Correction: America Through Time is an imprint of Fonthill Media, not The History Press. Arcadia Publishing & The History Press distributes these titles for Fonthill.
A few weeks ago I briefly mentioned the forthcoming release of Phillip T. Tucker’s book Blacks in Gray Uniforms: A New Look at the South’s Most Forgotten Combat Troops 1861-1865. I expressed concern over the use of the iconic image of Andrew and Silas Chandler as the book’s cover art since Silas never served as a soldier during the war and that it did not bode well for the rest of the book.
At the time a few people suggested that I was criticizing a book simply because it had beaten me to the punch. Nothing could be further from the truth. In fact, I am always on the lookout for new studies that promise to provide insight into this subject. Given the delay in preparing my own manuscript for publication I fully anticipated that I might be competing with another author.
I was hoping that this book might include some useful analysis or point me to new sources, but unfortunately Tucker’s contribution is an absolute mess. In fact, it is one of the worst history books that I have ever read in any subject area. This is made all the more painful given that Tucker holds a PhD in American history from St. Louis University.
Tucker is convinced that “a strict politically-based correctness have crept into the field of Civil War historiography to ordain what is considered to be acceptable in compliance with the day’s most popular and fashionable political climate that has little, if anything, to do with actual history.” (p. 14) The author fails to provide a single shred of evidence in support of this claim or even explain what it means, but that doesn’t prevent him from repeating it on practically every other page.
The narrative itself is unorganized and passage after passage is left without any reference. As for the bibliography, Tucker relies on a small number of sources, but the most popular one is …wait for it… John Stauffer’s 2015 essay “Yes, there were Black Confederates. Here’s Why,” which was published in The Root. This source is cited throughout the book along with a short piece published in the Harvard Gazette from 2011. Tucker accepts Stauffer’s claim that somewhere between 3-6,000 black men fought as soldiers in the Confederate army without any question, even though Stauffer himself never provides an explanation for these numbers. The author also makes use of some of the most popular references on the Internet from Lewis Steiner to Frederick Douglass. They are all present.
There are also some truly bizarre claims in this book. Here is a sample from the introduction in which Tucker attempts to explain why it is necessary to move beyond our “politically-based explanations of history.”
As previously mentioned, the notable example of the large numbers of Jewish soldiers who served with distinction and courage in the ranks of Germany’s Wehrmacht has also provided another appropriate analogy that has similarly overturned a host of simplistic stereotypes, misconceptions, and popular assumptions. After all, some of Hitler’s Jewish soldiers won medals for courage on the battlefield, even while the Holocaust’s unspeakable horrors were in full swing in one of the cruelest paradoxes of World War II. Like the Confederate experience, so the German experience in the 1940s was more complex than has been generally assumed. (p. 13)
Tucker fails to provide any sort of reference for this claim.
The author appears to have no understanding of the evolution of Confederate military policy toward free and enslaved blacks during the war. Any evidence that a black man stepped foot on a battlefield or brandished a weapon is considered sufficient evidence of service as a soldier. Tucker refers to cases where an individual’s enslaved status is clear as a “slave-soldier” or “servant-soldier.” This is an ahistorical reference if ever there was one. In addition, while he acknowledges that the Confederacy never approved of the recruitment of slaves as soldiers until March 1865, Tucker maintains that these men served as soldiers in an “unofficial capacity.”
Tucker never deals seriously with the enlistment debate and fails to offer any guidance on how so many black men could have served in such a capacity without anyone acknowledging it during this very public and divisive debate.
Ultimately, Tucker’s research into specific people is what best reflects his skill (or lack thereof) as a historian. And here we come to Silas Chandler. Before we proceed let’s keep in mind how easy it now is to get this story right. You have the recent episode of The History Detectives, the classification of the photograph of Andrew and Silas by the Library of Congress, and you even have my own article, which I co-authored with one of Silas’s descendants for Civil War Times magazine.
Here are a few excerpts from Tucker’s extensive “analysis” of the image and available evidence:
One of the most remarkable photographs of the Civil War has depicted a fully-armed black and fully-uniformed Confederate soldier, Silas Chandler.
This photo shows Silas Chandler and Andrew Martin Chandler sitting together in uniforms of gray and in full battle gear: a rare view of two Confederate soldiers, one black and one white and side-by-side and about to meet the Yankee invaders. Even more, the tintype has revealed a physical representation of an invisible, but all-important, bond of brothers in arms that has been expressed in many Confederate letters of enlisted men and officers. Significantly, this image has also revealed ties that bound two men of different races together and as one at a crucial turning point in American history. In fact, Silas is wearing a uniform that is more formal than that of his youthful master, presenting an overall more professional military look, including the military brass buttons of a uniform jacket buttoned all the way up to his neck in contrast to his more casually-attired owner. (pp. 120-21)
Nowhere does Tucker acknowledge Silas’s legal status or attempt to interpret the image within the analytical framework of the master-slave relationship and the coercive nature of slavery.
Tucker offers the following for those who disagree with his analysis:
Ironically, these Black Confederate deniers, especially on the internet and blogs, where they had a disproportionate influence thanks to their savvy manipulation of social media and faithful cronies to champion their cause and parrot their views, are themselves the true revisionists, and more for political purposes rather than anything to do with history.
In consequence, they have routinely and casually dismissed the obvious validity of the Chandler photograph for what it actually represented of a genuine Black Confederate, despite no evidence to make their typical anti-historical claim that Silas was allegedly merely dressed up for show: allegedly, nothing more than a facade and funny lark to fool the public, as the dissenters always claim with smug, but ill-founded and unhistorical confidence. (pp. 122-23)
Guess I should take a bow. This would be funny and could easily be brushed aside if it was discovered on one of the Facebook pages or books from within the neo-Confederate community, but Tucker claims to be offering an objective and serious analysis of the subject and advertises his PhD in American history in its support.
This book is published by America Through Time,
which is an imprint of The History Press. It should be noted that this publisher does not put their publications through any kind of peer review. It is left to individual authors to fact check and ensure that their claims are sound. Tucker’s advanced degree will certainly appeal to those people desperate to find credentialed historians who support this narrative in the same way that the author relies without question on John Stauffer’s Harvard affiliation.
This does not change the fact that Blacks in Gray Uniforms is the worst book on this subject to ever have been published.