Henry Louis Gates and PBS Fall For Black Confederate Myth…Again

Update: Early on in the production of this episode a producer with Finding Their Roots reached out to a reputable historian about the ongoing research into Martin Lamotte. In an email exchange that I have seen the producer was told specifically that the Louisiana Native Guard was never accepted into service by the Confederate government. This raises important questions about the integrity of this program’s research process.

Tonight’s episode of PBS’s Finding Your Roots, hosted by Henry Louis Gates, included a segment on Bryant Gumbel’s family history. His family’s roots in New Orleans led to the revelation that Gumbel’s great-grandfather, Martin Lamotte, who was freed in 1840, served in the Louisiana Native Guard. Gates concludes from this that Lamotte was a Confederate soldier. Of course, anyone who knows anything about the Louisiana Native Guard knows that this unit was never accepted into Confederate service.

Gates insists that Martin Lamotte was a soldier in the Confederate army until he switched uniforms and joined the Union army.

This is one of the most common mistakes made by people who fall for the black Confederate myth. It is true that the men of the Native Guard pledged their loyalty to the Confederacy and as Gates suggests many of these free blacks may have done so to protect their economic interests, but again they never were accepted into the Confederate army.  The reason is because the Confederate government refused to accept black men into the service until the final weeks of the war.

How can the show’s researchers be so careless? At this point there is simply no excuse for this kind of oversight.

This is not the first time that Gates has become seduced by the black Confederate myth. Why is not entirely clear. Gates has never done any serious research on the subject. He appears to believe that the black Confederate shows that African Americans cannot be easily labeled or their behavior predicted. He once told me following a talk at Harvard that the reason I deny the existence of these men is because I resist acknowledging that African Americans are complex or “complicated.”

This is another case of Gates allowing the shock value of the black Confederate narrative to take precedence over solid historical research. What is most disappointing is that his guests end up as the victim. Bryant Gumbel is now in possession of a fundamentally flawed account of an important moment in his family’s story.

Everyone at Finding Your Roots should be embarrassed, especially Henry Louis Gates. PBS should acknowledge the error publicly and issue a statement. This is just the kind of thing that will be picked up by individuals and groups that push this myth. They will point to the credibility of PBS as well as Gates’s connection to Harvard.

Yes, this story will just make it into my black Confederates manuscript.

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32 comments… add one
  • Gary McGuire Nov 1, 2021 @ 10:45

    Hey Kevin,

    Would mulattoes count as legitimate examples of black men serving for the Confederacy ????

    • Kevin Levin Nov 1, 2021 @ 15:20

      You should consult official Confederate documents on this question.

  • Randy Greene Nov 9, 2017 @ 18:17


  • Sharon Boone Nov 9, 2017 @ 17:49

    Don’t really care how Gate’s present the vagueness of his “finding’s”. His bias toward Creole’s/People of Color from Louisiana upsets me greatly because no one seems to present us in a positive, truthful way.

  • Tushanna Nov 8, 2017 @ 9:48

    While it does not directly relate to this story and the Native Guard, Camp Moore has several examples on it’s rolls of mixed race Confederate soldiers who served and should have been considered African American. You can’t talk about the entire African American Civil War experience and discount that some people were already passing by the 1860’s and were 3rd-4th generation Louisiana FPOC with French surnames or melungeon families out of Colonial Carolinas and VA with African and Native American ancestors. There were a number of FPoC slave owning families in La who had been free since the 1700s and had economic incentive to serve in the Confederacy, at least initially. The fact that they were 1/4-1/8 African doesn’t make them less African American, particularly when later those lines continue to marry other African Americans in subsequent generations. The fact that they may not have self identified as AA or weren’t “outed” as such in that particular place and time just makes their experience atypical. The cousin who I found in my tree deserted the CSA by 1865. His grandmother was a slave owning FWoC. Some of his other cousins served for the Union. The truth is often complicated.

    • Joshism Nov 9, 2017 @ 18:16

      “The fact that they may not have self identified as AA or weren’t ‘outed’ as such in that particular place and time just makes their experience atypical.”

      The Black Confederate Myth isn’t about partly-black soldiers passing as white; it has to do with blacks openly serving as black soldiers.

  • Darryl Barthe Nov 8, 2017 @ 8:33

    I am a Creole from New Orleans and a professor of history. I also have ancestors who were in the Louisiana Native Guard.

    It is not true that the Native Guard was not accepted in Confederate Service. With that said, many guardsman, after the fall of New Orleans, suggested that they had been strong-armed and threatened by whites to join the guard (to prove their “patriotism”), which was initially conceived as a “marching unit” (i.e. a group to march around for PR photos but not to actually fight). The guardsmen’s commanders resigned their commissions in light of the racism of enlisted white confederates and without their officers, the rank and file abandoned the Native Guard. Those same guardsmen reformed a unit under the Union which was fielded and fought valiantly at Port Hudson. This battle birthed the legend of Andre Cailloux, the Creole hero who claimed to be of “pure African” ancestry, and who served as a symbol of black resistance to White Supremacy in the aftermath of the Civil War in New Orleans.

    You can read more on Cailloux here:


  • DTC Nov 8, 2017 @ 8:14

    Hmmmm. OK, I confess that I very much enjoy Finding Your Roots. I am a historian by training and a genealogist by obsession, so Gates pushes some of my favorite buttons. In your defense, I agree that better care on presenting the facts of a particular event in history can only be a good thing. In Gates’ defense, his program on PBS is entertainment. Furthermore, as a people, our official history is filled with mythology. Frankly, there are so many myths, it’s almost impossible to cut through all of them. Historians, like everyone else, sometimes fall victim to both myth and bias, not to mention ignorance. None of us rise fully above those traps. So my advice is to send Gates a nice note, colleague to colleague, pointing out his error. Could be, he’ll correct the matter himself if given the chance.

    • Kevin Levin Nov 8, 2017 @ 8:22

      I appreciate your comment, but I think you are letting Gates and PBS off the hook too easily. Mistakes will be made and no one is perfect, but this is not the first time that Gates has pushed this myth. In fact, he once accused me of not acknowledging the complexity of the black experience. The black Confederate narrative is a pervasive and pernicious myth that seeks to re-cast the Confederacy as a progressive experiment in race relations. Gates has a responsibility as a public intellectual to ensure that the research progress is rigorous. As I mentioned in the update to this post, producers were told by a reputable historian who was consulted that the LNG was not a Confederate unit and that therefore Gumbel’s ancestor could not have been a Confederate soldier.

      Unfortunately, I suspect that Gates is more interested in the shock value of the black Confederate narrative than he is in history. The price that was paid in this case is that Bryant Gumbel now has a distorted understanding of his family history. An ethical line was crossed here.

      • DTC Nov 8, 2017 @ 9:27

        I watched the episode, and I think “shock value” is a bit strong–though it clearly made for an entertaining exchange. I am not a Southern historian, but I am aware of the value many Southerners place on the myths that surround the Confederacy. My own family, new to the South at the outset of the “War Between the States,” has a secretly chequered past. Our ancestor objected to the war, was conscripted into the Confederate Army, then deserted at the first opportunity. That, of course, is the short version. But it is not untruthful. Most of my contemporaries within the family point proudly to a Confederate ancestor, which is also technically factual. History, black or otherwise, IS complicated. Gates is right about that. The deeper we dig, the more complicated it gets.

        I accept your complaint about the historiography Gates employed, but the rest of his narrative at least partially redeems him. When all is said and done, Gumbel’s ancestor acted out of a sense of self-preservation. He joined a unit of the Native Guard. Whether the Confederacy accepted him or not, he joined and publicly promised to defend his community. When given the opportunity, he joined the Union Army–again, I’m sure that’s the short story. He was, as I seem to recall from the exchange between Gumbel and Gates, a practical man.

        All things considered, I don’t believe we need to make the perfect the enemy of the good. It was an interesting and useful episode. I don’t think clarification of the status of the Guard needs to include impinging the character of either Gates or PBS. It is just another historical nuance that requires clarification. So clarify–point out the misrepresentation–but try not to assign base motives to someone who has, in my opinion, done much to educate the public about the African-American experience and about American diversity in general. My two cents.

        • Kevin Levin Nov 8, 2017 @ 9:30

          We obviously disagree about the importance of not taking people’s family histories and manipulating them in the name of a more attractive story.

          • DTC Nov 8, 2017 @ 9:41

            Nicely done–manipulating my comments into something they clearly were not. The facts simply do not support your conclusion, which now seems to put you and Gates on the same plane.

            • Kevin Levin Nov 8, 2017 @ 9:44

              Nonsense. You appear to be willing to look beyond historical errors that speak to a fundamental misunderstanding of the history of the Confederacy and the place of African Americans in the evolution of that war.

        • Algernon Ward Jr. Nov 8, 2017 @ 12:52

          Your point of “not making the perfect the enemy of the good” is well taken. No one I know of does everything right, including me. Further, I admit my earlier comment is colored by a personal affront to my own family by “Skip”. This discussion prompted me to read-up on the Louisiana Native Guards last night, and their motivations were indeed “complex” to a casual observer, but for African Americans it is quite simple – self preservation. The bottom line is that their militia unit was disbanded by the LA Governor on Feb.15, 1862, but reinstated in March when Farragut entered the Mississippi. When Farragut captured New Orleans on April 29, 1862, and Confederate Maj. Gen. Lovell abandoned the city, he once again disbanded the Native Guards. By August 24th due to the potential for Confederate counter-attacks, a need for reinforcements and a lack of distinct instructions from Washington to Gen. Butler’s inquiries, the Louisiana Native Guards officially began recruitment to be part of the Union Army. On September 27, 1862 the 1st Regiment of the Louisiana Native Guards became the first officially sanctioned unit of African American soldiers in the United States Army. They were never enlisted or employed as combat soldiers for the Confederate Army, therefore any claims to them as “Confederate Soldiers” is simply factually incorrect.

  • Waymon Hinson Nov 8, 2017 @ 8:01

    I have always been under the impression that enslaved Africans were obligated to serve along their masters when they masters were conscripted in the CSA. True or false? Also, the PBS “find your roots” with Gumbel showed that his ancestor joined in New Orleans but that he became a Union soldier not long after that? Does that have legitimacy for a free black man?

    • Kevin Levin Nov 8, 2017 @ 8:06

      It was quite common for Confederate officers and even some enlisted soldiers from the slave holding class to bring a slave or what they would have called a “body servant” with them into the army. These men answered to their masters and did not fit into the military hierarchy. Tens of thousands of enslaved people were impressed at different times during the war to do various jobs for the Confederacy. They were not considered to be soldiers.

      It is certainly significant that Gumbel’s ancestor joined the Union army, but we should be careful to assume motivation without sufficient evidence. On the face of it his service undercuts the Lost Cause argument that enslaved people and free blacks remained loyal to the Confederacy. That is exactly what the black Confederate myth is designed to vindicate.

  • Paul David Nov 8, 2017 @ 6:49

    My great grandfather (FPOC) did serve in the Confederate Army of Virginia as a cook. 1862/3, he also received a pension for his service.

    • Kevin Levin Nov 8, 2017 @ 6:51

      He did not receive a pension as a Confederate soldier. Unless he was living in North Carolina he filled out a different pension form. I deal with pension in a chapter in my forthcoming book on this subject.

  • andersonh1 Nov 8, 2017 @ 6:35

    Do you consider other state militia units and home guard units that did not become a part of the Confederate army to be Confederate soldiers? If not, what were they?

    The 1st Louisiana Native Guards were recognized by Governor Moore of that state as a “military organization” and ordered to report to the commander of the state militia. When the militia was reorganized and the group disbanded, the governor as commander in chief of the state militia called them back into service and commanded them to “maintain their organization” and “hold themselves prepared for… orders”. That’s about as official as it gets. I don’t see that they need the seal of approval by the national government as well to make them a legitimate military unit.

    • Kevin Levin Nov 8, 2017 @ 6:53

      The only thing that is “official” in your comment is that the state of Louisiana organized militia units of black men early in the war. As I have said over and over this was different than a Confederate unit. At least that is how the Confederate military and government viewed it and that is all that matters. #FACTSMATTER

    • Andy Hall Nov 8, 2017 @ 7:09

      The Louisiana Native Guard was a state militia unit that was declined to be accepted into the provisional Confederate army (as virtually all antebellum white militia units were), was never issued a full complement of weapons, and was administratively wiped out of existence when the State of Louisiana rewrote the militia law to bar non-white members. In April 1862, when Farragut threatened New Orleans, they offered to return to service, but were turned away.

      That’s the succinct versions of the history of the Louisiana Native Guard. Their willing service was rejected not only by the national government, but ultimately by the State of Louisiana as well. Those men were figuratively spat on by national and state authorities, and would probably be very angry to know that “heritage” folks today cite them as an example of how the Confederacy embraced men of color. It’s a fraud.

      • Kevin Levin Nov 8, 2017 @ 7:15

        Anyone interested in this story should read James Hollandsworth’s short book, The Louisiana Native Guards: The Black Military Experience During the Civil War (Louisiana State University Press).

      • andersonh1 Nov 8, 2017 @ 7:51

        The state of Louisiana recognized them from May 1861 to February 1862, and even after the state disbanded them, they were recalled to service by Governor Moore, order 426, March 24, 1862 as quoted in the OR. They were not organized by the state of Louisiana, they volunteered (“willing service” as you correctly note) and their services were accepted. They did not have to be treated well or serve throughout the war to make that legal recognition legitimate, so being “spat on” by the national government, while a fair criticism, is irrelevant when it comes to their status.

        If willing military service (for whatever motivation), recognized by the law and the governor of a Confederate state does not make one a Confederate, I’m not sure anything could. Was Louisiana a member of the Confederate States of America? Without a doubt. And so I don’t see how any government sanctioned military organization of Louisiana would not have been considered Confederate. What else could they be? What would the United States government have considered Louisiana militia? I doubt very much they split hairs over the status of the enemy military.

        • Kevin Levin Nov 8, 2017 @ 7:59

          If you choose to ignore the fact that the Confederate government denied them the opportunity to serve as a Confederate unit than that is your choice. Yes, Louisiana was a Confederate state, but the LNG fell within a state military system and not that of the national government. That is a distinction that Confederates themselves believed was important and they drew a distinction.

          And so I don’t see how any government sanctioned military organization of Louisiana would not have been considered Confederate. What else could they be?

          The fact that this is a question for you tells us everything we need to know about how you approach this subject. All you have to do is read what Confederates had to say about blacks serving in the army throughout the war.

          “Our position with the North and before the World will not allow the employment as armed soldiers of Negroes.” Confederate Secretary of War James Seddon (1863).

        • Andy Hall Nov 8, 2017 @ 8:32

          I stated quite clearly that they were, in fact, a state militia unit.

          As for what the U.S. government would have seen them as, we’ll never know because the State of Louisiana never sufficiently armed them or put them into the field.

          Woulda, coulda, shoulda.

  • Justin Peppars Nov 8, 2017 @ 5:56

    Dr. Gates has a propensity to give these trite recitals of Black History on PBS…I felt underwhelmed wth his show on Black in Cuba, too…perhaps it is due to the time constraints of having a show on TV. But honestly he has to do better.

  • Paul Nov 8, 2017 @ 5:29

    Ok you say a Myth yet “The reason is because the Confederate government refused to accept black men into the service until the final weeks of the war”. So is there a time line to Myth and truth? They either served or they didn’t, be it one day or several weeks they served.

    • Kevin Levin Nov 8, 2017 @ 6:55

      The myth as it has evolved over the past few decades fails to acknowledge the steps taken in the final weeks (and in an act of desperation) to recruit slaves as soldiers. Proponents insist that this was the case beginning in 1861. That is simply false.

  • David McCallister Nov 8, 2017 @ 4:18

    Prof. Gates once filmed a show for PBS about Lincoln, “Looking For Lincoln”. If I remember right, he went to a Sons of Confederate Veterans National Reunion and witnessed the warm reception by the SCV of the descendants of Confederate soldiers who were African American. Gates was introduced to a side of Lincoln which he said, in effect, was “not the Lincoln I grew up with”. His eyes were opened to the Lincoln Hagiography Myth, and the egregious narrative of demonization of Confederates and their descendants.

    • Kevin Levin Nov 8, 2017 @ 4:22

      Yes. I write about this encounter in my book. I believe this was Gates’s introduction to this narrative. He met Earl Ijames while filming in Raleigh as well. The event was organized by the SCV to honor Weary Clyburn and his daughter Maddie Rice.

  • Algernon Ward Jr. Nov 7, 2017 @ 19:38

    My West Virginia cousins grew up with “Skip” and a few were his classmates. They recalled to me that he was fond of gossip, and on more than one occasion preferred it over the truth. They are still incensed with him for recanting a salacious lie about my aunts in one his books about their home town with no basis in fact. He simply repeated a rumor he was told without any further evidence. For one with such impressive credentials and reputation as a historian, publishing gossip without regard to the harm it does, dulls the shine of an otherwise bright career. No doubt Skip Gates is an excellent historian most of the time, but he does indeed go off the tracks on occasion and is reticent to admit when he is wrong. I suppose it’s just human nature to believe that all the compliments one gets makes one infallible. Even world renown historians make mistakes.

  • Will Hickox Nov 7, 2017 @ 17:50

    “He once told me following a talk at Harvard that the reason I deny the existence of these men is because I resist acknowledging that African Americans are complex or ‘complicated.'” Wow. That was a deeply insulting and disappointing thing for a respected historian to say about one of the leading authorities on the black Confederate myth.

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