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.
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.”
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.
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.