Cutting and Pasting Black Confederates

The Internet can be a wonderful source for reliable and important information on historical subjects.  It can also be, and often is, a source for misleading and damaging information about the past.  There is no better example of this than the divisive topic of “black Confederates.”  Misinformation abounds on sites organized by individual SCV chapters as well as private individuals.  There is no quality assurance mechanism and a search engine’s ranking algorithm has nothing to do with veracity.  In the case of black Confederates the problem is not simply that the information is unreliable, but that it is easy for it to spread, which in turn compounds the problem.  A quick tour of black Confederate websites reveals that many of these narratives or snippets of evidence are cut and pasted from one website to another.

Not only are the many poorly-constructed narratives filtered around without any attempt at analysis, but individual historians have also fallen victim to this practice.  I’ve already mentioned the case of Ed Bearrs, who has regularly been singled out as a historian who has acknowledged the existence of these men.  Even worse, he has been quoted over and over as having implied some kind of conspiracy to keep these stories under wraps.  There is no evidence that he has ever said such a thing and I’ve learned through reliable sources that he has denied ever suggesting it.

The other example that continues to pop up involves historian, Ken Noe.  In fact, it’s latest appearance can be seen in a comment left on this blog over the weekend.  A reader by the name of Gary Adams left a comment that included your standard list of references to supposed cases of black Confederates.  The reference in question was to Ken’s excellent study of Perryville.  As usual there was no attempt by this reader to provide any context for the items on the list.  In fact, I am fairly certain that this is just another example of cutting and pasting on the web.  Those of you familiar with this debate will see all of the standard references, including Frederick Douglass’s famous second-hand observation.  Ken has responded numerous times and even issued a statement on his own website.  I was pleased to see that Ken took the time to address Adams’s comment:

It never ends, does it? Mr. Adams, among your sources, you quote me. And I assure you, I never wrote what you said I did. Years ago, someone took a quotation out of my Perryville book, _deliberately_ rewrote it, and stuck it on an internet site to “prove” the existence of willing black Confederates. The original poster dropped it once I mentioned the word “lawyers,” but as I can see, it’s still out there wherever you cut-and-pasted it from. Kindly don’t “quote” me again. Knowing this, too, perhaps the question you should be asking is this, if one of these internet quotations was deliberately falsified, how much should you trust the other ones? Because I assure you, I just spent seven years reading thousands of Confederate soldiers letters, and I didn’t find one writer who described “black Confederate” soldiers in action.

As many of you know I recently agreed to write a book-length study on the history and memory of “black Confederates” for Westholme Publishing once I finish my Crater study.  One of the things I plan to do is construct a companion website for the book that will take a close look at some of the most popular black Confederate websites.  I don’t believe for a minute that most people who leave these kinds of comments intend to deceive anyone.  It’s more likely the case that they simply do not know how to evaluate historical sources and websites in particular.  It’s probably too late to make much of a dent into the lies and distortions that can be found on these sites, but that should never stop us from producing reliable history and challenging this nonsense whenever possible.

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36 comments… add one
  • Gary Adams Aug 4, 2010 @ 17:55

    Here-in is my latest response: “Good morning Kevin, you keep pushing aside Frederick Douglas speech, the professor and your argument was we did not know what he meant by it. Even though I felt we did, I used your argument and researched it there can be no doubt what he meant. You cannot continue to ignore because you don’t like it. Well, you can but as well rounded Historians I would eventually you must accept the facts that there is a documented speech by a renowned individual stating the very facts that resolve the question. Surely you are not saying Douglas was lying? Keep in mind Lincoln was jailing the anti-war masses, public figures like Marcus M. Pomeroy or John Hodqson both of who were editors, who like you and I would have called him on his remarks? To continue to deny his remarks gives the community a “black eye”. The articles of that time were filled with people like us, challenging, arguing for and against; then there is the fact morals of the time were a little stricter; remember Robert Crittenden, territorial secretary and acting governor, and Henry Conway? If you are calling Douglas a liar then might the Confederate officer who had a slave fighting as a soldier but could not have reported it? You keep asking why it is only yankees made mention of this phenomenon. Many of your posts deal with the supposed mistreatment of blacks, might a “white” felt embarrassed to admit a black was performing as good as a white? Might the officer be cautious about getting into trouble for not following regulations and denying the slaves actions? Thank you but I am aware of Stephanie McCurry’s and Steven Hahn’s new books, _Confederate Reckoning_ as well as _The Political Worlds of Slavery and Freedom_ and the slow down methods and flat out sabotage of slaves toward the war effort. Which amazes me why you so willing to accept any anti-Confederate tale but refuse to admit there might be reason to believe blacks fought for the Confederacy? I pointed out similar instances between soldiers “adopting” private citizens and never reporting them. Then there is my issue that it is no big deal, true or not it was a different era with different beliefs. Abusing a slave was frowned upon just like abusing an animal, because that was what most whites considered the black. You don’t have to look any further than your man, Lincoln.

    Just the other day much to my distress someone proved Grant did not say “If I thought this war was to abolish slavery, I would resign my commission and offer my sword to the other side.” Many of my peers are upset with me over it but truth is what is important!

    Ever scholar who has reviewed Douglas complete work feels there was no doubt he was speaking about a historical situation; as previous stated he was held to a higher standard than his white counterparts there is no question in anyone’s mind save yours that blacks willing fought for the Confederacy. Fredericks speech was nothing but the truth, that no one would have risked their reputation making a false statement that a minority would have been under more scrutiny would never risked soiling their reputation furthermore a black in that period had to be a cut above their counter parts.

    In reference to your argument about the records not disclosing but 28 black Confederate once we reviewed these records these soldiers almost to a man were award that status after the war. So it would appear it justifies my argument that due to military or civilian pressure the officers could or would not rank an individual as a soldier until after the conflict.

    It hurts to admit your are wrong but it is worse to continue to deny something even in the face of over whelming exidence. As I keep mentioning what difference does it make? Thank for your patience.

    • Kevin Levin Aug 4, 2010 @ 18:05

      Mr. Adams,

      Once again, thanks for taking the time to comment. Unfortunately, nothing you’ve said here helps one bit in better understanding the way the war challenged the master-slave relationship. You’ve said nothing that gives me a reason to consider Douglass’s account to be true. Of course, that does not mean that I believe he is lying. Part of the problem is that I have no idea where he got his information from and as a historian I need to know that before I go further. That you believe that I make decisions based on whether I believe it to be anti-Confederate is laughable and suggests to me that you are really reaching here. Can you point me to one Douglass biographer who has concluded that he was right about his black Confederate observation? I don’t mean something you found online, but a legitimate scholar such as David Blight, William McFeely or David Reynolds. Your comments also suggest to me that you don’t really know how to interpret primary sources. Be that as it may, I appreciate you taking the time to share your thoughts.

      • Gary Aug 9, 2010 @ 7:27

        What you are saying is a noted person whoses’ every word and comment was quoted and who would have been held to a higher expectation than a white either didn’t know of what he spoke or lied; the only other opition is what Mr. Bearr contends is correct blacks fought for the Confederacy. I think your readers and you fail to consider times were different and blacks could have been brain washed; thought their lives would be better than the boogeyman which was the way the invaders were painted, or they had developed a loyality toward their owners. Again I know there were not units and they were scattered but it’s clear they did fight!

    • Bob Pollock Aug 4, 2010 @ 19:51

      Mr. Adams,

      I’m glad we don’t have to deal with the false Grant remark, but I wonder if you could tell us upon what basis you make these assertions:

      “Abusing a slave was frowned upon just like abusing an animal, because that was what most whites considered the black. You don’t have to look any further than your man, Lincoln. ”

      Even if it was “frowned upon,” slaves endured whippings and other forms of corporal punishment at the whim of their masters who owned them. Then there is the widespread sexual exploitation of female slaves. Even if you want to discount or deny these abuses, there is still the inhumanity of separating families by selling fathers, mothers, and children. And, regarding Lincoln, could you tell us exactly when and where Lincoln said blacks were animals?

      • Margaret D. Blough Aug 8, 2010 @ 19:17

        Bob- I don’t know where Mr. Adams got the idea that whipping slaves was frowned upon. The use of certain implements was, at times, unacceptable. I’d recommend reading the chapter on Abuse of Slaves in Thomas Morris’s “Southern Slavery and the Law 1619-1860” ISBN # 0-8078-2238-8, published in 1996 by the University of North Carolina Press. Even what laws existed were rarely enforced and what few convictions there were were generally overturned on appeal or the perpetrator was allowed to quietly relocate. To get into trouble, the slaveowner or overseer generally needed to engage in conduct that even under the standards of the time was regarded as torture, maiming or homicide. There appear to have been a few more limits in what a white third party who abused or killed a slave belonging to another (a slave had to be deferential to all white folks; not just those who owned the slave) although that appeared to have been more a function of slaveowners objecting to their property damaged or destroyed or interference with their authority over the slave.

        • Bob Pollock Aug 9, 2010 @ 5:00

          Excellent comment, as usual. I thought about recommending Theodore Weld’s “American Slavery As It Is” but I was afraid it would be dismissed as Abolitionist propaganda. 🙂

        • Gary Aug 9, 2010 @ 7:20

          Mr. Levine pointed out that the use of sources can be tainted for everyone you provide I can match it. I am not saying there was not abuses they were and still are what I am saying people looked down on these who used physical punishment.

          • Marc Ferguson Aug 9, 2010 @ 9:14

            Gary – you don’t seem to understand how historians use sources – historical analysis is not a tit-for-tat duel.

          • Bob Pollock Aug 9, 2010 @ 15:14

            Mr. Adams,

            You didn’t say what your basis is for the assertion that “people looked down on these who used physical punishment.” I’m sure there are any number of studies that could be recommended that would counter this notion, including the one Margaret cited. You might read the chapter “A Disturbing Institution” in William Freehling’s “Prelude to Civil War. ” Freehling wrote:

            “Whipping, deprivation of privileges, and other punishments were accepted everywhere as a necessary part of plantation government. ‘Were fidelity the only security we enjoyed,’ exclaimed one slaveholder,…’deplorable indeed would be our situation. The fear of punishment is the principle to which we must and do appeal, to keep them in awe and order.'” (Quote from Southern Patriot, Feb 10, 1826)

            Furthermore, slaveholders who did not adequately discipline their slaves could be criticized as in this editorial from Southern Review, Dec. 1829, also quoted in Prelude to Civil War:

            “One great evil of the system is its tendency to produce in process of time, laxity of discipline, and consequently, disorders and poverty…by the excessive indulgence of careless or too scrupulous masters…some of the worst symptoms of the time are owing to this ill-judged, but we fear, inevitable facility and indulgence.”

            No doubt, individual slave experiences varied widely depending on the type of work he did, where he lived, how large the plantation or farm was, whether he was under the direct supervison of his master or under an overseer, how much a particular slave chafed under bondage or resisted discipline, and other factors. Nevertheless, there is no disproving that the institution was built and maintained on fear. As Lincoln succinctly stated: “I never knew a man who wished to be himself a slave.”

      • Gary Aug 9, 2010 @ 7:39

        Where did I say Lincon called anyone an animal? Though I do agree with both Dilorenzo and Bennetts in their works that: * Lincoln publicly referred to blacks by the most offensive racial slur. In one speech, Lincoln said he opposed the expansion of slavery into the territories because he didn’t want the West “to become an asylum for slavery and n—–s.”

        * Lincoln was, in the words of one friend, “especially fond of Negro minstrel shows,” attending blackface performances in Chicago and Washington. At an 1860 performance of Rumsey and Newcomb’s Minstrels, Lincoln “clapped his great hands, demanding an encore, louder than anyone” when the minstrels performed “Dixie.” Lincoln was also fond of what he called “darky” jokes, Mr. Bennett documents.

        * Lincoln envisioned and advocated an all-white West, declaring at Alton, Ill., in 1858, that he was “in favor of our new territories being in such a condition that white men may find a home … as an outlet for free white people everywhere, the world over.”

        * Lincoln supported his home state’s law, passed in 1853, forbidding blacks to move to Illinois. The Illinois state constitution, adopted in 1848, called for laws to “effectually prohibit free persons of color from immigrating to and settling in this state.”

        * Lincoln blamed blacks for the Civil War, telling them, “But for your race among us there could not be a war, although many men engaged on either side do not care for you one way or another.”

        * Lincoln claimed that “the people of Mexico are most decidedly a race of mongrels. I understand that there is not more than one person there out of eight who is pure white.”

        * Repeatedly over the course of his career, Lincoln urged that American blacks be sent to Africa or elsewhere”.

        I don’t believe Sherman or Lincoln the heroes many feel they are! Nor, for that matter Lee, Pickett and even Gordon. I don’t feel it important whether blacks fought for the South, but I do feel the South was right and like any sensible person that slavery would long be gone without 600,000 deaths.

        • Andy Hall Aug 9, 2010 @ 14:00

          I do feel the South was right and like any sensible person that slavery would long be gone without 600,000 deaths.

          I’d be interested to know upon what you base that belief. Certainly the fire-eaters didn’t believe that, and the Confederacy was hard-wired in its constitution to both preserve and expand the institution. If you can point to anyone of political prominence in the South prior to 1865 who argued publicly that slavery would die a natural, peaceful death on its own, I’d sure like to know about it.

          • Gary Aug 9, 2010 @ 23:51

            What happened to EVERY other slave institution?

            • Andy Hall Aug 10, 2010 @ 8:00

              In this hemisphere, almost all of them were overthrown in violent, bloody revolution. They didn’t just fade away on their own.

              • Margaret D. Blough Aug 10, 2010 @ 10:09

                Agreed. The end of slavery in French and British colonies followed the bloody rebellions in what is now Haiti & the less well-known but equally brutal, if not worse, Jamaican slave revolts (Black/African slavery does not seem to have ever been a significant domestic institution in either nation). On the end of the British participation in the slave trade and of slavery in its colonies, I’d recommend Adam Hochschild’s “Bury the Chains: Prophets and Rebels in the Fight to Free an Empire’s Slaves” Houghton Mifflin 2005 ISBN 0-618-10469-0. According to Hochschild, Britain sent more troops to the West Indies to suppress slave revolts than it has sent earlier to try to suppress the American Revolution and with a much higher death toll to both wounds and disease. My understanding of the end of slavery in the former Spanish colonies is that both sides, as the colonies fought for independence from Spain, desperately tried to recruit slaves to their cause, ultimately by promising freedom.

                • Bob Pollock Aug 11, 2010 @ 8:59

                  I’d like to add, Mr. Adams, that you seem to be blaming the North for starting the war to end slavery. Or, you are implying that some of us on this blog believe that. I don’t think any of us would argue that was the case. For myself, let me say that the deep South states seceded because they were afraid that the newly elected President and his Republican Party would take actions that would eventually result in the end of slavery, just as you say. How long that would have taken is anyone’s guess. They could have stayed in the Union and fought those actions but, unlike in Britain, they would not abide by a peaceful political process. They would not accept the verdict of the majority and the changing moral sentiments of the time.

                  On the other side Lincoln and most Northerners saw secession as an internal rebellion and an attempt to destroy the democracy established by their forefathers. Certainly the North was becoming more anti-slavery and there was a definite Abolitionist element in the Republican Party, nevertheless, ending slavery only became an official goal of the North well into the war, as I’m sure you know. I think U. S. Grant stated this quite well (although I personally think he may have been underestimating the strength of abolitionist sentiment in the North) in a letter he wrote to his slave-holding father-in-law in April, 1861, in which he wrote:

                  “I know it is hard for men to apparently work with the Republican Party, but now all party distinctions must be lost sight of and evry true patriot be for maintaining the glorious old Stars & Stripes, the Constitution and the Union. In all this I can but see the doom of slavery. The North do not want, nor will they want to interfere with the institution. But they will refuse to for all time to give it protection unless the South shall return soon to their allegiance…”

                  Given this, Mr. Adams, in what way was the south “right”?

        • Bob Huddleston Aug 9, 2010 @ 15:38

          “Though I do agree with both Dilorenzo and Bennetts in their works that: * Lincoln publicly referred to blacks by the most offensive racial slur. In one speech, Lincoln said he opposed the expansion of slavery into the territories because he didn’t want the West ‘to become an asylum for slavery and n—–s.’”

          Where did Lincoln say that? A Google search finds only the reference to DiLorenzo and/or Bennett as claiming it. However, a search for “asylum for slavery” in the on-line edition of the collected works does not turn up the quote. Perhaps you could check your copy and tell us when AL is alleged to have said that.

        • Bob Pollock Aug 9, 2010 @ 17:00

          “Where did I say Lincon called anyone an animal?”

          “Abusing a slave was frowned upon just like abusing an animal, because that was what most whites considered the black. You don’t have to look any further than your man, Lincoln. ”

          Did I misunderstand you?

  • Gary Adams Aug 1, 2010 @ 22:16

    I am impressed by your article referencing me and the subject of coloured Confederate Soldiers. You are absolutely correct in suggesting that I did not evaluate all the citations, but I did so with the Frederick Douglas quote and for some reason both Professor Noe and you refuse to acknowledge this important piece of written history. I believe your exact words to me were something along the lines of “we don’t know the context by which he meant it”. So, I took the time to write the Library of Congress and researched exactly how he meant it (see below). Unlike some of my brethren I don’t feel the black man was better off as a slave and neither do I believe that 80,000 blacks willingly fought for the Confederacy. Having said that, I am also not blind enough to say it did not happen. I believe 15,000 – 20,000 willingly fought for the South. This would not be surprising, considering the fact there were not massed slave uprising as Lincoln himself had hoped. Has it occurred to you that pride and the feelings toward blacks at the time might have caused reservations in what was reported? I know that when my unit adopted women and made camp followers out of them, not only did we not write home about them, but they also never appeared on any official report. My other thought is that unlike others who feel the issue of blacks fighting for the Confederacy a major issue, I do not see it as such. However, I am always interested in truth and with the documentation (as attached for your review) I am curious to know if you believe Mr. Douglass to be a liar or that there were actually “many colored men… as real soldiers, having muskets on their shoulders, and bullets in their pockets, ready to shoot down loyal troops”?

    “This speech by Douglass was published in the Douglass’ Monthly on September, 1861. That said, a copy of this speech is not available in The Frederick Douglass Papers at the Library of Congress”.

    “We have attached a Word file to this message that contains the full-text of this speech as it appeared in the Douglass’ Monthly on September, 1861”.

    (Douglass’ Monthly, September 1861)

    “What on earth is the matter with the American Government and people? Do they really covet the world’s ridicule as well as their own social and political ruin? What are they thinking about, or don’t they condescend to think at all? So, indeed, it would seem from their blindness in dealing with the tremendous issue now upon them. Was there ever anything like it before? They are sorely pressed on every hand by a vast army of slaveholding rebels, flushed with success, and infuriated by the darkest inspirations of a deadly hate, bound to rule or ruin. Washington, the seat of Government, after ten thousand assurances to the contrary, is now positively in danger of falling before the rebel army. Maryland, a little while ago considered safe for the Union, is now admitted to be studded with the materials for insurrection, and which may flame forth at any moment.–Every resource of the nation, whether of men or money, whether of wisdom or strength, could be well employed to avert the impending ruin. Yet most evidently the demands of the hour are not comprehended by the Cabinet or the crowd. Our Presidents, Governors, Generals and Secretaries are calling, with almost frantic vehemance, for men.–“Men! men! send us men!” they scream, or the cause of the Union is gone, the life of a great nation is ruthlessly sacrificed, and the hopes of a great nation go out in darkness; and yet these very officers, representing the people and Government, steadily and persistently refuse to receive the very class of men which have a deeper interest in the defeat and humiliation of the rebels, than all others.–Men are wanted in Missouri–wanted in Western Virginia, to hold and defend what has been already gained; they are wanted in Texas, and all along the sea coast, and though the Government has at its command a class in the country deeply interested in suppressing the insurrection, it sternly refuses to summon from among the vast multitude a single man, and degrades and insults the whole class by refusing to allow any of their number to defend with their strong arms and brave hearts the national cause. What a spectacle of blind, unreasoning prejudice and pusillanimity is this! The national edifice is on fire. Every man who can carry a bucket of water, or remove a brick, is wanted; but those who have the care of the building, having a profound respect for the feeling of the national burglars who set the building on fire, are determined that the flames shall only be extinguished by Indo-Caucasian hands, and to have the building burnt rather than save it by means of any other. Such is the pride, the stupid prejudice and folly that rules the hour.
    Why does the Government reject the Negro? Is he not a man? Can he not wield a sword, fire a gun, march and countermarch, and obey orders like any other? Is there the least reason to believe that a regiment of well-drilled Negroes would deport themselves less soldier-like on the battlefield than the raw troops gathered up generally from the towns and cities of the State of New York? We do believe that such soldiers, if allowed to take up arms in defence of the Government, and made to feel that they are hereafter to be recognized as persons having rights, would set the highest example of order and general good behavior to their fellow soldiers, and in every way add to the national power.
    If persons so humble as we can be allowed to speak to the President of the United States, we should ask him if this dark and terrible hour of the nation’s extremity is a time for consulting a mere vulgar and unnatural prejudice? We should ask him if national preservation and necessity were not better guides in this emergency than either the tastes of the rebels, or the pride and prejudices of the vulgar? We would tell him that General Jackson in a slave state fought side by side with Negroes at New Orleans, and like a true man, despising meanness, he bore testimony to their bravery at the close of the war. We would tell him that colored men in Rhode Island and Connecticut performed their full share in the war of the Revolution, and that men of the same color, such as the noble Shields Green, Nathaniel Turner and Denmark Vesey stand ready to peril everything at the command of the Government. We would tell him that this is no time to fight with one hand, when both are needed; that this is no time to fight only with your white hand, and allow your black hand to remain tied.
    Whatever may be the folly and absurdity of the North, the South at least is true and wise. The Southern papers no longer indulge in the vulgar expression, “free n—-rs.” That class of bipeds are now called “colored residents.” The Charleston papers say:

    “The colored residents of this city can challenge comparison with their class, in any city or town, in loyalty or devotion to the cause of the South. Many of them individually, and without ostentation, have been contributing liberally, and on Wednesday evening, the 7th inst., a very large meeting was held by them, and a committee appointed to provide for more efficient aid. The proceedings of the meeting will appear in results hereinafter to be reported.”

    It is now pretty well established, that there are at the present moment many colored men in the Confederate army doing duty not only as cooks, servants and laborers, but as real soldiers, having muskets on their shoulders, and bullets in their pockets, ready to shoot down loyal troops, and do all that soldiers may to destroy the Federal Government and build up that of the traitors and rebels. There were such soldiers at Manassas, and they are probably there still. There is a Negro in the army as well as in the fence, and our Government is likely to find it out before the war comes to an end. That the Negroes are numerous in the rebel army, and do for that army its heaviest work, is beyond question. They have been the chief laborers upon those temporary defences in which the rebels have been able to mow down our men. Negroes helped to build the batteries at Charleston. They relieve their gentlemanly and military masters from the stiffening drudgery of the camp, and devote them to the nimble and dexterous use of arms. Rising above vulgar prejudice, the slaveholding rebel accepts the aid of the black man as readily as that of any other. If a bad cause can do this, why should a good cause be less wisely conducted? We insist upon it, that one black regiment in such a war as this is, without being any more brave and orderly, would be worth to the Government more than two of any other; and that, while the Government continues to refuse the aid of colored men, thus alienating them from the national cause, and giving the rebels the advantage of them, it will not deserve better fortunes than it has thus far experienced.–Men in earnest don’t fight with one hand, when they might fight with two, and a man drowning would not refuse to be saved even by a colored hand”.
    (Foner, Volume 3, pages 151-154)

    • Kevin Levin Aug 2, 2010 @ 1:12

      Mr. Adams,

      Thank you for taking the time to comment. You said: “I believe 15,000 – 20,000 willingly fought for the South.” If so, then you must explain how these men were able to slip through a system that explicitly denied free and enslaved blacks the possibility of serving as soldiers. The Confederate government was explicit about this from the beginning and only very late in the war did they make a provision to recruit blacks into experimental units. The Douglass report is fascinating, but it adds nothing to this discussion unless you can verify his claims. Remember, he was trying to convince the United States to accept the service of free blacks and fugitive slaves. On the issue of slave uprisings you may want to read Stephanie McCurry’s new book, _Confederate Reckoning_ as well as Steven Hahn’s _The Political Worlds of Slavery and Freedom_. They suggest that we need to shift our understanding of the Civil War when it comes to appreciating the ways in which slaves rebelled in the Confederate South.

      If there were 15-20,000 black soldiers where are the official wartime service records. Professor Noe and other historians who specialize in military history and Confederate soldiers have not found them. I’ve read through hundreds of Confederate letters and diaries from 1864 and have not found one single reference to a black Confederate soldier. Why is the evidence always to be found in the writings of Northerners?

      • James F. Epperson Aug 2, 2010 @ 2:46

        There is a fascinating snippet of testimony from CS General Montgomery Corse, to the Joint Committee on Reconstruction, in which he is asked about black men in Confederate ranks. He says, ” I think it was a very great mistake that we did not put them into the service of the Confederate States in the beginning.” Even Mr. Adams’s number of 15,000-20,000 is large enough that a general officer ought to have known about it.

        Re: the Douglas quote, I think the consensus view is that he was willingly saying something about which he had little direct knowledge, because saying it might induce Lincoln to enlist blacks in the Union Armies.

    • Ken Noe Aug 2, 2010 @ 5:25

      Mr. Adams:

      Since you mention me, here’s my problem with the Douglass account. During the spring and summer of 1861 Douglass was living in Rochester, New York, publishing the newspaper you cite from that city. Rochester’s a lot closer to Canada than Virginia. To my knowledge–and I’d love to be corrected if I’m wrong–he had not been to the front, nor had he seen “colored men…as real soldiers” with his own eyes. This is not an eyewitness account. Rather, it’s an editorial based on second and third-hand information and rumor that he had read and heard, notably it seems the account of black Confederates at Manassas that no historian of that battle has ever taken seriously as factual.* Nor was he simply reporting. As David Blight demonstrates in the fourth chapter of _Frederick Douglass: Keeping Faith in Jubilee_, Douglass was a fierce partisan who was using every tool at his disposal to serve as a “war propagandist” for a hard, unrelenting war that would end slavery by putting black men in blue uniforms. Indeed he was pulling out all the stops by September 1861, as Lincoln’s refusal to embrace abolition was driving Douglass up the wall. We all agree that the Confederate army was heavily dependent on enslaved labor, as I discuss even in my new book, but to cite this as proof of real, enlisted black soldiers, brothers in arms, is the equivalent of citing a Bill O’Reilly “opening memo” or Keith Olbermann “special comment” as definitive proof of the tribal makeup of the Taliban. When it comes to black Confederate soldiers, it’s a biased, unreliable, third-hand accounting written hundreds of miles from the battlefield for a specific political purpose. We have better, first-hand accounts of actual soldiers north and south that we can use more profitably.


      *The account in the OR is simply an unverified rumor told by an unnamed local civilian that a general used to defend his poor performance at that battle.

      • Ken Noe Aug 5, 2010 @ 9:05

        A footnote: by January 14, 1862, Douglass no longer believed at all that blacks were fighting for the Confederacy. In a revised and expanded version of the “Only One Hand” editorial that he gave as a speech in Philadelphia, he asserted flatly that “there are no black rebels. The black man at heart, even if found in the rebel camp, is a loyal man, forced out of his place by circumstances beyond his control.”

        • Andy Hall Aug 5, 2010 @ 9:12

          Ugh. You historians and your “facts” and “evidence” and “primary sources.” Makes a loyal Southron want to puke, that does. 😉

    • Andy Hall Aug 2, 2010 @ 6:22


      The best that can be said for this famous Douglass quote is that he believed it to be true, based on second-hand information (third-hand? rumor?). What is certain is that Douglass did not travel in the South, and was not a first-hand witness to this. You ask, “I am curious to know if you believe Mr. Douglass to be a liar,” but no one here is suggesting that he was, merely that he was repeating information that he’d heard, for which there is no direct, supporting evidence from those closest to it, from the Confederate side. Repeating or asserting inaccurate information, in good faith, does not make one a liar.

      It’s also worth noting that in this address/editorial, Douglass uses a number of lines (“bullets in their pockets”) that he used on other occasions — the phraseology was part of his own, rhetorical ammunition. Not sure how that plays into estimating Douglass’ own understanding of the factuality (?) of his own claim — advocates are sometimes known to get carried away, you know?

  • Maranne Davis Jun 1, 2010 @ 8:44


    There are people who fashion falsehoods because they want to hide the truth, and some who repeat them because they wish they were true. I think it would be useful to assume, at least initially, that most people who post these stories are benign as well as benighted. One of the problems with memory is the emotional component — “This is a story passed down through generations. My father never told a lie in his life, who are you to call my ancestors liars?”

    To correct the facts, it is important to allow people to climb down from these beliefs without forcing them to repent of some evil intent. Perhaps the parallel site could display some sort of redaction criticism, showing how the truth was abridged, expanded or otherwise altered to its present erroneous form.

    Very few Americans are trained historians and few of our family myths would stand scrutiny. If I continue to believe that my ancestor was a judge rather than a horse thief, it doesn’t matter. The causes and conduct of the Civil War are of continuing interest and import, however, and warrant serious scholarship.

    • Andy Hall Jun 1, 2010 @ 15:28

      Maranne wrote

      One of the problems with memory is the emotional component — “This is a story passed down through generations. My father never told a lie in his life, who are you to call my ancestors liars?”

      This is so very true. Some folks’ entire sense of their own identity and worth is wrapped up in their family lineage, the accomplishments and attributes (real or imagined) of their ancestors that questioning their understanding of them is seen not just as a character assault on the ancestor, but on the descendant as well.

      I face-planted myself in one of these situations a few years ago. I’d been contacted by a woman who was transcribing her g-grandfather’s memoir, written in the 1920s when the man was in his eighties, describing events in the 1860s. He gave a harrowing and minutely detailed account of a shipwreck he’d been in, of which he was sole survivor, that seemed to be the dramatic centerpiece of his life. The account was compelling, but oddly familiar. After some digging, I discovered that the shipwreck really happened, and his account was accurate in every specific detail but two: it wasn’t the vessel he claimed, and he wasn’t the survivor, unless he’d been using an entirely different name. (The descendant subsequently rejected this possibility out of hand.)

      I informed my correspondent of my finding, and should have left it there, as you suggest, to “allow people to climb down from these beliefs.” But, trying to be helpful — big mistake, you know — I went one step further, and politely suggested that her g-grandfather, writing in his old age, might have inadvertently confabulated the event, recalling a real event that he knew about, heard about, talked about at the time, and later confusing that with his own, first-hand experience. The woman’s response was immediate and indignant, that I’d called her g-grandfather a liar (“he was a good, Christian man!”), that I was making a libelous accusation, and on and on. Big mistake, as I said. I should’ve just copied the newspaper articles and forwarded them without comment.

      But I still have a hard time with the idea of willfully ignoring knowable facts in favor of warm, self-affirming fantasy. While it may not matter whether I choose to believe my ancestor was a judge and not, as the records in the basement of the courthouse reveal, a horse thief, it seems to me that it matters a great deal if I’m going around misrepresenting the facts, such as can be known, to others. It’s one thing for us to lie to ourselves, quite another to try to make others unwitting accomplices to that deception.

      • Marianne Davis Jun 1, 2010 @ 18:10


        You are right, of course, no one should misrepresent the facts to the outside world. Family reunions are the best place for fables. The people who insist on fabricating history should be cornered and made to confront the facts. Still, there has to be a way to help the vast majority of believers in Black Confederates and other claptrap, who are more sinned against than sinners.

        For many, the Lost Cause memory has been so thoroughly conflated with a cosmic battle between the “Heritage” South and the arrogant, liberal North that the facts are not enough. There is evidence on local SCV websites that many of their readers reject historical fact because of the way it is presented. There is a palpable sense that many believe that academics want to discredit the believers as well as the beliefs.

        I am neither a historian, nor a diplomat. I believe that the desire to preserve and spread slavery was the single great cause of the Civil War. I believe that in the 18th century the Confederate Battle Flag stood for bondage and treason, and that it now represents unrepentant racism or the ill-considered choice of a 19 to 24 year old boy. But even I do not believe that all the people who talk about Black Confederates know that they are lying. That means that the case of history against memory has not been made.

  • James F. Epperson Jun 1, 2010 @ 6:41

    Kudos to Ken Noe for his response!

    • Ken Noe Jun 1, 2010 @ 11:14

      Thanks, but it was more frustration than anything deserving of praise. This thing stalks me like Death in The Seventh Seal, and I’ve always been bad at chess.

      • Kevin Levin Jun 1, 2010 @ 12:02


        The more you have a chance to address this head on the more likely it is that an individual will be directed to this site when searching the web.

  • Robert Moore Jun 1, 2010 @ 5:03

    “Misinformation abounds on sites organized by individual SCV chapters as well as private individuals. There is no quality assurance mechanism and a search engine’s ranking algorithm has nothing to do with veracity.”

    That’s a trend with different historical topics altogether. Between an indiscriminate set of publication houses (and those who have agendas), and the free space that is available on the Web, it’s not going to get any better. Sadly, this is the stuff that feeds the “instant consume and satisfy” need of the general public. Unless professional historians adapt to a new form of information delivery to better suit the larger audience on the Web, I personally see a huge battle for historians in combating bad history in the general consciousness. I don’t mean to stray too far from your post, but your comment struck a chord… and has a lot to do with an entire chapter in my most recent thesis.

    • Kevin Levin Jun 1, 2010 @ 6:02


      You are absolutely right. I think that a companion website can both point out the failings of some of these sites and provide readers with a framework for being able to judge online information. This is a transition that high school teachers desperately need to make as we move from printed to online sources. I am very interested in your thesis. You should consider sharing parts of it in a series of posts.

      • Robert Moore Jun 1, 2010 @ 10:26


        I may post some things about that sometime this summer. Actually, I should probably spend a little time enhancing two of the chapters for some academic journal (though I can’t quite figure out where the two potential pieces might fit).

        In a nutshell… I think the effort to write history for the Web (and, more importantly, reach the largest possible audience of “information consumers” on the Web) embodies an ability to cross disciplines, and, sadly, I don’t think most historians are willing to tinker too deeply in things like the art of writing for the Web, audience analysis, usability, and even eye-tracking (just to name a few). I think most of us realize that academic writing has limitations (mostly in that it is written for a rather small audience). By failing to reach a larger audience and failing to combat the enormous amount of bad history on the Web, in some ways, I think its somewhat like playing the fiddle while Rome burns. Good history is being eroded on a large scale… and usually by the preponderance of bad history that is found on the Web (not to mention the bad history found in print and other forms of media, usually being delivered with an agenda focused on other things than the history itself) and is easier to consume than academic history. While not the case all the time, the garbage history that is being served-up on the Web is often in near perfect portions… “chunked” or delivered in bite sizes that are more conveniently consumed by the average Web surfer who stops in, reads, and moves on within a short amount of time.

        Ultimately, this should be the starting point in awareness… understanding how to serve up good history that is in appealing proportions and written for the general consumer… but it’s not just about the history, and is probably more about the delivery.

        • Harry Jun 1, 2010 @ 12:46


          I dig where you’re coming from. Though I’m no historian, I find myself struggling with the potential – good and bad – of the web for whatever it is I’m trying to do. I suspect I could do a much better job if I understood how the web-suasage is, and more important could be, made. But I’ve heard REAL historians, lettered folks who work in the field – even ones who write some on the web – pooh pooh the notion that they need to do anything differently than they are already doing it, which is pretty much how they have “always” been doing it, insisting that it’s the only “real” way. They see no need to reach a broader audience, or to reach them in any ways other than those by which they themselves have been reached. Your reference to Nero is apt.

        • Kevin Levin Jun 1, 2010 @ 12:54

          Robert and Harry,

          I think there are changes in the field of digital history, but clearly the history of profession continues to struggle with acknowledging this sub-field as legitimate. I am convinced that the battle for hearts and minds will be won online rather than in print and professional historians have yet to take full advantage of the medium. You are right, Robert, that this extends beyond online publishing. I’ve seen a few segments of History’s America: A Story of Us and I can’t help but think that it’s little more than an extended commercial for Bank of America. In the end, it is indeed “more about the delivery.”

          • Robert Moore Jun 1, 2010 @ 13:32

            Kevin and Harry… and just think of the irony in this… historians know damn well the stories about how the technological advances were poo-poo’d in history, and eventually sped right on by. Extremely weird that they can’t see the same error in judgment in their own house.

            Consider this little exercise in dynamic theories in technology as applied to history… take a look at Website Magazine from time to time and give some thought to their articles on uses of technology in marketing, then think of how we could do it as active historians on the Web. I think some great strategies for both ride on the same theories.

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