Update: Here is the link to the text that Ijames reads from in the video below.

Those of you who have followed this blog and commentary about the myth of the black Confederate soldier are all too familiar with Earl Ijames, who is a curator at the North Carolina Museum of History in Raleigh. Ijames claims to be an expert on what he refers to as “Confederates of Color.” It is an incredibly confusing and unhelpful reference.  He is a popular speaker and beloved by Sons of Confederate Veterans and the Abbeville Institute. This past summer Ijames addressed the latter at their annual summer institute. [The video below was uploaded to YouTube on 12/21] I have little doubt that the audience enjoyed his presentation, but it should come as no surprise that it is an absolute mess.

Ijames’s talk is heavy on personal stories and individual accounts, but fails to present much in terms of historical context, especially when it comes to understanding the evolution of the Confederacy’s position on the role of free and enslaved blacks. Ijames fails to address the very public debate that took place in the Confederacy from early 1864 through to close to the end of the war about, slavery, white supremacy, and the place of blacks in the Confederate army. Not surprisingly, this talk also contains very little serious analysis of his sources.

More disturbing are the outright mistakes and distortions. Ijames refers to the fall of New Orleans as having taken place in 1861 and the First Confiscation Act as being passed in 1862. Early on he references the famous photograph of the Louisiana Native Guard that is actually a photograph of Union soldiers that has been intentionally altered. Wow!

James McPherson did not win a Pulitzer Prize for The Negro’s Civil War and John Parker, who Ijames cites from the text was not “formerly enslaved” before the first battle of Manassas.

Even Weary Clyburn, who Ijames has devoted a good deal of research to over the years is confusing. He claims that Clyburn chose to join his master during his training as an officer and cites his pension file as evidence. Perhaps we have different pension files. One affidavit states that “he [WC] went to Columbia with his master to training camp; thence to Charleston, Morris Island, Page’s Point and Hilton Head and other places throughout the war; that at Hilton Head, while under fire of the enemy he carried his master out of the field of fire on his shoulder; that he performed personal services for Robert E. Lee…”

After all these years, Ijames apparently has no better understanding of the racial and political context of pensions for former slaves than when he started. I am playing with the idea of an entire chapter on the pension program in my book with Weary Clyburn as the central figure.

Ijames suggests that there was a distinction between body servants and body guards, but never provides a sufficient explanation. At roughly the 33:00 minute mark he explains how Harvard’s Henry Louis Gates got wrapped up [and here] in all this nonsense about black Confederates.

I wouldn’t get so bent out of shape about this talk, but it is now available for everyone to see. Certainly, Ijames work as a curator at the North Carolina Museum of History will continue to prove beneficial as he presents his new movie on the subject. As for me, it’s just another reason to keep plugging away at the book.

About Kevin Levin

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22 comments add yours

  1. It is baffling that people who were slaves until 1860, and ‘Negroes’ (typically spelled with 2 g’s) after the war became ‘confederates’ from 1861 to 1865.

  2. From the text:

    In 1862, formerly enslaved Frederick Douglass observed “There are at the present moment, many Colored men in the Confederate Army doing duty not only as cooks, laborers and servants but as real soldiers having muskets on their shoulders and bullets in their pockets ready to shoot down… and do what soldiers may do to destroy the Federal Government.”

    That may be the best-known quotation in all of black Confederatedom, and Ijames gets it wrong — the punctuation and capitalization is different in the original, and it’s from the Douglass Monthly of September 1861, not 1862. This is sloppy.

    • Thanks, Andy. There are so many problem with the text and the content of the speech that it’s impossible to know where to begin. What an embarrassment for the North Carolina Museum of History. It just goes to show that knowing how to physically care for an artifact/document does not necessarily mean that you know how to interpret it.

      • Do the errors in the dating and transcription of the text refute his argument that Douglass acknowledged the use of African Americans in military service by Confederates? I understand the sloppiness, but it doesn’t seem to matter if his evidence still supports his argument….

        • The important point to remember about Douglass is that he did not observe these men personally. There are plenty of Union accounts that made it into Northern newspapers about regiments of armed black men, etc., but the vast majority are vague and rarely followed up. The important point about Douglass is that he was trying desperately at this time to convince Lincoln to recruit African Americans into the Union army. Andy Hall has offered some analysis of Douglass’s account, which I highly recommend.

          • Plus, as I’ve pointed out here before, whatever Douglass thought in September 1861, he had taken it all back by January 1862. It’s so telling how some folks love to quote from the initial editorial and then ignore everything else he said on the matter.

            • It’s representative of what passes for “research” in this little corner. Primary sources are interpreted without any context and in isolation of other sources.

            • That for me is more dispositive than the transcription errors in the article. As well as the contextual interpretative issues that Dr. Levin brought up… I’m just not sure how helpful it is to harp on sloppiness in attacking the substance of his argument.

              • Perhaps you can explain what you take to be Ijames’s “argument”. I don’t see much of an interpretation, just individual stories loosely strung together.

  3. Kevin,
    That was very difficult to get through but I persevered because I learned a few things like dowser sticks can find bodies in the ground, the Louisiana Native Guard was at Fortress Monroe in 1861 and Jeff Davis was still lying in State four years after he died. Do you think that if I wait a couple of more years the price for the film will be cheaper than $56.00?
    Seriously though, because this guy has a title of curator it gives him a certain standing with the uninformed and some of those folks would consider him to be an authority. This is sad.

  4. I’m watching his lecture now. I think the McPherson error is a minor one and I actually think that he does try to make a distinction between bodyguards and body servants (whatever you might make of it) His sense of humor is just strange though….

    • The talk is an absolute mess as others have already noted. The disappointing thing is that this sloppiness in handling evidence and his inability to engage in anything close to serious analysis helps to perpetuate some of the worst myths about the Confederacy and African Americans.

      • You could say that, but I also think (without reading much of his work) that he is attempting to make an argument for what he would call a more nuanced understanding of the relationship between African Americans and the Confederacy. I’m not sure how much historical merit there is to his work, but I’m not entirely certain that he or his methods are sinister/that some of his research is without foundation.

        • There is nothing nuanced about anything in this presentation which is par for the course for Ijames. He has never published his research in a reputable publication.

    • Ah, but Thomas Clyburn was a good master. That counts for something, right? He certainly seems to have a sense of what he thinks his audience wants to hear….

  5. Hi,

    I thought I would respond to Dr. Levin’s query about as to what I see Mr. Ijames’ argument to be. I want to note that a) this is not my area of expertise b) I’m pretty skeptical of the ends which the existence of “colored Confederates” can be used for. Whether or not a few African Americans made their way into Confederate ranks, the war was about slavery and the fact that some black people might have found it in their self-interest to fight in the CSA or to claim to have fought in the CSA decades later doesn’t change that.

    With that said, I think that Mr. Ijames has a pretty interesting argument regardless of its holes AND his sloppiness in handling his evidence. He seems to be arguing that it is more accurate to think of the American Civil War in the same light as the Revolutionary War. Until the Emancipation Proclamation, the Civil War was about the struggle between the Confederacy and Union for political control of the southern states. Lincoln was reluctant to utilize black people in the Union cause, but the Confederacy made full use of African Americans as laborers, bodyguards (ergo, the whole dubious bodyguard/body servant distinction he made) and soldiers since this was a purely political rather than social conflict. When Lincoln saw the necessity of using slave soldiers, this meant that black people were now fighting on both sides of the conflict. Some of those black people escaped from Confederate service to fight for the Union and were able to do so because of their training under Confederate service. (This previous paragraph is my summation of what I see as Ijames’ argument, I’m not endorsing it)

    Three things:

    1) I think it’s important to note that Ijames acknowledges again and again in his talk the importance of the Emancipation Proclamation and its impact on the lives of black men and women in bondage. He’s not completely deluded about the nature of black life in the antebellum and Civil War South.

    2) I don’t know Ijames, but I’m going to engage in a bit of historical psychoanalysis here which is both dangerous and unfair. (But, still… why not??) I thought it was strange, but the more I think about it, it’s pretty significant that he started with the yarn about collard greens and cornbread. There is a long tradition of southern African Americans seeking to find common ground by establishing their southernness. (Louis Harlan detailed how Booker T. Washington did this in his magisterial biography) I wonder if that is influencing Ijames work on “Colored Confederates” Or I’m just full of it….

    3) This has been a fascinating discussion for me to follow. It makes me very sorry that I’ll be giving up my elective course on the Civil War next year. Perhaps I can find a way to work this debate into the African American history elective I’ll be developing for next year!

    Best,

    James Lewis

    • Thanks for trying to untangle the argument. I still don’t understand it. One detail: Lincoln and the Union did not have any “slave soldiers”, but a combination of free-born African Americans and former slaves. IIRC, the very few slaves enlisted by the Confedarcy in 1865 were to be free after completing (and surviving) their military service.

    • Lincoln was reluctant to utilize black people in the Union cause, but the Confederacy made full use of African Americans as laborers, bodyguards (ergo, the whole dubious bodyguard/body servant distinction he made) and soldiers since this was a purely political rather than social conflict. When Lincoln saw the necessity of using slave soldiers, this meant that black people were now fighting on both sides of the conflict.

      The Confederacy certainly utilized as much of its slave labor as possible. None of this is news. Historians have written extensively about it. The Confederacy did not pass legislation authorizing the enlistment of slaves as soldiers til March 1865. Ijames makes no mention of this in his talk nor have I ever heard him refer to the debate that took place over this issue that began at the beginning of the war and picked up steam in 1864. This is a huge interpretive problem. The Abbeville Institute and Sons of Confederate Veterans also have no interest in hearing it because it doesn’t fit their agenda. Now you know why Ijames is a popular speaker.

      I highly recommend reading Bruce Levine’s book, Confederate Emancipation, which explores the debate in full. You can also find my own publications if you click the “CV” tab and go to “Article Downloads.”

      Whether or not a few African Americans made their way into Confederate ranks, the war was about slavery and the fact that some black people might have found it in their self-interest to fight in the CSA or to claim to have fought in the CSA decades later doesn’t change that.

      I pretty much agree with the thrust of this point. A number of former slaves claimed to have fought in Confederate ranks decades after the war, but those claims must be understood as a reflection of the racial climate of the late 19th century and not necessarily as what, in fact, took place during the war.

    • “He seems to be arguing that it is more accurate to think of the American Civil War in the same light as the Revolutionary War. Until the Emancipation Proclamation, the Civil War was about the struggle between the Confederacy and Union for political control of the southern states.”

      Two things here. The first is that while there were certainly parallels between the Civil War and American Revolution, they had vastly different causes. This links to the second point. The Civil War was not about the political control of the Southern states. It was about the expansion of slavery into the western territories. No state in the South was being coerced in any way to give up slavery.

      The primary sources on this are clear. They are numerous. The people of the South made it quite clear as to the reason for secession. They were rather eloquent about it. The secession documents and speeches made it crystal clear as to the cause of the sectionalism. It was the issue of slavery which drove everything in the rift between sections.

      For slavery to continue to exist and sustain the “way of life” the southern society had developed, it needed to expand. Otherwise it would wither and die. The only expansion possible was to the West in the territories secured via the Treaty of Guadalupe Hidalgo. Those territories were under the control of the federal government. Beginning with the Wilmot Proviso and continuing all the way into the war itself, the fight over slavery’s expansion into those territories was first and foremost the main argument between the sections. The Compromise of 1850, the Kansas-Nebraska Act, various pieces of legislation over affairs in the West, and Bloody Kansas itself were over slavery’s expansion into the West.

      It is pretty easy to see that the cause of the Civil War was not about the political control of the South. It was over slavery’s expansion to the West and the South losing control of the federal government to force slavery’s expansion in the West. Thomas Jefferson had pointed out the stupidity of using the power of the federal government to expand or deny slavery in new territories in his Firebell in the Night letter. He saw that the sectionalism that would develop from the Missouri Compromise. He saw the need to leave it up to the people of the territories to decide the issue. That was not something slaveowners could let happen by 1860. They had to have control of the federal government to expand slavery and without that control they knew it would not expand.

      This is basic stuff. The cause of secession was the expansion of slavery into the West. If Ijames says it is about political control of the South, then Ijames is flat out wrong.

  6. 1) What are ‘Confederates of Color?” I’ve never encountered this nonsense term before today.
    2) What qualifications does Mr. Ijames have, other than being curator at a the North Carolina Museum of History? Digging around on the museum’s website reveals nothing.
    3) Is this North Carolina Museum of History the same place that is affiliated with the Smithsonian, or has he pulled a credentials trick? Let me reiterate, there’s nothing on the museum website about Mr. Ijames.
    4) Does anyone have any idea where we can find a copy of the handout that’s being used or textbook he’s referring to?
    5) His introduction seems to talk about Confederates of Color being inducted into the US Army, perhaps as a chapter of the textbook? Wait wait – this drivel is being taught at a college in a history department?
    6) I’m about 5 minutes in and it really seems like Mr. Ijames is making an analogy between Cornwalis freeing slaves that will fight for him and Lincoln freeing all the slaves in the rebellious states not under occupation…
    7) Wow. Almost six minutes into this video before Mr. Ijames mentions slavery – of course, in connection with there being slavery in the North during the Revolutionary Era.
    8) This guy just talked about helping a 9th grade student who is a firefighter… I know things are rough around the US right now, but I’m misunderstanding, right?
    9) This is painful. Even when Mr. Ijames has an ancedote that might be interesting, if well-handled, his presentation kills any chance of that.
    10) He’s talking about North Carolina calling for recruits, whites and free blacks, in 1861 at the start of the War. Surely he’s going to show us a newspaper article as evidence. Nope, he went with an ancedote from two people, the Brooks brothers. Unfortunately, the plural of ancedote is not evidence.
    11) This is so painful to watch. His stories turn into tangents of tangents of tangents.
    12) He’s reading most of this lecture from prepared notes and yet botched the capture of New Orleans.
    13) Pro tip – when you are giving a recorded lecture to a classroom full of people that is being recorded for posterity, use the projector that’s turned on to display your exhibits, rather than leaving them on a table.
    14) O, this hurts too much. Yes, its true. Blacks helped the Confederates achieve alot in the first few years of the war – doing work that freed up whites to serve as soldiers on the firing line. Opportunity ignored.
    15) Does anyone have a copy of the McPherson book? Is Ijames accurately describing its contents?
    16) This hurts so much more than I thought possible. He’s now describing or alluding to some sort of vast conspiracy which required him to do underground research…
    17) Was the term ‘colored’ actually being used as a term of art back in the antebellum period?
    .

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