Looks like Vanderbilt University has put together a first rate speakers series [see here, here, and here] on the Civil War. It is safe to say that the most important book to be published on the Army of Northern Virginia in recent years is Joseph Glatthaar’s, General Lee’s Army: From Victory to Collapse. I read through the book when it was first published and have since gone through large sections of it again. While the book offers an incredibly rich narrative it is Glatthaar’s statistical sample that constitutes the real value of this study. Glatthaar’s statistical portrait of the ANV is slated to be published by the University of North Carolina Press: Soldiering in the Army of Northern Virginia: A Statistical Portrait of the Troops Who Served under Robert E. Lee. You get a taste of this aspect of the book in this presentation.
Few Civil War historians have been more prolific over as large a segment of the historical landscape than George Rable of the University of Alabama. I’ve read most of his books and I always find that my understanding of the period deepens as a result. Rable is one of those historians that makes you smarter after having read one of his books. My two favorites are The Confederate Republic: A Revolution Against Politics (Civil War America) and Fredericksburg! Fredericksburg!, which in my mind is one of the most innovative Civil War campaign studies ever written. His most recent book is, God’s Almost Chosen Peoples: A Religious History of the American Civil War (Littlefield History of the Civil War Era), which I am thoroughly enjoying.
If you are not familiar with Rable’s scholarship this is the perfect place to start.
Yesterday I was pleasantly surprised to receive an email from one of Professor Edward C. Smith’s current students. Professor Smith teaches at American University and on occasion has been a vocal advocate of the black Confederate narrative. He was featured not too long ago in a post that included an excerpt of a speech he gave on the subject to a group of Sons of Confederate Veterans in 1993. This video is available for purchase through the SCV and is one of the earliest references I can find. The student left two comments and they are quite revealing:
This is interesting to me because of the drama of late in Virginia concerning inclusion of black Confederates in history textbooks. I am also taking classes with Ed Smith at American University in DC, who is considered an authority on black Confederates (though honestly, his research methods are a little sketchy). If you have not yet met Ed Smith, you definitely should. Not only is he a fountain of knowledge, but just an interesting person in general. He is not reachable my email though, so how to get in touch with him is something you’d have to explore….
Indeed, Prof. Smith is not a historian in the traditional sense. I would say he is more of a folklorist than anything. He has no formal post-secondary education, but knows a lot about a lot of things through experience. He’s not an academic though, and I think that’s what messes things up. People assume he is an academic, but in reality he’s more of a grandfather type. You might learn a lot from your grandfather but you’re probably not going to be able to source him in a thesis. For example, he’s sent me on a wild goose chase looking for letters that, if they exist, will be extremely historically valuable. But so far I can’t find them, though he swears they’re there. Basically… Ed Smith is a great guy, you can learn a lot of interesting stuff from him, but his historical work is not academic. Still, if you ever have a chance to hang out with him, you definitely should.
Professor Smith’s profile page at AU does not include any references to post-secondary education. [Note: Smith is in the Anthropology Department at AU.] That’s not such a concern to me. What does concern me is that he is often touted as an expert on black Confederates even though he has not published a single peer-reviewed article on the subject. Professor Smith sounds like an interesting person. Indeed, I found a number of thought provoking essays while searching for information about Smith. I appreciate that this student was able to convey her admiration for her teacher without losing sight of perceived shortcomings.
Whatever his areas of expertise might be, the subject of how how African Americans were mobilized by the Confederacy is clearly not one of them.
One of the things that I appreciate about Ervin Jordan’s research into this subject is his desire to more fully account for the myriad ways in which the war affected the lives of free and enslaved Southern blacks. I’ve maintained from the beginning that what is desperately needed in this discussion is a move beyond the narrow categories that tend to animate those looking to find a home for blacks in the Confederate army that steers clear of slavery and offers a more palatable picture of race relations. As I suggested earlier, Jordan is often cited as an academic ally in this endeavor. Unfortunately, this is made all the more easier because his focus is so broad, which leaves plenty of opportunity to pick and choose what is convenient and ignore the rest. A related problem that encourages such an approach can be found in the fact that Jordan’s analysis falls short in certain respects. (see Part 1 of this post)
The last few pages of Jordan’s essay, “Different Drummers”, offers a much clearer picture of what his admirers fail to acknowledge. Consider the following passages:
- Afro-Virginian enthusiasts for the Confederacy assumed that by identifying and actively supporting the Confederate cause, white postwar gratitude would lead to expanded privileges and rights. Their fidelity did not result in racial equality nor granting of social and political rights. White Southerners considered them temporary indigenous allies but never formally recognized them no matter how loyal they seemed to be. Clearly, the motivations of black loyalists were either sincerely patriotic or represented alarmed individuals acting on behalf for their own selfpreservation and economic interests. (p. 64)
- White Virginians found themselves experiencing the same debates and fears of their Revolutionary forefathers relating to the problem of arming black men to kill white males, even if those males happened to be the enemy. Nevertheless, one Campbell County planter advised his Confederate soldier-son: “[D0] not let Sam go into the fight with you. Keep him in the rear; for [he] is worth a thousand dollars.” (p. 65)
- A member of the House of Delegates proposed the enrollment of free blacks but admitted their families would lack means of support while their sole wage earners were away. The delegate hastened to explain that his proposal was not the result of any friendship toward free blacks since if it were in his power he would “convert them all to slaves.” (p. 66)
- Several blacks (mulattoes) posed as whites and served in state regiments, some as officers. George and Stafford Grimes of Caroline County enlisted with the Fredericksburg Artillery in 1862, though both later deserted. George was recaptured and plans were made to court-martial him for desertion. However the court decided against this because as a “Negro” he could not be a soldier nor tried as one. (p. 67)
- Pro-Confederate blacks were riddles; white Southerners did not trust them, Northerners regarded them as lunatics, and the majority of blacks feared and scorned them as fools or racial traitors. Afterwards some black Confederates wanted to forget their service. Civil rights activist and anti-lynching crusader Mary Church Terrell recalled that one of her uncles, James Wilson, a black man with blue eyes, was so light-skinned that he was forced to serve in the Confederate army as a soldier. Whenever his family mentioned this after the war he became embarrassed and angry. (pp. 68-69)
Here is another very touching and informative episode of “Who Do You Think You Are” featuring Lionel Ritchie. Ritchie searches for his great grandfather, J.L. Brown, and discovers that he applied for a pension based on his presence as a servant to Morgan W. Brown, who served in the Confederate army. Brown, it turns out, may have been his father or half brother. The historian who assists him is none other than Ervin Jordan. It is entirely possible that parts of this scene were edited, but Jordan makes no claims about this man’s loyalty to the cause or anything related to service as a soldier. It would have been helpful if they had included some kind of explanation as to why these pensions were given. What we do learn is that Brown’s relationship with his father/half brother must have been a complex one and certainly difficult for a descendant to understand and ultimately come to terms with. What we do know is that this man was not a soldier. It is just this space between master and slave that I hope to explore in my own study of black camp servants and “black Confederates.” This is an episode worth watching in its entirety.