G. Ashleigh Moody Meet Ann DeWitt

Over the past few weeks I’ve used Ann DeWitt’s website as a case study of what is wrong with the current debate about black Confederates as well as the pitfalls of doing online research on this specific subject – a fact that was confirmed this past week.

This morning I was browsing the Virginia Sesquicentennial Commission’s Facebook page when I came across this response by G. Ashleigh Moody to a story about Carol Sheriff.  Moody is the registrant for the Petersburg Express website, which includes a great deal of information concerning black Confederates.  His response provides us with another useful case study of what is wrong with the popular debate about this subject as well as the dangers of researching this topic online:

What most college professors will probably not share with their students: As you will find documented here [Petersburg Express] are hundreds of Black Confederate SOLDIERS from Petersburg Virginia. documented from just one Virginia city.  And William and Mary is “just down the road” from Petersburg! Amazing! …. These are the stories that bring people together, not the Neo-Yankee version of the South that we are having to endure today. We could do with a lot less “presentism”!

Well, Petersburg Express is just a click away so why don’t we take a little tour of what they have to say about black Confederates.  The first thing you will notice is the claim made by Ed Bearrs that has already been challenged on this site.  Beyond that this is a fairly typical black Confederate website.  Notice the hodgepodge of primary source passages that contain absolutely no analysis or context as well as the photographs, which suffer from the same.  Included are references to Richard “Dick” Poplar and Charles Tinsley.  Even more disturbing are the links to that bastion of scholarship known as Dixie Outfitters and H.K. Edgerton’s, Southern Heritage 411.  This is cut and paste history at its worst and done on a 4th grade level. [click to continue…]

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Giving Professor Carol Sheriff the Last Word (for now)

It’s been a fascinating week as we’ve watched this story about a 4th Grade Virginia history textbook and a reference to black Confederates blossom into a national news event.  Thanks to Professor Carol Sheriff of William and Mary for taking the initiative to expose the inaccuracies contained in Our Virginia: Past and Present.  For now, I am going to give Professor Sheriff the last word from a recent interview she did with The Virginia Gazette:

The error in question is a matter of fact, not of opinion or interpretation.

There is no credible evidence that two battalions of African American soldiers fought under the command of Stonewall Jackson. After consulting with three of my William and Mary colleagues who also teach and research Civil War history, who also had never encountered any such evidence, I wrote to James I. Robertson, a Virginia Tech professor who is the foremost scholar of Stonewall Jackson, and asked him if he had ever seen any evidence to corroborate this point. He stated categorically that no such evidence existed. Prof. Robertson explained to me, “Had there been Confederate black units surely some officer in an official report would have mentioned it. Yet the 128 volumes of the mammoth Official Records [of the War of the Rebellion] are completely silent on the subject.” I also contacted Prof. Joseph Glatthaar, a UNC-Chapel Hill professor, who has written a highly claimed book called General Lee’s Army. He declared the claim “simply wrong.”….

There is not a historian in the world who can claim with certitude that her or his work is free from mistakes. From what I have learned from the story reported in the Post, what now concerns me most is the textbook author’s uncritical reliance on Internet sources, and the publisher’s lack of an adequate review process to catch such mistakes. [click to continue…]

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Black Confederates in Retreat? (Part 2)

Has anyone else noticed that no official statement in response to the Virginia textbook/black Confederate debacle has been issued by the Sons of Confederate Veterans?  Perhaps they are taking the time to carefully craft a response, but I doubt it.  There is really nothing they can do in the face of what the general public now understands is a flawed view of the Confederacy and the Civil War.  Any statement that rehashes the same tired claims of revisionism and political correctness will do nothing more than assuage the concerns of its members and those who accept this flawed historical perspective.  This morning I read that the publisher will provide stickers for the books indicating the problem with the passage in question while Loudoun County schools has decided to pull the books from the classrooms. [I was also pleased to see my black Confederate Resources page referenced in one article.]

I’ve already commented on the consequences of this story making the mainstream news, but there are a few more things worth noting.  One of the most frustrating aspects of this subject is the ease with which the SCV has been able to publicize this silliness.  If you go through old posts you will notice story after story of local chapters of the SCV and UDC commemorating the lives and placing grave markers of so-called black Confederates.  In every case that I’ve come across no evidence was provided that the individual in question was, in fact, a soldier in the Confederate army.  Reporters who cover these stories have no knowledge to judge the veracity of these stories and the ceremonies are reported as legitimate.  Unless the reporter has had his/her head in the clouds over the past few days it is difficult to imagine these stories continuing to be reported without some kind of disclaimer.  The most obvious example is the annual commemoration of Richard Poplar in Blandford Cemetery in Petersburg.

In the end, I couldn’t be more pleased that the author gathered her “sources” from the Internet.  That is where this battle will be one or lost and I have no doubt that sites like Ann DeWitt’s will have less influence if those of us in the classroom do our jobs and teach our students how to use this powerful tool.  And finally, it’s nice to see that we are thinking critically about the past and not turning this into an extension of political and cultural feuds.  In contrast with the controversy surrounding Governor McDonnell’s proclamation, retraction, and recent statement this has been a breadth of fresh air.

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Black Confederates on Countdown

I want to say up front that I am not a fan of Keith Olbermann’s Countdown show. I find him to be utterly uninteresting and, in the end, a great example of what is wrong with mainstream media.  Like most other “news” shows it’s a place to go to affirm and feel good about what you already believe.  That said, Olbermann handled this story responsibly by sticking to the central issue at hand, which is the veracity of the claim about the role of southern blacks in the Confederate army.  I anticipated an interview with a Roland Martin-type, but Olbermann managed to get William and Mary History Professor, Carol Sheriff, who broke this story and who herself is the author of an excellent Civil War study.  Sheriff also managed to highlight the other big problem with all of this and that is that most people do not know how to navigate the Internet.

This narrative is now on the public’s radar screen.  There will be the inevitable responses from certain quarters that a way of life is being attacked or that revisionist historians and Political Correctness have run amok, but this is nothing more than a sign of desperation and a reflection of intellectual bankruptcy.

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Black Confederates on the Retreat?

I think it’s safe to say that all of us were disappointed by the news in the Washington Post today about the fourth grade textbook that includes a reference to thousands of slaves serving as soldiers in Confederate ranks.  A broader look at Virginia textbooks on the history of slavery may push us further down the road of disillusionment.  Consider Virginia: History, Government, Geography by Francis B. Simkins, Spotswood H. Jones, and Sidman P. Poole, which was used in Virginia schools through the late 1970s.  Here is an excerpt and accompanying image from the chapter on slavery:

A feeling of strong affection existed between masters and slaves in a majority of Virginia homes. . . The house servants became almost as much a part of the planter’s family circle as its white members. . . The Negroes were always present at family weddings. They were allowed to look on at dances and other entertainments . . . A strong tie existed between slave and master because each was dependent on the other. . . The slave system demanded that the master care for the slave in childhood, in sickness, and in old age. The regard that master and slaves had for each other made plantation life happy and prosperous.  Life among the Negroes of Virginia in slavery times was generally happy. The Negroes went about in a cheerful manner making a living for themselves and for those for whom they worked. . . But they were not worried by the furious arguments going on between Northerners and Southerners over what should be done with them. In fact, they paid little attention to these arguments.

That’s as bad as it gets, but today is a day to be optimistic about the future. [For those of you interested in the decision on the part of Virginia’s state legislature to rewrite history textbooks in response to the Civil Rights Movement, see Adam W. Dean’s recent essay in the VMHB.] It’s almost impossible to imagine the swift correction that we witnessed today in a prominent newspaper in response to the above text and image during its tenure in Virginia’s classrooms.  In fact, today was quite encouraging. [click to continue…]

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Black Confederates at Radford University?

Update From Professor Sharon Hepburn: Before things get out of hand, I need to clarify things since this is completely unintentional. It seems my mistake was to write the abstract too quickly without proofreading it adequately. There should have been a qualification along the lines of “some claim it is likely that thousands…” This is not my primary field of research, just meant to be a community talk regarding general black participation in the war. I was asked to discusss African Americans in the Confederacy–which encompasses a great deal of different kinds of service. Since I do not research this particular topic I personally cannot make any claim as to the numbers and did not mean to. This is not even a field of research I plan on pursuing. My current research is on the 102nd USCT, a Union regiment, but I was asked to say some things about blacks and the CSA. Most of what I discuss is body servants, impressed slaves, etc., not soldiers per se. I apologize for any miscommunication or confusion in this matter.

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From the 4th Grade we head on over to Radford University, where Dr. Sharon A. Roger Hepburn, Chair and Professor of History is scheduled to give a public address titled, “African American Confederates” at the Radford Public Library.  The talk is being sponsored by the Radford Heritage Foundation and Sun Trust.  Here is the description:

Just as African Americans aided both the Patriots and the Loyalists during the American Revolution, they supported and fought for both the Union and Confederacy during the American Civil War. The Confederate States of America benefited from its slave population throughout the war. Most cooks in the Confederate army were slaves. The Confederate army used slave teamsters, mechanics, hospital attendants, ambulance drivers, and common laborers. Slaves constructed most Confederate fortifications. Wealthy slave owners often went to war with their body servants who kept their quarters clean, cooked for them, washed their uniforms, and performed other menial duties. While most of this work was extracted involuntarily through coercion, there were African Americans throughout the south who willingly supported the Confederate States of America in various ways, including fighting for them. Although the exact numbers are widely disputed, it seems likely that several thousand African Americans provided military service to the Confederate army. Join Dr. Sharon A. Roger Hepburn, Chair and Professor of History at Radford University, to learn more about the various ways in which African Americans played a vital role for the CSA. Sponsored by the Radford Heritage Foundation and SunTrust. For more information, contact Scott Gardner, 540 731 5031

As I read through this for the first time I thought to myself that perhaps the general public will be treated to a thorough examination of how the Confederate war effort utilized slave labor in various forms.  In other words, the first part of this description is spot on, but the claim that several thousand African Americans provided military service to the Confederate army sticks out like a sore thumb.  This wouldn’t bother me so much if we were talking about Earl Ijames, but Professor Hepburn is a trained historian.  Now, it could be the case that Hepburn did not author the above description.  Hepburn is the author of Crossing the Border: A Free Black Community in Canada (University of Illinois Press, 2007) so it is clear that she understands the research process and probably did not rely on an Online search for her information as in the case of our 4th Grade History textbook author.

What I would like to know is what is the evidence (primary or secondary sources) that supports such a claim?  I am familiar with the relevant scholarly research on this and related subjects and I am confident in stating that there is absolutely no evidence that would support such a claim.

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