Earl Ijames, Henry Louis Gates, and “Colored Confederates”

[Hat-tip to Patrick L. Lewis]

I have written extensively about Earl Ijames’s mishandling of evidence related to the presence of black southerners (free and enslaved) in Confederate armies, but it is truly disturbing to learn that a historian such as Henry L. Gates endorses his shoddy research.  You can find the following in Gates’s book, Lincoln on Race and Slavery:

pp.xxxviii-xxxix “The pioneering research of Earl Ijames reveals that some slaves bore arms, and some free Negroes in the South actually enlisted and fought in the Confederate Army, as Frederick Douglass as early as 1861 warned Lincoln they would do, in an attempt to persuade Lincoln to authorize the use of black men as soldiers.”

And the subsequent footnote, p.lxvi n13. “Earl L. Ijames, correspondence, November 17, 2008; … Ijames, the curator of the North Carolina Museum of History, says that, among others, the Fortieth Regiment of North Carolina Troops, Company D, included several free black men who enlisted voluntarily and fought with guns in combat against the North.  His book Colored Confederates is forthcoming.”

First, it is important to acknowledge that Ijames has done nothing that would count as serious research on this subject.  In 15 years of study he has not published a single peer-reviewed article and there is no evidence of a forthcoming book on the subject.  I suspect that Gates first made contact with Ijames during the filming of his recent PBS documentary “Looking for Lincoln.”  One episode includes a ceremony sponsored by the SCV honoring Weary Clyburn as a Confederate soldier, which I am unable to pin down.  Ijames spoke at this ceremony, though he has waffled on drawing any firm conclusions about Clyburn’s status.

Ijames is scheduled to give a talk this coming Wednesday [Aug. 18] at the North Carolina Museum of History in Raleigh, North Carolina.  It is unfortunate that a branch of the North Carolina Office of Archives and History, which is also Ijames’s employer, would allow him to speak on this subject.  No doubt, his talk will follow the same line as a recent presentation which was recorded and can be accessed here.  [Click here for an outline of this talk.]

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12 comments… add one
  • John Stoudt Aug 16, 2010 @ 18:55


    As an FYI, here is a link to a review essay written by Sean Wilentz in _The New Republic_ last year: http://www.tnr.com/article/books-and-arts/who-lincoln-was.

    Wilentz reviewed several Lincoln books, including volumes by Henry Louis Gates, John Stauffer, Michael Burlingame, and others. Wilentz describes Gates as a “literary historian,” but I am unfamiliar with Gates’ work.

    The link includes Gates’ response to Wilentz, followed by Wilentz’s response to his critics.

    This was a massive review essay, even apart from the responses — but it was an enjoyable read. Hope that this helps.

    • Kevin Levin Aug 17, 2010 @ 2:02

      Thanks for the link. I read the review last year.

  • Dr. Sisco Aug 16, 2010 @ 11:51

    Has anyone tried to contact Dr. Gates? I am afraid that he will “stick” with his argument without a serious challenge because he can. Although I admire his work on African American literature, “Skip” is not a historian.

    • Kevin Levin Aug 16, 2010 @ 11:53

      I have not made any attempt to contact Gates.

      • Marianne Davis Aug 16, 2010 @ 14:50

        While it is true that the bulk of his work, and much of his renown, has been in African and African-American studies, his undergraduate degree (from Yale, no less) is in history. I want to believe that he could be persuaded to take a disinterested second look at Ijames’ conclusion.

        • Kevin Levin Aug 16, 2010 @ 14:53

          I think we are splitting hairs here. Gates understands the research process regardless of his formal area of research. I agree with you Marianne that this is a clear lapse in judgment.

  • Marianne Davis Aug 15, 2010 @ 18:51

    I agree that it is disturbing to see Henry Louis Gates drawn into Earl Ijames’ sloppy and misleading work. It is also sad. Gates is the sort of public intellectual to whom we ought to be able to look for thoughtful discussion of issues like this. Instead, he has evidently used Ijames’ “research” to bolster a thinly constructed thesis of his own — that Douglass’ 1861 warning was prescient and free black men joined the CSA to pressure Lincoln into the creation of black units. He can do better than this. We can only hope the readers of this work will read it with more critical rigor than Dr Gates exercised.

  • Chris Meekins Aug 15, 2010 @ 11:10

    Alas, instead of that lunch program we could have commemorated Virginia Dare’s 423 birthday on Wednesday.

    • Kevin Levin Aug 15, 2010 @ 12:21

      Are you able to attend the talk?

      • Chris Meekins Aug 15, 2010 @ 12:27

        I am actually on vacation and at home finishing my honey do list. Besides, I actually like to eat my lunch during these things. :o)

        • Kevin Levin Aug 15, 2010 @ 12:32

          Enjoy your break, Chris.

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