Tomorrow I hope to finish up an essay that I was asked to write for one of the Civil War journals over a year ago about the the influence of digital technologies on how we write and research history and how that has fueled the myth of the black Confederate soldier. At the end of the essay I take a moment to suggest ways that academic and public historians as well as history educators generally might address this myth, not by jumping head first into the very places where these emotional debates are taking place, but by re-considering what it means to educate the public at a time when everyone can be his/her own historian on the Web. Continue reading
Update: Richard Williams has decided to respond to this post on his blog. What I find interesting is that he has nothing to say about the content of the post. Instead he takes issue with one of my comments about my characterization of his understanding of the influence of Nat Turner’s Rebellion on race/slavery and religion in Virginia. Williams declares that many academics are “cynical” about attempts on the part of slaveholders to teach the gospel yet he provides not a single reference. It is unclear as to why this should matter to begin with. Their attitude is irrelevant. What matters is the interpretation. A quick perusal of the bibliography points to an over reliance on relatively few secondary sources, which is why I take issue with his analysis of religion in a slaveholding society. There simply isn’t much to work with. I will leave it to you to judge.
My recent essay on Confederate camp servants in The Civil War Monitor opens with a reference to an account in Edward Porter Alexander’s Fighting for the Confederacy. In it he discusses the purchase of a camp servant named Charley and a horse. Interestingly, Alexander refers to both as an “appendage”. That reference, I believe, tells us a great deal about race relations in the South as well as the value of enslaved blacks to the Confederate war effort and individual officers who utilized personal servants. Continue reading
Earlier this week I received my author copies of the latest issue of The Civil War Monitor, which contains my essay on Confederate camp servants. As I’ve said before, I am very excited about this particular piece. It encompasses some of what I am trying to address in the first chapter of my book on the same subject. Continue reading
I came across this little gem this morning while perusing the SHPG’s Facebook page. It’s a photo of a page from what I believe is the Minutes of the R.E. Lee Soldiers’ Home in Richmond. In it is a brief reference to a black man, who was present in the Confederate army as a blacksmith. His application for admission to the home was rejected based on what should be obvious. It was recommended that the “Board act in accordance with their rules in reference to admitting only those who were enlisted soldiers.”
While it would be a mistake to read too much into this brief reference, what I find interesting is that there is no indication of an investigation into this individual’s status. In other words, there is no implicit assumption that it might be possible to admit a black man into the soldiers’ home. The other photo of older black Virginians on the grounds of the home doesn’t add much to the issue at hand. They are not identified. A few appear to be wearing pieces of old uniforms as well as what I believe are reunion ribbons.
The author of the post titled it, “Negro Soldier – Rejected for Admission at the Soldiers’ Home in Richmond.” It’s an awkward title given that the institution in question concluded that he was not a soldier. Later he says, “I believe in their hearts, they wanted to belong to those they served, although – not allowed to Enlist.” I assume this is a reference to the application in 1887. There is likely a certain amount of truth to this statement depending on the nature of his experience during the war, but that doesn’t get us very far at all. In fact, I would suggest it tells us more about what the poster hopes to believe about this individual. What you need to believe is ultimately irrelevant to what we can know through a careful examination of the available evidence.
For me, it raises a host of questions. If we could identify the individual in question it would help to know a bit about his economic situation by this point in time. Did he have a family and a job? Was he homeless or soon to be? Was he familiar with the men already living in the home? Did he attend reunions? What this individual thought about his war experience and what he felt about the men around him (then and now) is anybody’s guess.
To conclude that he applied simply because he “wanted to belong” not only reflects a lack of imagination, but a lack of understanding of what is involved in serious (or even not so serious) research.
Well, that is at least the working title of an essay that will appear in the next issue of The Civil War Monitor. I just finished with the final edits and I am really happy with the final version. As far as I know there is nothing out there in a popular publication that deals with this tough topic. I do my best to bring some light to the relationship between slaveowners and their camp servants at war. It’s an incredibly frustrating and challenging topic and I don’t claim to have provided the last word. More than anything else, what I hope it does is raise questions and challenge assumptions on all sides – assumptions that almost always tell us more about the present as opposed to the past.
With that in mind, I hope my fellow high school history teachers will think about picking up a copy for their classrooms. I think the essay will work well in getting students to think critically about the slave-master dynamic and related issues related to the war generally.
It’s been an absolute pleasure working with Terry Johnston and his editorial team. They did a great job pushing back with questions that helped to improve both the narrative and analysis. It clearly reflects their commitment to put out a first-rate magazine that is both a pleasure to read and thought provoking.
Do yourself a favor and get a subscription today.