It’s been a fascinating week as we’ve watched this story about a 4th Grade Virginia history textbook and a reference to black Confederates blossom into a national news event. Thanks to Professor Carol Sheriff of William and Mary for taking the initiative to expose the inaccuracies contained in Our Virginia: Past and Present. For now, I am going to give Professor Sheriff the last word from a recent interview she did with The Virginia Gazette:
The error in question is a matter of fact, not of opinion or interpretation.
There is no credible evidence that two battalions of African American soldiers fought under the command of Stonewall Jackson. After consulting with three of my William and Mary colleagues who also teach and research Civil War history, who also had never encountered any such evidence, I wrote to James I. Robertson, a Virginia Tech professor who is the foremost scholar of Stonewall Jackson, and asked him if he had ever seen any evidence to corroborate this point. He stated categorically that no such evidence existed. Prof. Robertson explained to me, “Had there been Confederate black units surely some officer in an official report would have mentioned it. Yet the 128 volumes of the mammoth Official Records [of the War of the Rebellion] are completely silent on the subject.” I also contacted Prof. Joseph Glatthaar, a UNC-Chapel Hill professor, who has written a highly claimed book called General Lee’s Army. He declared the claim “simply wrong.”….
There is not a historian in the world who can claim with certitude that her or his work is free from mistakes. From what I have learned from the story reported in the Post, what now concerns me most is the textbook author’s uncritical reliance on Internet sources, and the publisher’s lack of an adequate review process to catch such mistakes.
What has surprised me most is how my main points have been misrepresented, intentionally or unintentionally. To my knowledge, there is no evidence that would suggest a coordinated effort by state educational officials to rewrite history for the purpose of instilling in children pro-Confederate sympathies, or to confuse them deliberately. Furthermore, I am not denying the fact that African Americans took up arms for the Confederacy. They did—but in very small numbers and improvisationally, not as organized units; this compares strikingly to the more than 180,000 African Americans, many of them Virginians, who fought for the Union in organized regiments. Stonewall Jackson did not have two black battalions under his command. Those African Americans who fought with the Confederate army were relatively few, and they were generally not there of their own volition. Their existence, while noteworthy, does not in fact reveal anything new about why the North and the South went to war.
As we approach the war’s 150th anniversary, I sincerely hope that we can focus on understanding the past in the ways it actually unfolded rather than on how we wish it might have unfolded. There are elements of both sides of the story, Union as well as Confederate, that are deeply regrettable, and no doubt mythologies have grown up around both sides as well. It is the historian’s job to make certain that we get the history right, and where those mythologies appear, to scrutinize them in light of the historical record.