This past January historian Ken Noe shared his thoughts about the Civil War centennial and the current state of the sesquicentennial at the Alabama State Archives in Montgomery, Alabama. Ken’s edited collection of essays on Alabama’s Civil War was recently published by the University of Alabama Press.
At one point in the talk Ken suggests that an oral history project focused on Americans who lived through the centennial is needed. I couldn’t agree more. It’s a great idea for a project.
Yesterday’s post reminded me that I never addressed a comment posed by Ken Noe from a few weeks ago in response to another story about the discovery of a supposed black Confederate. Ken wondered about the frequency of these stories in recent months.
You have me thinking, Kevin. As the heritage movement becomes more factionalized and in obvious cases radicalized, if the drift really is toward the sort of southern national cells and defenses of white exclusiveness Brooks Simpson has been chronicling of late, has the ‘black Confederate’ topic necessarily peaked? Is it becoming too “rainbow?” It occurred to me this morning that I’m running into it less often. But perhaps your experience is different.
Self-described racists in the Confederate heritage community refer to ‘Rainbow Confederates’ as those who envision an idealized Confederacy made up of blacks, whites and other ethnic groups peacefully co-existing. Black Confederate accounts minimize the story of slavery and white supremacy and attempt to situate the Confederacy within a broader narrative of racial progress. It’s a popular story for those in the Confederate heritage community who have a need to push the tough questions of race and slavery to the side.
I’ve also come across these stories less and less in recent months, but I am also at a loss to explain why. There may not be anything at all to explain, though I suspect the Virginia textbook scandal of 2010 has something to do with it. That story was picked up by local, national, and international news agencies. The frequency of stories related to United States Colored Troops has certainly emerged as the dominant racial narrative in the last year as has the broader theme of emancipation.
Union Army Entering Petersburg, April 3, 1865
I recently offered some brief thoughts about Robert K. Krick’s concerns about historians, who are supposedly weary of Confederate memoirs. While I focused my remarks on a specific claim made by Krick about how historians interpret Robert E. Lee’s wartime popularity, his broader point about postwar accounts is worth a brief mention as well.
The wholesale tendency to dismiss Confederate accounts is inexcusable, Krick said. He blasted critics who hold that Confederate memoirs are full of historical errors. “Most of them were trying to tell the truth,” he said of veterans who penned recollections of their wartime experiences.
It goes without saying, that I can’t think of one historian who dismisses out of hand an entire collection of sources simply on the grounds that they were written after the fact. This is just another straw man argument. That said, I do agree with Krick that veterans were motivated to tell a truthful story about their wartime experiences. That, however, does not mean that their accounts were not influenced by other factors as well. I assume that most of you will agree that it is the historians responsibility to interrogate all sources for their veracity.
In my own research on the Crater and historical memory I found it helpful to think about individual accounts as reflecting what he/she believed to be meaningful to record rather than what was believed to be truthful. In the case of Confederate accounts, for example, the presence of black soldiers was a salient aspect of the battle that was included in the overwhelming number of letters and diaries. That clearly changed during the postwar years and I do my best to explain why.
Click to continue
Over the past few weeks I’ve used Ann DeWitt’s website as a case study of what is wrong with the current debate about black Confederates as well as the pitfalls of doing online research on this specific subject – a fact that was confirmed this past week.
This morning I was browsing the Virginia Sesquicentennial Commission’s Facebook page when I came across this response by G. Ashleigh Moody to a story about Carol Sheriff. Moody is the registrant for the Petersburg Express website, which includes a great deal of information concerning black Confederates. His response provides us with another useful case study of what is wrong with the popular debate about this subject as well as the dangers of researching this topic online:
What most college professors will probably not share with their students: As you will find documented here [Petersburg Express] are hundreds of Black Confederate SOLDIERS from Petersburg Virginia. documented from just one Virginia city. And William and Mary is “just down the road” from Petersburg! Amazing! …. These are the stories that bring people together, not the Neo-Yankee version of the South that we are having to endure today. We could do with a lot less “presentism”!
Well, Petersburg Express is just a click away so why don’t we take a little tour of what they have to say about black Confederates. The first thing you will notice is the claim made by Ed Bearrs that has already been challenged on this site. Beyond that this is a fairly typical black Confederate website. Notice the hodgepodge of primary source passages that contain absolutely no analysis or context as well as the photographs, which suffer from the same. Included are references to Richard “Dick” Poplar and Charles Tinsley. Even more disturbing are the links to that bastion of scholarship known as Dixie Outfitters and H.K. Edgerton’s, Southern Heritage 411. This is cut and paste history at its worst and done on a 4th grade level. Continue reading