Category Archives: Teaching

What Will Become of the Black Confederate Controversy?: A Response

Matt Isham has published a thoughtful post in which he assesses the black Confederate controversy over at A People’s Contest.  While I appreciate Matt’s positive assessment of the attention that I’ve given the subject over the past few years, his critique misses the mark.  Consider the following:

Of course, the person who has done yeoman work on this issue is Kevin Levin at Civil War Memory. He has challenged black Confederate mythmakers with vigor and gusto for several years now and shows no signs of slowing down, as he will be publishing a book on this subject soon (find his latest post on the topic here). Levin consistently has pointed out the basic historical illiteracy of the mythmakers, particularly their inability to understand how 19th century Americans conceived of citizens, slaves, and the citizen-soldier.

This, of course, is all well and good, especially the heavy lifting Mr. Levin has done on this issue. After all, it is one of the most important aspects of our mission as educators to expose the public to the fraudulent nature of such myths as the black Confederate story. I wonder, however, if historians are not in danger of sinking down into the mire of this debate by continuing to pay attention to every continued claim from the mythmakers and supporters and every rebuttal in the blogs and the news media. To be honest, I’m not sure where I stand on this, but I feel as though this debate is beginning to yield diminishing returns. Surely, the public has been educated about the debate and the shortcomings of the black Confederate thesis. Carrying on the debate with members of the Sons of Confederate Veterans and other true believers yields nothing, for they are resolved to support their position regardless of whatever evidence and logical analysis is marshaled to expose the fallacy of their belief.

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It’s Not Such a Divisive Topic

My talk last night in Roanoke on Silas Chandler and black Confederates went very well.  Of course, I heard that a phone call had notified organizers that a protest was likely, but it never materialized.  In fact, the audience was attentive and they asked some excellent questions during the Q&A.  It’s easy to exaggerate the significance of that small, but vocal group of partisans who clearly have an emotional stake in this “debate” rather than an intellectual or scholarly interest in this subject.  Last night reminded me that there is a general public that is curious about this subject, but doesn’t quite know what to make of it.  Many in the audience had heard about the Virginia textbook scandal from last year.  What I love about this topic is that it gives me the opportunity to educate the general public about a widely misunderstood topic as well as the dangers of doing research Online.

By focusing on Silas Chandler I am able to steer clear of the numbers game and address more important aspects of the discussion, including the problem of utilizing Internet sources.  Most importantly, by poking holes in the standard account of Silas, which pervades the Web, I can demonstrate what is wrong with the state of this discussion in its entirety.  Silas really is the poster boy of this subject.

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Upcoming Talk on Black Confederates + Appearance on History Detectives

I couldn’t be more excited about this talk.  This is my first public presentation on the subject and my first opportunity to formally outline my own thinking about the kinds of questions that need to be explored as well as the pitfalls involved in the current debate and reliance on the Internet as a reliable source.  The story of Silas and Andrew Chandler is the perfect case study for such a presentation.

I am also excited to announce that I will be involved in a production of an upcoming episode of the History Detectives, which will explore the life of these two men.  You may remember that the Antiques Road Show recently featured the original photograph of Silas and Andrew.  A number of people, including yours truly, raised serious questions about Wes Cowan’s interrogation of the artifact as well as his overall understanding of the subject.  It’s good to see that PBS is taking the time to dig deeper.  Filming will take place in May and I will keep you updated.

 

Looking Ahead to the Civil War Bicentennial

If you are looking for a reflection of how our collective understanding of the Civil War has changed over the past few years take a look at this small sample of state SOLs.   I suspect that we will continue to see a shift away from a curriculum that is inspired and sometimes distorted by the Lost Cause in the coming decades.  Interestingly, if you are looking for some of the most dramatic changes you just need to check out the following list of Southern states.  I pulled this from an article written by Eric Robelon for Education Week.

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Are Virginia Schools Still Teaching the Black Confederate Myth?

In the wake of the recent Virginia textbook scandal the general public was reassured by the Department of Education that the problem was being addressed.  I was contacted by the VDOE’s Director of Communications, Charles Pyle, following my NYTs editorial on the subject that proper action had been taken:

The Virginia Department of Education (VDOE) provided detailed guidance to division superintendents and history specialists about the errors in “Our Virginia: Past and Present” on October 20 – the day the original Washington Post story was published. This guidance advised that the statement concerning the alleged service of black Southerners in the Confederate miliary is not in keeping with the Standards of Learning and is outside the bounds of accepted Civil War scholarship. The department consulted with several historians – including Dr. James Robertson of Virginia Tech – in preparing guidance for the field. This same week, two VDOE history specialists met personally with division history supervisors and classroom teachers during their back-to-back conferences in Williamsburg to raise awareness of the errors in the textbook and provide guidance about accurate instruction on the roles of blacks in both the Union and Confederate armies. Since late October, Superintendnet of Public Instruction Patricia I. Wright has communicated repeatedly with school districts providing additional guidance and information about actions of the department and the state Board of Education regarding Our Virginia: Past and Present. It also should be noted that Virginia fourth-graders don’t reach the Civil War era until the spring, so it is unlikely that any students were taught that thousands of blacks fought as soldiers for the South. As a history teacher, you know that a textbook today is just one of many resources teachers will use to teach the required content. While the department has taken responsibility for the need to improve its textbook review process, VDOE did not leave students and teachers to “fend for themselves with little guidance.”

This past week I was contacted by a concerned parent, who wrote the following:

If I may, just a follow up on a point by Mr. Pyle (VA Dept Ed) now that the Times story has died down.  My daughter is a 4th grader in —— County Public School system.  As Mr. Pyle pointed out, “It also should be noted that Virginia fourth-graders don’t reach the Civil War era until the spring, so it is unlikely that any students were taught that thousands of blacks fought as soldiers for the South. As a history teacher, you know that a textbook today is just one of many resources teachers will use to teach the required content. While the department has taken responsibility for the need to improve its textbook review process, VDOE did not leave students and teachers to “fend for themselves with little guidance.”

My daughter just finished her Civil War unit, and despite Mr. Pyle’s assurances of ample guidance, Eva’s recent study guide for her test specifically included the point that blacks fought for the Confederacy.  I tried to explain to my daughter why this was not true, but because her own teacher had just lectured her on it she would not believe me.  She insisted that blacks fought because their masters threatened to kill them if they wouldn’t! I didn’t want to post this publicly because my aim is NOT to get my daughter’s teacher in trouble.  But —– County has done an abysmal job of correcting this misperception and my daughter is proof.  Mark my words, I bet that -CPS will still be using the erroneous textbook and any accompanying worksheets, study guides, etc next year.  Do you have any suggestions for a parent in my shoes?  I fear a visit to the principal or school board rep will be brushed off with the usual “We’ve got this under control…”  Thanks for your work!

I’ve heard other stories as well that suggest that this problem is not being adequately addressed.  I am not surprised.  I would recommend that this parent contact the proper authorities in her child’s district.  Perhaps a local committee of concerned parents can be organized.  After all, it was a concerned parent, who happened to be a historian, that initially exposed this problem.  The alternative is the continued dissemination of a fundamentally flawed understanding of the Civil War and Virginia history.