Why Historians Should Care About Black Confederates

Over the past few years, Leslie Madsen-Brooks has been working on an essay that explores the implications of the controversy surrounding black Confederates on our understanding of history in the digital age. It’s been available online as part of an open peer-review project and will soon be available, along with other essays, in Writing History in the Digital Age, edited by Jack Dougherty and Kristen Nawrotzki (University of Michigan Press, 2013).  The author steers her reader through the evolution of the black Confederate narrative and what it tells us about how history is being done, who is writing it, changing assumptions about authority resulting from this digital turn, and why professional historians ought to care.

This is the first scholarly essay that I know of that takes this controversy seriously. I am putting the finishing touches on an essay that also explores some of these issues for an upcoming issue of The Journal of the Civil War Era. The author gives us quite a bit to think about in this essay. Unfortunately, all too often I’ve experienced a cold reception from fellow Civil War historians whenever the topic arises. Many simply can’t imagine why I take the issue seriously or why it is important that they care what those outside the academy are writing on blogs, wikis and Facebook pages. Perhaps it’s not surprising that it took a historian from outside the field of Civil War history to take this subject seriously.

Those of you who take the time to read the essay will recognize most of the players. Madsen-Brooks utilizes this blog as well as those authored by Brooks Simpson, Andy Hall, and Corey Meyer. You will also hear from my friend Connie Ward (a.k.a. Chastain), Ann DeWitt, and Dave Tatum. It’s a real circus.

I strongly encourage you to leave your comments below on any aspect of this essay to assist me further in thinking through these issues.

CraterThanks for reading this post. Scroll down, leave a comment and join the conversation if you are so inclined. Follow me on Twitter and join the Civil War Memory Facebook group for continuous updates and additional links to newsworthy items from around the interwebs. Stay up to date by subscribing to this blog’s feed. You can also check out my recently published book, Remembering the Battle of the Crater: War as Murder.

26 comments… add one

  • Karen L Cox Jun 7, 2013

    Kevin,

    I think it is important that we take what is written outside of the academy seriously and I also believe that we as academicians need to be engaged in writing and sharing our work with public audiences.

    As someone who recently taught “History in the Digital Age” for a group of graduate students and as someone who maintains a blog (although I admit I should do it with more frequency), I have become convinced that academics who ignore this medium of communication are doing so at their peril and the peril of our profession.

    If we want a public audience for our work, we are going to have to move beyond the peer-reviewed journal/books into social media (Facebook, Twitter, blogs, op-eds, opinion pieces that appear online). The costs of our books is on the rise and journal articles are pay-per-view, which means they are out of reach for most people who may be genuinely interested in what we write. Even we would have to pay for our own articles if our libraries weren’t already paying exorbitant fees to the corporations who make them available.

    Blogs, etc. help to democratize how information is shared. Someone might want to argue that since there is no such thing as peer-review we may need to worry, but I would disagree. We are already establishing as a profession which blogs we trust. As an instructor, I have an exercise that gets student to question the authority of a site and now I can point them to blogs like yours. (Likewise, I’ve been told that those who teach courses in southern studies use mine!)

    So, I guess, in many ways this isn’t just about black Confederates but it is useful for making the point that we’ve got to take what is out there in social media seriously so we can help to shape the narrative. Otherwise, others will do it for us.

    • Kevin Levin Jun 7, 2013

      Thanks for the comment, Karen. It’s been interesting to watch you over the past year or so work to create and develop an online presence. We need as many thoughtful voices as possible in our field online. I hope we can continue to move past the distinction between traditional scholarship and our online presence to a point where they are both part of an organic whole. In other words, it’s what responsible historians do.

      So, I guess, in many ways this isn’t just about black Confederates but it is useful for making the point that we’ve got to take what is out there in social media seriously so we can help to shape the narrative. Otherwise, others will do it for us.

      Couldn’t have said it any better.

      • Karen L Cox Jun 7, 2013

        Interestingly, my Dean set up an aggregate site of professor’s blogs. Mine was incorporated without permission. I asked to be removed until they sought permission, which they still haven’t. In other words, the university seeks to benefit from my engagement with public audiences, but does not regard it as worthy of merit increases. I have a problem with that. So, I do it because I enjoy it and I, personally, want to reach a wider audience.

  • Ben Railton Jun 7, 2013

    I second Karen’s comments! I would also add that we scholars need to recognize the voracious public appetite for stories of American history, culture, identity, etc.–and, to paraphrase the point of Karen’s quoted by Kevin, that if we don’t contribute our takes on those stories to public conversations, it will simply mean that Americans are learning about them solely from pseudo-scholarly voices like David Barton/Glenn Beck University and/or from pop culture texts like Spielberg’s *Lincoln*. (Not equating Barton/GBU with Spielberg/*Lincoln*, necessarily, but I believe those are illustrative of two other principal venues through which Americans learn history.)

  • William Kerrigan Jun 7, 2013

    Kevin,

    I think it is important for professional historians to take on these popular myths and am glad that you and a few others are doing so. At the same time, I completely understand why many professional historians avoid it, and that is because engaging in an argument with the people who perpetuate this stuff is like engaging in an argument with Holocaust deniers. The black confederate myth has largely been manufactured by people who simply aren’t honest brokers interested in an honest, nuanced, evidenced-based discussion. They are propagandists (and, to a lesser extent, more innocent persons duped by this propaganda.) And they follow the rules of deceptive propaganda production to a “T”: combining truths, half-truths, and outright fabrications skillfully. By regularly manufacturing new false evidence, they keep any honest historian on his/her heels–it takes time to source and track down each new falsehood, and by the time one has debunked, these charlatans have moved on to new ones. (But, as we see in the Madsen-Brooks article, leave the debunked ones intact and uncorrected.)

    Secondly, while I think the work that Madsen-Brooks is doing is excellent, and I will probably use this essay in some of my undergraduate courses, I cringe and her conclusion about how we define a historian. I don’t think it is a good thing that people like Connie Ward, who does not follow professional practices, and whose work is not subjected to peer review by others committed to professional practices, call themselves “historians.” For me this is NOT about credentials, it is about practices. You may not have a PhD, but if your book Remembering the Crater had been submitted as a dissertation, not only would it have been approved but likely would have won an award for best dissertation produced at that institution that year. It is your approach and commitment to the methods of professional historians that makes you a historian, not simply initials after a name. Granted, for the overwhelming majority of people, these skills and practices are learned in conventional PhD programs, but what is clear is that your approach to the research and writing of history is profoundly superior to that of amateurs like Ward, and that needs to be recognized.

    One of the great things about the discipline of History, in my opinion, is its broad, popular appeal. The local Barnes and Noble doesn’t have a large section of books accessible to general readers on Chemistry, but they do have a large section of books on History. That historical writing is abundant, and on a spectrum that runs from extremely amateurish to very technical. One negative result is that the public sometimes thinks that anyone can write History, when they wouldn’t assume anyone could write a Chemistry book. How often have you turned to the back cover of a locally produced book, for example, and found the amateur author presenting as evidence of their qualifications to write on this particular subject that they are a descendant of the historical person they are writing about? Would such an assertion have any weight if they were writing in any other discipline?

    At the end of the day, however, the best way to address bad history is to counter it with accessible work that follows professional practices, and especially if you are seeking an audience of non-professionals, you need to find a way in your writing to educate them about why following these practices matters.

  • Andy Hall Jun 7, 2013

    The only thing I’d challenge is Madsen-Brooks’ closing, “I’d like to hear more people say, despite their lack of academic credentials, ‘I nevertheless am a historian.’ ” There’s no lack of folks claiming that title, or putting out their own “interpretation.” What’s missing is a willingness, or even appreciation of the need, to actually dig down into the primary, contemporary sources, to question them, or to put them into the larger context of what’s known. Academic credentials are useful as a shorthand for understanding the skills and training that an author presumably brings to his- or her work, but at the end of the day it’s the quality and thoroughness of that work that matters.

  • Wallace Hettle Jun 7, 2013

    I have a copy of Robert Durden’s _The Gray and the Black_ on my bookshelf right now.

  • Gdbrasher Jun 7, 2013

    Selfishly, I am a little distressed that my own work did not show up in her essay or footnotes as an example of a professional historian who has taken this topic seriously, and who has humbly offered a different and largely unexplored context for understanding the origins of so-called black confederates. To a large and ironic degree, these stories originated with abolitionists when pushing for emancipation. Obviously this is a context not found in works and Internet postings by agenda-driven neo-con “historians.” Obviously (and as my book makes clear) I believe that it is imperative that professional historians attempt to take this subject out of the exclusive hands of these non-professionals. I have the unsettling suspicion that black confederates are making their way into high school classrooms through teachers who do a lot of their fact gathering on the web. This above all makes it imperative that professionals get involved in this discussion in digital formats.

    • Kevin Levin Jun 7, 2013

      Hi Glenn,

      I hear you, but keep in mind that the author was focusing on how the subject is being handled online and not in the very limited reach of the traditional monograph.

      Obviously (and as my book makes clear) I believe that it is imperative that professional historians attempt to take this subject out of the exclusive hands of these non-professionals.

      I couldn’t agree more with you, but a book isn’t going to accomplish this goal.

      I have the unsettling suspicion that black confederates are making their way into high school classrooms through teachers who do a lot of their fact gathering on the web.

      I’ve been doing workshops on digital literacy with history teachers that utilize this controversy and I can tell you that this nonsense is making its way into the classroom.

      This above all makes it imperative that professionals get involved in this discussion in digital formats.

      Your book would have had much more of an impact if it had been part of a larger online push to correct the many myths surrounding this subject. Hey, it’s not too late. :-)

      • Pat Young Jun 7, 2013

        I used Professor Brasher’s book in an online article on immigrants encountering enslaved people during the Peninsula Campaign. Really nice book. Of course a lot of the Black Confederate advocates used it as well.

        As someone who enjoyed your prose, I’d love to see more online commentary from a young scholar with such keen analysis.

        • Kevin Levin Jun 7, 2013

          It’s an excellent book, which is why I pushed it hard on this site as well as in a review at the Atlantic.

          • Gdbrasher Jun 7, 2013

            Kevin, I hear you. Sadly I have had other fish to fry and I must say that you have been very effectively leading the charge on this.

            Pat, I saw your essay when it first appeared and enjoyed and admired it very much. Thanks also for your comments on my work.

            But to get back to the original point . . . Kevin, have you ever considered putting together some sort of online collection of essays by professional historians addressing “black confederates?” I for one would be a willing participant.

            • M.D. Blough Jun 7, 2013

              That would be an excellent project for you, Kevin, and I know that there are followers of this blog who’d love to help you, including me. There is, at times, a disturbing whiff of elitism among those academics who disdain getting into this. I don’t advocate getting into one on one slugfests with Black Confederate proponents. However, if there isn’t a considerable effort to get accurate and accessible information to the general public, the fantasies of the Black Confederate proponents will fill in the vacuum. Those fantasies are attractive, particularly for those in denial about slavery and the Civil War.

              • Kevin Levin Jun 7, 2013

                I appreciate the vote of confidence, but right now my plate is full. Keep in mind that I am still working on my own book on the subject.

            • Pat Young Jun 7, 2013

              Thank you Prof. Brasher.

  • Alan Levinovitz Jun 8, 2013

    I think Brooks’s essay is excellent, but in the end overstates the effectiveness of “professional historians” in combatting myths, as well as linking the black Confederate narrative to modern media. People have always believed falsehoods, no matter what form of media served to distribute. Not only that, they have believed these falsehoods in opposition to “professional” authorities. (The perceived efficacy of quack medicine is an excellent example.)

    Often, allegiance to a false narrative has to do less with ignorance or misinformation and more with the narrative’s ability to preserve hope, pride, or fiscal self-interest, especially when those are threatened by powers that be, include institutional authorities like professional historians. (Here, the climate change and vaccination debates are instructive examples–as many authorities have weighed in, but belief in falsehood persists.)

    While I agree that professional historians would be helpful in this battle, ultimately false narratives (or, to be digital, memes) like that of the black Confederates will only die when they can no longer help those who endorse them. This is difficult because the “Civil War as states’ rights” narrative is extremely useful to those who wish to endorse states’ rights, themselves tied to a certain kind of nostalgic pride that yearns for days when God was loved, men and women had their proper places, and black people, well…

    (Incidentally, thank you Kevin, for maintaining such a great blog. I’m working on an essay about Dixie Outfitters and I’d love to interview you sometime, if possible… I’m currently at JMU in the Religion and Philosophy dept.)

  • Woodrowfan Jun 10, 2013

    Thank you for the heads up. I am likely to use the article in a couple of my classes.

    I have a terrible time trying to wean my students off of online sources. Many can not seem to tell the difference between an article from an academic journal in JSTOR, Wikipedia and Infowars. Just last month I graded a fairly well-done senior project on World War II propaganda posters. However, when the student looked for data on the German military he took it not from some published book on the war or academic webpage, but from a Holocaust denial site. He simply ran a basic Google search and used the first seemingly useful site he came across.

  • AD Powell Jun 10, 2013

    There were no black confederates. There were some mulatto Confederates. There were Indian Confederates (especially of the “mixed blood” or more white than Indian variety). Not all whites were “pure. Some slaves were white. But no Confederates were black.

    http://open.salon.com/blog/mischling/2010/07/28/white_slaves_in_the_antebellum_south

  • Bryan Cheeseboro Jun 11, 2013

    I don’t know why I never thought of this until now but something occured to me recently that puts a big hole in the Black Confederate Myth. I learned this from reading “Tried By War: Lincoln as Commander-In-Chief” by James McPherson and the Lincoln Administration’s response to the Confederacy’s responses to Black Federals.

    If thousands of Black rebel soldiers really did exist, the prisoner exchange system would likely not have broken down, which would have meant prisons like Andersonville or Camp Chase would not have become overcrowded, which led to som much disease and so many deaths. Of course, many Black Union soldeirs who surrendered in battle never even made it to prison camp, though some did. Others who were former slaves of Southerners were returned to their owners. But the Confederate governement didn’t want to exchange Black men for White men because of the equality that situation would suggest. My point is that if the Soouth really had 60,000-90,000 Black soldiers, Black Yankees could have been exchanged for Black Confederates without any real problems, the prisoner exchange system could have gone on as usual and a lot of the POW trageies and deaths could have been avoided.

  • Chris Coleman Dec 11, 2013

    While I don’t wish to wade too deep into this controversy, when someone says there were never ANY Black Confederates I do have to beg to differ. Of course if you exclude “mulattoes” (by which I take it you mean any person of Color with a degree of “white” blood) then technically yes: mainly because Americans of African Descent (ie descendants of slaves) have on average about 30% Caucasian blood, which makes all American Negroes “mulatto” and not Black!

    The standard argument discounting Black Confederates is that they were a small minority and “misguided” or deluded and therefore should be ignored. Certainly, Black Confederates actually bearing arms were very small; in the Nashville Library local history room I remember looking at a bound volume of pension forms and I believe the Negro pensioners amounted to no more than about 200 for the Army of Tennessee. And yes, Negroes, free or slave, fighting for the South certainly were fighting for a cause that was not in their own self-interest; but cannot the same be said of the poor Whites who owned no slaves fighting for the Confederacy? And did not Whites who were not slaveowners constitute the majority of the soldiers of the Confederacy?

    Every so often I will stumble across a primary reference to a Black fighting for the Confederacy; usually the reference is quite fleeting and no follow up information is available on them. What interests me is the psychology of such men; why did they fight? I am not interested what others say were their reasons; I wish some of them had written themselves as to their motivation and service. Misguided, they certainly were; but some did fight and from what little I have gleaned, fight well. Condemn the cause they fought for; condemn their decision to fight; but I don’t think we ought to condemn the men themselves.

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