Calling on James I. Robertson

Update: My request has been passed on to Dr. Robertson by the Virginia Sesquicentennial Commission. Update #2: Thanks to Tom Perry for providing the following link, which includes an interview with Robertson in a Virginia newspaper: The claim is rejected by most historians, including local history expert James Robertson. “It’s blatantly false.” Robertson is a distinguished alumni history professor at Virginia Tech, an author and was even appointed by President Kennedy to be the executive director of the U.S Civil War Centennial Commission in the 60’s. “It implies men who were in slavery would want to fight for the country that enslaved them, which really is illogical.”…. “This is not to say there were not thousands of blacks in the Confederate Army, but they were performing camp chores, hospital attendants, cooks,” said Robertson. “I spent eight years of my life putting together a 950 page biography of Jackson and I can tell you he did not have any black battalions, any black units serving under him.

The debate about black Confederate soldiers that was recently stirred up by a brief reference in a 4th grade Virginia history textbook shows no sign of letting up.  Editorials continue to be published and various interest groups have firmly dug in their heels.  The contours of this debate beautifully reflect the fault lines that continue to divide Virginians over how to commemorate the Civil War.  These fault lines will continue to flair up when emotionally-charged topics such as this one are introduced, and it is likely that our reliance on sound historical scholarship will be pushed further away.  This is one of those topics where everyone is an expert.

Few people doubt that the problems with this textbook arose as a result of the over reliance on online sources, which utilize little to no quality control methods.  This is something that I’ve pointed out over and over on this site.  Fortunately, our state’s colleges and universities include some of the most talented historians in the country.  One of them was responsible for the initial warning about this particular textbook reference.  Unfortunately, there is a large segment of our population that gives little weight to their findings even though these folks may be in the best position to offer the rest of us much needed guidance.  It is a sad commentary that historians such as Gary Gallagher, Peter Carmichael, Ken Noe, Joseph Glatthaar, and Robert Krick are overshadowed by the likes of Ann DeWitt, H.K. Edgerton, and G. Ashleigh Moody.

If there is one history professor whose reputation has survived intact it is Professor James I. Robertson of Virginia Tech.  Professor Robertson has taught at Tech for most of his career and is responsible for one of the largest and most popular survey courses on the Civil War.  He has built his scholarly reputation on books about Civil War soldiers, Stonewall Jackson, and the Stonewall Brigade.  In terms of his service to the public, Prof. Robertson served as the Executive Director of the Civil War Centennial and is currently a member of the Executive Committee of Virginia’s Civil War Sesquicentennial Committee.  He has taken the lead in highlighting the importance of education for this sesquicentennial commemoration.  Well, this is the ultimate teaching moment.

Virginians of all walks of life are familiar with Professor Robertson from the members of the SCV and UDC who have enjoyed his close friendship to listeners of National Public Radio, who tuned in on Friday mornings for his lively Civil War stories, to the countless students who sat in his survey course at Virginia Tech.  Professor Robertson has an opportunity to comment on what I believe to be an important subject in terms of its influence on how we remember the past, how we think about the craft of history, and how we educate our children.  This issue matters.

No one is better positioned to respond to the assertion that two battalions of black Confederates served under Stonewall Jackson.  Actually, Robertson’s position has already been made public by Professor Sheriff, who contacted him in the writing of her initial letter about the book.  His understanding of this particular topic should be made public.  However, let’s not stop there.  I encourage Professor Robertson to provide Virginians and other interested parties with an idea of where the scholarly community stands on the subject of black Confederates.  How should those with a sincere interest proceed in learning more about this subject?  What should we read?  I ask this as a concerned historian, educator, and adviser to the Virginia Sesquicentennial Commission.  Make no mistake, I am not endowing Professor Robertson with infallible knowledge of this subject.  He is one among many scholars, who can comment intelligently about this particular subject.  However, it goes without saying that his is a voice that will be heard for the reasons stated above.

Perhaps Professor Robertson could write an editorial for a major Virginia newspaper, which could also be made available on the Virginia Sesquicentennial Commission’s website.  Again, as an influential member of the Commission and as someone who has encouraged others to use this opportunity to educate this is not the time to stand on the sidelines.  There is way too much at stake.

13 comments… add one
  • John Maass Nov 5, 2010 @ 4:47

    Historian and author Veronica Davis has filed an injunction against Williamsburg-James City County Schools, the Virginia Department of Education and the book’s publisher, Five Ponds Press, for covering the offending passage in the Va textbook!!

    • Andy Hall Nov 5, 2010 @ 6:13

      Yes, Kevin’s posted about that here. I don’t really know about the “historian and author” designation. I’m not sure what she’s written, and she described her methodological approach as “when I research I don’t just sit behind papers and books and stuff. . . I go to the horse’s mouth.” That seems, in this case, to refer to oral tradition and a notation on a cemetery map that she alleges she saw years ago but that local officials are now conspiring to hide from her. So, we’ll see what she brings into the courtroom, though I doubt it will get that far. Whatever happens, it would appear that Professor Robertson will not be on her expert witness list.

    • Margaret D. Blough Nov 6, 2010 @ 21:36

      John-Actually, she filed a legal action asking for an injunction. Only a court can issue an injunction.

  • Nat Turners Son Nov 4, 2010 @ 6:44

    Dr. Robertson is as well respected in my book as Foote and Catton

    • Andy Hall Nov 4, 2010 @ 7:22

      Judging by the comments on the news story, Robertson’s credentials and career mean nothing to the my-granddaddy-fought-against-big-gubmint-tyranny types. The commitment to — need for — the notion of large numbers of African Americans enlisted as soldiers throughout the Confederacy comes from a much deeper place than a careful dissection and examination of the sources can effectively reach. It’s a case of a pre-chosen historical meme gone looking for evidence, not the other way around.

      • Paul Taylor Nov 4, 2010 @ 8:00

        “The commitment to — need for — the notion of large numbers of African Americans enlisted as soldiers throughout the Confederacy comes from a much deeper place than a careful dissection and examination of the sources can effectively reach. It’s a case of a pre-chosen historical meme gone looking for evidence, not the other way around.”

        This sentence from Andy succinctly sums up the entire debate. While I suppose it’s possible, and perhaps even statistically likely that a very small handful of light-skinned African-American men slipped through the cracks and voluntarily picked up a rifle for the Confederacy, the notion of thousands or hundreds forming authorized battalions under Stonewall’s command is almost comical.

        Kevin, you put forth a challenge not that long ago before taking a few days off. If I remember correctly, you offered something if anyone could provide a letter or diary entry written during the war by a white Confederate soldier that referenced blacks carrying arms within the army and being viewed as soldierly equals. Did anyone respond?

        • Margaret D. Blough Nov 4, 2010 @ 9:17

          If there were such “black confederates”, then the Confederate government’s refusal to treat capture Union soldiers who were black as POWs & thus include them in prisoner exchanges until near the very end of the war would make no sense.

          • Corey Meyer Nov 4, 2010 @ 12:02


            I also think that the treatment of blacks in the post war south goes a long way in disspelling the notion of black confederates as well. Had blacks been the faithful slaves as the lost cause mythology would have us believe, they were treated very poorly for their faithfulness and service.

            • John Hare May 23, 2016 @ 16:02

              There’ at least one letter from SGT John F. Sale written in late 1864 in which he argues that if recruitment of blacks will help end the war, the Confederacy should do it, offering reasonable rewards to those who enlist. He wrote this before Lee called for recruitment of black men to serve. I wish I could recall the source of a a statement that by early spring the troops had been recruited and were drilling in Richmond streets and parks. From this I think they were being home guards. They didn’t see combat, but the were preparing for it.

  • Tom Perry Nov 3, 2010 @ 13:22
    • Kevin Levin Nov 3, 2010 @ 13:28

      Thanks so much for the link. I still hope that Robertson takes the opportunity to write an editorial that can be circulated widely.

  • Tom Perry Nov 3, 2010 @ 12:56

    Bud spoke about this on Roanoke television several weeks ago and made it clear it was not a position that he believed was true and dismissed it.

    • Kevin Levin Nov 3, 2010 @ 13:00

      Thanks for the response, Tom. Was he referring specifically to the claim about Jackson’s command or the subject as a whole?

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