John Stauffer, Black Confederates, and the Case for Military History

Yesterday I wrote a lengthy post in response to an essay by John Stauffer on the controversy surrounding the existence of black Confederates, which appeared in The Root. As you can see I believe there to be numerous factual and conceptual problems with many of the author’s claims. I do not wish to repeat them today. What I do want to suggest, however, is that Stauffer’s overall approach to this subject, specifically relating to the kinds of sources utilized, helps to make the case for increased attention to military history that have recently been made by Gary Gallagher and Katy Meier in the pages of The Journal of the Civil War Era and Earl Hess in Civil War History.

At the center of this controversy is a question about the status of Civil War soldiers. Between 1861 and 1865 somewhere around 3 million Americans served in Union and Confederate ranks. These men have been the subject of serious historical inquiry for at least the last 60 years, going back to Bell Wiley’s Billy Yank and Johnny Reb. The most thorough studies of their recruitment, organization, experience while in the ranks, and eventual discharge is predicated on a thorough understanding of the relevant sources. There are enlistment papers, muster rolls, draft records, compiled service records, and pension records. Both armies were managed by a military and civilian bureaucracy that only adds to the challenge of researching the men on both sides, who volunteered or were drafted.

As I am currently learning with my own research on the 55th Massachusetts Volunteer Infantry this can be incredibly tedious work. Records sometimes conflict and are often incomplete. At the same time, however, the wealth of material means that we can say a great deal about Civil War soldiers and the units in which they served.

With this in mind what stands out like a sore thumb in Stauffer’s piece is the complete lack of any attempt to bring to bear these sources in support of specific claims made. In fact, I would go so far to suggest that Stauffer is not even aware that he has waded into a field that demands an understanding of specific archival sources. Is he aware that such sources even exist? As far as I know none of Stauffer’s previous books address military topics directly so I can’t say for sure one way or the other.

No one in their right mind can claim that upwards of 6,000 black men served as soldiers in Confederate ranks without having consulted specific military records. Again, there is no indication that Stauffer has done any research into military records relating to this claim or any other individuals or units referenced in his essay. At one point in the essay Stauffer cites a source that references the presence of entire regiments of black soldiers from Georgia and South Carolina, but once again does not seem to understand that there are plenty of sources that could be consulted to corroborate this specific piece of evidence.

The gulf between the claims made and the kinds of evidence applied by Stauffer in support of his conclusions ought to be seen as a warning to anyone who makes the decision to wade into a new field of historical inquiry. Stauffer would do well to take the field of military history more seriously.

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6 comments… add one
  • TF Smith Jan 25, 2015 @ 20:00

    I posted this at Brooks’ cantina, but what the hell – I’m not plagiarzing myself, I’m recycling … it is very sustainable, after all:)

    All this philosophical discussion of rebel soldiers of African ancestry comes down to something as basic as a roster – without one, no soldier gets paid; so until the roster of the 1st CSCTs or 1er Corps du Afrique du Virginie or the 1st Melungeon Rangers or whatever the hell these people imagine was in the field as part of the confederate army can be provided, they’re offering opinions divorced from facts.

    I think a large part of this (absent the outright Lost Causer types) is people like Stauffer, I imagine, have never been part of any military organization – if so, the realities of morning musters or the equivalent would have penetrated.

    Although presumably even English professors get a paycheck and have the regular monthly department meeting; this really is not that difficult. There’s a reason both the US forces, and the rebels, had these people called paymasters.

  • Andy Hall Jan 21, 2015 @ 11:14

    As you’ll recall, Stauffer’s 2011 presentation, and the magazine article that came from it, reflected no more knowledge of the subject than an evening Googling around would provide. This assay isn’t really much better.

    I’m surprised, frankly, that Stauffer takes Douglass’ assertion about African Americans in the Confederate ranks without question, as though Douglass saying it makes it true. The claim about there being whole regiments of black Confederate troops is very specific and, if true, would be easily verifiable. If Stauffer gave any thought to this at all, he surely knows that repeating that claim without any attempt to follow up or evaluate it puts him very far out on a limb. I don’t know why he’d do that. He would have been better off letting the his 2011 foray into the subject fade into memory.

    • Kevin Levin Jan 21, 2015 @ 12:27

      I don’t know why he decided to publish this slightly version of his talk either. Thanks for your post on Stauffer’s flawed take on Douglass:

    • William Caine Jul 24, 2021 @ 7:00

      Douglass also said that there were not any black Confederate soldiers. Which time did he get it right? Douglass was a smart man, but he could have gotten hold of some bad info although he didn’t have the Internet to spread bad info.

      • Kevin Levin Jul 24, 2021 @ 8:03

        It must be remembered that Douglass never observed Black soldiers in Confederate ranks. The reports that appeared in his newspaper were intended to convince Lincoln and his cabinet to begin recruiting Black men into the US Army. See Glenn David Brasher’s book, The Peninsula Campaign & the Necessity of Emancipation. I also address it in my book.

  • Bob Huddleston Jan 21, 2015 @ 9:00

    Good points!
    I thought you might like the following as to the numbers of Yankees and Rebels. Bob Krick has his flaws — he claimed he was working for Lee and Jackson and in true Lost Cause fashion, blamed all problems on Longstreet, but in his days as NPS Historian at Fredericksburg, he studied the minutia of the men of the ANV and AoP and knows more about them than Lee ever did: (begin quote)

    Since 1865, counting numbers and losses and arguing about them has been a popular pastime. . . . A thorough computer-based index to all official Compiled Service Records (CSRs) at the National Archives, done during the 1990s, has vanquished most of the doubts. Confederate CSRs number 1,375,000, and Federal CSRs fall just sort of 3 million.

    These records, meticulously organized by name and unit, include a good bit of duplication as individuals moved from one organization to another. . . . Extensive work in the original CSRs suggest that at least 20 percent of men have records with more than one organization. The proportion surely does not exceed 30 percent. Applying a 25 percent duplication factor equally to both sides suggests that just a few more than 1 million men wore Confederate uniforms, first and last, and about 2.25 million Federals.

    Robert K. Krick, “The Power of the Land: Leadership on the Battlefield,” Aaron Sheehan-Dean, ed., _Struggle for a Vast Future _, Oxford, U.K., Osprey Publishing, 2006, p. 62

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