Anyone who has followed this blog for any amount of time likely has a sense of the importance that I attach to the myth of the black Confederate soldier. It is, by far, the most popular topic on this site. Over the years I have had to deal with a wide range of reactions from fellow historians. There are those who have supported my efforts, those who look on in confusion and those who betray an air of condescension – as if I have descended into a circus show. In the last few months I have written very little about this subject. There have been a couple of stories out of North Carolina, but other than that the media attention has died down.
The recent essay in The Root by John Stauffer has reignited interest. This time, however, that interest has been confined to academic historians, who have chosen to wade in with their thoughts about the debate and how to move forward. Jim Downs’s contribution reflects what happens when a historian enters a discussion too hastily.
Enter historian and fellow blogger, Donald Shaffer, into the mix. Let me get straight to the point that I fundamentally disagree with the observations and recommendations contained in Shaffer’s post.
In any case, the question scholars should be asking is why this issue cannot be put to rest? To use Megan Kate Nelson’s meme, why are scholarly bloggers on the American Civil War repeatedly condemned to “freak out” from time to time over black Confederates? Why can provocateurs like John Stauffer use the issue (repeatedly) to draw attention to themselves? Why has this myth that substantial numbers of African Americans fought for the Confederacy gained such cultural power in the early 21st-century United States? Why are responsible scholars unable to say, “Enough already” and move on to more productive issues? And if we cannot say “enough already” why can’t we shift the debate to analyzing the cultural power of the myth? Much the same way professional historians refused to enter the morass of who shot John F. Kennedy, but instead analyzed the cultural power of the various conspiracy theories. That is the modest proposal this scholar and blogger would like to make regarding “black Confederates” since it is obvious that the power to suppress this myth is beyond academia’s power. So maybe we need to be asking why it has that power? And not freak out. Enough already.
First, why is this specific debate not worthy of the attention of academic historians specifically? To say that academics do not have the “power to suppress this myth” is not only a non-starter (since academics can’t suppress any narrative that has gained cultural cache) it also fails to consider the positive impact that historians can and have had on this debate.
I agree with Shaffer that the question of how this myth gained a foothold in popular thinking is worthy of attention (and I have written extensively on this both on the blog and in my recent essay in the Journal of the Civil War Era), but let’s at least be honest that such a focus would extend no further than among the small community of interested academics. The basic outline is pretty straightforward. Apart from a few earlier sightings, first sign of the black Confederate appeared in the mid-1970s [and here]. It’s most recent incarnation is the result of the Internet.
Rather than approach this debate narrowly as historians we ought to think of ourselves as educators. I’ve maintained from the beginning that this debate offers the perfect window for historians to engage the public on a number of related issues. We may not be able to “suppress this myth” but as someone who has approached the debate in just this way, I am quite satisfied with the tiny difference I have made.
History teachers at the primary and secondary school level need to be educated on the history behind this debate. Both teachers and students need to be taught how to access and assess online information. Textbook publishers need to hear us when they suggest that 3,000 black Confederate soldiers fought with Stonewall Jackson in the Shenandoah Valley. Popular media outlets need voices that can disseminate accurate information. Museums and other historic sites need advisers who can help to correct inaccurate displays. Popular history magazines need articles that are both entertaining to read and informed by the best scholarship.
Most importantly, this debate offers ample opportunity for professional historians to share what is involved in doing research that is informed by the best practices. To the extent that I ‘freaked out’ reflects the opportunity that scholars such as John Stauffer and Jim Downs squandered with a poorly written essay on the one hand and another driven by little understanding of the debate and the archival sources. My response would have been quite different had these two historians actually engaged in some serious research for their respective publishing platforms, both of which attract many more readers compared with my little blog. I find it interesting that online communities that have actively pushed this myth have embraced both essays. Again, talk about a missed opportunity.
What is unfortunately lost in Shaffer’s call of retreat to the comfortable confines of a narrow discussion about culture and memory is that the vast majority of people that I have come into contact with desire accurate information. My email file of detractors is far outweighed by the number of emails received thanking me for the attention that I have given to this subject on this blog as well as through additional outreach.
Frustrated is probably a more accurate way to describe my response to the essays written by John Stauffer and others over the past week. In fact, my frustration rose to a level beyond anything I’ve experienced in dealing with the “neo-Confederate” community, which views the black Confederate myth as central to its propaganda machine.
Rather than feel that I have wasted my time over the past few years in addressing this myth, I would like to think that it has brought out the best in me as a historian and as an educator.