The Confederate General Who Fought For Black Civil Rights

I’ve been thinking quite a bit about William Mahone over the past few months in light of the ongoing debate about Confederate monuments and the overall question of how we should understand the history and memory of the Confederacy. There are a number of challenges associated with writing a biography of Mahone, including the legibility of his writing, but there is so much source material to work with and now more than ever seems like an opportune moment to jump back in and try to make sense of it. [click to continue…]

What To Do About Confederate Monuments? Ask the Kids

I recently returned from a trip to Charleston, South Carolina, where I spent time with a group of high school students contending with the ongoing debate over Confederate monuments. Over the past two years I have worked with teachers and students from all over the country, but Charleston presented its own unique challenges. This is the city where the fire of secession was first kindled. Roughly 40 percent of the enslaved Africans brought to what became the United States arrived on nearby Sullivan’s Island. The first shots of the Civil War were fired at Fort Sumter, overlooking Charleston. Monuments celebrating the Confederate cause define the city’s commemorative landscape. They include a monument to John C. Calhoun, who famously boasted that the institution was nothing to apologize for, that it was a “positive good.” About a block away from the Calhoun monument on June 17, 2015, Dylann Roof murdered nine people during a prayer service at Emanuel African Methodist Episcopal Church.

You can read the rest of my latest op-ed at Bunk History.

New to the Civil War Memory Library, 11/29

Kristin Brill ed., The Diary of a Civil War Bride: Lucy Wood Butler of Virginia (Louisiana State University Press, 2017).

William C. Cooper, The Lost Founding Father: John Quincy Adams and the Transformation of American Politics (Liveright, 2017).

Ryan W. Keating ed., The Greatest Trials I Ever Had: The Civil War Letters of Margaret and Thomas Cahill (University of Georgia Press, 2017).

Caroline Moorehead, A Bold and Dangerous Family: The Remarkable Story of an Italian Mother, Her Two Sons, and Their Fight Against Fascism (Harper, 2017).

Michael D. Robinson, A Union Indivisible: Secession and the Politics of Slavery in the Border South (University of North Carolina Press, 2017).

Jarret Ruminski, The Limits of Loyalty: Ordinary People in Civil War Mississippi (University Press of Mississippi, 2017).

Russell Shorto, Revolution Song: A Story of American Freedom (W.W. Norton, 2017).

Adam I.P. Smith, The Stormy Present: Conservatism and the Problem of Slavery in Northern Politics, 1846-1865 (University of North Carolina Press, 2017).

*Searching For Black Confederates Soldiers* Is Off To the Publisher

I suspect there are a few of you out there who will be happy to hear that today I finished my book project on the history of Confederate camp slaves and the evolution of the myth of the black Confederate soldier for the University of North Carolina Press’s. Searching for Black Confederate Soldiers: The Civil War’s Most Persistent Myth is just under 70,000 words and 300 double-spaced pages.


To be completely honest, I am at a loss for words right now. This project should have been completed much earlier. As many of you know, I have set this project aside more times than I care to acknowledge. On the other hand, the delay has given me the opportunity to explore the black Confederate myth in connection to the ongoing debate about Confederate iconography. There turned out to be a good deal of material to work with. One of things that kept me going is that in the end I knew that I would regret not finishing this book.

We are still a long way from an actual book. The good people at UNC Press must decide if they even want it. Assuming it gets through the front gate, the manuscript will then go out to an independent reader(s) and will be returned with extensive comments. I am very much looking forward to this process. One of the things that I desperately need is a set of new eyes to review what I have done. I benefited from my book group here in Boston with the earlier chapters, but I need people to look at the manuscript in its entirety and to point out things that I missed and where the argument and narrative can be improved.

I have heard nothing but great things about the editorial staff at UNC Press. I am also looking forward to working with the editors of the Civil War America series. Peter Carmichael, Caroline Janney, and Aaron Sheehan-Dean are all talented historians and I have been the beneficiary of their advice and editorial review on previous projects.

Thanks to all of you for your continued patience. I will certainly keep you up to date as we move through the next stages.

Alabama’s Doug Jones Believes the War Caused the War

Looks like the Democratic candidate in Alabama’s Senate race has seen Ron Maxwell’s movie Gettysburg one too many times. Here is one of Jones’s recent political ads in which he reaches back into the nation’s reconciliationist memory of the Civil War.

Jones focuses on the desperate fight at Little Round Top on July 2, 1863 and introduces Colonels William C. Oates of Alabama and Joshua L. Chamberlain. According to Jones, “what brought those two men together…was war.” That was a nice sleight of hand on his part. “Two sides believing so strongly in their cause that they were willing to die for it.”

Jones hopes to bring this same spirit to Washington, D.C. if elected. If his understanding of history and memory is any indication of which Alabamians he will represent it is clear that it does not include African Americans.


Little Round Top, Gettysburg. Three times Col. William Oates of Alabama led the Confederate forces to take it. Running out of ammunition, Col. Joshua Chamberlain of Maine had his men fix bayonets to desperately repel the attack. What brought those two brave men, one from Alabama and one from Maine, together was war—two sides believing so strongly in their cause that they were willing to die for it. Those times are past, long ago, and our country is better for it. But now we fight too often over other matters. It seems as if we’re coming apart. I want to go to Washington and meet the representatives from Maine and those from every other state not on a battlefield, but to find common ground, because there’s honor in compromise and civility. To pull together as a people and get things done for Alabama. I’m Doug Jones and I approve this message, because on December 12, Alabama can lead the way.

Alabamians have one hell of a choice this year between Roy Moore and Doug Jones.

Correction: I agree with those of you who are pointing out what is, in fact, a false equivalence between Moore and Jones. Chalk this one up to writing much too early in the morning. Thanks for calling me on it.

Henry Louis Gates’s Betrayal of Bryant Gumbel and History

Bryant Gumbel woke up today believing that his great-grandfather briefly volunteered as a soldier in the Confederate army. Since the airing of Finding Your Roots on Tuesday evening tens of thousands of Americans now believe that the Confederate government recruited black soldiers into the army as early as the first two years of the war.

No one denies that mistakes will be made when doing historical research, but this is a different kind of mistake altogether. Americans are once again divided over the legacy of the Civil War and how it is remembered in public spaces throughout much of the former Confederacy. The staff should have been aware of this and taken extra steps to ensure that their research is sound. [click to continue…]

Henry Louis Gates and PBS Fall For Black Confederate Myth…Again

Update: Early on in the production of this episode a producer with Finding Their Roots reached out to a reputable historian about the ongoing research into Martin Lamotte. In an email exchange that I have seen the producer was told specifically that the Louisiana Native Guard was never accepted into service by the Confederate government. This raises important questions about the integrity of this program’s research process.

Tonight’s episode of PBS’s Finding Your Roots, hosted by Henry Louis Gates, included a segment on Bryant Gumbel’s family history. His family’s roots in New Orleans led to the revelation that Gumbel’s great-grandfather, Martin Lamotte, who was freed in 1840, served in the Louisiana Native Guard. Gates concludes from this that Lamotte was a Confederate soldier. Of course, anyone who knows anything about the Louisiana Native Guard knows that this unit was never accepted into Confederate service.

Gates insists that Martin Lamotte was a soldier in the Confederate army until he switched uniforms and joined the Union army.

This is one of the most common mistakes made by people who fall for the black Confederate myth. It is true that the men of the Native Guard pledged their loyalty to the Confederacy and as Gates suggests many of these free blacks may have done so to protect their economic interests, but again they never were accepted into the Confederate army.  The reason is because the Confederate government refused to accept black men into the service until the final weeks of the war.

How can the show’s researchers be so careless? At this point there is simply no excuse for this kind of oversight.

This is not the first time that Gates has become seduced by the black Confederate myth. Why is not entirely clear. Gates has never done any serious research on the subject. He appears to believe that the black Confederate shows that African Americans cannot be easily labeled or their behavior predicted. He once told me following a talk at Harvard that the reason I deny the existence of these men is because I resist acknowledging that African Americans are complex or “complicated.”

This is another case of Gates allowing the shock value of the black Confederate narrative to take precedence over solid historical research. What is most disappointing is that his guests end up as the victim. Bryant Gumbel is now in possession of a fundamentally flawed account of an important moment in his family’s story.

Everyone at Finding Your Roots should be embarrassed, especially Henry Louis Gates. PBS should acknowledge the error publicly and issue a statement. This is just the kind of thing that will be picked up by individuals and groups that push this myth. They will point to the credibility of PBS as well as Gates’s connection to Harvard.

Yes, this story will just make it into my black Confederates manuscript.