Henry Louis Gates, Black Confederates and White Liberal Academics

Last Saturday Megan Kate Nelson, my wife and I went to see Suzan Lori Parks’s three-act play, “Father Comes Home From the Wars.” I don’t want to give too much away about the plot beyond the fact that the central character is a slave, who at the beginning of the first act struggles with whether he is going to go off to war with his master/Confederate colonel. Oh, and the slave, whose name is Hero, is also donning a Confederate uniform.

Following the show we enjoyed a talkback with members of the cast. Unfortunately, we missed another post-production discussion the following day with Parks, along with Henry Louis Gates and Eric Foner. The discussion kicked off with some thoughts about the current debate about black Confederates.

On one level the focus of the discussion was unfortunate. At no time is Hero’s struggle about whether he can support or serve the Confederacy and the decision has nothing to do with him serving as a soldier. Rather, it serves as the foundation for his relationship with his master, which evolves significantly during the show. It’s confusing, in part, because Hero wears a uniform, but we know of a number of slaves, including, most famously, Silas Chandler, who were outfitted in military dress. The opening act offers an opportunity to explore the complexity of the master-slave relationship and not that of the relationship between slaves and the Confederacy. Continue reading “Henry Louis Gates, Black Confederates and White Liberal Academics”

Jim Downs Comes to the Defense of John Stauffer

We can now add Jim Downs to the list of historians who has decided to wade into the debate about the existence of black Confederate soldiers. Rather than directly engage Stauffer’s claims, however, Downs offers a meta-analysis of my response. He begins by mis-characterizing my own view by suggesting that I believe there were no black Confederate soldiers. I don’t believe that I have ever made such a statement.

The crux of his argument comes down to the following:

The problem of Levin’s criticism lies in its formulation. He is asking Stauffer to retrieve archival evidence from the 19th century that fits a 21st century definition of soldiers. He is asking Stauffer to practice historical research that privileges white, Confederate record-keeping over the ways that black people observed, wrote, and remembered the war. He is asking Stauffer to play according to the rules in which traditional historiography, often the purveyors of epistemic violence, define evidence and engage in archival collecting.

This is simply inaccurate. In fact, anyone who has spent any time reading this blog or the few articles that I’ve published is aware that I am interested primarily in what the concept of the citizen-soldier meant to Americans in the 1860s. More to the point, I am not asking John Stauffer to play by any specific set of rules beyond offering a reasonable interpretation of the evidence that he chose to emphasize. Continue reading “Jim Downs Comes to the Defense of John Stauffer”

John Stauffer, Black Confederates, and the Case for Military History

Yesterday I wrote a lengthy post in response to an essay by John Stauffer on the controversy surrounding the existence of black Confederates, which appeared in The Root. As you can see I believe there to be numerous factual and conceptual problems with many of the author’s claims. I do not wish to repeat them today. What I do want to suggest, however, is that Stauffer’s overall approach to this subject, specifically relating to the kinds of sources utilized, helps to make the case for increased attention to military history that have recently been made by Gary Gallagher and Katy Meier in the pages of The Journal of the Civil War Era and Earl Hess in Civil War History.

At the center of this controversy is a question about the status of Civil War soldiers. Between 1861 and 1865 somewhere around 3 million Americans served in Union and Confederate ranks. These men have been the subject of serious historical inquiry for at least the last 60 years, going back to Bell Wiley’s Billy Yank and Johnny Reb. The most thorough studies of their recruitment, organization, experience while in the ranks, and eventual discharge is predicated on a thorough understanding of the relevant sources. There are enlistment papers, muster rolls, draft records, compiled service records, and pension records. Both armies were managed by a military and civilian bureaucracy that only adds to the challenge of researching the men on both sides, who volunteered or were drafted. Continue reading “John Stauffer, Black Confederates, and the Case for Military History”

John Stauffer Goes Looking For Black Confederates and Comes Up Empty…Again

I was surprised to see that John Stauffer has once again decided to wade into the debate surrounding black Confederates. You may remember that back in 2011 Stauffer gave a talk at Harvard on the subject, which I attended. Though we had a spirited exchange, I left feeling incredibly disappointed with his overall argument. Earlier today Stauffer published in The Root what is essentially a slightly revised version of his 2011 talk.

Stauffer was generous enough to note that discussions about this subject have appeared on a fairly regular basis on this blog. Unfortunately, his link to this site does not go to a post that I wrote in response to his Harvard talk. To kick things off Stauffer criticizes folks like me, Brooks Simpson, James McPherson and Ta-Nehesi Coates for not taking the existence of black Confederates seriously. Other scholars such as Joseph Reidy, Juliet Walker, Henry Louis Gates and Ervin Jordan apparently have, though apart from a brief quote from Jordan’s book no attempt is made to lay out their arguments. Continue reading “John Stauffer Goes Looking For Black Confederates and Comes Up Empty…Again”

“The Most Pernicious Idea” 150 Years Later

At the beginning of the Civil War neither side was willing to accept volunteers and/or draft African Americans into their respective armies. For the United States that process only began in fits and starts in 1862 before it commenced in earnest following the issuance of the Emancipation Proclamation on January 1, 1863. For the Confederacy it occurred in March 1865, just weeks before the surrender of Lee’s army at Appomattox and the end of the war.

One hundred and fifty years ago tomorrow Howell Cobb penned his famous letter to Confederate Secretary of War, James A. Seddon regarding the controversy surrounding whether slaves should be allowed to join the army in exchange for their freedom.

I think that the proposition to make soldiers of our slaves is the most pernicious idea that has been suggested since the war began. It is to me a source of deep mortification and regret to see the name of that good and great man and soldier, General R.E. Lee, given as the authority for such a policy. My first hour of despondency will be the one in which that policy shall be adopted. You cannot make soldiers of slaves, nor slaves of soldiers. The moment you resort to negro soldiers your white soldiers will be lost to you; and one secret of the favor with which the proposition is received in portions of the Army is the hope that when negroes go into the Army they will be permitted to retire. It is simply a proposition to fight the balance of the war with negro troops. You can’t keep white and black troops together, and you can’t trust negroes by themselves. It is difficult to get negroes enough for the purpose indicated in the President’s message, much less enough for an Army. Use all the negroes you can get, for all the purposes for which you need them, but don’t arm them. The day you make soldiers of them is the beginning of the end of the revolution. If slaves will make good soldiers our whole theory of slavery is wrong–but they won’t make soldiers. As a class they are wanting in every qualification of a soldier. (emphasis mine)

Cobb’s letter is referenced most often in discussions about the central place of slavery and white supremacy within the Confederate experiment. Beyond any strictly historical discussion, however, we have a tendency to push the views expressed in it aside as expressing the philosophy of a failed nascent state. After all, the winning side eventually did embrace the service of roughly 200,000 former slaves and free blacks.

But whether we like it or not Confederate history is a part of American history. The views expressed by Cobb sit comfortably alongside images of the heroic attack of the 54th Massachusetts Volunteer Infantry in the broader sweep of our long civil rights narrative. As late as 1948 this nation was still debating whether ‘white and black troops could be kept together.’

From our vantage point 150 years later, whether the United States recruited blacks into its army before the Confederacy is irrelevant. Each of us must embrace the legacy of the experiences of both sides, which ultimately represent two sides of the same coin.