It’s Never Enough (once again on the Black Confederate go-around)

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. [click to continue…]

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New to the Civil War Memory Library, 01/25

Mourning LincolnThe following list includes advanced reader copies, books sent directly from the author or books purchased through my Amazon affiliate account. I am currently reading Martha Hodes’s new book and I can’t recommend it enough. She is a wonderful storyteller.

Megan L. Bever & Scott A. Suarez eds., The Historian behind the History: Conversations with Southern Historians (University of Alabama Press, 2014).

Eric Foner, Gateway to Freedom: The Hidden History of the Underground Railroad (Norton, 2015).

Donald Frazier, Thunder Across the Swamp: The Fight for the Lower Mississippi, February-May 1863 (State House Press, 2011).

Donald Frazier, Fire in the Cane Field: The Federal Invasion of Louisiana and Texas, January 1861–January 1863 (State House Press, 2009).

Donald Frazier ed., Love and War: The Civil War Letters and Medicinal Book of Augustus V. Ball (State House Press, 2010).

David T. Gleeson ed., The Civil War as Global Conflict: Transnational Meanings of the American Civil War (University of South Carolina Press, 2014).

Martha Hodes, Mourning Lincoln  (Yale University Press, 2015).

Jason Sokol, All Eyes are Upon Us: Race and Politics from Boston to Brooklyn (Basic Books, 2014).

Daniel R. Weinfeld ed., After War Times: An African American Childhood in Reconstruction-Era Florida (University of Alabama Press, 2014).

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Jim Downs Comes to the Defense of John Stauffer

We can now add Jim Downs to the list of historians who has decided to wade into the debate about the existence of black Confederate soldiers. Rather than directly engage Stauffer’s claims, however, Downs offers a meta-analysis of my response. He begins by mis-characterizing my own view by suggesting that I believe there were no black Confederate soldiers. I don’t believe that I have ever made such a statement.

The crux of his argument comes down to the following:

The problem of Levin’s criticism lies in its formulation. He is asking Stauffer to retrieve archival evidence from the 19th century that fits a 21st century definition of soldiers. He is asking Stauffer to practice historical research that privileges white, Confederate record-keeping over the ways that black people observed, wrote, and remembered the war. He is asking Stauffer to play according to the rules in which traditional historiography, often the purveyors of epistemic violence, define evidence and engage in archival collecting.

This is simply inaccurate. In fact, anyone who has spent any time reading this blog or the few articles that I’ve published is aware that I am interested primarily in what the concept of the citizen-soldier meant to Americans in the 1860s. More to the point, I am not asking John Stauffer to play by any specific set of rules beyond offering a reasonable interpretation of the evidence that he chose to emphasize. [click to continue…]

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John Stauffer, Black Confederates, and the Case for Military History

Yesterday I wrote a lengthy post in response to an essay by John Stauffer on the controversy surrounding the existence of black Confederates, which appeared in The Root. As you can see I believe there to be numerous factual and conceptual problems with many of the author’s claims. I do not wish to repeat them today. What I do want to suggest, however, is that Stauffer’s overall approach to this subject, specifically relating to the kinds of sources utilized, helps to make the case for increased attention to military history that have recently been made by Gary Gallagher and Katy Meier in the pages of The Journal of the Civil War Era and Earl Hess in Civil War History.

At the center of this controversy is a question about the status of Civil War soldiers. Between 1861 and 1865 somewhere around 3 million Americans served in Union and Confederate ranks. These men have been the subject of serious historical inquiry for at least the last 60 years, going back to Bell Wiley’s Billy Yank and Johnny Reb. The most thorough studies of their recruitment, organization, experience while in the ranks, and eventual discharge is predicated on a thorough understanding of the relevant sources. There are enlistment papers, muster rolls, draft records, compiled service records, and pension records. Both armies were managed by a military and civilian bureaucracy that only adds to the challenge of researching the men on both sides, who volunteered or were drafted. [click to continue…]

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John Stauffer Goes Looking For Black Confederates and Comes Up Empty…Again

I was surprised to see that John Stauffer has once again decided to wade into the debate surrounding black Confederates. You may remember that back in 2011 Stauffer gave a talk at Harvard on the subject, which I attended. Though we had a spirited exchange, I left feeling incredibly disappointed with his overall argument. Earlier today Stauffer published in The Root what is essentially a slightly revised version of his 2011 talk.

Stauffer was generous enough to note that discussions about this subject have appeared on a fairly regular basis on this blog. Unfortunately, his link to this site does not go to a post that I wrote in response to his Harvard talk. To kick things off Stauffer criticizes folks like me, Brooks Simpson, James McPherson and Ta-Nehesi Coates for not taking the existence of black Confederates seriously. Other scholars such as Joseph Reidy, Juliet Walker, Henry Louis Gates and Ervin Jordan apparently have, though apart from a brief quote from Jordan’s book no attempt is made to lay out their arguments. [click to continue…]

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