Show Don’t Tell: Black Confederates

I just received the latest issue of North and South (Vol. 12, No. 3) and anticipated the negative responses to Bruce Levine’s recent piece on the myth of black Confederates.  The responses are typical in their tendency to go for the personal/political jugular of the author in addition to the ever ready individual sighting accounts of black Confederates.  The letters seem to have been written in response to editor Keith Poulter’s claim that we can put the idea of large numbers of Confederates to rest.  He is absolutely right about that.  Unfortunately, the "arguments" contained in these letters betray very little understanding of how historical research and interpretation is done.  The authors are clearly upset that Levine comes down strongly against the idea that their existed black units in the Confederate army, but apart from offering weak criticisms of his actual argument they offer nothing in the way of positive evidence to the contrary.  All we get are the standard sightings accounts without any analysis or thought that evidence needs to be confirmed along with vague references to lost evidence or poorly constructed analogies. 

I will believe anything about the past so long as the interpretation meets certain standards established by the professional community.  In other words, the explanation must include reliable evidence and the analysis must be able to withstand relevant counter-arguments.  If you believe that there were large numbers of black Confederate in the army or if you believe that Levine’s argument is incomplete or simply wrong than get out there and do the research.  Present your findings in a reputable publishing outlet and lets have a discussion.  Poulter has extended an invitation to one writer who claims to have found 2,000 black soldiers from Virginia alone.  I am confident that the article will be rejected if the research is shoddy, but if it does make it to the pages of North and South than we will be able to have a discussion about the findings.

Until then stop whining and complaining that the best research out there doesn’t fulfill your fantasies about the shape of the past.  Take a step back and ask yourself why you so desperately need this particular story to be true?  Why is that white men tend to be the ones who are so emotionally connected to this story?  I’ve said it before that there were thousands of black men with Confederate forces, but this doesn’t necessarily mean that they were serving in the same capacity as white men.  Nor does it reflect a level of allegiance to the Confederate cause that usually accompanies such suggestions.  Let’s do the research to better understand why black men were with the army and how their presence shaped the social and racial hierarchy.  Historian Peter Carmichael has recently revealed that his next project will address some of these questions:

My next book project, “Black Rebels,” will explore the experience of slaves who served Confederate soldiers. This unique master-slave relationship within Southern armies has never been examined by scholars, and to date the subject has only drawn the interest of those who write in the romantic tradition of the Lost Cause. My intention to focus on the master-slave relationship will allow me to examine the traditional subjects of living conditions and resistance. But I also intend to explore uncharted territory such as: how the shared experience of battle reconfigured the master slave relationship, what were the symbolic uses of the “camp servant” in Confederate propaganda, how did lower class whites in the army view slaves, and were camp servants a source of division in the white ranks? This project is in keeping with my interest in the construction and exertion of power in the Old South and the Confederacy.

Historian Charles Brooks ["The Social and Cultural Dynamics of Soldiering in Hood’s Texas Brigade" Journal of Southern History 67 (August 2001): 535-72] has recently written about the way the army shaped how white men from various social backgrounds related to one another.  Surely there is much to be explored along racial lines. 


Bob Dylan Comes to Charlottesville

Bob Dylan came to town last night and put on one hell of a show.  I caught him last spring in northern Virginia for the first time, but last night was special as I had third row-center seats.  He played a number of more obscure songs along with some selections from the latest album.  See the set list hereAmos Lee opened the show and Elvis Costello followed on solo acoustic guitar.  It was nice to hear Costello perform some of the classics such as "Veronica", "Allison", and a few tunes from when he played with the Attractions. 

Now I have to figure out how I am going to teach four sections today.


Robert K. Krick, Robert E. Lee, and the Anti-Lee Historians

Last night I attended the first session of UVA’s “Lee at 200” conference which will run through the end of October.  Each week a historian will address a different aspect of Lee’s life and legacy with a roundtable discussion scheduled for Oct. 31.  I am scheduled along with two other panelists to lead this discussion.  Given my role in this symposium I plan to attend as many sessions as possible.  Bob Krick kicked things off with a talk on Lee’s legacy and commented on recent challenges to his reputation.  It was basically the same talk he presented a few months back at a “conference” hosted by the SCV.  I blogged about it then; click here for the post which links to an even earlier post on this talk.  At the beginning he quoted from three nameless historians which he used as representative samples of how academics seem to treat Lee.  He described them as anti-Lee which I still believe is misleading.  One passage was clearly from Alan Nolan who I actually do believe comes closest to fulfilling this description.  Nolan treats the historical Lee as if he is on trial and seems more concerned about arriving at a certain conclusion rather than understanding the historical reality in which Lee operated.  We can write Nolan’s book off as sloppy scholarship.

I thought the other two passages were from Thomas Connelly and Michael Fellman, but during the Q&A I learned that he had read from William G. Piston and Carol Reardon.  I asked Krick if he didn’t think that he had set up a strawman argument in the way he so quickly assumed what motivates these writers.  For someone who is so suspicious of psycho-history it is strange to see Krick so easily assume the psychological qualities of Reardon and Piston.  My underlying problem with his talk is that I still have no idea what he means by “anti-Lee.”  Is anything that challenges the standard picture of Lee to be placed in this category?  Why can’t we be content in acknowledging that historians often disagree with one another about the past?  I’ve never met Piston, but I’ve talked with Reardon on a number of occasions and she doesn’t strike me as someone who has a personal need to tear down anyone from the past.  I actually believe she is a pretty damn good historian.  Our job as historians is to challenge interpretations we disagree with by demonstrating where we believe the weaknesses to be.  Suggesting that someone is “anti-Lee” tells us more about the individual making the accusation than anything connected with the interpretation in question.

On a different note I should say that Krick’s latest reference book Civil War Weather in Virginia is well worth buying if you are the kind of person who needs to know all thing ANV related.  I recently completed a review of the book for the Virginia Magazine of History and Biography and will post it when it is published.


Condi’s Civil War

Secretary of State Condoleeza Rice recently compared Abu Musab al-Zarqawi with Generals Ulysses S. Grant and Robert E. Lee:

"When you hear people say … ‘If you kill one of them, they’ll just replace him with another leader,’ remember that that’s like saying, ‘If you take out Robert E. Lee or Ulysses S. Grant, well, they’ll just replace them with another leader,’" Rice said.

I guess when it comes to the Bush administration history is whatever you choose to make of it.


Ken Burns, the War in Iraq, and Sacrifice

There has been quite a bit of talk about whether Ken Burns’s documentary on WWII is meant as commentary on the ongoing war in Iraq.  I don’t claim any insight into the intentions of Burns nor do I really care.  That said, it was hard watching last night’s episode and the focus on the home front without thinking of the present situation.  Yes, the images and commentary of rationing and the collecting of grease was predictable, but what did stand out was the close connection between the talk of sacrifice and the corresponding actions.   We’ve heard our own president talk about long-term sacrifice, but apart from the men and women on the ground (some on their third and fourth tours of duty) and their families where have we seen sacrifice on the home front?  How bad is it?  Our president had an opportunity to rally the country and the world in his address at the UN the other day and all he can talk about is the problem in Myanmar.