I dare say “Little Rebel” will feel right at home.

        • Kevin Levin Aug 16, 2012

          You may remember that I extended an open invitation for anyone at the SHPG to respond to my co-authored essay on Silas Chandler. While they couldn’t contain themselves from criticizing it not one person offered a coherent response. Part of the offer involved posting the response on this blog. Silence.

          None of these people can do more than post comments.

  • Bryan Cheeseboro Aug 16, 2012

    “Spend enough time with what Confederate soldiers actually wrote and you will have some idea of why the Confederacy struggled with the question of the enlistment of blacks.”

    I think “spend enough time” is entirely the key here. For so many people who express interest in the history of American Civil War, how many out there actually take the time to do scholarly research and sort through the myths and lies of what the whole thing was about?

    Kevin (and you too, Andy), I really appreciate the time and research you’ve put into Civil War history, particularly confronting head on what neo-Confederates and many in the general public want to believe about Blacks as Confederate soldiers. I bought into the myth at one time myself- indeed, it makes for a fascinating story. But now I understand the story is a trojan horse.

    For many neo-Confederates, the story is not so much about an interest in African-American history (and I wouldn’t be surprised if many of them reject Blac History Month altogether); instead, it’s about their attempts to present the Confederacy as some sort of libertarian Civil Rights movement. Slaves loved their masters; masters loved their slaves and if you had just left us alone in our racially harmonious society, life would have progressed on its natural, non-threatening course. We would have freed our slaves in a few years anyway, and then it would have avoided all that death and suffering that still affects our country to this day.

    In the end, I think this story is just one of many in history that many people simply choose to believe. Many will not do the hard work of sorting through well-entrenched, establisehd tales. So I greatly appreciate those of you who do.

    • Kevin Levin Aug 16, 2012

      I don’t think most people intent to be deceptive. It’s an intriguing narrative and it is easy to get lost in the evidence. The problem that I see is the inability to place the available evidence into anything approaching a rich historical context based on a close reading of secondary sources. Much of what you find on the internet is in response to a perceived threat from so-called revisionist historians. You also get a feel for the power of community like the SHPG. Bring together a group of people who are overly defensive with very little experience at doing serious historical analysis and you can prove anything.

      • Michael Douglas Aug 16, 2012

        Do you have an opinion as to *why* it’s so important to so many of these people to believe that there were black Confederate troops? I have my own opinions, and they involve some complex issues related to modern racial politics. But my opinions are likely slightly incendiary and, at best, posit something along the lines of the “some-of-my-best-friends-are-X model.” So I’ll keep them to myself.

        What do you think the dynamic is?

        • Kevin Levin Aug 16, 2012

          My guess is there is a small minority who believe it makes the Confederacy more palatable, but I suspect that the majority of people simply do not understand the relevant history or unfamiliar with methods of historical analysis.

        • Bryan Cheeseboro Aug 16, 2012

          Michael,
          Thanks for the question. My theories as to “why it’s so important” are basically about what you said- a reaction to the world we live in today.

          I think Black Confedrates are Black people on their terms. I always imagine Black Confederates to be loyal and faithful; they were about getting the job done. they weren’t about themselves. in other words, they weren’t people always complaining about racism and injustice- like Jesse and Al and the NAACP. Black Confederates didn’t go out and march for their Civil Rights. They accepted their place in Southern society.

          I think the story is definitely reaction to the success of the Civil Rights Movement. I think, as Kevin has shown, if you tried to pass this story around at the height of segregation, you would have been laughed at and White Southerners would have been highly offended that you dare claim Black menm were accepted as equals into the Confederate army.

          And I think the story is the best way to claim the Confederacy wasn’t what it really was- a society founded on White supremacy over Black inferiority.

          Years ago, someone left this comment on a message board: “I don’t care if there were only a baker’s dozen Black Confederates; I want to know about them!” I don’t know who that guy was but it’s amazing to me that he was so determined to get something out of the story. As long as 13 Black guys put on the gray uniform, I can go to sleep at night believeing the war had nothing whatsoever to do with slavery.

          • Kevin Levin Aug 16, 2012

            Years ago, someone left this comment on a message board: “I don’t care if there were only a baker’s dozen Black Confederates; I want to know about them!” I don’t know who that guy was but it’s amazing to me that he was so determined to get something out of the story. As long as 13 Black guys put on the gray uniform, I can go to sleep at night believeing the war had nothing whatsoever to do with slavery.

            Me too. Racial identity was often very messy in the antebellum South and I have no doubt that there were black men who passed as white. Understanding why they enlisted or what their experience was is worth investigating where we can find sources. That’s the problem.

            • Bryan Cheeseboro Aug 16, 2012

              Understood, Kevin. I get your motivation. But I think the Black Confederate Story as we know it (i.e. presented by Confederate Heritage groups) is about those Black men who were NOT passing thermselves offf as WHITE.

              • Kevin Levin Aug 16, 2012

                No disagreement there.

      • Bryan Cheeseboro Aug 16, 2012

        “I don’t think most people intent to be deceptive. It’s an intriguing narrative and it is easy to get lost in the evidence. The problem that I see is the inability to place the available evidence into anything approaching a rich historical context based on a close reading of secondary sources. ”

        I’m sorry- did you mean primary sources? Of course, even those can be challenging, if you’re talking about accounts by soldiers during the Civil War that are fraught with false rumours.

        I suppose most people don’t mean to be deceptive, either. However, I’ve heard some whoppers from those in the Lost Cause crowd:

        • In defense of flying the Confederate flag over public property, I heard a man on TV say the war was not about slavery because “there were more slave states in the Union when the war began than there were in the Confederacy.” Of course, he neglected to say that four of those states left the Union after the war began.
        • Years ago, a girl made news because she was banned from attending her prom as long as she insisted on wearing a Confederate flag prom dress. She said “over 620,000 Americans died for that flag.” I guess she didn’t realize that most of that 620,000 actually fought against that symbol.
        • I saw a YouTube video where someone claimed that not only were there Black Confederates; but they fought in integrated units with Whites.
        • And I once spoke to a Sons of Confederate Veterans person on the phone who told me the South didn’t start the war. She didn’t explain but I’m guessing she would say the thing started with Lincoln’s “invasion” of the South- an event caused by the thing that really started the war: the Confederates opening fire on Fort Sumter.

        Maybe these people represent a minority of extremists. Maybe they just don’t know history and have innocently made mistakes. But I’m being too kind here. I would not be surprised if any one of them would reject the truth of these events if presented to them. I think they will say just about anything- especially that Black people were typically willing participants in the Confederate cause. That’s just plain deception to me.

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