How Best to Respond to the Black Confederate Narrative

I have been giving this question some thought since our recent discussion surrounding the upcoming movie about Patrick Cleburne and the broader black Confederate narrative.  As many of you know I’ve been committed to responding to some of the more outlandish claims in the news and on numerous websites.  My goal has not been simply to deny these claims, but to work to steer the debate in a direction that may help us to better understand the complexity surrounding the question of how the Confederate war effort challenged the slave – master relationship as well as broader issues of race relations in the South.  I feel comfortable in concluding that between these posts and the intelligent discussion that almost always ensues that this site offers the most thought provoking commentary to be found on this issue on the Web.  That said, I am very much aware of its limitations.

First and foremost, Civil War Memory was never meant as a place to showcase my scholarship in a finished form on any subject nor was it meant to be considered as a digital history site.  Yes, I regularly share ideas that I am working on and excerpts from finished projects, but I am not doing history here in a strict sense.  I’ve always thought of my blog as a place to share ideas about teaching, the books I am reading, the news items I come across and a host of other concerns.  Some of these threads are relatively short while others are quite extensive.  In other words, I think it would be a mistake to treat this site as a legitimate secondary source of any kind.

That said, I do think that the extended thread on black Confederates offers the interested reader a great deal to consider.  A number of posts explore the terms employed in this debate while others counter claims made about specific individuals.  In fact, we’ve not had one example of a supposed black Confederate hold up under close scrutiny.  I want to thank those of you who have helped to hunt down the necessary archival materials, work that should have been carried out by those making the claims.

Still, as I pointed out there are limitations to what a blog can do in addressing these issues.   Most importantly, blogs easily lend themselves to partisan bickering since they can be attributed to an individual or organization.  In the eyes of most observers all is equal on the Web.  Anyone and everyone can establish their own website and/or comment on a subject regardless of their background and competence.  That is both a blessing and a curse.  I’ve met some very talented and smart people through this site, but I’ve also been forced to deal with outright incompetency.  The black Confederate issue provides us with a case study of the pros and cons of the dangers and possibilities associated with the Web.  Continue reading

Ed Bearss on Black Confederates

Do a Google search for “Black Confederates” and “Ed Bearss” and you will get 675 hits.  No surprise that many of the sites have been created by SCV chapters and others who believe that significant numbers of blacks fought as soldiers in the Confederate army.  Just about all of these sites utilize all or part of the following quote that is attributed to Ed Bearrs, who served as Chief Historian of the National Park Service from 1981 to 1994:

I don’t want to call it a conspiracy to ignore the role of Blacks both above and below the Mason-Dixon line, but it was definitely a tendency that began around 1910.

Unfortunately, I’ve been unable to locate the source of this quote and reliable sources have told me that Bearss has never said anything that would place him in the Black Confederate camp.  While I was not able to find a source for the above quote, I did find this 14 minute video of Bearss that was done for Black History Month.  [Note: You may need to sign in to view the video.]

In it Bearss is asked to discuss the role that blacks played in the Civil War.  What is instructive is what he does not say.  At no time does he suggest that there was any kind of conspiracy surrounding the recognition of black Confederates.  And when he gets to commenting on the Louisiana Native Guard Bearss emphasizes that the first units raised for the defense of Louisiana were never accepted for service in the Confederate army.  Again, decide for yourself, but there is nothing in this video that would suggest that Bearss believes anything close to what these websites attribute to him.

Patrick Cleburne and Black Confederates Take Hollywood

[Hat-Tip to Lee White]

Back in 2008 I commented on a graphic novel that tells the story of Patrick Cleburne’s plan to arm slaves in exchange for their freedom.  I expressed a number of concerns in that post and I appreciate the author of the novel for offering his own perspective.  Now it looks like that story is coming to the big screen.  Unfortunately, it looks like the misinformation and blatant abuse of history that is present in the graphic novel will make it into the movie.  Consider the web page on the history behind the subject.  It begins with the standard list of half-truths and outright falsehoods about the roles of blacks in the Confederate army as well as the views of some of the more prominent Confederate such as Forrest and Jackson.  Ed Bearrss is cited as having spoken out in support of the black Confederate narrative even though he has denied ever making such a claim.  And can someone tell me where Ervin Jordan describe this as a “cover up”?  I can’t seem to find it in his book, but perhaps I am looking in the wrong place.  You will also notice the doctored photograph of the Louisiana Native Guards at the top of the page.  Consider the following choice “facts” about black Confederates:

  • Many Black Confederates actually engaged in combat including the Battles of First Manassas, Chickamauga, Seven Days, Thompson’s Station, Franklin, and others.
  • Black Confederates were known to frequent veteran reunions years after the war and many posed proudly for photographs with Confederate Battle Flags.

Such a sloppy description of how free and enslaved black southerners functioned in the Confederate army raises more questions than anything approaching understanding of such a complex subject.  But it gets even worse.  Consider the brief description of Cleburne and his proposal:

On a cold winter night in January 1864, Patrick Cleburne put forth a controversial plan to the Confederate high command. It was a written proposal to free over 300,000 slaves and enlist them as soldiers in the Southern armies. He made few allies and many enemies, and from that moment on, his career would come to a dead halt. Cleburne was no ordinary commander. He had never lost a battle and was even called the “Stonewall Jackson of the West”. None of this would matter once his revolutionary views were made known to the Confederate government and President Davis.

Ironically, Black troops had already been serving as teamsters in the Confederate ranks for years, but what Cleburne proposed was not merely service, but official military enlistment. He even went as far as to imply that the entire plan would begin the steps toward the complete emancipation of all African Americans from slavery.

The movie presents Cleburne as having “fought two wars.  One with the North, the other with the South.”  Such a description makes it seem as if Cleburne was operating in a vacuum when his proposal surfaced.  Actually, the debate about arming slaves had started back in 1861 and Cleburne wasn’t even the first Confederate general to offer such a proposal.  More importantly, we must not lose sight of the fact that these proposals do not reflect a desire to end slavery in the South.  In fact, they tell us much more about the extent to which white Southerners would go to gain independence as a means to preserve the institution of slavery.  That fact tells us why most white southerners were not willing to arm slaves and free blacks.  You can expect that I am going to closely follow this story

As bad as all of this is what truly disappoints me is that one of my favorite actors, Philip Seymour Hoffman, is slated to play the role of Judah Benjamin.

Join Me In Petersburg This Summer

I am pleased to announce that I will once again be participating in the annual Civil War seminar sponsored by The George Tyler Moore Center at Shepherd University.  In the summer of 2007 [here and here/photos] I took part in the center’s conference on Civil War Memory.  It was a wonderful experience and I couldn’t be happier to be joining Mark Snell and the rest of the staff this summer in Petersburg, Virginia.  This is the first year that the conference will take place away from its home base on the campus of Shepherd University.  The conference is being co-sponsored by Pamplin Park.  This year’s theme is, “Petersburg: In the Trenches with the Common Soldier” and it includes a first-rate line-up of scholars and two days of touring the various sites and battlefields in the Petersburg area.  Will Greene will be conducting all of the tours and lectures will be presented by Earl Hess, Christopher Stowe, Dennis Brandt, and Walter Powell.  I am looking forward to the chance to finally meet Earl Hess.  In many ways he is responsible for my interest in Petersburg and the Crater specifically.  Back in 2003 I collected a broad range of archival materials for what became Prof. Hess’s third volume in his series on earthworks.  That material on Petersburg proved to be extremely helpful in shaping my own work on memory and the battle of the Crater.

My own lecture is titled, “Mahone’s Brigade and the Defense of Petersburg.”  While this talk is based on my extensive research of Mahone’s brigade at the Crater, I hope to present a broader picture of the unit throughout the summer and fall of 1864.  Over the past five years I’ve read scores of letters and diaries from these men and this will give me a chance to try out some ideas that fall outside the purview of my Crater project.  The exploration of the connection between the battlefield and home front is nothing new to historians, but often the discussion comes across as overly abstract.  The Petersburg Campaign, however, is one of the few moments during the Civil War where the battlefield and home front were indistinguishable.  For the men of Mahone’s Brigade Petersburg and the surrounding area was literally their home.  I am convinced that their close contact with a civilian population shaped the way these men responded to the presence of black Union soldiers at the Crater.  How else did close proximity to civilians and family shape the outlook of these men on the war?  Stay tuned.

Confederate Soldiers Described as “Scavengers”

My Civil War Memory class has finally finished watching Shenandoah and students are now working on comparative reviews that incorporate their understanding of Gone With the WindShenandoah represents a sharp transition in popular memory of the war in the roughly twenty-five years since the premier of GWTW.  I want to wrap up this series of posts [see here and here] with just a few more thoughts that connect to the movie’s conscious attempt to steer clear of as much regional controversy as possible.  Apart from the battle scenes there is nothing that might alienate any one demographic.  As I noted in the first post, the movie ignores the issue of slavery apart from an early scene where Charlie Anderson declares it to be immoral.  The slave boy who befriends the youngest Anderson boy is freed by a black Union soldier, but he is encouraged to embrace his freedom by one of the Anderson daughters.  Toward the end of the movie a black woman, who is never identified as a slave, cares for Charlie Anderson’s granddaughter.

Most interesting, however, is that the only threats and violence that visit the Anderson family come from fellow white Southerners.  The Union army may have mistakenly taken the young boy prisoner, but there is a very understanding colonel who offers to help Anderson in his quest to find his son.  Agents of the Confederate government in Richmond attempt to confiscate the family’s animals while a Confederate colonel pushes Charlie Anderson to acknowledge his responsibility in the war by giving up his children to the army.  Late in the movie the eldest Anderson boy is accidentally shot by a 16-yr. old Confederate soldier.

But the most shocking scene is the murder of son Jacob and wife Ann who stayed on the family farm while the rest looked for the youngest Anderson boy.  The scene takes the audience by surprise and while Jacob’s brutal murder is captured by the camera, the death of his wife is left to the imagination.  Once the party returns to the home they are greeted by the doctor, who informs them of the murders.  Interestingly, the doctor refers to these men as “scavengers” even though they are clearly Confederate deserters.  Without intending to this scene, along with much of the rest of the movie challenges the Lost Cause assumption of a united Confederate populace.  It also touches on an aspect of the Civil War that we rarely discuss and that is the violence that was perpetrated between white Virginians, especially in the Shenandoah Valley, which was used by large numbers of Confederate soldiers who had deserted from the army.  It would be interesting to know whether moviegoers, especially in the Southern states, understood these men to be Confederate soldiers.

I know that my students thoroughly enjoyed the movie and I have to say that it has moved up in my list of favorite Civil War movies.