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.
I am making my way through a small collection of essays in Thomas Brown’s Remixing the Civil War: Meditations on the Sesquicentennial (Johns Hopkins University Press, 2011). Fitz Brundage opens his essay on African American artists, who have interpreted the Civil War in recent years, with a reference to Willie Levi Casey. You can see Casey in the image to the right and while I’ve seen it on a number of websites, up until now I didn’t know anything about his background.
While Casey is dressed to commemorate those black men who “served” in Confederate ranks and “support preserving Southern history and telling it the way it is,” his connection to the war does not end with a black individual at all. Here is an excerpt from one news item that I found online:
Casey’s persona as a re-enactor is a free black cabinetmaker from eastern Tennessee, able to read and write, with a wife and a child at home. But he has a real-life link to the Confederacy as well–one he always vaguely knew about but pinned down only in recent years. Casey grew up in Cross Anchor, S.C., in the 1960s and ’70s. It was an area full of Caseys, black and white. He and his siblings knew they had a white great-grandfather, a man who had never married their American Indian/African-American great-grandmother even though they had six children together. A family photo of the couple’s son Barney Casey shows a bulky man in overalls with lank gray hair and white skin. He’s Willie Casey’s grandfather. Willie Casey was well into adulthood when he decided to research the white side of his family. In the course of his genealogical effort he came across the Civil War record of one Pvt. Martin Luther Casey, a South Carolina soldier killed in 1862. That man was the older brother of Casey’s great-grandfather. Being a collateral relative of a Civil War soldier qualified Casey for membership in the SCV.
Interestingly, websites maintained by H.K. Edgerton and J.R. Vogel conveniently overlook the fact that Casey’s ancestor is not black.
OK, so I readily admit that I am confused. On the one hand Casey was accepted into the SCV based on his connection to the brother of his great-grandfather. The living interpretation that he adopts for reenactments and other events, however, is based on a fictional character whose connection to history is tenuous at best.
I guess what I am having trouble understanding is that in his effort to ‘tell it the way it is’ he ignores what has to be a fascinating Civil War legacy in the story of his great-grandfather and great-grandmother. Why doesn’t Casey do the necessary research to interpret the offspring of his great-grandparents? That would go much further in challenging the public to expand their understanding of slavery and race relations at a critical point in American history. I am sure the SCV would be more than happy to accommodate such a living memory of one’s Civil War ancestors.
Instead, we are presented with nothing more than the same tired commentary that reinforces outdated tropes that paint the Confederacy as some kind of experiment in civil rights.
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.
Update: Thanks to Andy Hall for sending along the link to the LOC page that includes a reference to David Lowe’s and Philip Shiman’s essay, “Substitute for a Corpse,” Civil War Times, Dec. 2010, p. 41.
One of the websites that I use in my teacher workshops on digital media literacy is a page from the Petersburg Express website, which is maintained by Ashleigh Moody. It makes for an ideal case study of why teachers and students need to be educated about how to access and assess online information. If you scroll down to the bottom of the page you will notice one of the best known photographs from the trenches of Petersburg. It’s a photograph of a dead Confederate soldier, perhaps a member of an artillery unit. There are at least two photographs of the body and one of them includes an additional body. Moody refers to it as, “Black and White Confederate Soldiers.”
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.