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.”
I assume there is nothing worse for an author than to be misquoted or, even worse, have your own words used to support a position that is contrary to your own personal view. In the case of a historian this is tantamount to having years of hard work misunderstood and manipulated for some other purpose. This has happened to my good friend, Ken Noe, as well as Ed Bearrs, who has been misquoted on numerous websites that promote the black Confederate myth. The latest victim is Bruce Levine, who is the author of one of the only scholarly studies of the debate surrounding black enlistment in the Confederate army [Confederate Emancipation: Southern Plans to Free and Arm Slaves during the Civil War] and is a vocal critic of the black Confederate narrative.
Imagine my surprise when I discovered that Entangled in Freedom authors, Ann DeWitt and Kevin M. Weeks, have cited Professor Levine in a way that supports their own interpretive and factual claims on the website for their book:
. . . 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 noticed that Ann DeWitt has taken the time to respond to one of my recent posts about Entangled in Freedom [and here]. I will leave it to you to decipher her post. In addition, yesterday Hampton historian, Veronica Davis filed a lawsuit to halt the deletion of the controversial passage about black Confederates in the Virginia 4th grade history textbook. [Update: Brooks Simpson has included a link to Davis’s petition at Civil Warriors.] High profile African Americans, who have come to endorse this historical meme and for different reasons include H.K. Edgerton, Nelson Winbush and even Earl Ijames. One of my readers is convinced that Edgerton and other African Americans are being paid to promote this narrative. I couldn’t disagree more. In fact, I would suggest that such an explanation ignores an important aspect of this cultural phenomenon and our collective memory of the Civil War.
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 “African Americans and Black Confederates”
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.
This morning I was browsing the Virginia Sesquicentennial Commission’s Facebook page when I came across this response by G. Ashleigh Moody to a story about Carol Sheriff. Moody is the registrant for the Petersburg Express website, which includes a great deal of information concerning black Confederates. His response provides us with another useful case study of what is wrong with the popular debate about this subject as well as the dangers of researching this topic online:
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”!
Well, Petersburg Express is just a click away so why don’t we take a little tour of what they have to say about black Confederates. The first thing you will notice is the claim made by Ed Bearrs that has already been challenged on this site. Beyond that this is a fairly typical black Confederate website. Notice the hodgepodge of primary source passages that contain absolutely no analysis or context as well as the photographs, which suffer from the same. Included are references to Richard “Dick” Poplar and Charles Tinsley. Even more disturbing are the links to that bastion of scholarship known as Dixie Outfitters and H.K. Edgerton’s, Southern Heritage 411. This is cut and paste history at its worst and done on a 4th grade level. Continue reading “G. Ashleigh Moody Meet Ann DeWitt”
Many of you wonder why I am so focused and committed to challenging the mythology of black Confederates. In recent weeks I’ve written about the sale of toy soldiers at the Museum of the Confederacy, a brief reference in a NPS handout in New York City, and, of course, the anticipated release of Ann DeWitt’s and Kevin Weeks’s Entangled in Freedom. I hope this story puts to rest any doubt as to why it is important that we remain vigilant. This narrative will only become more prominent over the next few years during the sesquicentennial. I am posting this story in its entirety from the Washington Post. Thanks to William and Mary History Professor, Carol Sheriff, for pointing out this problem and to Kevin Sieff for writing such a thorough article.
A textbook distributed to Virginia fourth-graders says that thousands of African Americans fought for the South during the Civil War — a claim rejected by most historians but often made by groups seeking to play down slavery’s role as a cause of the conflict.
The passage appears in “Our Virginia: Past and Present,” which was distributed in the state’s public elementary schools for the first time last month. The author, Joy Masoff, who is not a trained historian but has written several books, said she found the information about black Confederate soldiers primarily through Internet research, which turned up work by members of the Sons of Confederate Veterans.
Scholars are nearly unanimous in calling these accounts of black Confederate soldiers a misrepresentation of history. Virginia education officials, after being told by The Washington Post of the issues related to the textbook, said that the vetting of the book was flawed and that they will contact school districts across the state to caution them against teaching the passage.
“Just because a book is approved doesn’t mean the Department of Education endorses every sentence,” said spokesman Charles Pyle. He also called the book’s assertion about black Confederate soldiers “outside mainstream Civil War scholarship.” Continue reading “Black Confederates In Virginia Textbooks”
If you haven’t done so already, I encourage you to read Andy Hall’s analysis of the DeWitt-Weeks saga. I tend to agree with Hall that there is no reason to believe that Ms. DeWitt’s goal is to intentionally mislead her young readers or distort the history covered in her book. However, as we now know she is, in fact, doing both. I am not familiar with the rest of Kevin Weeks’s books in the Street Series collection, but I have no reason to believe that these books are inappropriate in any way. It just so happens that the subject of Entangled in Freedom has been on my radar for quite some time and for very good reasons. I’ve been just as critical with white proponents of this myth as I have with African Americans. That said, I don’t mind admitting that I am much more disappointed when the target of my criticism is black. Let me explain.
As all of you know my primary interest in the Civil War and American history generally is centered on questions related to historical memory. Much of that interest revolves around the broad subject of slavery and race. My recently completed manuscript on the Crater focuses on how Americans chose to remember – or in most cases forget – the participation of black Union soldiers in the battle and my new project will address the evolution of stories related to the black Confederate narrative. As a result of my extensive reading and research into these areas I would like to think that I have some grasp of the challenges associated with correcting /revising a collective memory of the Civil War and broader historical narrative that up until recently either ignored the subject of black history or included a grossly distorted version of it to suit the political and racial agendas of certain groups. We can see this at different points in our history from the Dunning School in the 1920s and 30s to the continued hold of the Lost Cause narrative and its imagery of loyal and contented slaves. I have nothing but the highest respect for those black historians such as John Hope Franklin, who worked tirelessly to correct this racist narrative and ultimately inspire countless others to continue to research topics related to the history of race and slavery in America. Let’s face it, it’s only in the last two decades that we’ve seen significant changes to textbooks and other curricular materials used in classrooms across the country. We should never forget what it took to bring this about. And we should not forget that it took the hard work of both black and white Americans. Continue reading “A Responsibility To Take Care of the Past”