Peer Review and the Problem of Black Confederate Studies

In my ongoing series of posts concerning the public presentations by Earl Ijames about “colored Confederates” I have consistently emphasized the importance of publishing in peer-reviewed journals.  I maintain that only through the careful scrutiny of our ideas and conclusions are we able to better judge the veracity of the research and the difficult process of interpretation and analysis.  The peer review process functions as a quality control mechanism and allows historians to critique the work of others from the safety of anonymity.  Most academic journals and university presses have some kind of system of oversight in place and I have experienced it firsthand on a number of occasions, both from the writer’s side as well as from the reviewer’s side as a member of the Editorial Advisory Board for the Virginia Magazine of History and Biography (2008-2010).  If there is one area of Civil War history that desperately needs oversight it is “black Confederate” studies.

Since describing it and emphasizing why it is so important is difficult to do I thought it might be helpful to provide you with an example.  I first experienced this process back in 2004 while attending graduate school at the University of Richmond.  Even before I started the program I had an interest in William Mahone and the Readjuster Movement and had hoped that I would have a chance to explore his public career in a research seminar course and perhaps as a thesis topic.  I eventually wrote an essay on Mahone and went on to expand my focus to include the battle of the Crater as a thesis topic.  My adviser suggested that I submit the Mahone essay to the VMHB for consideration, which I did.  I had published a few essays, magazine articles, and book reviews, but this was my first attempt at a peer-reviewed publication so I didn’t really know what to expect.  Within about 6 months I received an email that included a letter from the journal editor and three anonymous reviews of my essay.  The editor indicated that while the reviewers believed there was some merit to the essay and thesis they would be unable to publish as is.  He suggested that I review the comments and revise the piece.  I have to say that it took me a few days to pick my ego up off the floor and get back to work, but I did.  I took just about every suggestion offered and within about 9 months I had a revised essay.  What I learned was invaluable, both about the process of writing a serious work of history as well as my topic.  I learned that thinking through complex questions is a group activity.  There must be room for honest and sometimes blunt feedback.  The result is that I have a much better grasp of Mahone and his postwar years because I benefited from the critique of three professional historians who are experts in some aspect of post-Civil War Virginia politics.

I am happy to say that my revised essay was accepted for publication by the VMHB [vol. 113, no. 4 (2005)] and even went on to win the Rachal Prize for best essay in 2005.  Given that it’s been close to 5 years since its publication I feel comfortable sharing one of the three reviews.  This is one of the nicer reviews.

[click to continue…]

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Civil War Memory in the College Classroom

It has been a real pleasure learning of a number of college level courses that use Civil War Memory in some capacity.  In a few weeks I head up to Shepherd University to talk with students in Professor Mark Snell’s seminar, “The American Civil War in Memory and Remembrance”.  It turns out that students are assigned my blog as regular reading so it should be quite an experience to learn about what they think of some of the issues that I write about as well as the role of blogging as a form of remembrance.

The other day I came across a link to an online syllabus for a course on Public HistoryCivil War Memory can be found under Week 6, which focuses on slavery and public history.  I’m not exactly sure where this course is being taught, but it looks to be quite interesting and I would love to know how the blog is being used.  What kinds of questions are being discussed in class and what do students think of blogs as a public history tool?  I highly recommend spending some time with the links on the syllabus, which include some dynamite history blogs and other assorted websites.

I have no way of knowing for how long I will continue blogging, but at some point I will have to give some serious thought to its preservation.  My own view is that Civil War Memory can be understood from a number of different perspectives that connect to broader issues of historical memory and public history.  On the one hand this site represents my own ongoing dialog about how I understand history as well as historical memory.  Take one step back and the blog itself can be viewed as an expression of Civil War memory at the beginning of the twenty-first century.

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No Right To Secede

Supreme Court Justice Antonin Scalia has publicly stated that according to his reading of the Constitution a state does not have the right to secede.

If there was any Constitutional issue resolved by the Civil War, it is that there is no right to secede.  (Hence in the Pledge of Allegiance, “one nation indivisible”).

Read the story and Scalia’s letter here.

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Is There Room For Another Academic Journal For Civil War Studies?

The Society for Civil War Historians thinks so.  Last week a circular email was sent to all members indicating that the two year relationship with the journal, Civil War History (published by Kent State Press) is coming to an end.  During this time members were able to subscribe to the journal through their annual dues to the Society.  The organization has decided to accept an offer by the University of North Carolina Press to make their new publication, the Journal of the Civil War Era, the official journal of the Society starting in 2011.  I won’t bore you with the details as to why the decision was made, but it came down to the UNC Press agreeing to help with advertising and other managerial responsibilities.

Regarding the new journal:

The Journal of the Civil War Era will be edited by Bill Blair.  Anthony E. Kaye of Pennsylvania State University will serve as Associate Editor for Books and Reviews, while Aaron Sheehan-Dean of the University of North Florida will be Associate Editor for the Profession.  Bill has provided the following description of the journal:

The Journal of the Civil War Era is determined to publish the most creative new work on the full range of topics of interest to scholars of this period. We will continue to feature fresh perspectives on military, political, and legal history of the era. Moreover, articles, essays, and reviews will attend to slavery and antislavery, labor and capitalism, popular culture and intellectual history, expansionism and empire, and African American and women’s history. The editors mean The Journal of the Civil War Era to be a venue where scholars engaged in the full range of theoretical perspectives that animate historical practice can find a home. By bringing together scholars from areas that now intersect only sporadically, the publisher and editor hope to galvanize the larger field of nineteenth-century history intellectually and professionally.

In addition to peer-reviewed, cutting-edge scholarship, the journal will offer a variety of other elements designed to engage historians, sharpen debate, and hone practices in the profession, in the classroom, and in theory and method:

• Review essays that analyze emergent themes and map new directions in historiography.
• Book reviews by experienced, published scholars that offer critical perspectives on key works in the field and the discipline.
• Reviews of films, digital archive collections, websites, museum exhibitions, and interventions in other media.
• Columns on the profession that alert readers to recent issues in the job market, teaching, and technology and help historians of the Civil War Era find the leading edge of these trends.

Scholars who have agreed to serve on the new journal’s editorial board include Stephen Berry, David Blight, Peter Carmichael, Gary Gallagher, Stephanie McCurry, and Carol Reardon.

This is very exciting news and I assume most, if not all, members of the Society will transition to the new journal.  I know I will, but that leaves the question of what to do with my subscription to Civil War History.  I’ve had a subscription to the journal since 2002 and look forward to every issue.  It is the premiere journal in our area, but I am concerned as to whether the field can, in fact, handle two academic journals.  In addition to Civil War History, I subscribe to The Journal of Southern History and The Virginia Magazine of History and Biography.  I honestly don’t know if my budget can handle two Civil War journals.

The more important question, however, is who will take on the management of the journal given that Bill Blair is taking on editorial responsibilities and so many additional scholars are signing on in various capacities.  We shall see.

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Were Slaves Soldiers?

I have enjoyed following the debate over at Richard Williams’s blog re: my handling of Earl Ijames’s research.  Much of the give and take relates to my decision to publicly request Ijames’s presentation as well as my decision to Cc: the director at the North Carolina Office of Archives and History.  I’m still not sure why the gang over there is making such a big deal of this given that there is nothing offensive about the letter.  It simply requests the materials in question and nothing more.  What I do find funny is that no one seems to have anything to say about Ijames’s response, which he decided to Cc. to that same director.  Anyway, I will leave this to the vultures to sort out.  I want to move on to something that I find much more interesting and that actually relates to history.

In a number of places Mr. Williams suggests that slaves in the Confederate army ought to be acknowledged as soldiers.  Here are a few quotes to consider:

And, as I’ve pointed out before, it is disingenuous to suggest that these men should not be honored for their service – as soldiers – simply because they may have been forced to serve – in whatever capacity. An analogy I’ve used before: During the Vietnam war, many who opposed it were drafted. Many no doubt would have fled to Canada or simply refused to go had it not been for the influence and pressure of family, society and the legal ramifications of refusing service. So they went with no emotional or intellectual support of their own for “the cause.” However, many of these same men, once on the field, bonded with their comrades and were exposed to the same dangers as those who volunteered. They served honorably. Should their service be discounted because they were drafted? I think the answer is clear.

I’ve not delved into Mr. Ijames’s specific research either. I do agree with Ijames’s contention, however, that blacks – whether slave or free – should have their service in the Confederate Army honored where appropriate and that there is nothing improper referring to these men as “soldiers.”

In the recent post about Nelson Winbush’s grandfather, I said, “Private Nelson was a slave.” I do not believe the term “soldier” and “slave” are mutually exclusive.

Mr. Williams arrives at this conclusion via analogy with soldiers in the Vietnam War.  The basic problem with his claim is to confuse two distinct meanings of “forced to serve.”  Americans who are drafted to go to war ought to be understood as a function of their legal standing as a citizen.  As citizens we are obligated to register for the draft and under certain circumstances may be forced to honor that obligation.  Again, the salient point is that draftees are citizens.  It is our status as free men which places us in this relationship to the government.  In contrast, slaves were not citizens of the United States or the Confederacy.  That this distinction even needs to be acknowledged is troubling.  In short, the analogy does not work.  Finally, it should be pointed out that USCTs were not citizens at the time of their service in the army, but it also must be remembered that they were not drafted either.  Many of them expressed the hope that their service would eventually lead to the rights of full citizenship.  That, of course, is another sad chapter in our history.

I am closer with Mr. Williams on the issue of honoring and commemorating those free and enslaved blacks who were present with the Confederate army.  If it can be demonstrated that a black man (regardless of status) enlisted or was drafted as a soldier than he should be honored as such.  I have never said otherwise.  That said, as historians distinctions should matter.  As I make my way through the letters of Capt. Winsmith from South Carolina (which I am editing for publication) I can’t help but be impressed with his commentary on his “servant” who accompanied him to camp.  Winsmith writes glowingly about this man as well as his various activities in camp and on the march.  This man actually procured a uniform by performing functions for other officers.  I have no doubt that this slave endured many of the same hardships along with the rest of the army and I have little doubt that he bonded with his master and others as well, even though I don’t have access to one word from this individual.  He eventually escaped to the Union navy off the coast of South Carolina in the summer of 1862.  That said, there is nothing that indicates that his owner or anyone else for that matter viewed this man as anything other than a slave.  Nothing about his relationship with his master or his experience changed his legal status.

These distinctions matter because as historians we are trying to better understand how the war affected the master-slave relationship and race relations generally.  As historians we should do our best, with the limited evidence available, to understand how the realities of war brought whites and blacks in the army closer together on occasion and further apart at other times.  However, in order to do so we must be sensitive to the distinction between soldier, slave, conscript and other designations.

It goes without saying that if we were to accept Mr. Williams’s analysis we would have a number of fundamental questions to grapple with.

  • What exactly was the Confederate government referring to when it explicitly denied slaves and free blacks the right to serve in the army?
  • How are we to understand the debate during the war over whether to arm slaves as soldiers?
  • What exactly was the Confederate government doing when it finally authorized the enlistment of a limited number of slaves as soldiers in the final weeks of the war in 1865?

In other words, how did the Confederate government as well as the rest of the white South define a soldier during the war?  How would they respond to Mr. Williams’s analysis?

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