Everything is Bigger in Texas

Even the number of black Confederate soldiers.  How many?  Norris White Jr. speculates that 50,000 men “served” in the Confederate army from Texas, though he has only “documented” 7,500.  Mr. Norris came across evidence of these black Confederates while working on an M.A. thesis on Buffalo soldiers in the history department at Stephen F. Austin University.  Along the way we get the same tired and confused statements that reveal very little, if any, understanding of the broader historiography and an inability to acknowledge crucial distinctions.

This is embarrassing on a number of levels.  The article itself is poorly written.  The history department at Stephen F. Austin is referenced in a way that I suspect it would correct if it had the opportunity, and Mr. Norris is clearly misinformed about the subject of how blacks were utilized for the Confederate war effort.  Let’s take a closer look.

“Their voices have been omitted from the pages of history,” White said.

This is simply not true.  There is an incredibly rich body of scholarship that explores the various roles performed by blacks in the Confederate army.

Much attention has been given in movies such as “Glory” and in books and articles written by prominent U.S. military and Civil War era historians to the exploits and heroics of black soldiers serving in the Union forces, White said, but he added that “very little observance, if any, has been given to their counterparts in the Confederate Army.”

This is a common claim made by folks who become fixated on black Confederates.  The United States army utilized black soldiers so there must have been a “counterpart” in the Confederate army as well.  What is lost in this move are the salient differences between the debates in the United States and Confederacy that led to their use as soldiers – in 1863 for the former and in the final weeks of the war in 1865 for the latter.  Even more to the point, it fails to acknowledge in any way the place of slavery in the Confederacy.

He found that black Texans served in the Confederate Army in many diverse capacities, such as infantrymen on the battlefield, personal body servants, teamsters or laborers.

This is where Mr. Norris and many others reveal their inadequacies as serious historians.  I have no idea how many black “infantrymen” or black enlisted soldiers were discovered, but body servants, teamsters, and laborers did not “serve” as soldiers.  These distinctions are absolutely crucial if one is to have any hope of making sense of this subject and it is completely lost on Mr. Norris.

Primary sources, White said, are “100 percent irrefutable evidence — letters, diaries, pension applications, photographs, newspaper accounts, county commission records and other evidence that give primary insight” that blacks were in the Confederate Army.  For example, White found a Texas historical marker in Wise County that states Randolph Vesey was a respected Negro citizen and homeowner who served during the Civil War as body servant and voluntary battle aid to General W.L. Cabel of the Confederate Army.

First, I am not sure how the discovery of a marker is the kind of example that you want to highlight after supposedly traveling “30,000″ miles across the state searching through archives.  Randolph Vesey was surely not  a “counterpart” to any USCT.  One was free, the other enslaved.  That a graduate student in history will complete his studies not understanding this fundamental point is truly disturbing.

What I find sad is that even after all of this supposed research conducted by Mr. Norris, all we get here are the same old claims that are commonly found to have been cut and pasted from one black Confederate website to another.  There is nothing new here or anything that points to any serious thinking about this topic.  In fact, there is nothing in this article that you haven’t read hundreds of times in similar articles and countless websites.

How is it that all these people are making the very same discovery couched in the very same language?

22 comments… add one

  • GBrasher Sep 3, 2012

    “This is one area that has been neglected by everyone,” White said.

    Everyone? UMmm, no. This guy needs to do some homework.

    Primary sources are “100 percent irrefutable evidence.”

    Wow. I sure hope someone in that history department takes the time to steer this guy correctly.

    • Kevin Levin Sep 3, 2012

      It’s definitely an embarrassment for the department and a gross distortion of what it means to engage in historical inquiry.

  • Andy Hall Sep 3, 2012

    Both the historical markers Norris cites were put up in 1965, and are very influenced by the “faithful slave” narrative. As you often point out, markers and memorials say as much about the people who put them up as they do about the historical events and persons they ostensibly commemorate. That year, for reference, was the same year as the Selma-to-Montgomery marches, the “Bloody Sunday” incident at the Edmund Pettus Bridge, and the Voting Rights Act. It’s not hard to see officially-sanctions sate historical markers honoring loyal slaves as a bit of a push-back against those events.

    But as someone affiliated with the Texas Historical Commission — as am I, full disclosure — Norris should be aware of very shoddily-written and research THC markers, especially those put up during the CW centennial, when every little crossroads and courthouse square wanted its very own, gin-yew-whine historical marker.

    There’s some real crap out there, like one that used to stand in downtown Houston, supposedly making the site of a sunken blockade runner in the bayou. The marker was based on a news clipping from the early 1900s, wherein some old-timers reminisced that when they were kids they used to play on an old hulk, supposedly still with cannon on board, and then later, in the early 1960s, a lot of munitions that got dredged up out of the bayou near there. Soon after the marker went up, several people sent in accounts explaining that the munitions had been stored in a warehouse nearby leased by the CS military, and when the collapse came in 1865, the owner of the warehouse, fearful of fire, hauled the whole lot of it and dumped it in the bayou. Those letters are still int he file in Austin, for those who care to look, but the marker remained up for years — at least until the mid-1990s, and maybe still today.

    The other thing to remember is that the THC coordinates the marker program, and gives it an imprimatur of authority, but the folks in Austin have never had the necessary resources to check and verify what’s submitted for a marker — that’s left up to the individual county historical commissions, with all the politicking and glad-handing and half-assed research that implies. Some counties to a good job at self-policing, others not so much. My county, under a previous historical commission chairperson, reportedly sought and got a marker placed for an historical house, only to find out that the applicants, the owners of the property who were looking to boosts its value, had made up half the stuff in the application.

    • Kevin Levin Sep 3, 2012

      I appreciate the information about the THC. It’s unfortunate that Mr. Norris apparently believes that a historical marker constitutes a primary source.

      • GBrasher Sep 3, 2012

        I am going to give him the benefit of the doubt on this one, and assume it was the writer of the article who connected “primary sources” with the marker.

        • Kevin Levin Sep 3, 2012

          It might be justified to cut him a break on that one.

    • Margaret D. Blough Sep 6, 2012

      Andy-Whenever you’re in Gettysburg, you’ll find that you can’t rely on the markers on buildings as to whether or not they were really there during the Civil War. Many were. Even by the most rigorous standards of research, Gettysburg has a very high rate of witness buildings. The problem with relying on the markers, according to local historians, is that they were issued during the centennial, pretty much on people’s say so, largely based on family stories, and, if the local authorities questioned that, they’d find themselves facing the wrath of locals incensed that their grandma was being called a liar. The local authorities found it easier just to not ask too many questions unless the building was outrageously modern

  • Caleb McDaniel Sep 3, 2012

    In addition to the points made here, it’s worth noting the date of the historical marker—1965—as well as the process by which such markers are erected in Texas.

    My understanding is that the Texas Historical Commission has historically provided very little direct oversight of marker text, at least in many cases. While responsible for approving applications for markers, the THC leaves local county commissions both to apply and to pay for them. Efforts to correct or revise markers also have to originate from the local level. That means markers are often more useful as sources of information about historical memory in a locale than as definitive sources of information about history. The tale of how this marker came to be is probably an interesting—if familiar—story in its own right.

    You can read more about the process here.

    • Caleb McDaniel Sep 3, 2012

      Oops–just after posting, I see that Andy Hall has beat me to the punch. Obviously, I second his points.

      • Kevin Levin Sep 3, 2012

        It’s nice to have two serious researchers living in Texas chime in on this issue.

    • Kevin Levin Sep 3, 2012

      Hi Caleb,

      Thanks so much for reaffirming some of the point already made by Andy Hall.

  • Andy Hall Sep 3, 2012

    Also, let’s be clear what he’s saying:White estimates the number of black Texans who participated in the Confederate Army in the War Between the States may have been as high as 50,000.That’s not 50,000 black Confederates total across the South, that’s 50,000 from Texas. Given that the entire male slave population of Texas between ages 15 and 50 in 1860 was just under 44,000, statements like that don’t do a lot for Mr. White’s credibility.

    • Andy Hall Sep 3, 2012

      This was meant as a direct, blockquote from the linked article:

      White estimates the number of black Texans who participated in the Confederate Army in the War Between the States may have been as high as 50,000.

    • Kevin Levin Sep 3, 2012

      Thanks for the clarification. I completely misread that sentence. And just when I thought it couldn’t get any worse. You should write a letter to the editor. :-)

  • Woodrowfan Sep 3, 2012

    wow, that’s embarrassing….

  • MChornes Sep 3, 2012

    Sloppy for sure. I can see the tension though. If someone were able to find the existence of Confederate soldiers, especially in Texas, it would be a major find and almost instantly put that person on the map (this guy got put in the Houston Chronicle for even having an inkling of the fact). It’s getting to the point, at least, where we’re truly crawling into the margins of this issue– figuring out how many “black Confederates” were involved, in what capacities they worked, and truly parsing out the existence of combat troops (if there were any).

    That said, your criticism is on the mark and I’m afraid the definition of “service” in the Confederate Army will likely be a point which some in the South will never concede in their effort to dull the teeth of racism in Confederate memory.

    • Kevin Levin Sep 3, 2012

      That said, your criticism is on the mark and I’m afraid the definition of “service” in the Confederate Army will likely be a point which some in the South will never concede in their effort to dull the teeth of racism in Confederate memory.

      Let me just state for the record that I do not believe Mr. Norris is a Confederate apologist. Like many others he simply does not understand the key conceptual distinctions that help us to better understand the importance attached to the citizen soldier by white Northerners and Southerners during the Civil War. The idea of honoring the “service” of anyone and everyone who was present in the Confederate army is our invention/obsession. It’s not something that white Southerners would have acknowledged at the time; in fact, I suspect most of them would be horrified by this development.

  • badgervan Sep 3, 2012

    Every soldier in either Civil War, or any war, has a set of service papers which is kept safe and sound for their entire lives. Without these papers ( when I was in the Navy from ’68 to ’72 we all had issued a DD-214, our Bible for obtaining any benefits and proof of service ) you are out of luck as being recognized as a legit member of any armed forces.
    Until I see a set of papers belonging to any black confederate “soldier”, I’m afraid none of these “historians” has a leg to stand on. And I haven’t seen even one set yet. Has anyone?

    • Kevin Levin Sep 3, 2012

      They are extremely rare because the Confederate government did not authorize the enlistment of blacks until the final few weeks of the war. A few may have passed as white. If you are interested in the debate that took place throughout the Confederacy over this issue I highly recommend Bruce Levine’s book, Confederate Emancipation: Southern Plans to Free and Arm Slaves During the Civil War.

    • Andy Hall Sep 3, 2012

      It worked a little differently in the ACW. Service as a soldier during the Civil War is generally documented in compiled service records (CSRs), now held by the National Archives. These are sometimes referred to as “muster rolls,” although they are not — they are actually sets of cards compiled by legions of clerks at the U.S. War Department in the early 20th century, going through the actual bi-monthly muster rolls and completing a card for each man listed. All sorts of additional information got recorded in a similar fashion — wounds, hospitalizations, receipts for clothing, and documents relating the to the man’s capture and imprisonment if bhe became a PoW. Often a CSR will contain a parole document, or (in some cases) documentation of a formal pardon issued after the war. Officers’ CSRs also often contain lots of receipts and other paperwork involving supplies, requisitions and the like.

      All the Confederate CSRs were microfilmed years ago, with funding from the UDC — when have the Flaggers ever done something actually constructive like that, I wonder? — but many fewer records from the Union side have been microfilmed. Those that have been microfilmed are available through a subscription service like Fold3.com.

      Ideally, a complete CSR should give the reader a good overview of a man’s service — when he enlisted, any promotions or wounds received, when and where discharged and so on. There are cases where men are known from other sources to have been soldiers, who do not have a CSR, and there are other cases where the CSR is obviously incomplete. Nonetheless, the vast majority of Confederate soldiers have at least something on file — I have lots of Confederate ancestors myself, and have been able to locate at least partial records for every one of them.

      You will sometimes hear a rationalization for the dearth of CSRs for so-called black Confederates that records were lost, destroyed, burned, etc. It is true that records were lost, and that can explain why records are missing for some specific individual. What it doesn’t explain is why the records are missing for THOUSANDS of black men who were supposedly enlisted in the Confederate army, especially when there are hundreds and hundreds of records — sometimes more than 2,000 separate CSR files — for white sodiers in the same regiments.

      All of this is background to there being a relative handful of records that mention African American Confederate troops. Almost all of these are one-offs — one or two cards, not a long series of cards typical of white soldiers in the same unit (and therefore, drawn from the same original rolls). I have seen a few CSR cards derived from Confederate records that indetify the man as a cook or musician, but usually only one of two for each man — not a full set. (It’s worth noting here that musicians are designated separately from privates, corporals and other soldiers’ ranks, and cooks barely mentioned at all, in published CS army regulations from 1861 to 1864.) But even these are extremely rare. As a test, last year I used the NPS Soldiers & Sailors System — a database derived from the CSRs at NARA — to see how many cooks were listed in twenty Confederate regiments — infantry, cavalry, artillery — chosen more-or-less at random. The system includes each man’s “rank in” and “rank out,” so I recorded every name that was marked as “cook” in either field. In the 20 regiments in the system, there were a total of 40,825 names, some of which are alternate spellings. Out of that 40,825, how many were listed as cooks?

      Five. One-two-three-four-five, all in one regiment, the 5th North Carolina Cavalry. Four of those five were in the same company, and noted as enrolled by the same officer. It seems really clear that these examples are outliers, men whose status (or enrolment) was recorded incorrectly. Either that, or those five men were awfully busy, cooking for 40K others.

      I don’t recall ever seeing a CSR card from a Confederate source giving an African American man’s rank as Private, or similar. There are a few I’ve seen that were generated when servants and cooks were captured, but those come from Federal rosters. They may reflect sloppy record keeping, an assumption that the black men were formally enlisted soldiers, or perhaps the men themselves claimed to be. Either way, those PoW records do not reflect status as recognized by the Confederate government or military.

  • Jennie Apr 8, 2013

    Hi. Your blog was assigned to me by a professor at my University which I will not name for the sake of the professor. This post is troubling to me. As are several of your posts. First off, you have text separated as if they are segments you have taken and directly quoted from an article written by “Mr. Norris”. But within those blue boxes of text it says things like “White says” implying to me that you wrote those segments of text and inserted quotes of his out of context. For example, this text that I copy and pasted from one of your blue boxes….

    Much attention has been given in movies such as “Glory” and in books and articles written
    by prominent U.S. military and Civil War era historians to the exploits and heroics of black
    soldiers serving in the Union forces, White said, but he added that “very little observance,
    if any, has been given to their counterparts in the Confederate Army.”

    You did not quote him in the fist half of this sentence you merely generalized something that you read of his and then tried to pass it off as a quote by putting it in a blue box with out any citation for your readers to verify this information that you are generalizing. Furthermore, why do reference “White” in the blue boxes and “Mr. Norris” outside of the blue boxes? To me it is to conceal the fact that you are trying to pass certain information off as a direct quote to the casual reader when in fact it is not, and there is no link or citation to the original article that you are shamelessly bashing for your readers to consult. It’s a bummer because as a born and raised Bostonian majoring in American history I would have been inclined to agree with your argument but your deceptively formated post, broken links, and arrogent tone of voice completely discredits you in my eyes. The number of times you have started a post by patting yourself on the back for the complexity of your research but then reminding us that you are not claiming to have the final word on the subject leads me to believe that you actual do think this about yourself and your work but you are thankfully smart enough to cover your tracks. I do not doubt that your argument has validity but if you intend to label yourself as a “historian” I would expected you to provide your position at least ONE leg to stand on. And your readers with a couple citations…..an oversight (whether intentional or not) you yourself have bashed other historians for omitting in their own work. I am referencing your post titled “Black Confederates At Appomattox” at the end of which you state “It’s not that I necessarily doubt the story, but at this point we know nothing about the author or the context of its publication.” At least you provided us with a link to the unknown college in Texas…that really helped me think critically about this information….

    • Kevin Levin Apr 9, 2013

      Hi Jennie,

      Thanks for taking the time to read the blog and for the comment. First, the link to the article no longer works so I was unable to check the quote with the article. I am, however, fairly certain that the quote is from the news item. Because it is formatted as a quote it should be read as such from the article. Thinking about the post I agree that it is a bit confusing with White being mentioned in the quote boxes and Norris outside. Again, I wish we still had access to the original story, but many of the links are only active for a finite amount of time.

      As a student I certainly do not expect you to use this blog as a scholarly source. You should take advantage of the many scholarly books that I recommend in these posts, including those by Levine, Brasher, and McCurry. I recently published a version of the first chapter of my new manuscript on the subject, which you should be able to find at a good local bookstore. It’s in The Civil War Monitor magazine. Finally, it’s encouraging to see students critically analyzing online sources. I wish it happened more often and it’s a skill/practice that I emphasize in the classroom on a regular basis.

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