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.