Henry Louis Gates, Black Confederates and White Liberal Academics

Last Saturday Megan Kate Nelson, my wife and I went to see Suzan Lori Parks’s three-act play, “Father Comes Home From the Wars.” I don’t want to give too much away about the plot beyond the fact that the central character is a slave, who at the beginning of the first act struggles with whether he is going to go off to war with his master/Confederate colonel. Oh, and the slave, whose name is Hero, is also donning a Confederate uniform.

Following the show we enjoyed a talkback with members of the cast. Unfortunately, we missed another post-production discussion the following day with Parks, along with Henry Louis Gates and Eric Foner. The discussion kicked off with some thoughts about the current debate about black Confederates.

On one level the focus of the discussion was unfortunate. At no time is Hero’s struggle about whether he can support or serve the Confederacy and the decision has nothing to do with him serving as a soldier. Rather, it serves as the foundation for his relationship with his master, which evolves significantly during the show. It’s confusing, in part, because Hero wears a uniform, but we know of a number of slaves, including, most famously, Silas Chandler, who were outfitted in military dress. The opening act offers an opportunity to explore the complexity of the master-slave relationship and not that of the relationship between slaves and the Confederacy.

But what is even more disappointing is Gates’s sloppiness when discussing this subject. [Begin the video at the 7:00 minute mark.] He begins by reflecting on the difficulties that many of his white/liberal academic colleagues have when writing about certain aspects of the slave experience. According to Gates scholars that fall into this category often “censor” themselves or hide rather than admit of certain uncomfortable truths. What a bizarre claim given the historiography of slavery. One of those uncomfortable truths is that a few thousand slaves fought willingly as soldiers for the Confederacy. I find such an argument to be the height of irresponsibility. What’s to prevent anyone from dismissing Gates’s understanding of the past as that of a black/liberal academic? If you can’t keep the discussion on the level of interpretation and evidence than don’t say anything at all.

The only evidence/interpretation that Gates can cite is the recent essay in the Root by John Stauffer, which has been thoroughly discredited [and here and here]. It not only misses the mark, it’s an example of very poor scholarship. Eric Foner does a good job of pushing back, though I suspect he could have offered a much stronger response.

Why do I get so incensed when it comes such statements, you ask? Because I strongly believe that public intellectuals like Gates have a responsibility to their audiences. Relying on generalizations about any individual[s] political or racial profile as a substitute for real arguments is not only lazy, it’s a form of manipulation. If Gates wants to be taken seriously on this subject he ought to put down his microphone and even walk away for a season or two from his television shows and do some research.

39 comments… add one
  • yea, i’d like to see these deeply offensive ways that left historians reduce the complexity of black communities. as a “white” historian who studies black history, i’m not feeling him. and how this all translates into the alleged suppression of black confederates is a total mystery. every single time this argument happens, those arguing against the black Confederate position begin by conceding the presence of African Americans among those who fought for the Confederacy. this apparently counts for nothing against the alleged hegemony of political correctness. this “they’re so PC” argument, rather than concrete positive evidence, responsibly marshaled and presented, constitutes their major argument. apparently, we don’t acknowledge black Confederates — not because there’s no evidence for them, but because there’s a conspiracy to suppress their memory. what a shame for HLG to go down that route.

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    • Gates’s argument lines up perfectly with neo-Confederates who also believe that the politics of academic historians prevents them from acknowledging an uncomfortable truth. Foner should have nailed Gates for that comment.

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  • Gates is founder and Editor-in-Chief of The Root, so entirely apart from his own limited engagement on this subject, he’s going to stand by his contributor and fellow Harvard faculty member, Stauffer, regardless. No surprise there.

    Gates has done a great deal of valuable and ground-breaking work, but I’ve been disappointed in some of the decisions he (or his producers) have made, that seem to favor entertainment and drama over accuracy. As one example, recently he did a segment on PBS with Anderson Cooper, where he showed Cooper a document that revealed his (Cooper’s) ancestor was killed by a slave. The document presented on screen, though, had been altered to place the words “killed by a negro” next to the dead man’s name. It’s a Photoshop job; the actual document has the notation on the other side of the page. Presumably this was done for dramatic effect, but it’s wrong, wrong, wrong, and someone like Gates should have no part in it.

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  • How significant is it that both Stauffer and Gates are professors of English, not of history?

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    • I am not going to say because I think it largely ignores the relevant issues at hand. They both write about history and both have done respectable work in that area. I would rather keep the focus on the claims they make rather than worrying about how we identify them.

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      • Al’s point does, however, speak to their training. If one of my students was as sloppy as Stauffer I’d send them back to start over. Actually, I have told students to start over when they were that careless with evidence…..

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        • One name: Michael Belleseiles. Poor interpretation and beyond extends to professionally trained historians. I just don’t want to bother with the question of who is and who isn’t a historian. They write about the past.

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  • It was interesting to see Gates and Foner agree on the approximation of a few thousand persons held to service as the number that served in the Confederate Army. That, of course, is the estimation that Stauffer gives, and it is perfectly reasonable. Indeed, the presence of armed persons held to service fighting for the CSA was so menacing to the USA, that it inspired the Congress to craft section IV of the first Confiscation Act with specific language to meet that threat. Ultimately, Gates was both perspicuous and persuasive in virtually every argument he advanced.

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    • It’s “reasonable” only if you spend zero time thinking about the evidence and argument offered by Stauffer. There were reports of blacks in the Confederate army that made their way to D.C. and influenced the debate surrounding black soldiers. Glenn Brasher offers a detailed analysis of this in his book, The Peninsula Campaign and the Necessity of Emancipation.

      Ultimately, Gates was both perspicuous and persuasive in virtually every argument he advanced.

      Perhas you can lay out the specifics of Gates’s argument. I didn’t hear any such thing beyond the claims advanced and referenced in my post.

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  • Except the First Confiscation Act became effective in August of 1861, and the Peninsula Campaign didn’t commence until spring of 1862. So the language of section IV had nothing to do with that campaign.

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    • The book covers that period as well. I referenced the book specifically because it deals with Union reports about blacks in the Confederate army. As I have pointed out more than once, it is interesting that not a single Confederate source confirms that black men were fighting as soldiers during this period.

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    • Conrad, as Kevin indicates, my book covers the time period of the First Confiscation Act to help set up much of my argument about the impact of the Peninsula Campaign. In it, I demonstrate how sightings of so-called “Black Confederates” as First Manassas did in fact play a role in pushing Congress into including slaves in the list of property liable for seizure by US troops (as you argue). However, the claims were demonstrably overblown for propaganda purposes in the effort to turn emancipation into a war aim. Because of the success in getting slaves included in the First Confiscation Act, radicals ramped up the argument and highly exaggerated the claims (again, this is demonstrable) in order to push for the more expansive Second Confiscation Act and emancipation.

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  • I am sympathetic to what Gates is saying about human behavior and complexity, and I agree with him that there may have been some blacks that saw it in their best self- interest to voluntarily demonstrate “loyalty” to their masters. But I think it is important to place that into the context (as I do in my book) that white southerners repeatedly lied to their slaves about the intentions of northern armies. There is overwhelming evidence that nearly every southern slave was told that the Yankees were coming south to drag them off to harshly work in some far away land. Further, early in the war the US and Lincoln himself repeatedly disavowed a war for emancipation, and blacks that came within Union lines were often treated cruelly by northern soldiers. Add all of this up, (as well as the fact that some blacks had earned their freedom in the Revolution and the War of 1812 by fighting alongside their masters), and you get some compelling reasons why a few blacks may have felt it was in their interest to demonstrate loyalty to their masters by laboring/fighting for the Confederacy. Was it in the range of 3,000 as Stauffer and Gates promote? No way. But my point here is that in these cases complexity is definitely needed . . . but so is context.

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    • Hi Glenn,

      I think you can probably anticipate what I am going to say. Of course, I am in complete agreement with Gates that the ways in which African Americans identified with the Confederacy was complex. Of course, neither Gates nor Stauffer is at this point justified in saying anything about the numbers of men who may have slipped into the Confederate army as soldiers. Finally, my main problem with Gates in this post is the nonsense he espouses about white liberal academics and their supposed inability to get right with black Confederate soldiers. What a load of nonsense.

      Let’s hope that Conrad takes me up on my suggestion and picks up your book, which is now available in paperback.

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      • I hear you. Basically he is saying “I can say there may have been 3,000 black confederates because I am black, but you white liberal historians are too afraid to say it because you are white.” Hogwash, indeed.

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    • Also, the sad reality is that, with very few exceptions, the secessionists didn’t consider the wishes of blacks, be they enslaved or free, worthy of consideration. Howell Cobb spoke for many when he wrote to Secretary of War Seddon, in response to the actual proposal near the end of the war to arm blacks, “If slaves will make good soldiers our whole theory of slavery is wrong but they won’t make soldiers. As a class they are wanting in every qualification of a soldier. Better by far to yield to the demands of England and France and abolish slavery, and thereby purchase their aid, than to resort to this policy, which leads as certainly to ruin and subjugation as it is adopted; you want more soldiers, and hence the proposition to take negroes into the Army.” This comes from the brother of T.R.R. Cobb (KIA at Fredericksburg), the author of “An Inquiry into the Law of Negro Slavery in the United States of America” (1858) which T.R.R. believed would be the authoritative legal treatise supporting slavery.

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  • It doesn’t matter how many Blacks fought for the South in the Civil War. The bottom line is the Confederacy stood for slavery and never had any real plans to end White supremacy over Black inferiority.

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  • The other bottom line is that slavery and white supremacy thoroughly permeated the 19th century United States, and that Abraham Lincolm himself openly acknowledged that the people of the North were just as guilty and culpable as the people of the South for the institution of slavery.

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    • As you know slavery ended gradually in the Northern states after the Revolution and was never present in the states that composed the Northwest Territory. You are correct, however, that white supremacy permeated the entire country. I highly recommend Jason Sokol’s new book about the civil rights movement in the North. It’s absolutely fascinating.

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      • While it is true that slave-trafficking and slavery were very gradually abolished in the Northern States following the colonial secession from the British Empire, their complicity with slavery certainly remained active and vigorous. Also, I think the fact that if slavery didn’t exist in any particular territory or state, that fact largely reflects the corresponding truth that the citizens in those locations didn’t want African-Americans to live among them. The Illinois and Oregon constitutions are revealing examples of this phenomenon, as is Lincoln’s emphatic statement that he didn’t want slavery in the territories because he wanted the territories exclusively for white people.

        I do appreciate your reccomendation though, as I am admittedly unfamiliar with Jason Sokol or his work.

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        • None of this is new or even particularly interesting for those people who know even a little bit about the Civil War. Lincoln’s racial outlook was typical for the time, though it is also true that by the end of the war he had evolved in certain respects. Think about his views surrounding black suffrage.

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          • Of course Lincoln’s white-supremacy merely reflected the white-supremacy which so thoroughly permeated the United States, but I do not see this fact repeatedly and ceaselessly used as a criticism against the US as it is against the Confederacy. Inasmuch as white-supremacy was an inherent feature of both countries, it is meaningless and hypocritical to criticize either on that basis.

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            • I have no idea what you are referring to here. Perhaps you could provide some examples. The Confederacy was established specifically to protect slavery and white supremacy. The United States continued to evolve based on its founding principles. It continues to do so.

              I am ending this thread as it has moved too far afield from the content of the post.

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  • It occurred to me recently that the March 1865 call for Black Confederates was the South’s logical answer to the 13th Amendment. Since freedom was being offered to all Black people in the United States with the passage of the 13th Amendment, pretty much the only thing left for the South to do was to issue an Emancipation Proclamation of its own- ask Black men to fight for them. General Lee believed the only way it would work would be to promise freedom to the men and their families but the Confederate Congress wasn’t even willing to go that far.

    Maybe to South’s call for Black soldiers is the real turning point of the Civil War- the moment when the South knew they had everything to lose and not much to gain.

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  • Interesting remarks regarding the response of the CSA to the 13th amendment, though I do not with the conclusion. I do, however, agree with the implicit idea that the CSA needed a reply to emancipation, and their failure to provide such a response was a costly error. Accordingly, I have always believed that when Lincoln issued the EP, Davis should have also issued an EP pertaining to Maryland, Kentucky, Delaware, and Missouri. And when West Virginia was admitted to the Union as a slave state, Davis should have modified his EP to include it.

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    • Accordingly, I have always believed that when Lincoln issued the EP, Davis should have also issued an EP pertaining to Maryland, Kentucky, Delaware, and Missouri.

      Based on what authority? What kind of reaction do you believe would ensue in throughout the Confederacy as a result? We have plenty of evidence as to how many across the Confederacy (on the home front and in the army) responded to calls to recruit blacks as soldiers in 1864-65.

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  • The exact same authority Linoln relied upon in issuing his EP. The authority exercised, or the lack of it, would have pertained to Davis as it did to Lincoln. The larger issue, of course, both contemporaneously as historically, was, and is, public opinion. Had Davis issued an EP, it would have re-emphasized the fact that the war was over the right of secession and political independence, and nothing else. It would have similarly reduced both EP’s to a political farce.

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    • Had Davis issued an EP, it would have re-emphasized the fact that the war was over the right of secession and political independence, and nothing else.

      Now you know why it wasn’t issued. 🙂

      I am ending this thread as it has moved too far afield from the content of the post.

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  • When academic historians insist that there is no value in the debunking of the “Black Confederate Myth” they seem unaware of the fact that the so-called “myth” is alive and well in places like Harvard University and Connecticut College. Academics with larger audiences than Gary Gallagher has believe it and promulgate it.

    Recent research shows that while those opposed to vaccines are often depicted as backwards, they are in fact better educated and more well-to-do than the general public. Their beliefs are dismissed as internet quackery, but in fact they are more likely to have researched vaccines than their vaccinating neighbors.

    Similarly, while Civil War historians may think that most believers in the Black Confederate Myth are yokels, the folks I know who are swayed by it are the sorts of people who find info on Huff Post and who would run away from anything from the SCV. They view both the North and South as fiercely racist societies and blacks enlisting on both sides makes sense, since there was not that much difference between the two, in their view. If Harvard profs say it, it should be part of the conversation, they would argue.

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    • “[S]ince there was not that much difference between the two, in their view.” I see this sort of comment a lot. There were, indeed, huge differences between the free states and the slave state, starting with slavery itself. However much we deplore Yankee racism, it did not deny the humanity of African-Americans, the right, as Lincoln put it in the Lincoln-Douglas debates, the right of blacks to keep the money they earned, the right to marry and have children. No, the number of white Northerners who would be considered moderate today were few. But then so were the number of white Northern males who supported female suffrage.

      Don’t forget Lincoln invited Douglass to come into the White House, replaced “Dred Scott” Taney with “The Attorney General of the Escaped Slave,” Salmon Chase, as Chief Justice and supported arming 200,000 blacks to fight white Southerners. What 1861 abolitionist, in his wildest dreams would have imagined that happening in their lifetime?

      “The eight years in America from 1860 to 1868 uprooted institutions that were centuries old, changed the politics of a people, transformed the social life of half the country, and wrought so profoundly upon the entire national character that the influence cannot be measured short of two or three generations.” Mark Twain, The Gilded Age, chap. XVIII

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  • And don’t forget that in those Lincoln-Douglas debates Lincoln repeatedly degraded and dehumanized African-Americans by referring to them as “n-words”, and that in those same debates Lincoln emphatically and explicitly advocated white-supremacy. Let’s also not forget that Lincoln endorsed and signed the second Confiscation Act, which had a provision for colonizing African-Americans, which was a lifelong passion of Hones Abe. And let’s also not forget that Lincoln once told a visiting African-American delegation that their race was the cause of the war. And don’t forget that in the entirey of Lincoln’s Cabinet, there was not a single African-American.

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    • If you are suggesting that Lincoln exhibited what was a popular racial outlook among Americans than you are not adding anything new or even interesting. Lincoln’s racial outlook is well known, but your comment implies that Lincoln’s outlook was static. It was not. Lincoln’s thinking evolved on a number of fronts. By the end of the war he was thinking about the suffrage for a select group of black Americans.

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      • By the end of the war he was thinking about the suffrage for a select group of black Americans.

        And he died for saying so.

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        • “And he died for saying so.” PERIOD.

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        • Andy-I think that Frederick Douglass’s magnificent “Oration in Memory of Abraham Lincoln
          Delivered at the Unveiling of The Freedmen’s Monument in Lincoln Park, Washington, D.C.” on
          April 14, 1876 should be mandatory reading in any course on Abraham Lincoln and race http://teachingamericanhistory.org/library/document/oration-in-memory-of-abraham-lincoln/., especially this passage:

          >>I have said that President Lincoln was a white man, and shared the prejudices common to his countrymen towards the colored race. Looking back to his times and to the condition of his country, we are compelled to admit that this unfriendly feeling on his part may be safely set down as one element of his wonderful success in organizing the loyal American people for the tremendous conflict before them, and bringing them safely through that conflict. His great mission was to accomplish two things: first, to save his country from dismemberment and ruin; and, second, to free his country from the great crime of slavery. To do one or the other, or both, he must have the earnest sympathy and the powerful cooperation of his loyal fellow-countrymen. Without this primary and essential condition to success his efforts must have been vain and utterly fruitless. Had he put the abolition of slavery before the salvation of the Union, he would have inevitably driven from him a powerful class of the American people and rendered resistance to rebellion impossible. Viewed from the genuine abolition ground, Mr. Lincoln seemed tardy, cold, dull, and indifferent; but measuring him by the sentiment of his country, a sentiment he was bound as a statesman to consult, he was swift, zealous, radical, and determined.<<

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          • What’s funny is, the Confederate Heritage crowd frequently quotes another part of the that same speech (“He was preeminently the white man’s President, entirely devoted to the welfare of white men. . . .”) to show how awful he supposedly was. It’s dishonest cherry-picking, but I’ve never seen anyone challenge or question it as an accurate reflection of Douglass’ view. It affirms their preferred view of Lincoln as a fraud, and that’s all that matters.

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            • That of course would require contextual thinking, a skill which the heritage crowd lacks. They fail to look at the whole.

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    • Bartleby, As Kevin pointed out, AL grew and changed.

      But your comments need specific response. Who was the first African-American to be appointed to a president’s cabinet and when did it occur? Look it up! Indeed, who was the first woman appointed to the
      Cabinet? Failure to appoint a black cabinet member is irrelevant in any consideration of AL’s ideals.

      Yes, the Second Confiscation Act contained a provision for the US to pay for colonization but the provision was careful to state those immigrated must “may be willing to emigrate.” And when blacks showed no interest, Lincoln dropped the idea.

      As for the meeting with the black leaders, what Lincoln said was “Your race are suffering, in my judgment, the greatest wrong inflicted on any people. . . . Nevertheless, I repeat, without the institution of Slavery and the colored race as a basis, the war could not have an existence.” Seems to be an accurate statement. And when there was no interest in immigration, Lincoln dropped the subject and moved on towards arming the slaves (what a horrible image *that* presented to whites!), and, at the end, giving them votes.

      I might add that Lincoln’s concern about racism well prescient: it took 150 years to elect an African-American president, something that annoys many white Americans. The latter have no problem with John McCain being born in Panama or Ted Cruz in Canada but cannot accept Obama’s Hawaiian birth.

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    • “Lincoln repeatedly degraded and dehumanized African-Americans by referring to them as “n-words”, and that in those same debates Lincoln emphatically and explicitly advocated white-supremacy.”

      No, not “many” times but three during all the debates. Interestingly enough, the last time he referred to “niggers” (I prefer to write out that vile and hateful word, rather than Bowdlerize it. It makes it more stark.) the last he used it was in Hartford, CT in March 1860. He did grow and mature!

      The same is true of white supremacy. Read the Debates and there is a stark difference between the rabid race baiting of Douglas and AL’s arguing the differences.

      By 1865, Abraham Lincoln not only was arming blacks, commissioning a few as officers, advocating their right to vote, and appointing Salmon Chase as Chief Justice (one of the latter’s first acts was to admit a black lawyer to practice before the Court – how Taney must have been rolling in his grave!) – to list only a few examples.

      And do not forget Lincoln fought for the 13th Amendment, and, at a moment when he thought he might be defeated for reelection, insisted the Party platform retain its call for emancipation: what a revolutionary action those were!

      “Few wars in human history have led to such a radical outcome as the liberation of some four million slaves—which meant the confiscation without compensation, which had been paid in some form in most slave emancipations, of a hitherto legally accepted form of property. The slaves’ value came to an estimated $3.5 billion in 1860 dollars. That would be about $68.4 billion in 2003 dollars. But a more revealing figure is the fact that the nation’s gross national product in 1860 was only about 20 percent above the value of slaves, which means that as a share of today’s gross national product, the slaves’ value would come to an estimated $9.75 trillion.

      “As investment capital, the value of the nation’s slaves in 1860 had far exceeded (by perhaps a billion dollars) the cash value of all the farms in the South, including the border states of Delaware, Maryland, Kentucky, and Missouri. In 1860 the Southern slaves were also worth three times the cost of constructing all the nation’s railroads or three times the combined capital invested nationally in business and industrial property. Moreover, despite the deeply rooted white racism in the North as well as the South (in the fall of 1865 Connecticut voted down Negro suffrage), the war led to the nation’s first civil rights legislation and to constitutional amendments that extended to blacks full citizenship and equality before the law as well as the right to vote (for adult black males).

      “When hostilities began, in April 1861, such revolutionary change would have been unthinkable, except perhaps in the fantasies of a few radical abolitionists.” David Brion Davis, _Inhuman Bondage: The Rise and Fall of Slavery in the New World _ (New York, 2006), pp. 298-299

      Who indeed in 1861 would have thought emancipation, let alone uncompensated emancipation, possible!

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