Category Archives: Southern History

Debating Earl Ijames

Earlier today fellow blogger and historian, Brooks Simpson, left a comment offering to host a debate between myself and Earl Ijames at Civil Warriors.

Sounds to me as if Earl Ijames has challenged Kevin Levin to a duel, so to speak.

Now, by the code duello, Mr. Levin has choice of weapons. I assume he’d rather conduct the contest on the written page/screen/blog, where all of us can see the result, not some hand-picked venue chosen by Mr. Ijames. And I think that’s appropriate. I’m perfectly willing to offer Civil Warriors as a field of honor where this can happen, so that historians can judge the result.

So, Mr. Ijames, it’s up to you. Are you going to make your case? Are you willing to conduct yourself according to the rules of scholarship?  Remember what you said, Mr. Ijames: ” I’ll re-iterate that offer to you to put your money where your loose lips leak erroneous information…. If you don’t show, then we can conclude that you’re not as serious of a student of history as you misrepresent yourself to be.”  I’d hate to see those words come back to haunt you. But it’s now a matter of public record. It’s up to you whether you’ll be as good as your word.

I think this is a great idea and I am more than happy to participate.  It seems to me that the best way to proceed is for Mr. Ijames to write up a short essay (endnotes/sources included) on Weary Clyburn and/or John Venable.  Let’s nail down the interpretation first and steer clear of broad generalizations about numbers and other ancillary concerns.  It would be very helpful to me and the rest of us if we can just focus on one or two individuals.  In fact, Mr. Ijames could do us all a favor by demonstrating how someone in his position goes about researching and constructing a profile for a “Colored Confederate”.  I know I would greatly appreciate it.

Well, Mr. Ijames, the ball is in your court.

 

Mr. Ijames, Was Weary Clyburn a Soldier or a Slave?

One of the reasons why it is important for serious historians to publish in peer-reviewed journals is that it provides the community with stable reference points.  Scholarly publications are intended to add to our knowledge of the past by providing rich interpretation along with supporting documents that can be verified.  In this setting interpretation can be challenged and revised if necessary.  I find it troubling that in 15 years Mr. Ijames has yet to publish, but still considers himself to be an expert on the subject of “Colored Confederates” and is considered to be an expert by various constituencies.  No doubt, Mr. Ijames is aware that free and enslaved blacks functioned in various capacities in the Confederate army, but what I am interested in are his vague claims about those that supposedly served as soldiers.  His claims in various forums, including this one, are impossible to pin down which raises more questions than answers.  Consider his public statements about Weary Clyburn, who was the subject of a series of posts I did in 2008.  The SCV honored Clyburn with a headstone that designated him as a soldier in the Confederate army.  Mr. Ijames took part in the SCV’s public and well publicized ceremony for Clyburn, which you can see in this short video clip:

It can be safely assumed that Ijames’s comments as well as his participation in this event implies that he believes Clyburn served as a soldier.  Once he discovered my posts on the subject, along with commentary about his participation in the event, Ijames offered the following comment:

The term is “Colored Confederate”. I have always maintained that Weary Clyburn was ENSLAVED! He wasn’t even counted in the census, much less in a Confederate Regiment! You discount what he actually did, while hiding behind your rambling attacks on me!

So, we go from taking part in an event that commemorated Clyburn as a soldier in Co. E, 12th S.C. Volunteers to acknowledging that he was a slave.  Finally, in yesterday’s response to my open letter, Ijames said the following:

What’s more, you should be ashamed at the dishonor and discredit that you (et als) intend for Weary Clyburn, Co. E, 12th S.C. Volunteers, his daughter, and family.  You might be hearing from their lawyer.

What could this possibly mean other than to imply that I am “dishonoring” a soldier?  I should point out that there is nothing dishonorable about being a slave.  It is their stories that give continued meaning to our lives and a nation that strives towards freedom and equality.  There is also nothing dishonorable about speaking out when those in the historical community engage the past with such reckless abandon.

Mr. Ijames and a few others are wondering why I don’t accept his invitation to debate in some public forum.  As I’ve already pointed out the idea itself is absurd, but how can I debate someone who doesn’t seem to have the basic facts of his own story straight?

 

Earl Ijames Is At It Again

Looks like Earl Ijames is taking his “black Confederate” roadshow out once again.  We first met Mr. Ijames, who works as a curator at the North Carolina Museum of History, in the summer of 2008 in a series of posts I did on Weary Clyburn [and here].  In a comment contained in the second link Mr. Ijames introduced us to Private John Venable, who he believed served in Co. H, 21st NCST.  I assumed this was one of his ironclad examples given Mr. Ijames’s insistence that I acknowledge his findings.  With some help from archivists at the North Carolina Department of Archives and History it didn’t take long for us to poke a sufficient number of holes in Ijames’s interpretation of the documents related to Venable.  Unfortunately, Mr. Ijames never responded to the findings and interpretation of his colleagues.

Well, it looks like none of this is enough to prevent Mr. Ijames from presenting his “findings” to the general public.  I wonder if he is going to reference “Pvt.” John Venable in his presentation to the Chatham County Historical Association on February 28:

Many people find it hard to believe that any African American, slave or free, would have willingly served on the side of the Confederacy in the American Civil War. But Earl Ijames, a curator at the North Carolina Museum of History, says that many did just that, and that their reasons for fighting were as varied and complex as those of white soldiers. These black soldiers, as well as the blacks who served the Union cause, will be the topic of Ijames’ presentation. Whatever their reasons for serving, Ijames says, these men deserve to be recognized for their valor. “It’s a miscarriage of justice for this many people to be just blotted out of history,” he believes. Ijames has spent some 15 years studying this interesting and controversial topic.

[Update] Here is a description of the presentation on the Chatham website:

Many people find it hard to believe that any African American, slave or free, would have willingly served on the side of the Confederacy in the American Civil War. But Earl Ijames, a curator at the North Carolina Museum of History, says that hundreds did just that, and that their reasons for fighting were as varied and complex as those of white soldiers. These black soldiers, as well as the blacks who served the Union cause, will be the subject of Mr. Ijames’ talk on Sunday, February 28.

“The historically accurate term for the African Americans in the service of the Southern cause is ‘colored Confederates,’” Ijames says, and thousands of them went to war from Southern states, including North Carolina. Some were slaves sent in place of their masters, or were forced or volunteered to serve alongside them. Others were free blacks who offered their services. Whatever their reasons for serving, Ijames says, these men deserve to be recognized for their valor. “It’s a miscarriage of justice for this many people to be just blotted out of history,” he believes.

Ijames has spent some 15 years studying this interesting and controversial topic.  He will present some examples of people who served and discuss the historical evidence available to document them.  He will invite questions following the presentation.

The public is invited to attend the program to learn more about this fascinating and often ignored subject.

It’s difficult to believe that “many” African Americans served in the Confederate army given that the government expressly forbid it until close to the end of the war.  Given that fact, I would love to know what evidence Mr. Ijames has that would support his claim that the “service” of African Americans in the Confederate army has been “blotted out” of history.  I don’t expect much from organizations like the Sons of Confederate Veterans on this topic, but don’t people who are in positions like Mr. Ijames have a responsibility to be competent purveyors of the past?  Finally, I find it hilarious that Mr. Ijames would imply a conspiracy surrounding this subject and yet, as far as I can tell, in fifteen years he has never published his findings in a peer-reviewed journal.

 

How Best to Respond to the Black Confederate Narrative

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

 

Patrick Cleburne and Black Confederates Take Hollywood

[Hat-Tip to Lee White]

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

As bad as all of this is what truly disappoints me is that one of my favorite actors, Philip Seymour Hoffman, is slated to play the role of Judah Benjamin.