Why Are Whites So Interested in Black Confederates?

I think this is a question that anyone interested in this subject eventually has to come around to.  For the moment let’s set aside H.K. Edgerton and the very small number of African Americans who have involved themselves in this movement.  When you get right down to it, this is a subject that whites, who are mainly associated with Southern heritage groups are interested in promoting.  You don’t find black Americans celebrating the participation of freed and enslaved blacks in the Confederate army as part of Emancipation Day celebrations at the turn of the twentieth century and you will be hard pressed to find references to these individuals during the 1960s, at a time when the African American community had rediscovered its Civil War past as part of the broader Civil Rights Movement.

You don’t even find whites highlighting the sacrifices of black Confederate soldiers until relatively recently.  What you will find are plenty of ceremonies, monuments, and markers to the “faithful slave” that dot the landscape in parts of the South.   As I pointed out in a previous post the subject of black Confederates can be traced to the late 1980s- early 90s and I suspect in reaction to the success of the movie, Glory.  Why did the black community of Petersburg not recognize Richard Poplar before five years ago or even Weary Clyburn.  [Note: The evidence suggests that Poplar may have indeed served as a soldier, but I still have some questions about the documentation.]  What about the rest of the ceremonies that have taken place over the past few years?  Why are whites the ones who get so enraged when I write about this subject and question the veracity of claims made about these men?  Apart from one comment by H.K. Edgerton I have never heard from an African American who was upset with me for addressing this issue or believed that I was somehow denigrating the Southern past.  As some of you know I am currently co-authoring an article with a descendant of Silas Chandler, who is one of the most visible black Confederates.  It turns out that almost nothing about the popular account is right.

I guess we could explain this new direction in Southern history as one of whites coming to the rescue of African Americans in revealing a history that was somehow forgotten or even intentionally ignored.  No doubt, that is a comforting explanation.  Unfortunately, it’s a bit more complicated.  Perhaps the fact that the Confederate government and military explicitly denied the right of free and enslaved blacks the right to serve as soldiers has something to do with this.  That would leave us with the question of why whites are so interested in black Confederates.  Of course, I think I know the answer to this question.

Who Is Ann DeWitt?

I have referenced Ann DeWitt’s new black Confederate website on a few occasions, but at this point we know very little about her.  The website is filled with misinformation and vague references that can be found on the many websites that purport to educate.  In the case of Ms. DeWitt, she hopes to eventually turn this site into a resource for teachers and students:  “The goal is to have a comprehensive site by April 2011 for students and teachers – in time to commemorate the 150th Anniversary of the American Civil War from April 2011 to April 2015.  This research is for our youth.”  I am horrified by such a plan.  I’ve been unable to track down any information about this woman or the website itself.  [Note: I now understand why Richard Williams got so upset about my last post re: DeWitt.  He apparently sent her a complimentary copy of his book, which is now being advertised on the site. Update: Williams responds to this post here.  I am more than happy to retract whatever is assumed to be implicit in my referencing of the presence of his book on DeWitt’s site.]

Individuals who set up websites claiming to be legitimate historical resources for teachers and students have a responsibility to share their credentials.  In short, the public has a right to know who you are, including your professional background and education.  Whether you agree or disagree with what I write on this site you can find everything there is to know about my qualifications by clicking on my resume. You don’t need to be impressed with anything that I’ve done over the past ten years, but it is there for your consideration.  One of the most important things that we must teach our students is how to judge Online information.  If you do nothing else in this regard in your classroom this year at least reinforce the necessity of questioning the authorship of websites.  Failure to do so renders all sites and the information contained therein equal. I can’t tell you how many people comment on this site by doing little more than parroting what they read elsewhere.  Then when you question their information they get defensive and scold you for daring to disagree or responding in a skeptical manner.

As I’ve said, at this point I have been unable to locate any information about Ann DeWitt.  This is nothing new in the Online world of black Confederates as most of these sites are set up by folks who have absolutely no experience working in anything close to the field of historical research or digital history.

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.]

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.

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.

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.