Interviewed About Virginia Textbook Scandal

Yesterday I was interviewed by Patricia Gay, who is a reporter with the Weston Forum in Weston, Connecticut.  You might wonder why a Connecticut paper is so interested in this story.  Well, it turns out that Five Ponds Press is located in that town.  In fact, it turns out that author Joy Massoff is married to the publisher, Louis Scolnik.  Now that’s an interesting and disturbing turn.  We talked mainly about the issue related to the references of black Confederates, which was the catalyst for this story.  I am pleased to see that a large chunk of our discussion was included in the article.

Silver Lining

Although Ms. Masoff and Mr. Scolnik have come under considerable media and political scrutiny, Kevin Levin, a Civil War scholar and history teacher at a private high school in Charlottesville, Va., said there may be a silver lining to be gleaned from the debacle.

In a telephone interview with The Forum, he called mistakes in the textbook “mindboggling” and “disappointing.” But he also said the incident brought to light an important issue — the importance of teaching children how to judge information they get from the Internet.  “Ms. Masoff admitted she got her information about black Confederate soldiers from the Internet. If you search the terms ‘black’ and ‘Confederate’ online you will get Web sites put up by private individuals with no credentials,” he said.

Mr. Levin explained that most of those Web sites are written by “lost cause” Southerners who are still bitter about the South’s defeat in the Civil War. They hold on to a number of historically skewed tenets, including the belief that slavery was a benign institution and slaves were happy to serve their masters and volunteered to fight in the war, he said.

“Robert E. Lee had thousands of blacks with his army during Gettysburg. But they were performing services as impressed slaves and personal body servants. They were not soldiers. That distinction is a fundamental mistake,” he said.  In this electronic age, Mr. Levin said it is all too easy for kids to make the same mistake Ms. Masoff did, and assume all data found in a Google search is true.  “As teachers, we have a real opportunity here to teach students how to judge the information they get online,” he said.

Another positive thing, Mr. Levin said, is now when an Internet search is done for “black Confederate soldiers,” articles from the textbook ordeal will show up alongside ones written by the “lost cause” individuals.  “Before this incident, the issue of black Confederate soldiers was a preoccupation by a relatively small group. Now it has been introduced to a broader range of people,” he said.

14 comments… add one
  • Matt McKeon Jan 7, 2011 @ 12:52

    I finished a memoir by one of the few surviving Japanese officers about the Battle of Okinawa. He mentions several times “comfort women” mostly Korean, forced into the army to service the Japanese soldiers.

    I’m sure a chapter of the Imperial Army Veterans will soon annouce that not only was the Japanese army ethnically diverse, it pioneered the role of women in the military.

  • Matt McKeon Jan 7, 2011 @ 12:48

    Actually the Union army employed plenty of civilians and free blacks in noncombatant roles. And no, they didn’t consider them soldiers. There’s a wonderful photograph in Alexander Gardner’s “Photographic Sketchbook” entitled “What do I want, John Henry?” A Union officer is at his ease, holding out a cup while a young black man(John Henry) in a mix of army and civilian clothes holds up a jug to fuel the officer’s war effort. The black man is a camp servant of some sort, and not a soldier.

    If the photograph could have been taken in a Confederate camp. And today someone would be using it not only as proof of black Confederate soldiers, but that in the Confederacy, whites and blacks were so friendly they got hammered together.

  • Margaret D. Blough Jan 7, 2011 @ 9:48

    Kevin-I think, after finishing it, that Bruce Levine’s “Confederate Emancipation” is essential reading for anyone interested in the subject not just of the immediate events/debates of late 1864-65 regarding arming slaves but what lead up to them. Who was and wasn’t already considered to be a soldier and what that meant were of critical importance to everyone engaged in that debate (which, BTW, did not appear to include or attempt to include any actual blacks) while it was happening.

    • Kevin Levin Jan 7, 2011 @ 10:35

      I agree, Margaret. I also recommend Stephanie McCurry’s _Confederate Reckoning_. She does an excellent job of placing the broader impressment debate within the broader discussion of enlistment.

  • Cowboy Ted Jan 7, 2011 @ 7:46

    I’m glad to see Mr. Levin acknowledges blacks in the Confederate army – although they didn’t “serve”, they were forced. Fair enough, probably correct. But, if these blacks don’t qualify as soliders, then Union wagon drivers, stretcher bearers, cooks, and other rear echelon don’t either, right?

    In your recent post, you went to great extremes to say that the background of the author has nothing to do with the presentation of historical facts. Then why do you continue to paint people that disagree with you with stereotypcial names such as “lost causers” or “neoconfederates?” What name would you give yourself then?

    I look forward to your response.

    • Kevin Levin Jan 7, 2011 @ 8:00

      Of course, the difference is that those Union wagon drivers, stretcher bearers, and cooks, were in the army as soldiers. Either they volunteered or were drafted. We are talking about an official status and not necessarily a function. Blacks functioned as impressed laborers or slaves in the Confederate army. That’s the distinction.

      I tend to refer to the Lost Cause or Lost Cause inspired writers in the context of historiography. There are some exceptions to that rule, but I am not using it as an insult. Very rarely do I refer to Neo-Confederates. In fact, I recently wrote about why I stay away from the reference.

      • Cowboy Ted Jan 8, 2011 @ 8:19

        But if the blacks are on the muster rolls, why are they not legitimate?

        In the postwar, if they “voluntarily” apply for pensions, didn’t they consider themselves part of the army?

        • Kevin Levin Jan 8, 2011 @ 8:23

          The pensions were given to former slaves who performed different roles with the armies. This is not controversial nor difficult to understand: They may have been “part” of the army; however, they were not considered soldiers. These were not soldiers pensions.

        • Margaret D. Blough Jan 8, 2011 @ 22:27

          The issue is not what they considered themselves to be; the issue is what the Confederate civilian and miitary authorities considered them to be. The statutes on the impressment of slaves and even free blacks to provide support for the Confederate armies and other military functions are separate and distinction from the acts to conscript white men as soldiers.

          See: GENERAL ORDERS No. 32 (From the OR):
          Richmond, March 11, 1864.
          I. The act of Congress relative to the employment of free negroes and slaves in certain capacities and the instructions of the War Department relative to its execution are published for the information of those concerned:

          AN ACT to increase the efficiency of the Army by the employment of free negroes and slaves in certain capacities.
          Whereas, the efficiency of the Army is greatly diminished by the withdrawal from the ranks of able-bodied soldiers to act as teamsters, and in various other capacities in which free negroes and slaves might be advantageously employed: Therefore,
          The Congress of the Confederate States of America do enact, That all male free negroes and other free persons of color, not including those who are free under the treaty of Paris of eighteen hundred and three, or under the treaty with Spain of eighteen hundred and nineteen, resident in the Confederate States, between the ages of eighteen and fifty years, shall be held liable to perform such duties with the Army, or in connection with the military defenses of the country, in the way of work upon fortifications or in Government works for the production or preparation of material of war, or in military hospitals, as the Secretary of War or the commanding general of the Trans-Mississippi Department may, from time to time, prescribe, and while engaged in the performance of such duties shall receive rations and clothing and compensation at the rate of eleven dollars a month, under such rules and regulations as the said Secretary may establish: Provided, That the Secretary of War or the commanding general of the Trans-Mississippi Department, with the approval of the President, may exempt from the operations of this act such free negroes as the interests of the country may require should be exempted, or such as he may think proper to exempt, on grounds of justice, equity, or necessity.
          SEC. 2. That the Secretary of War is hereby authorized to employ for duties similar to those indicated in the preceding section of this act, as many male negro slaves, not to exceed twenty thousand, as in his judgment, the wants of the service may require, furnishing them, while so employed, with proper rations and clothing, under rules and regulations to be established by him, and paying to the owners of said slaves such wages as may be agreed upon with said owners for their use and service, and in the event of the loss of any slaves while so employed, by the act of the enemy, or by escape to the enemy, or by death inflicted by the enemy, or by disease contracted while in any service required of said slaves, then the owners of the same shall be entitled to receive the full value of such slaves, to be ascertained by agreement or by appraisement, under the law regulating impressments, to be paid under such rules and regulations as the Secretary of War may establish.
          SEC. 3. That when the Secretary of War shall be unable to procure the service of slaves in any military department in sufficient numbers for the necessities of the Department, upon the terms and conditions set forth in the preceding section, then he is hereby authorized to impress the services of as many male slaves, not to exceed twenty thousand, as may be required, from time to time, to discharge the duties indicated in the first section of this act, according to laws regulating the impressment of slaves in other cases: Provided, That slaves so impressed shall, while employed, receive the same rations and clothing, in kind and quantity, as slaves regularly hired from their owners; and, in the event of their loss, shall be paid for in the same manner and under the same rules established by the said impressment laws: Provided, That if the owner have but one male slave between the age of eighteen and fifty, he shall not be impressed against the will of said owner: Provided further, That free negroes shall be first impressed, and if there should be a deficiency, it shall be supplied by the impressment of slaves according to the foregoing provisions: Provided further, That in making the impressment, not more than one of every five male slaves between the ages of eighteen and forty-five shall be taken from any owner, care being taken to allow in each case a credit for all slaves who may have been already impressed under this act, and who are still in service, or have died or been lost while in service. And all impressments under this act shall be taken in equal ratio from all owners in the same locality, city, county or district.

          THOMAS S. BOCOCK,
          Speaker House of Representatives.
          R. M. T. HUNTER,
          President pro tem. of the Senate.
          Approved February 17, 1864.

          II. The Bureau of Conscription will direct the enrollment of all the persons described in the first section of the act aforesaid east of the Mississippi River who are not unfit for the service required from them, by reason of physical or mental incapacity or imbecility, and will assign them to the performance of the duties mentioned in the act, or similar duties in any of the military bureaus, or with troops in the field, as there may be any call for such service.
          III. Applications for an exemption on the grounds that the interests of the country require it, or because it is demanded by justice, equity, or necessity, will be made to the enrolling officer in writing, and will be dispose of by him according to the general directions contained in the regulations published in Orders, No. 26, 1864, under the “act to organize forces to serve during the war.”
          IV. For the execution of the sections in the foregoing act, relative to the employment and impressment of slaves, the provisions of Orders No. 138, of the 24th of October, 1863, will afford the requisite rules for the guidance of the military bureaus and commanding generals, with modifications hereafter mentioned. First. That slaves shall not be impressed when the services of free negroes can be obtained. Second. Slaves under the age of eighteen and above the age of fifty are exempt. Third. The hire for slaves impressed shall be according to the rates fixed by the appraisers under the act to regulate impressments. Fourth. The limitation as to the term for which slaves shall be impressed for service shall be for twelve months, instead of the term fixed by said orders, if the exigency shall require it.
          V. All impressments for service in the various military bureaus under this act will be by special order upon application to the War Department, disclosing the efforts that have been made to provide other labor specified in the act, the necessity for the impressment, and the plan proposed to secure it.
          VI. The general commanding the Trans-Mississippi Department will superintend the execution of the law for that department.
          By order:
          S. COOPER,
          Adjutant and Inspector General.

  • Larry Cebula Jan 5, 2011 @ 13:08

    These state elementary history textbooks are an extremely lucrative market and are typically written, researched and marketed with little or no input from professional historians. And they are screened and selected by classroom teachers with limited history instruction as well. I’ll bet you could pick up one for nearly any state and find terrible errors.

  • Bob Huddleston Jan 5, 2011 @ 12:57

    Five Pond’s website, is fascinating: it appears that Massov is a very prolific author on a variety of topics. I do wonder at the accuracy of the others. Note that the history series is “dedicated to providing colorful exciting affordable books”! And they have a science series — I do hope the research was conducted elsewhere than on the Internet! Perhaps you should write for examination copies!

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