I have been giving this question some thought since our recent discussion surrounding the upcoming movie about Patrick Cleburne and the broader black Confederate narrative. As many of you know I’ve been committed to responding to some of the more outlandish claims in the news and on numerous websites. My goal has not been simply to deny these claims, but to work to steer the debate in a direction that may help us to better understand the complexity surrounding the question of how the Confederate war effort challenged the slave – master relationship as well as broader issues of race relations in the South. I feel comfortable in concluding that between these posts and the intelligent discussion that almost always ensues that this site offers the most thought provoking commentary to be found on this issue on the Web. That said, I am very much aware of its limitations.
First and foremost, Civil War Memory was never meant as a place to showcase my scholarship in a finished form on any subject nor was it meant to be considered as a digital history site. Yes, I regularly share ideas that I am working on and excerpts from finished projects, but I am not doing history here in a strict sense. I’ve always thought of my blog as a place to share ideas about teaching, the books I am reading, the news items I come across and a host of other concerns. Some of these threads are relatively short while others are quite extensive. In other words, I think it would be a mistake to treat this site as a legitimate secondary source of any kind.
That said, I do think that the extended thread on black Confederates offers the interested reader a great deal to consider. A number of posts explore the terms employed in this debate while others counter claims made about specific individuals. In fact, we’ve not had one example of a supposed black Confederate hold up under close scrutiny. I want to thank those of you who have helped to hunt down the necessary archival materials, work that should have been carried out by those making the claims.
Still, as I pointed out there are limitations to what a blog can do in addressing these issues. Most importantly, blogs easily lend themselves to partisan bickering since they can be attributed to an individual or organization. In the eyes of most observers all is equal on the Web. Anyone and everyone can establish their own website and/or comment on a subject regardless of their background and competence. That is both a blessing and a curse. I’ve met some very talented and smart people through this site, but I’ve also been forced to deal with outright incompetency. The black Confederate issue provides us with a case study of the pros and cons of the dangers and possibilities associated with the Web. Continue reading →
Do a Google search for “Black Confederates” and “Ed Bearss” and you will get 675 hits. No surprise that many of the sites have been created by SCV chapters and others who believe that significant numbers of blacks fought as soldiers in the Confederate army. Just about all of these sites utilize all or part of the following quote that is attributed to Ed Bearrs, who served as Chief Historian of the National Park Service from 1981 to 1994:
I don’t want to call it a conspiracy to ignore the role of Blacks both above and below the Mason-Dixon line, but it was definitely a tendency that began around 1910.
Unfortunately, I’ve been unable to locate the source of this quote and reliable sources have told me that Bearss has never said anything that would place him in the Black Confederate camp. While I was not able to find a source for the above quote, I did find this 14 minute video of Bearss that was done for Black History Month. [Note: You may need to sign in to view the video.]
In it Bearss is asked to discuss the role that blacks played in the Civil War. What is instructive is what he does not say. At no time does he suggest that there was any kind of conspiracy surrounding the recognition of black Confederates. And when he gets to commenting on the Louisiana Native Guard Bearss emphasizes that the first units raised for the defense of Louisiana were never accepted for service in the Confederate army. Again, decide for yourself, but there is nothing in this video that would suggest that Bearss believes anything close to what these websites attribute to him.
Back in 2008 I commented on a graphic novel that tells the story of Patrick Cleburne’s plan to arm slaves in exchange for their freedom. I expressed a number of concerns in that post and I appreciate the author of the novel for offering his own perspective. Now it looks like that story is coming to the big screen. Unfortunately, it looks like the misinformation and blatant abuse of history that is present in the graphic novel will make it into the movie. Consider the web page on the history behind the subject. It begins with the standard list of half-truths and outright falsehoods about the roles of blacks in the Confederate army as well as the views of some of the more prominent Confederate such as Forrest and Jackson. Ed Bearrss is cited as having spoken out in support of the black Confederate narrative even though he has denied ever making such a claim. And can someone tell me where Ervin Jordan describe this as a “cover up”? I can’t seem to find it in his book, but perhaps I am looking in the wrong place. You will also notice the doctored photograph of the Louisiana Native Guards at the top of the page. Consider the following choice “facts” about black Confederates:
Many Black Confederates actually engaged in combat including the Battles of First Manassas, Chickamauga, Seven Days, Thompson’s Station, Franklin, and others.
Black Confederates were known to frequent veteran reunions years after the war and many posed proudly for photographs with Confederate Battle Flags.
Such a sloppy description of how free and enslaved black southerners functioned in the Confederate army raises more questions than anything approaching understanding of such a complex subject. But it gets even worse. Consider the brief description of Cleburne and his proposal:
On a cold winter night in January 1864, Patrick Cleburne put forth a controversial plan to the Confederate high command. It was a written proposal to free over 300,000 slaves and enlist them as soldiers in the Southern armies. He made few allies and many enemies, and from that moment on, his career would come to a dead halt. Cleburne was no ordinary commander. He had never lost a battle and was even called the “Stonewall Jackson of the West”. None of this would matter once his revolutionary views were made known to the Confederate government and President Davis.
Ironically, Black troops had already been serving as teamsters in the Confederate ranks for years, but what Cleburne proposed was not merely service, but official military enlistment. He even went as far as to imply that the entire plan would begin the steps toward the complete emancipation of all African Americans from slavery.
The movie presents Cleburne as having “fought two wars. One with the North, the other with the South.” Such a description makes it seem as if Cleburne was operating in a vacuum when his proposal surfaced. Actually, the debate about arming slaves had started back in 1861 and Cleburne wasn’t even the first Confederate general to offer such a proposal. More importantly, we must not lose sight of the fact that these proposals do not reflect a desire to end slavery in the South. In fact, they tell us much more about the extent to which white Southerners would go to gain independence as a means to preserve the institution of slavery. That fact tells us why most white southerners were not willing to arm slaves and free blacks. You can expect that I am going to closely follow this story
I am not a big fan of historical impersonators. More often than not their interpretations reflect a consensus view that simply reinforces deeply held beliefs. The goal seems to be more entertainment than education. Such is the case with Tom Dugan, who pulls off a pretty good Lost Cause-inspired interpretation of Lee. Here is Lee the beleaguered slavemaster who wants nothing more than to see slavery end. Even a cursory perusal of Lee’s letters or the recent biography by Elizabeth Brown Pryor reveals a very different attitude regarding slavery and race. A bit more disturbing is the Lee who never quite gets over the “high watermark of the rebellion” – even before it had become the high watermark. Funny, that I am here reminded of Michael Fellman’s overly-psychological interpretation of Lee. I would love to bring Dugan in to perform for my Civil War Memory class. It would make for a wonderful discussion.
I don’t know much about the few white Southerners who left the country following the war owing to the widespread physical destruction, military occupation as well as the consequences of emancipation. Here is at least one title that looks worthwhile. Actually, the more I watched the more I thought of this story as a reflection of Brazilian memory rather than what we would assume to be a Civil War/Confederate memory. These scenes seem to have all of the trappings of our popular memory of the war as seen in Gone With the Wind and your standard reenactment rather than anything having to do specifically with the men and women who chose to leave the United States. At one point one of the interviewees suggests that his ancestors would be pleased to learn that they continue to keep the memory of the Confederacy alive. Perhaps, but the fact that they chose to leave suggests that they were trying not only to distance themselves physically from their homes, buy psychologically as well. I get the sense that remembrance of their Confederate past is a once a year event. Just a thought.