Over the past few years, Leslie Madsen-Brooks has been working on an essay that explores the implications of the controversy surrounding black Confederates on our understanding of history in the digital age. It’s been available online as part of an open peer-review project and will soon be available, along with other essays, in Writing History in the Digital Age, edited by Jack Dougherty and Kristen Nawrotzki (University of Michigan Press, 2013). The author steers her reader through the evolution of the black Confederate narrative and what it tells us about how history is being done, who is writing it, changing assumptions about authority resulting from this digital turn, and why professional historians ought to care.
This is the first scholarly essay that I know of that takes this controversy seriously. I am putting the finishing touches on an essay that also explores some of these issues for an upcoming issue of The Journal of the Civil War Era. The author gives us quite a bit to think about in this essay. Unfortunately, all too often I’ve experienced a cold reception from fellow Civil War historians whenever the topic arises. Many simply can’t imagine why I take the issue seriously or why it is important that they care what those outside the academy are writing on blogs, wikis and Facebook pages. Perhaps it’s not surprising that it took a historian from outside the field of Civil War history to take this subject seriously.
Those of you who take the time to read the essay will recognize most of the players. Madsen-Brooks utilizes this blog as well as those authored by Brooks Simpson, Andy Hall, and Corey Meyer. You will also hear from my friend Connie Ward (a.k.a. Chastain), Ann DeWitt, and Dave Tatum. It’s a real circus.
I strongly encourage you to leave your comments below on any aspect of this essay to assist me further in thinking through these issues.
I haven’t commented on what Brooks Simpson refers to as “the gift that keeps on giving” in some time, but news that Ann DeWitt is once again posting is too good to pass up. You know Ms. DeWitt as the person who discovered an entire regiment of black Confederate cooks and the owner of one of the most confused websites on this subject. She is now posting under the name “Little Rebel” and it looks like Ms. DeWitt’s “research” interests have led her to a subject near and dear to my heart.
Yes, we all can’t wait for the next big discovery. In the eight years that I’ve spent with Mahone’s men I have never come across a reference to anything other than body servants and impressed slaves. This is not to say that Confederates under Mahone’s command did not have black soldiers on their minds. They wrote a great deal about an entire division of black soldiers, who took part in the battle of the Crater and they wrote openly and approvingly about their massacre. In all the letters, diaries, and postwar accounts penned by Confederates who were there not one mentioned their own loyal black soldiers.
Spend enough time with what Confederate soldiers actually wrote and you will have some idea of why the Confederacy struggled with the question of the enlistment of blacks.
While modern day Lost Cause advocates of the black Confederate myth overwhelmingly refer to these men as soldiers, their preferred narrative falls right out of a late nineteenth-century fascination with the loyal camp or body servant. As I’ve said before there are almost no references to loyal black Confederate soldiers before the 1970s. What you will find, however, are scores of Confederate Veteran magazine accounts and other works of popular literature that wax poetic about the loyal body servant, who rushed to the battlefield to tend to his master’s wounds or to escort his body home in the event of his death.
I am doing my best in the first chapter of my black Confederate book to explore the complex exchange between master and slave that ensued as a result of being away from home and loved ones and in light of the many challenges associated with camp life and battle. The difficulty is compounded simply by the fact that we have so few black voices to work with. What I find so disturbing about this and other interpretations of that relationship is that it harkens back to blatantly racist notion that slaves could not live without their masters. The loss of the master was tantamount to the loss of a limb. To put it bluntly, it’s dehumanizing.
Imagine my surprise today when I opened my email to find a notification from YouTube that my video screencast/critique of Ann DeWitt’s Black Confederate website had been removed owing to copyright infringements. The copyright infringement was instigated by Ms. DeWitt herself:
We have disabled the following material as a result of a third-party notification from Ann DeWitt claiming that this material is infringing:
Please Note: Repeat incidents of copyright infringement will result in the deletion of your account and all videos uploaded to that account. In order to prevent this from happening, please delete any videos to which you do not own the rights, and refrain from uploading additional videos that infringe on the copyrights of others. For more information about YouTube’s copyright policy, please read the Copyright Tips guide. If one of your postings has been misidentified as infringing, you may submit a counter-notification. Information about this process is in our Help Center. Please note that under Section 512(f) of the Copyright Act, any person who knowingly materially misrepresents that material was disabled due to mistake or misidentification may be liable for damages.
— The YouTube Team
You may remember that I recently uploaded two screencasts in which I critiqued some of the more popular black Confederate websites. I’ve noticed that Ms. DeWitt’s postings at the Southern Heritage Preservation page are no longer public. No doubt, her recent discovery of a regiment of black Confederate cooks led to this decision. For someone who claims to have built an educational site she certainly has little patience with formal critiques that point out shortcomings and outright distortions in her own “research.” Is this how an educator responds? Not to worry as I still plan on using her website as part of my teacher workshop presentations on digital media literacy.
By now you must feel quite embarrassed by your little interpretive mishap over at the Southern Heritage Preservation Group. Just think about it, an entire unit of “Negro Cooks” in the Confederate army. Well, on one level it is amusing, but on another it is incredibly disturbing and indicative of the work you have done at your website, Black Confederate Soldiers. Your expressed goal has been from the beginning to educate and share what you believe are stories that have been ignored for far too long. While that is a laudable goal your commentary/analysis clearly points to a lack of understanding surrounding the larger issues related to African Americans and the Confederacy and you clearly do not understand how to conduct primary source analysis. Having access to Footnote.com is a wonderful thing, but without the proper background knowledge the rummaging through documents looking for what you already believe must be there is a walk on the slippery rocks. Unfortunately, you are being encouraged by a group of people who applaud your every “discovery” but make no mistake, they are equally misinformed and ill-equipped to do the heavy lifting of interpretation. How do I know this? Because they would have continued to applaud your discovery of “Negro Cooks” had Andy Hall not come across it. Your cheer leading squad does not constitute any type of peer review of your methods and interpretation and you desperately need this.
Update: Bruce Levine emailed the following to me: “Of course — as would (should?) be clear to anyone who hears or reads the text of my short talk — my point was that facts like the ones I cited are today misconstrued as proof for the preposterous claim that the Confederate army included thousands of black soldiers. That two people who enthusiastically participate in this kind of shameless distortion of historical facts should do the same to my own expose of such chicanery just seems par for the course.”
. . . and some slaves served as personal servants to white soldiers. It was not unusual for such slaves to be given uniforms; and occasionally, one of them even picked up and fired his master’s musket at northern soldiers. Thereby, perhaps, winning for themselves some additional approval and trust from the white confederate soldiers all around them . . . These things are well known facts. They are not controversial. Nobody that I know of denies them.
The passage was pulled from a presentation that Professor Levine gave at the recent Virginia Sesquicentennial Conference held at Norfolk State University. You can watch the video here, which should leave little doubt as to Levine’s position. I’ve written extensively about this book and its authors so there is no reason to repeat myself. Either DeWitt and Weeks made a conscious decision to misrepresent Levine’s position or we are left with the more likely conclusion that the two are incapable of even the most rudimentary analysis of a historian’s interpretation. Either way they have misrepresented his position and the passage ought to come down.
I’ve been thinking a great deal about what the identification of some African Americans tells us about the evolution of Civil War Memory and while I don’t have any firm answers it might be worth posting for further discussion. Perhaps the identification with this narrative by some African Americans can be seen as evidence that black Americans have a deep need to connect with a Southern past. That should come as no surprise given the central role that they have played in its formation from the very beginning. At the same time that role has been decidedly influenced at different points in history by white Americans to buttress their own racial, cultural, and political agenda. One need look no further than the pervasiveness of an ideology of paternalism (in the context of slavery) during the antebellum period, the advent of the Lost Cause following the Civil War, and more recently a conscious effort to support white political control in the 1950s and 60s through the control of history textbooks.
For many African Americans it is the Civil Rights Movement that looms large as a place to find heroic stories, larger-than-life personalities, and even narratives of racial reconciliation. The Civil War, on the other hand, has been lost. As I’ve learned over the years many African American families pushed their history of slavery away either because it was too painful or the narrative had been reduced to one of degradation and misery. The past few decades has witnessed a dramatic shift in the way that slavery is interpreted as well as the reemergence of African American participation in the war itself – seen most clearly in the 1989 release of “Glory.” The movie’s success in its appeal to a mainstream white audience ought to be seen as an important milestone in the evolution of popular memory of the war that has come to acknowledge the central role of slavery and emancipation in the overall conflict. Continue reading →
Over the past few weeks I’ve used Ann DeWitt’s website as a case study of what is wrong with the current debate about black Confederates as well as the pitfalls of doing online research on this specific subject – a fact that was confirmed this past week.
What most college professors will probably not share with their students: As you will find documented here [Petersburg Express] are hundreds of Black Confederate SOLDIERS from Petersburg Virginia. documented from just one Virginia city. And William and Mary is “just down the road” from Petersburg! Amazing! …. 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”!