The National Park Service’s Black Confederates

[Hat-tip to Keith Muchowski]

Update #2: The information sheet has been removed.

Update: I just got off the phone with an NPS employee at Governors Island.  It turns out that the document was published just this month and was written by an undergraduate at Columbia University.  The woman I talked to was very nice and encouraged me to contact the individual in question as well as her supervisor.  It looks like the student used titles by Barrow and Rollins and other books that you can find on SCV websites.  In fact, I stated specifically that if I did not know anything about the document’s origin, I would have guessed that it was written by the SCV.  I will keep you updated.  This is a perfect example of why I am so focused on this subject.

Many of you know that I am a big supporter of the National Park Service and their commitment to battlefield preservation and interpretation/education.  Unfortunately, it appears that the quality of historical scholarship that exists at many sites is not uniform throughout.  At least that is the feeling I am left with after reading the following handout from Governors Island in New York City.  I am going to quote the document in its entirety, which includes a section, titled, “Black Confederates”:

Some black Americans in the South left to fight for the Union army, but 65,000 black men served as Confederate soldiers.  The Confederate States Colored Troops were officially organized in 1865, just months before the war ended.  However, many officers ignored rules banning black soldiers and allowed blacks to fight in biracial units.  Other black soldiers fought in state militias.  Free black soldiers were generally paid equally to white soldiers, unlike the disparate pay rates received by white and black soldiers in the North.  Eligibility for pensions differed by state, but black soldiers often did not receive pensions or received pensions much later than white soldiers.  In South Carolina, for example, black soldiers were considered ineligible for old age pensions until 1923. Black men also built entrenchments and fortifications and served as cooks and teamsters.  People fulfilling these jobs for the Army today would be considered soldiers, but at the time these sorts of tasks were not considered real soldiering.  This contributed to the perceptions of many white Southerners that blacks in the Army were more like servants than soldiers.

Black Southerners had many reasons for fighting for the Confederacy.  Like white Southerners, many held strong loyalties to the particular states in which they resided.  Some slaves were offered freedom for serving in the Confederate Army, while other slaves were required to fight or serve in support roles.  Many black Southerners desired the pay offered by the Confederate Army, as well as the new experiences, adventure, and pride that being a soldier entailed.  Other black Confederates were defending their homes from invading Northern troops, who would sometimes capture large groups of slaves to punish white secessionists, as well as rape black women.

I don’t really know where to begin in critiquing this narrative.  I have no idea how they arrived at a number of 65,000.  The author apparently missed the fact that in South Carolina the pensions were given to former slaves and not to black Confederate soldiers.  There are no documented biracial units in the Confederate army that I know about.  At times there is a failure to clearly distinguish between soldiers and slaves.  In addition, it is news to me that a significant number of white Southerners were confused about the status of the presence of black men with the Confederate army.  I am going to try to find out more about this through some friends in the NPS.  Unfortunately, this is as bad as anything you will find on the Internet.

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John Tenniel’s Black Confederate

A brief analysis of this cartoon is available here.

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Civil Warriors

Additional information about this movie can be found here.

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Ann DeWitt Responds (well, sort of)

I was surprised to find a brief reference to this site over at Ann DeWitt’s black Confederate website (scroll down to bottom of page).  I’ve written quite a bit about the interpretive problems on her site as well as the complete lack of any reference to her qualifications to discuss this subject given her requests for money and hopes that the site will eventually be used by teachers and students.  This is her own understanding of her qualifications:

I believe being an American Citizen is credibility enough to create a website with links to the sources of Civil War documents and historian accounts.  Who owns American History?  We, The People.

Unfortunately, I have no idea what this vague reference is supposed to mean and it is apparent to me that Ms. DeWitt will continue to ignore legitimate questions about the content of her site that I have posted as well as others.  That’s fine.  I will continue to monitor the site and continue to point out the obvious problems.  Yes, everyone has the right to contribute to the Web, but responsibility for what you choose to post follows.

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What Does Your Classroom’s Seating Arrangement Reflect?

I finally finished my last writing assignment for the summer and am ready to think about the new school year.  Due to the amount of construction taking place on our two campuses we have an extra week before classes begin in September.  This year I’ve decided to reevaluate the seating arrangements in my classroom.  In the past I’ve had my desks set up in a semi-circle, which promotes discussion between students without losing the focus on the teacher at the center of the room.  This arrangement has worked well for me in the past, but it is time for a change.  In addition to my AP US History and Civil War courses I will be taking part in a pilot program in American Studies.  The course will run two periods over four days.  The first hour will be spent in a lecture hall setting where all 32 students can come together for joint instruction followed by break out sessions of much smaller groups (pic #1).  The focus of the course will make it possible to connect readings in American literature with more traditional sources found in the history survey course.  It’s going to be an exciting year for me.  What I like is that the smaller sessions will take place around a large table (pic #2), which resembles the Harkness Table and philosophy employed at Phillips Exeter Academy.

This brings me back to my own classroom, where I’ve decided to follow suit and rearrange my desks (pic #3).  I am hoping that this will create an even more intimate environment and promote mature dialog among my students.  It will also allow me to move more easily away from the center of attention when necessary.  All of my classes are designed as student-centered with a strong emphasis on debate and discussion.  That said, it is clear that we are going to have to introduce and train students for this kind of setting.  It does, after all, welcome distraction.  I am looking forward to it.

All the best to those of you who have already started or who are getting ready to head back into the classroom.

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