Calling on James I. Robertson

Update: My request has been passed on to Dr. Robertson by the Virginia Sesquicentennial Commission. Update #2: Thanks to Tom Perry for providing the following link, which includes an interview with Robertson in a Virginia newspaper: The claim is rejected by most historians, including local history expert James Robertson. “It’s blatantly false.” Robertson is a distinguished alumni history professor at Virginia Tech, an author and was even appointed by President Kennedy to be the executive director of the U.S Civil War Centennial Commission in the 60′s. “It implies men who were in slavery would want to fight for the country that enslaved them, which really is illogical.”…. “This is not to say there were not thousands of blacks in the Confederate Army, but they were performing camp chores, hospital attendants, cooks,” said Robertson. “I spent eight years of my life putting together a 950 page biography of Jackson and I can tell you he did not have any black battalions, any black units serving under him.

The debate about black Confederate soldiers that was recently stirred up by a brief reference in a 4th grade Virginia history textbook shows no sign of letting up.  Editorials continue to be published and various interest groups have firmly dug in their heels.  The contours of this debate beautifully reflect the fault lines that continue to divide Virginians over how to commemorate the Civil War.  These fault lines will continue to flair up when emotionally-charged topics such as this one are introduced, and it is likely that our reliance on sound historical scholarship will be pushed further away.  This is one of those topics where everyone is an expert.

Few people doubt that the problems with this textbook arose as a result of the over reliance on online sources, which utilize little to no quality control methods.  This is something that I’ve pointed out over and over on this site.  Fortunately, our state’s colleges and universities include some of the most talented historians in the country.  One of them was responsible for the initial warning about this particular textbook reference.  Unfortunately, there is a large segment of our population that gives little weight to their findings even though these folks may be in the best position to offer the rest of us much needed guidance.  It is a sad commentary that historians such as Gary Gallagher, Peter Carmichael, Ken Noe, Joseph Glatthaar, and Robert Krick are overshadowed by the likes of Ann DeWitt, H.K. Edgerton, and G. Ashleigh Moody.

If there is one history professor whose reputation has survived intact it is Professor James I. Robertson of Virginia Tech.  Professor Robertson has taught at Tech for most of his career and is responsible for one of the largest and most popular survey courses on the Civil War.  He has built his scholarly reputation on books about Civil War soldiers, Stonewall Jackson, and the Stonewall Brigade.  In terms of his service to the public, Prof. Robertson served as the Executive Director of the Civil War Centennial and is currently a member of the Executive Committee of Virginia’s Civil War Sesquicentennial Committee.  He has taken the lead in highlighting the importance of education for this sesquicentennial commemoration.  Well, this is the ultimate teaching moment. Continue reading

Stick To Economics, Professor Williams

There is something deeply disturbing about opinion pieces such as this one by Walter Williams.  You would think that someone with a scholarly bent would take one step back and ask whether he is really making a contribution to this debate.  He criticizes those who have pointed out the mistakes in the 4th grade history textbook, but apparently has no response to the following: Did two battalions of black Confederates serve under “Stonewall” Jackson?  If Williams has evidence then he should provide it.  If not, then he should say nothing.  Even James I. Robertson, who has written extensively denies the claim.  Prof. Williams and others are fond of citing Charles Wesley, whose work is still widely read, but has been revised by subsequent generations of scholars.  In this case, Williams references his 1919 essay, “The Employment of Negroes in the Confederate Army” [Journal of Negro History - read it here].  It’s worth reading, but there are problems with it.  At one point Wesley states that the Native Guards of Louisiana served in the Confederate army, which is not true.  Wesley includes references to free blacks volunteering for service in the military and instances of their impressment, but other than the mistake cited above the author does not draw any conclusions about their service in Confederate ranks as soldiers.  It is true that some Confederate states accepted the service of free blacks into their respective militias, but this is a distinction that is important to maintain and Wesley is consistent here.  Most of the essay traces the debate that ultimately led to the Confederate Congress’s recruitment authorization at the tail end of the war.

I wonder how Prof. Williams would feel if someone were to comment on his field of study with such disregard for real research, a narrow understanding of the relevant secondary sources, and shoddy reading practices.  In the end, Prof. Williams could care less about whether or not African Americans served in the Confederate Army:

Denying the role, and thereby cheapening the memory, of the Confederacy’s slaves and freemen who fought in a failed war of independence is part of the agenda to cover up Abraham Lincoln’s unconstitutional acts to prevent Southern secession. Did states have a right to secede? At the 1787 Constitutional Convention, James Madison rejected a proposal that would allow the federal government to suppress a seceding state. He said, “A Union of the States containing such an ingredient seemed to provide for its own destruction. The use of force against a State would look more like a declaration of war than an infliction of punishment and would probably be considered by the party attacked as a dissolution of all previous compacts by which it might be bound.”

What does this have to do with whether or not African Americans fought as soldiers in Confederate ranks?  What a disgrace.

Brief Postscript to “My Sense of Place”

Ta Nehisi-Coates just shared an email he received from one of his readers.  An earlier post of his briefly referenced James McPherson’s Battle Cry of Freedom.  The email serves to remind us of just why we ought to resist the urge to reduce people to a one-dimensional notion of place of origin:

“Battle Cry of Freedom” was your first mistake. It was written by a yankee who grew up with yankee soldiers trying to justify their destruction, murder, rape and pillage of the South. Why not read the ACTUAL “Official Records” compiled by the US gov’t or listen to the actual BLACKS in the slave narratives of the 1930′s? Rather than re-hashed “stories” of biased information? Question WHY federal museums are required to tell “slavery first” at the entrance door yet – as in Gettysburg museum misquote Southerners?
Southerners – no matter the “color” support each other. You yanks and yankee sympathizers can’t stand that after 150 years we all still stand agaisnt your falsehoods.
In our goal to understand one another better we should strive to break down barriers rather than unnecessarily reinforce them.

My “Sense of Place”

Richard Williams has a post up in which he takes me to task for supposedly dismissing a question asked of me during a recent roundtable discussion that I served on as part of Brunswick County’s Civil War Sesquicentennial.  The question was posed to me by a representative of the SCV, who was curious as to my place of birth.  Apparently, Richard is not satisfied with my response and goes on to suggest that my failure to appreciate the question reflects my own lack of a “sense of past”:

Thirdly, I’m not quite sure what Kevin has to gain by insulting someone for asking an honest and reasonable question – someone who took time out of their schedule to come hear Kevin participate in a public forum. That won’t go very far to encourage attendance and sincere questions at these types of events in the future, that’s for sure.   Since Kevin has mentioned this issue before, I get the distinct impression he’s uncomfortable with the topic, perhaps revealing his own feelings (justified or not) of inadequacy due to his not being “Virginian, born and bred.” (See, I can pyscho-analyze too.)

The idea that I insulted anyone during this conference is ludicrous.  In fact, I answered the man’s question directly, but he failed to follow-up and chose to move on to whether I teach my students that Lee, Jackson, and Stuart are great men.  It was clear to my co-panelists as well as others in the audience that the question was not meant to engage me in a serious discussion, but was meant to dismiss me out of hand.  Perhaps Richard should inquire as to why he failed to ask a further question.

In the comments section Richard and another reader once again accuse me of lacking a “sense of place.”

Mr. Williams, what a well written post. It is true, as Mr. Levin said, that a “sense of place” can function as a liability but it is amusing that he does not wish to consider that those words could apply to himself.

Thank you and you are so right. Kevin’s “sense of place” – the North – is a liability when it comes to his biases against Confederate heritage and history.

Both assume quite a bit about me in concluding that I lack a “sense of place” or that my background clouds my understanding of Confederate history.  Nothing could be further from the truth.  The study of history has taken me all over this beautiful state.  It’s introduced me to a wide range of Virginians and my many visits to state archival repositories has given me an intimate understanding of its rich past.  I feel more connected to Virginia than all the other places I’ve lived including the place where I was raised.  I’ve contributed to its written history more than once and have even been recognized for it by the Virginia Historical Society.

What exactly does it mean to be “biased against Confederate heritage/history”?  Would they say the same thing about Robert Moore and Andy Hall, both of who blog about the Civil War and the Confederacy specifically and are native to the South?  Is there really only one legitimate interpretation of the South?  How do their comments reflect on the fact that scores of people who are native to Virginia and the rest of the South read and enjoy this blog as well as my published work?  Is there something wrong with these folks?  If I were somehow to write about the history of the Confederacy in the way that proved satisfactory to Richard and others would my place of birth be set aside?  Finally, does my place of birth cloud my understanding of any other period in Virginia’s history.  Can I write or blog about any other aspect of this rich story without having to worry about it or is it just Lee, Jackson, and Stuart that concern them?  I could go on, but what’s the point.

Regardless of whether they acknowledge it or not, it’s my strong sense of place and love for this state’s rich history that keeps me connected to it and works to more firmly ground me in the present.  In the end, Richard has done little more than follow in the footsteps of the individual he accuses me of insulting.