Earl Ijames, Henry Louis Gates, and “Colored Confederates”

[Hat-tip to Patrick L. Lewis]

I have written extensively about Earl Ijames’s mishandling of evidence related to the presence of black southerners (free and enslaved) in Confederate armies, but it is truly disturbing to learn that a historian such as Henry L. Gates endorses his shoddy research.  You can find the following in Gates’s book, Lincoln on Race and Slavery:

pp.xxxviii-xxxix “The pioneering research of Earl Ijames reveals that some slaves bore arms, and some free Negroes in the South actually enlisted and fought in the Confederate Army, as Frederick Douglass as early as 1861 warned Lincoln they would do, in an attempt to persuade Lincoln to authorize the use of black men as soldiers.”

And the subsequent footnote, p.lxvi n13. “Earl L. Ijames, correspondence, November 17, 2008; … Ijames, the curator of the North Carolina Museum of History, says that, among others, the Fortieth Regiment of North Carolina Troops, Company D, included several free black men who enlisted voluntarily and fought with guns in combat against the North.  His book Colored Confederates is forthcoming.”

First, it is important to acknowledge that Ijames has done nothing that would count as serious research on this subject.  In 15 years of study he has not published a single peer-reviewed article and there is no evidence of a forthcoming book on the subject.  I suspect that Gates first made contact with Ijames during the filming of his recent PBS documentary “Looking for Lincoln.”  One episode includes a ceremony sponsored by the SCV honoring Weary Clyburn as a Confederate soldier, which I am unable to pin down.  Ijames spoke at this ceremony, though he has waffled on drawing any firm conclusions about Clyburn’s status.

Ijames is scheduled to give a talk this coming Wednesday [Aug. 18] at the North Carolina Museum of History in Raleigh, North Carolina.  It is unfortunate that a branch of the North Carolina Office of Archives and History, which is also Ijames’s employer, would allow him to speak on this subject.  No doubt, his talk will follow the same line as a recent presentation which was recorded and can be accessed here.  [Click here for an outline of this talk.]

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Looking For a Few Good Men

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Response to Critics

I received my author copies of the most recent issue of Civil War Times magazine, which includes my feature story on the Crater, so I assume it is now available at your local newsstand.  A few days ago Dana Shoaf passed on an email and asked me to respond for the next issue.  It’s an interesting comment and one that I suspect others have struggled with.

I was very disappointed in Kevin M. Levin’s article on the execution of black Union soldiers by the Confederate Army after the Battle of the Crater during the Petersburg siege.  Mr. Levin gives quite a good accounting that explains the motivation of the Confederate troops.  However, he utterly fails to differentiate between explanation and excuse. The Confederate troops perpetrated a war crime, as there is no other way to describe the wanton murder of captured American soldiers in uniform. As such, these Confederates join the ranks of the German SS troops who murdered American prisoners at Malmedy during the Battle of the Bulge and those Japanese soldiers who did the same on countless occasions to captured Americans in the Pacific Theatre.  I fail to see any difference between these incidents. I can only imagine the disgust felt by your African-American readers; mine is fairly high.

PS:  I view slave revolts as the legitimate right of the enslaved.

Sincerely,

Jack

Response:

Thanks to Jack for the thoughtful response to my essay.  The reader criticizes me for failing to distinguish between an explanation and an excuse in my analysis of why Confederates massacred black Union soldiers at the Crater.  While the essay received a positive assessment for the explanation offered, this reader was left with the impression that I had excused the actions of Confederates at the Crater.  Nothing could be further from the truth.  My essay was intended as an explanation of what happened and why and should not be interpreted in any way as condoning or condemning what took place.  Such conclusions and/or comparisons with related incidents from other wars are best left to the readers of this essay.  That said, I suggest that this reader runs the risk of obscuring the complexity of historic events by reducing the killing of black Union soldiers to the murder of American soldiers by foreign soldiers.  I consider this article a success if it assists readers in better understanding the nature of fighting at the Crater in July 1864.  Finally, it may be helpful to point out that this article is part of a much larger project on the Crater and historical memory, titled, Remembering Murder As War: The Battle of the Crater.

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Remembering Glory

One of the highlights of my time in Boston was meeting 54th Massachusetts reenactor, Gerard Grimes. The monument to the 54th by Augustus Saint-Gaudens is by far my favorite Civil War monument and no trip to Boston can conclude without a quick stop.  The site is a wonderful case study of just how far removed the memory of black Union soldiers is from our national memory of the war.  On the one hand, the monument is in the most prominent location, just across from the state house, but for many people it seems to have little significance beyond a bus stop. Michaela and I chatted with Mr. Grimes for quite some time. He’s been reenacting for a number of years and spends his summers camped out in front of the monument to talk with visitors. During the rest of the year, Mr. Grimes works as a grade school teacher. Not surprisingly, Mr. Grimes knew nothing about this monument as a child growing up in the Boston area. In fact, he chuckled when suggesting the number of times he must have walked by it without understanding its significance.

Mr. Grimes clearly feels a moral obligation to educate the public about what is still a little known topic in American history.  And the best part is watching his face light up when discussing the history or perhaps I should say his history.

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Blogging Resumes

I am sitting in the Philadelphia Airport waiting for my flight to C-Ville. My wife and I spent the past nine days in Boston and Bar Harbor, Maine. We had an amazing time. The food was wonderful and the weather in Maine was a nice relief from the heat and humidity of Virginia. Bar Harbor was a bit too touristy for my taste, but the beautiful walks in Acadia National Park more than made up for it. Best of all I got to spend quality time with my best friend.

I feel relaxed and ready to finish two small writing projects before heading back into the classroom. This has been a great summer all around.

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