The North Carolina Museum of History’s Loose Cannon

I hope everyone who had a chance to listen to Earl Ijames’s presentation last night on “colored Confederates” had a good time.  Unfortunately, I don’t know if I will ever have the opportunity to attend one of his talks in person, but I have learned quite a bit about his research and interpretation from various news items in which he is quoted.  While I agreed to take part in a public forum with Mr. Ijames at an upcoming academic conference it does not look like it will happen.  To be honest, I am much more interested in having Mr. Ijames present his work in a peer reviewed journal so that it can be judged by the historical community as a whole.  We are unlikely to see that any time soon as well.  In the mean time I will continue to share what I consider to be some of the more outlandish claims that Mr. Ijames has made over the past few years in various public settings.

The following news item takes us back to a presentation given by Mr. Ijames in November 2008 as part of the Dr. Charlotte Hawkins Brown Museum Legacy Lectures Series.   According to the article, Ijames said the following:

“There are people out there who have made their careers out of saying that there was no such thing as colored Confederate soldiers,” said Earl Ijames, curator at the North Carolina Museum of History. “As a historian, I want the records and facts to speak for themselves.”…. “As a state archivist and as a curator, I have had access to a lot of documents and records that proves a part of our history, on one hand is controversial and has been deliberately swept over, and on another hand, we still have vestiges in this state that are alive and kicking.”

Mr. Ijames needs to provide examples of who these people are that intentionally denied this history.  If this claim makes any sense at all Mr. Ijames should be able to cite at least one example for public scrutiny.  As bad as that is consider his claims about this history.

Confederate pensions were initially for soldiers who were injured in war and could not work. In 1927, the law was written to allow ditch diggers of color to receive pensions, but not Black Confederate soldiers. As the law evolved, pensions could be administered to soldiers who were too old to work, then to widows of soldiers from the Civil War. “I found just fewer than 200 colored Confederate pension applications, but many people did not know of the pension claim. There were many colored soldiers who served but were not documented on rosters.”

This claim about pension records has already been addressed here, here, and here.  Pension claims do not indicate service as a soldier.  Enough already!

Records that Ijames came across indicated that in 1862, a Confederate steamer was captured by the Union navy and 29 Black servants were taken as prisoners of war. “Now, I just find it hard to believe that there were 29 servants on a small steamer. I believe that some of those servants were actually soldiers but the Confederacy did not want the Union to know they had Blacks in the army,” Ijames said.

This is truly a remarkable claim for a historian to make.  So, the evidence that Ijames has available suggests that the men in question were slaves, but he believes they were soldiers because he believes the Confederacy was trying to keep their real identity a secret.  I would love to know what evidence Mr. Ijames has that would support such a claim.  This wouldn’t even be acceptable as an argument from one of my high school students.  Do I really need to debate someone who feels comfortable making this kind of claim?

As I stated before, I would have no problem if we were talking about a private individual; however, Mr. Ijames is an employee of a public institution.  The North Carolina Museum of History and Office of Archives and History have a responsibility here.  Are we in the historical community supposed to believe that Earl Ijames speaks for the museum and the rest of the public historical community in North Carolina?  Is this the level of scholarship that they expect from their employees and is this the level of scholarship that we would find in other historical areas?  I find it impossible to believe that I am the first historian to raise questions concerning Mr. Ijames’s “research.” No doubt, I am the first historian with a blog to do so and I will continue to make public these ridiculous claims until action is taken.  None of this would be necessary if after 15 years of research something was made public in the form of a peer reviewed essay.

Until then one must assume that the North Carolina Museum of History has a loose cannon on their hands.

Peer Review and the Problem of Black Confederate Studies

In my ongoing series of posts concerning the public presentations by Earl Ijames about “colored Confederates” I have consistently emphasized the importance of publishing in peer-reviewed journals.  I maintain that only through the careful scrutiny of our ideas and conclusions are we able to better judge the veracity of the research and the difficult process of interpretation and analysis.  The peer review process functions as a quality control mechanism and allows historians to critique the work of others from the safety of anonymity.  Most academic journals and university presses have some kind of system of oversight in place and I have experienced it firsthand on a number of occasions, both from the writer’s side as well as from the reviewer’s side as a member of the Editorial Advisory Board for the Virginia Magazine of History and Biography (2008-2010).  If there is one area of Civil War history that desperately needs oversight it is “black Confederate” studies.

Since describing it and emphasizing why it is so important is difficult to do I thought it might be helpful to provide you with an example.  I first experienced this process back in 2004 while attending graduate school at the University of Richmond.  Even before I started the program I had an interest in William Mahone and the Readjuster Movement and had hoped that I would have a chance to explore his public career in a research seminar course and perhaps as a thesis topic.  I eventually wrote an essay on Mahone and went on to expand my focus to include the battle of the Crater as a thesis topic.  My adviser suggested that I submit the Mahone essay to the VMHB for consideration, which I did.  I had published a few essays, magazine articles, and book reviews, but this was my first attempt at a peer-reviewed publication so I didn’t really know what to expect.  Within about 6 months I received an email that included a letter from the journal editor and three anonymous reviews of my essay.  The editor indicated that while the reviewers believed there was some merit to the essay and thesis they would be unable to publish as is.  He suggested that I review the comments and revise the piece.  I have to say that it took me a few days to pick my ego up off the floor and get back to work, but I did.  I took just about every suggestion offered and within about 9 months I had a revised essay.  What I learned was invaluable, both about the process of writing a serious work of history as well as my topic.  I learned that thinking through complex questions is a group activity.  There must be room for honest and sometimes blunt feedback.  The result is that I have a much better grasp of Mahone and his postwar years because I benefited from the critique of three professional historians who are experts in some aspect of post-Civil War Virginia politics.

I am happy to say that my revised essay was accepted for publication by the VMHB [vol. 113, no. 4 (2005)] and even went on to win the Rachal Prize for best essay in 2005.  Given that it’s been close to 5 years since its publication I feel comfortable sharing one of the three reviews.  This is one of the nicer reviews.

Continue reading “Peer Review and the Problem of Black Confederate Studies”

Were Slaves Soldiers?

I have enjoyed following the debate over at Richard Williams’s blog re: my handling of Earl Ijames’s research.  Much of the give and take relates to my decision to publicly request Ijames’s presentation as well as my decision to Cc: the director at the North Carolina Office of Archives and History.  I’m still not sure why the gang over there is making such a big deal of this given that there is nothing offensive about the letter.  It simply requests the materials in question and nothing more.  What I do find funny is that no one seems to have anything to say about Ijames’s response, which he decided to Cc. to that same director.  Anyway, I will leave this to the vultures to sort out.  I want to move on to something that I find much more interesting and that actually relates to history.

In a number of places Mr. Williams suggests that slaves in the Confederate army ought to be acknowledged as soldiers.  Here are a few quotes to consider:

And, as I’ve pointed out before, it is disingenuous to suggest that these men should not be honored for their service – as soldiers – simply because they may have been forced to serve – in whatever capacity. An analogy I’ve used before: During the Vietnam war, many who opposed it were drafted. Many no doubt would have fled to Canada or simply refused to go had it not been for the influence and pressure of family, society and the legal ramifications of refusing service. So they went with no emotional or intellectual support of their own for “the cause.” However, many of these same men, once on the field, bonded with their comrades and were exposed to the same dangers as those who volunteered. They served honorably. Should their service be discounted because they were drafted? I think the answer is clear.

I’ve not delved into Mr. Ijames’s specific research either. I do agree with Ijames’s contention, however, that blacks – whether slave or free – should have their service in the Confederate Army honored where appropriate and that there is nothing improper referring to these men as “soldiers.”

In the recent post about Nelson Winbush’s grandfather, I said, “Private Nelson was a slave.” I do not believe the term “soldier” and “slave” are mutually exclusive.

Mr. Williams arrives at this conclusion via analogy with soldiers in the Vietnam War.  The basic problem with his claim is to confuse two distinct meanings of “forced to serve.”  Americans who are drafted to go to war ought to be understood as a function of their legal standing as a citizen.  As citizens we are obligated to register for the draft and under certain circumstances may be forced to honor that obligation.  Again, the salient point is that draftees are citizens.  It is our status as free men which places us in this relationship to the government.  In contrast, slaves were not citizens of the United States or the Confederacy.  That this distinction even needs to be acknowledged is troubling.  In short, the analogy does not work.  Finally, it should be pointed out that USCTs were not citizens at the time of their service in the army, but it also must be remembered that they were not drafted either.  Many of them expressed the hope that their service would eventually lead to the rights of full citizenship.  That, of course, is another sad chapter in our history.

I am closer with Mr. Williams on the issue of honoring and commemorating those free and enslaved blacks who were present with the Confederate army.  If it can be demonstrated that a black man (regardless of status) enlisted or was drafted as a soldier than he should be honored as such.  I have never said otherwise.  That said, as historians distinctions should matter.  As I make my way through the letters of Capt. Winsmith from South Carolina (which I am editing for publication) I can’t help but be impressed with his commentary on his “servant” who accompanied him to camp.  Winsmith writes glowingly about this man as well as his various activities in camp and on the march.  This man actually procured a uniform by performing functions for other officers.  I have no doubt that this slave endured many of the same hardships along with the rest of the army and I have little doubt that he bonded with his master and others as well, even though I don’t have access to one word from this individual.  He eventually escaped to the Union navy off the coast of South Carolina in the summer of 1862.  That said, there is nothing that indicates that his owner or anyone else for that matter viewed this man as anything other than a slave.  Nothing about his relationship with his master or his experience changed his legal status.

These distinctions matter because as historians we are trying to better understand how the war affected the master-slave relationship and race relations generally.  As historians we should do our best, with the limited evidence available, to understand how the realities of war brought whites and blacks in the army closer together on occasion and further apart at other times.  However, in order to do so we must be sensitive to the distinction between soldier, slave, conscript and other designations.

It goes without saying that if we were to accept Mr. Williams’s analysis we would have a number of fundamental questions to grapple with.

  • What exactly was the Confederate government referring to when it explicitly denied slaves and free blacks the right to serve in the army?
  • How are we to understand the debate during the war over whether to arm slaves as soldiers?
  • What exactly was the Confederate government doing when it finally authorized the enlistment of a limited number of slaves as soldiers in the final weeks of the war in 1865?

In other words, how did the Confederate government as well as the rest of the white South define a soldier during the war?  How would they respond to Mr. Williams’s analysis?

We Have a Responsibility to Take Care of the Past

That includes the North Carolina Museum of History and the Office of Archives and History.

Earl Ijames on Weary Clyburn:

Weary Clyburn was one of thousands of slaves who served in the Confederate Army, Ijames said. There’s no way to quantify the number of slaves who served. “But it’s in the thousands, easy.” People today often wonder why slaves fought for the Confederacy. Ijames said the only course they had to freedom was through the Confederate Army. “Why not go and defend what they know versus running away and going to the unknown,” Ijames said.

Mr. Ijames has a responsibility to explain these statements to the North Carolina Museum of History, Office of Archives and History as well as the rest of the historical community.

Debating Earl Ijames

Earlier today fellow blogger and historian, Brooks Simpson, left a comment offering to host a debate between myself and Earl Ijames at Civil Warriors.

Sounds to me as if Earl Ijames has challenged Kevin Levin to a duel, so to speak.

Now, by the code duello, Mr. Levin has choice of weapons. I assume he’d rather conduct the contest on the written page/screen/blog, where all of us can see the result, not some hand-picked venue chosen by Mr. Ijames. And I think that’s appropriate. I’m perfectly willing to offer Civil Warriors as a field of honor where this can happen, so that historians can judge the result.

So, Mr. Ijames, it’s up to you. Are you going to make your case? Are you willing to conduct yourself according to the rules of scholarship?  Remember what you said, Mr. Ijames: ” I’ll re-iterate that offer to you to put your money where your loose lips leak erroneous information…. If you don’t show, then we can conclude that you’re not as serious of a student of history as you misrepresent yourself to be.”  I’d hate to see those words come back to haunt you. But it’s now a matter of public record. It’s up to you whether you’ll be as good as your word.

I think this is a great idea and I am more than happy to participate.  It seems to me that the best way to proceed is for Mr. Ijames to write up a short essay (endnotes/sources included) on Weary Clyburn and/or John Venable.  Let’s nail down the interpretation first and steer clear of broad generalizations about numbers and other ancillary concerns.  It would be very helpful to me and the rest of us if we can just focus on one or two individuals.  In fact, Mr. Ijames could do us all a favor by demonstrating how someone in his position goes about researching and constructing a profile for a “Colored Confederate”.  I know I would greatly appreciate it.

Well, Mr. Ijames, the ball is in your court.