Category Archives: Public History

Calling on James I. Robertson

Update: My request has been passed on to Dr. Robertson by the Virginia Sesquicentennial Commission. Update #2: Thanks to Tom Perry for providing the following link, which includes an interview with Robertson in a Virginia newspaper: The claim is rejected by most historians, including local history expert James Robertson. “It’s blatantly false.” Robertson is a distinguished alumni history professor at Virginia Tech, an author and was even appointed by President Kennedy to be the executive director of the U.S Civil War Centennial Commission in the 60′s. “It implies men who were in slavery would want to fight for the country that enslaved them, which really is illogical.”…. “This is not to say there were not thousands of blacks in the Confederate Army, but they were performing camp chores, hospital attendants, cooks,” said Robertson. “I spent eight years of my life putting together a 950 page biography of Jackson and I can tell you he did not have any black battalions, any black units serving under him.

The debate about black Confederate soldiers that was recently stirred up by a brief reference in a 4th grade Virginia history textbook shows no sign of letting up.  Editorials continue to be published and various interest groups have firmly dug in their heels.  The contours of this debate beautifully reflect the fault lines that continue to divide Virginians over how to commemorate the Civil War.  These fault lines will continue to flair up when emotionally-charged topics such as this one are introduced, and it is likely that our reliance on sound historical scholarship will be pushed further away.  This is one of those topics where everyone is an expert.

Few people doubt that the problems with this textbook arose as a result of the over reliance on online sources, which utilize little to no quality control methods.  This is something that I’ve pointed out over and over on this site.  Fortunately, our state’s colleges and universities include some of the most talented historians in the country.  One of them was responsible for the initial warning about this particular textbook reference.  Unfortunately, there is a large segment of our population that gives little weight to their findings even though these folks may be in the best position to offer the rest of us much needed guidance.  It is a sad commentary that historians such as Gary Gallagher, Peter Carmichael, Ken Noe, Joseph Glatthaar, and Robert Krick are overshadowed by the likes of Ann DeWitt, H.K. Edgerton, and G. Ashleigh Moody.

If there is one history professor whose reputation has survived intact it is Professor James I. Robertson of Virginia Tech.  Professor Robertson has taught at Tech for most of his career and is responsible for one of the largest and most popular survey courses on the Civil War.  He has built his scholarly reputation on books about Civil War soldiers, Stonewall Jackson, and the Stonewall Brigade.  In terms of his service to the public, Prof. Robertson served as the Executive Director of the Civil War Centennial and is currently a member of the Executive Committee of Virginia’s Civil War Sesquicentennial Committee.  He has taken the lead in highlighting the importance of education for this sesquicentennial commemoration.  Well, this is the ultimate teaching moment. Continue reading

Commemorating the Sesquicentennial in Brunswick County, Virginia

Last night I took part in a community forum on the Civil War Sesquicentennial with Waite Rawls, III, Executive Director of the Museum of the Confederacy and Christy Coleman, President of the American Civil War Center at Historic Tredegar.  The event took place in Alberta at the Southside Virginia Community College and was organized by Brunswick County Civil War Sesquicentennial Committee.  For about 1 hour, and in front of a racially-mixed audience numbering around 100, we discussed the reasons for and importance of commemorating the sesquicentennial.  It was a lively discussion and it was truly an honor to be asked to join this roundtable.  I have nothing but the highest admiration for the work that Christy and Waite do at their respective institutions on a daily basis.  The challenges they face are numerous, but they proceed with the full understanding that their work matters.  I could listen to Christy talk about public history all night long.

Each of us had an opportunity to make an opening statement, which I used to discuss my work in the classroom and how I’ve tried to integrate the sesquicentennial into some of my lessons.  I talked about readings, class discussions, and my annual trip to Monument Avenue and Hollywood Cemetery in Richmond.  The audience was given plenty of time to ask questions and they did not disappoint.  I was singled out early on in the discussion by a group, whose questions were entertaining if not predictable.  One individual asked where I was born followed by some rather odd questions about my teaching style.  My personal favorite was a question that asked if I teach my students that Robert E. Lee, Stonewall Jackson, and J.E.B. Stuart were great men.  I usually don’t respond to the place of birth question, but I successfully diffused it by pointing out that I am from southern New Jersey.  The question is, of course, silly since it implies some kind of privilege or unique access to the past depending on birth.  As to the importance of Lee and the rest of the gang I simply noted that as a history teacher it is not my responsibility to tell them what to believe about any historic figure.  My job is to provide my students with the analytical skills to draw their own conclusions.  Some of these same people suspect that I am corrupting my students by teaching them to “hate the South” and yet they have no problem telling me how I should influence what my students believe about the Civil War. Continue reading

Black Confederates Didn’t Exist in 1914

The other day Andy Hall challenged the common assumption that the Confederate monument at Arlington National Cemetery contains a black Confederate soldier.  I encourage you to read Andy’s thoughtful analysis.  You will find images of this monument on countless websites along with colorful interpretations that seem to confirm the existence of these men.  While Andy cites the California Division of the SCV’s website, I am going to return to G. Ashleigh Moody’s response over at the Virginia Sesquicentennial’s Facebook Page.  Apparently, he wasn’t pleased with my initial post, but this will give me the opportunity to quote him in full.  Here is what he has to say about the Confederate monument:

One of the most “telling” monuments to the South and including Black Confederates and other Black Southerners is this 1912 (pre-PC) Confederate Memorial towers 32 and 1/2 feet and is said to be the tallest bronze sculpture at Arlington National Cemetery.  On top is a figure of a woman, with olive leaves covering her head, representing the South. She also holds a laurel wreath in her left hand, remembering the Sons of Dixie. On the side of the monument is also a life size depiction of a Black Confederate marching in step with white soldiers, and among other life size depictions, a Black woman receiving a baby as a father going off to war. These are the stories that bring people together, not the Neo-Yankee version of the South that we are having to endure today. We could do with a lot less “presentism”!

If it is a black Confederate soldier it would be news to Moses Ezekiel as well as the folks who gathered to dedicate the monument in 1914.  Consider the original, published history of the monument by Hilary A. Herbert:

But our sculptor, who is writing history in bronze, also pictures the South in another attitude, the South as she was in 1861-1865. For decades she had been contending for her constitutional rights, before popular assemblies, in Congress, and in the courts. Here in the forefront of the memorial she is depicted as a beautiful woman, sinking down almost helpless, still holding her shield with “The Constitution” written upon it, the full-panoplied Minerva, the Goddess of War and of Wisdom, compassionately upholding her. In the rear, and beyond the mountains, the Spirits of Avar are blowing their trumpets, turning them in every direction to call the sons and daughters of the South to the aid of their struggling mother. The Furies of War also appear in the background, one with the terrific hair of a Gordon, another in funereal drapery upholding a cinerary urn.

Then the sons and daughters of the South are seen coming from every direction. The manner in which they crowd enthusiastically upon each other is one of the most impressive features of this colossal work. There they come, representing every branch of the service, and in proper garb; soldiers, sailors, sappers and miners, all typified. On the right is a faithful negro body-servant following his young master, Mr. Thomas Nelson Page’s realistic “Marse Chan” over again.

The artist had grown up, like Page, in that embattled old Virginia where “Marse Chan” was so often enacted.

And there is another story told here, illustrating the kindly relations that existed all over the South between the master and the slave — a story that can not be too often repeated to generations in which “Uncle Tom’s Cabin” survives and is still manufacturing false ideas as to the South and slavery in the “fifties.” The astonishing fidelity of the slaves everywhere during the war to the wives and children of those who were absent in the army was convincing proof of the kindly relations between master and slave in the old South. One leading purpose of the U. D. C. is to correct history. Ezekiel is here writing it for them, in characters that will tell their story to generation after generation. Still to the right of the young soldier and his body-servant is an officer, kissing his child in the arms of an old negro “mammy.” Another child holds on to the skirts of “mammy” and is crying, perhaps without knowing why.

It’s ironic that Mr. Moody accuses others of falling into the trap of presentism.  His assertion is a textbook example of just such a move: reading into the past through a lens defined by our own assumptions and values.  The problem here is that black Confederates did not exist in 1914.  You will not find a reference to black Confederate soldiers in any of the public addresses given at the monument’s commemoration nor will you find them in newspaper coverage of the event.  While there may be a few scattered references to black Confederate soldiers at this time, I have yet to come across one.  And I suspect that the reason they don’t exist is that white Americans have no use for it. Continue reading

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.