I am putting the finishing touches on my presentation for tomorrow evening at the Western Virginia Historical Society in Roanoke. One of the points that I want to stress is that the black Confederate reference is relatively new to our cultural lexicon. As I’ve suggested before, references to hundreds or even thousands of loyal slaves serving as soldiers in the Confederate army can be traced to the period following the movie, Glory in 1989. Despite the insistence on the part of a small, but vocal group black Confederate soldiers simply did not exist in our collective memory until recently. We have already discussed the case of the Confederate monument at Arlington, which was dedicated in 1914 [and here]. Primary source material related to the dedication ceremony as well as early histories of the site clearly references the image of the black man following soldiers into battle as a body servant (slave). To insist otherwise is to engage in presentism.
It may be helpful to consider a scene in Gone With the Wind that features just the kind of image that is so often misrepresented today. During the evacuation of Atlanta and amidst all of the confusion of Federal shells and runaway carriages Scarlett happens upon former slaves from Tara, including “Big Sam”. He reassures Scarlett: “[T]he Confederacy needs it, so we is going to dig for the South…. [D]on’t worry we’ll stop them Yankees.”
Let’s put aside for now the overt imagery to loyal slaves that is pervasive throughout the movie. What is worth pointing out is that no one describes these men as soldiers and it is unlikely that moviegoers would have made this assumption as well. They would have viewed these men simply as loyal slaves to the South. More specifically, it looks like these men functioned as slaves impressed by the Confederate government.
In the hands of the careless they are whatever you want them to be.
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.
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.
One of the points that I tried to make in my radio interview yesterday morning was that while there is a vibrant and often heated discussion about the existence and loyalty of black Confederates this is simply not true within the scholarly community. Academic historians have studied this issue closely and have done extensive work on how the Confederate government and military attempted to utilize its slave population. There is a rich literature on various aspects of this subject that can be accessed by those, who are sincerely interested in learning more.
If you want a thorough summary of where historians stand on this issue I highly recommend Jaime Amanda Martinez’s recent entry on the subject at Encyclopedia Virginia – part of the Virginia Foundation for the Humanities. Martinez teaches at the University of North Carolina at Pembroke and is currently working on a book-length manuscript on slave impressment, which is crucial to understanding this subject. At the bottom of the entry you will find a short list of essential readings. I would only add Stephanie McCurry’s, Confederate Reckoning: Power and Politics in the Civil War South, which includes a though-provoking chapter on the steps that slaveholders took to resist impressment of their property for wartime purposes.
We have a choice. We can remain preoccupied with questions of numbers and emotional pleas that slaves wished to remain enslaved or we can set aside these simplistic assumptions that tell us more about our own values and look for more interesting questions and analysis.
This morning I was interviewed on The Takeaway Radio Show by John Hockenberry and Celesete Headlee on the subject of black Confederates. It was a productive interview and I am pleased that the producers decided to follow up yesterday’s show by addressing some of the more problematic claims made as well as broader misconceptions.
Unfortunately, the time went by way too fast. I would have been happy to listen to any number of people on this issue, but of course, I am pleased that they asked me to join them this morning. For additional reading, I highly recommend Bruce Levine’s, Confederate Emancipation: Southern Plans to Free and Arm Slaves during the Civil War and Stephanie McCurry’s, Confederate Reckoning: Power and Politics in the Civil War South. You may also want to take a look at my Black Confederate Resources page, which provides an overview of what I’ve written on the subject on this blog. You will also find a great deal of commentary on this site about Earl Ijames, who was mentioned in the course of the interview. Click here for the post on Ijames and Henry L. Gates.