The Real Black Civil War Soldiers

With all of this talk about black Confederates it is easy to lose sight of the fact that African American soldiers did indeed exist.  Next weekend Harrisburg, Pennsylvania will commemorate the Grand Review of United States Colored Troops that took place in November 1865.  Information for the event can be found here.   An event focused specifically on black Civil War soldiers reflects just how far our collective memory of the war has come.  One would be hard pressed to find anything of this scale in the 1960s during the Civil War Centennial.  That said, we should resist the urge to celebrate ourselves too much.  I suspect that most people who attend this event will do so with images of Matthew Broderick, Denzel Washington, and Morgan Freeman in the back of their minds.  The movie, Glory is an important milestone in our popular understanding of the war and while it introduced Americans to a long neglected aspect of this history it may have pushed even further away the real significance of the sacrifice of these men.  To address it would have run the risk of raising the specter of white guilt.

In reference to Glory what stands out to me is the emphasis on a progressive story where the individual characters as well as the unit itself becomes more closely connected or identified with the national goal of emancipation and nationalism.  Col. Shaw (played by Broderick) volunteers his regiment in the attack on Battery Wagner as a means of impressing upon the nation the sacrifices and bravery displayed by his men.  Tripp (played by Washington) begins the movie with an overtly selfish perspective, gradually comes to see the regiment as family, and finally falls in battle while holding the stars and stripes.  Even Thomas, who represents the free black men of the regiment and comes to learn during training that he has more in common with fugitive slaves, finds redemption and self-respect by volunteering to carry the flag before the assault on Wagner.

The decision to end the movie with the failed assault at Wagner solidifies this progressive theme, which links the men to one another and, supposedly, the goal of the United States by the middle of the war.  The final scenes depict the grim reality of the battlefield, including shoe-less dead black soldiers, and a mass grave in which both Shaw and his men are buried.  As the movie ends the viewer is told that the performance of the 54th Massachusetts led to the recruitment of upwards of 180,000 men and that President Lincoln credited these men with turning the tide of war.  The upshot is that the viewer finishes the movie with the impression that the story of the 54th has been brought to its completion, in large part, because of the death of Shaw.  It’s as if the mission of the unit, in terms of its contribution to the Civil War and American History, has been fully realized.  It is through defeat and death in the regiment that the nation experiences a new birth of freedom. Continue reading “The Real Black Civil War Soldiers”

Black Confederates on Countdown

I want to say up front that I am not a fan of Keith Olbermann’s Countdown show. I find him to be utterly uninteresting and, in the end, a great example of what is wrong with mainstream media.  Like most other “news” shows it’s a place to go to affirm and feel good about what you already believe.  That said, Olbermann handled this story responsibly by sticking to the central issue at hand, which is the veracity of the claim about the role of southern blacks in the Confederate army.  I anticipated an interview with a Roland Martin-type, but Olbermann managed to get William and Mary History Professor, Carol Sheriff, who broke this story and who herself is the author of an excellent Civil War study.  Sheriff also managed to highlight the other big problem with all of this and that is that most people do not know how to navigate the Internet.

This narrative is now on the public’s radar screen.  There will be the inevitable responses from certain quarters that a way of life is being attacked or that revisionist historians and Political Correctness have run amok, but this is nothing more than a sign of desperation and a reflection of intellectual bankruptcy.

Black Confederates on the Retreat?

I think it’s safe to say that all of us were disappointed by the news in the Washington Post today about the fourth grade textbook that includes a reference to thousands of slaves serving as soldiers in Confederate ranks.  A broader look at Virginia textbooks on the history of slavery may push us further down the road of disillusionment.  Consider Virginia: History, Government, Geography by Francis B. Simkins, Spotswood H. Jones, and Sidman P. Poole, which was used in Virginia schools through the late 1970s.  Here is an excerpt and accompanying image from the chapter on slavery:

A feeling of strong affection existed between masters and slaves in a majority of Virginia homes. . . The house servants became almost as much a part of the planter’s family circle as its white members. . . The Negroes were always present at family weddings. They were allowed to look on at dances and other entertainments . . . A strong tie existed between slave and master because each was dependent on the other. . . The slave system demanded that the master care for the slave in childhood, in sickness, and in old age. The regard that master and slaves had for each other made plantation life happy and prosperous.  Life among the Negroes of Virginia in slavery times was generally happy. The Negroes went about in a cheerful manner making a living for themselves and for those for whom they worked. . . But they were not worried by the furious arguments going on between Northerners and Southerners over what should be done with them. In fact, they paid little attention to these arguments.

That’s as bad as it gets, but today is a day to be optimistic about the future. [For those of you interested in the decision on the part of Virginia’s state legislature to rewrite history textbooks in response to the Civil Rights Movement, see Adam W. Dean’s recent essay in the VMHB.] It’s almost impossible to imagine the swift correction that we witnessed today in a prominent newspaper in response to the above text and image during its tenure in Virginia’s classrooms.  In fact, today was quite encouraging. Continue reading “Black Confederates on the Retreat?”

Black Confederates at Radford University?

Update From Professor Sharon Hepburn: Before things get out of hand, I need to clarify things since this is completely unintentional. It seems my mistake was to write the abstract too quickly without proofreading it adequately. There should have been a qualification along the lines of “some claim it is likely that thousands…” This is not my primary field of research, just meant to be a community talk regarding general black participation in the war. I was asked to discusss African Americans in the Confederacy–which encompasses a great deal of different kinds of service. Since I do not research this particular topic I personally cannot make any claim as to the numbers and did not mean to. This is not even a field of research I plan on pursuing. My current research is on the 102nd USCT, a Union regiment, but I was asked to say some things about blacks and the CSA. Most of what I discuss is body servants, impressed slaves, etc., not soldiers per se. I apologize for any miscommunication or confusion in this matter.

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From the 4th Grade we head on over to Radford University, where Dr. Sharon A. Roger Hepburn, Chair and Professor of History is scheduled to give a public address titled, “African American Confederates” at the Radford Public Library.  The talk is being sponsored by the Radford Heritage Foundation and Sun Trust.  Here is the description:

Just as African Americans aided both the Patriots and the Loyalists during the American Revolution, they supported and fought for both the Union and Confederacy during the American Civil War. The Confederate States of America benefited from its slave population throughout the war. Most cooks in the Confederate army were slaves. The Confederate army used slave teamsters, mechanics, hospital attendants, ambulance drivers, and common laborers. Slaves constructed most Confederate fortifications. Wealthy slave owners often went to war with their body servants who kept their quarters clean, cooked for them, washed their uniforms, and performed other menial duties. While most of this work was extracted involuntarily through coercion, there were African Americans throughout the south who willingly supported the Confederate States of America in various ways, including fighting for them. Although the exact numbers are widely disputed, it seems likely that several thousand African Americans provided military service to the Confederate army. Join Dr. Sharon A. Roger Hepburn, Chair and Professor of History at Radford University, to learn more about the various ways in which African Americans played a vital role for the CSA. Sponsored by the Radford Heritage Foundation and SunTrust. For more information, contact Scott Gardner, 540 731 5031

As I read through this for the first time I thought to myself that perhaps the general public will be treated to a thorough examination of how the Confederate war effort utilized slave labor in various forms.  In other words, the first part of this description is spot on, but the claim that several thousand African Americans provided military service to the Confederate army sticks out like a sore thumb.  This wouldn’t bother me so much if we were talking about Earl Ijames, but Professor Hepburn is a trained historian.  Now, it could be the case that Hepburn did not author the above description.  Hepburn is the author of Crossing the Border: A Free Black Community in Canada (University of Illinois Press, 2007) so it is clear that she understands the research process and probably did not rely on an Online search for her information as in the case of our 4th Grade History textbook author.

What I would like to know is what is the evidence (primary or secondary sources) that supports such a claim?  I am familiar with the relevant scholarly research on this and related subjects and I am confident in stating that there is absolutely no evidence that would support such a claim.

Who Knew Harold Holzer Had a Sense of Humor

Actually, I’ve never met Harold Holzer, but his review of John Avery’s Lincoln Uber Alles: Dictatorship Comes to America, which can be found in the latest issue of North and South (November 2010) magazine is hilarious.  I am not the biggest fan of reviews that go beyond a strict critique of the argument, but as far as I am concerned book published by Pelican Press are open season:

Second, the author suggests that German-born refugees from the 1848 Revolutions in Europe radicalized the Republican Party with foreign-bred Communistic ideas (such outrages as “equality throughout the nation”).  their support tipped the election to Lincoln in 1860 thus ending idyllic American life as we knew and loved it, when men were men, and slaves presumably knew their place.  This Gone with the Wiener Schnitzel theory would be sickening were it not so silly.  Anyone who counts picture-publisher Louis Prang as a dangerous fomenter of socialism, or believes Germans really made Lincoln president (even a big German vote in Missouri beyond a minuscule 2%), has been smoking too many European cigarettes or reading too much Thomas DiLorenzo or the current governor of Virginia…. However, those who seek confirmation of the wildest of old and new conspiracy theories, including the belief that Lincoln’s presidency paved the way for nation-building, FBI stings, the London Blitz, Hiroshima, and the government raid on Waco, need look no further than Lincoln Uber Alles.  Let the record show that I said “Waco,” not “wacko,” though either word will do.

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