Black Confederates on the Retreat?

I think it’s safe to say that all of us were disappointed by the news in the Washington Post today about the fourth grade textbook that includes a reference to thousands of slaves serving as soldiers in Confederate ranks.  A broader look at Virginia textbooks on the history of slavery may push us further down the road of disillusionment.  Consider Virginia: History, Government, Geography by Francis B. Simkins, Spotswood H. Jones, and Sidman P. Poole, which was used in Virginia schools through the late 1970s.  Here is an excerpt and accompanying image from the chapter on slavery:

A feeling of strong affection existed between masters and slaves in a majority of Virginia homes. . . The house servants became almost as much a part of the planter’s family circle as its white members. . . The Negroes were always present at family weddings. They were allowed to look on at dances and other entertainments . . . A strong tie existed between slave and master because each was dependent on the other. . . The slave system demanded that the master care for the slave in childhood, in sickness, and in old age. The regard that master and slaves had for each other made plantation life happy and prosperous.  Life among the Negroes of Virginia in slavery times was generally happy. The Negroes went about in a cheerful manner making a living for themselves and for those for whom they worked. . . But they were not worried by the furious arguments going on between Northerners and Southerners over what should be done with them. In fact, they paid little attention to these arguments.

That’s as bad as it gets, but today is a day to be optimistic about the future. [For those of you interested in the decision on the part of Virginia’s state legislature to rewrite history textbooks in response to the Civil Rights Movement, see Adam W. Dean’s recent essay in the VMHB.] It’s almost impossible to imagine the swift correction that we witnessed today in a prominent newspaper in response to the above text and image during its tenure in Virginia’s classrooms.  In fact, today was quite encouraging.

The Post article stuck to the crucial issue, which is the sloppiness of the research that went into the writing of the passage in question.  It would have been futile to simply skip this step and frame the issue around the SCV’s preferred interpretation of the Civil War, which downplays – if not ignores – the central role that slavery played in bringing about secession and the eventual outcome of the war.  Rather, the author highlighted the problem of relying exclusively on Online websites, which is a point that I’ve made here over and over again.  He went on and pointed out that respected scholars such as James McPherson, David Blight, and Ervin Jordan [No doubt, the SCV folks will go out of their way to ignore Jordan’s remarks.] give these wild claims absolutely no credit whatsoever. In other words, there is no evidence to support the claim that thousands served and that two black batallions fought under Jackson other than what can be found Online.  And if you don’t know how to judge these sources than you are going to fall into the same trap as textbook author, Joy Masoff.  I suspect that is why this article struck a nerve today.  We have a responsibility to provide our children with reliable information.

By the way, a guest blogger at Ta-Nehisi Coates’s site allows us to place the suspect reference into broader context:

Black and White, Blue and Gray

The war between the states was a war between peoples of all colors, on both sides of the fight. White men, and enslaved and free African Americans all those sides [sic]. Most American Indians did not take sides during the Civil War.

The Virginia Confederates

Like Robert E. Lee, most white Virginians supported the Confederate cause, and most Virginia men became confederate soldiers. But not all Virginian soldiers were white, and there were other ways to support the South without firing a gun.

Both free and enslaved African-Americans worked for the Petersburg railroads to keep the trains running during the War. The Confederacy relied on slave labor to raise crops for food for the army, as well as cooking, driving gun carts, building roads, and digging trenches. Thousands of Southern blacks fought in the Confederate ranks, including two black battalions under the command of Stonewall Jackson.

The text includes a photograph of Richard Poplar, and a quote from Charles Tinsely, without any attempt at providing the necessary context.

This book is a step back and, unfortunately, many Virginia teachers will present this material to their students as legitimate history.  However, I agree with Cynic that this vestige of the Lost Cause is fast becoming a minority view.  That’s to be expected given the shaky evidential grounds that it stands on as well as the dramatic political and social changes taking place in Virginia and other parts of the country.  As a historian I will always follow the evidence and in this case the verdict is crystal clear.

Searching for Black Confederates: The Civil War’s Most Persistent Myth

“Levin’s study is the first of its kind to blueprint and then debunk the mythology of enslaved African Americans who allegedly served voluntarily in behalf of the Confederacy.”–Journal of Southern History

Purchase your copy today!

8 comments… add one
  • EarthTone Oct 21, 2010 @ 15:14

    Black Confederates on the Retreat? It’s hard to say.

    We’ve seen a lot of these discussions coming out of Virginia lately, but Virginia is somewhat unique. It’s 20% black, but more important, it has a large population in the Northeastern part of the state that doesn’t have the kind of ties to the Old South that are true for other parts of the state. All of which means that, Virginia is a place where you can and will see push-back against government support for the Lost Cause mythology – in schools, or in holiday proclamations.

    But what about Deep South states like SC, MS, AL, TX, and LA? It wouldn’t surprise me that the Black Confederate myth is in full-force in those states.

    • Andy Hall Oct 21, 2010 @ 16:03

      But what about Deep South states like SC, MS, AL, TX, and LA?

      It is in Texas. Some of the most pernicious advocates for the myth are located here — not to mention the Konfederate Kids Kamp, or whatever they call it.

  • Dr. Sisco Oct 21, 2010 @ 13:02

    This is mind-boggling; hilarious and terribly sad at the same time. House servants treated almost as “family members”? Hell, most of them were family. As an African American who teaches black literature and culture, the picture alone makes me gag. I already have college students who think Frederick Douglass’ narratives are liberal propaganda, and that slavery was beneficial to Africans.

  • Corey Meyer Oct 20, 2010 @ 17:56
  • Bob Huddleston Oct 20, 2010 @ 15:37

    I wonder what other historical errors the book has.

  • Andy Hall Oct 20, 2010 @ 13:46

    One small correction — the piece at Coates’ place is by a guest blogger who goes by the name “Cynic.” He or she is one of the regular commenters there that always has something well-considered and insightful to contribute to the discussion.

    • Kevin Levin Oct 20, 2010 @ 13:52


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