An Open Letter To Ann DeWitt

By now you must feel quite embarrassed by your little interpretive mishap over at the Southern Heritage Preservation Group.  Just think about it, an entire unit of “Negro Cooks” in the Confederate army.  Well, on one level it is amusing, but on another it is incredibly disturbing and indicative of the work you have done at your website, Black Confederate Soldiers.  Your expressed goal has been from the beginning to educate and share what you believe are stories that have been ignored for far too long.  While that is a laudable goal your commentary/analysis clearly points to a lack of understanding surrounding the larger issues related to African Americans and the Confederacy and you clearly do not understand how to conduct primary source analysis.  Having access to is a wonderful thing, but without the proper background knowledge the rummaging through documents looking for what you already believe must be there is a walk on the slippery rocks.  Unfortunately, you are being encouraged by a group of people who applaud your every “discovery” but make no mistake, they are equally misinformed and ill-equipped to do the heavy lifting of interpretation.  How do I know this?  Because they would have continued to applaud your discovery of “Negro Cooks” had Andy Hall not come across it.  Your cheer leading squad does not constitute any type of peer review of your methods and interpretation and you desperately need this.

Yes, mistakes are part of the process of doing serious history, but this latest effort of yours reflects a clear trend in your work.  From Hall’s post:

A few weeks ago she claimed that the record of one African American, attached to a cavalry regiment, carried the notation, “has no home,” and went on to argue this showed special commitment to the Confederate cause: “with no home, [he] was not phycially [sic.] bound to the south. However, he stayed and served the Confederate States Army.” The actual notation, repeated again and again on cards throughout his CSR, was “has no horse.”

On another occasion, she quoted from a book on Camp Douglas, supposedly to show that a black servant held there had not been released as a former slave, but was held as a prisoner because the Federal authorities had determined that he was a bona fide soldier. This, she argued, was evidence that enslaved personal servants were deemed Confederate soldiers by the Union military. Unfortunately, the very next lines of the book she was quoting from verify that the prison camp did, after months of dragging their heels, determine the man was a slave, and released him on exactly those grounds by order of the Secretary of War.

It’s time to step back and assess what you are doing.

DeWitt’s Definition of a Body Servant

As an educator I ask that you temporarily take down your website.  Do some reading and educate yourself before promoting your site as educational.  A few weeks ago I used your site as a case study in a workshop for k-12 history teachers on how misinformation is spread over the Internet.  Your passion is real, but what you have managed to accomplish is a gross distortion of some very important history.  I would suggest taking the time to read two books.  The first is James McPherson’s Battle Cry of Freedom: The Civil War Era, which is still considered to be one of the best general histories of the war.  The second is Bruce Levine’s Confederate Emancipation: Southern Plans to Free and Arm Slaves during the Civil War, which is the best study of the debate over the enlisting of slaves in the Confederate army.  Last year your co-author, Kevin Weeks, mailed a copy of Entangled in Freedom to my school in response to some of my commentary.  Let me return the favor by offering to mail you complimentary copies of both books.  I have no doubt that you will benefit from a little reading.  Finally, I would suggest that you go back through Andy Hall’s posts that explore the very same documents that you have made available to the public.  There you will find a wonderful example of how a properly trained historian poses questions, probes sources, and arrives at conclusions that may even need revision.

It’s time to accept the fact that your work has been discredited.  Best of luck to you.

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13 comments… add one
  • Connie Chastain Aug 9, 2011 @ 11:17

    Ms. Chastain,

    Your 15 minutes are up on this site. I consider you to be an accessory to the mistakes made by Ms. DeWitt. You did nothing more than act as a cheerleader in response to her individual postings. Never once did you ask a critical question; more importantly, on more than one occasion you used her postings as an excuse to take jabs at Andy, me and others. And like I said in the post, if Andy had not caught the mistake you would have lapped it up as you do with everything else she has written. I suggest that you take the time to read the two books that I referenced in the post. What I would like to know is what will the officers of the SHPG do to properly vet future posts by Ms. DeWitt? This was not one mistake, but the most recent in a long list of interpretive blunders.

    Ms. DeWitt claims to be an expert on this subject so a critical evaluation of her “research” is warranted. I am not asking Ms. DeWitt to undergo anything that I have not in connection to my published work:


  • Michael Lynch Aug 9, 2011 @ 6:31

    I can’t help but wonder what use an army would have for a regiment composed entirely of cooks. Would they go into battle wielding ladles and forks, or would they have been assigned to particularly strenuous cooking duties (ornate wedding cakes, etc.), sort of like a special forces outfit?


    • Kevin Levin Aug 9, 2011 @ 6:36

      It’s one of the most bizarre claims that I’ve ever seen surrounding this subject. Keep in mind that DeWitt has already suggested that cooks were considered to be more like soldiers than servants. Well, what better than an entire regiment? It’s incredibly disturbing to think of the number of students and other history buffs who have visited her site.

    • Andy Hall Aug 9, 2011 @ 7:12

      Would they have been assigned to particularly strenuous cooking duties (ornate wedding cakes, etc.), sort of like a special forces outfit?

      Meal Team Six?

      • Kevin Levin Aug 9, 2011 @ 7:17

        It will be interesting to watch as the usual cast of characters attempts to explain this one away. SHPG is really the gift that keeps giving. The other day they were discussing who the interment camps are for after one of the members posted a YouTube video. Perhaps they are for all those people who deny that the Confederate army organized entire regiments of “Negro Cooks.” Watch out, Andy.

        • Andy Hall Aug 9, 2011 @ 7:26

          Kidding aside, one needs to keep in mind that this whole “regiment of cooks” foolishness is based on a fabricated quotation from the original document. Whether that was intentional, or the researcher simply doesn’t understand what it means to put something in quotation marks, I cannot say.

          • Kevin Levin Aug 9, 2011 @ 7:32

            You are absolutely right. Either way it doesn’t reflect positively on her ability to do the most basic interpretive task. I really do hope that she takes the site down and spends some time to reassess her overall project.

  • Barbara Gannon Aug 9, 2011 @ 6:09

    We need to get used to this type of evidence. I guarantee that there is tons of evidence that black Southerners were with the CSA in some capacity. Quartermasters must document payments to owners for slaves that were hired by the Army; adjutants must account for servants with the Army in for no other reason than for rations.

    • Kevin Levin Aug 9, 2011 @ 6:21

      You are absolutely right, Barbara. If I remember correctly, Jaime Martinez is currently working on a study of impressed slaves so I suspect that she is knee deep in these sources. The evidence is out there it just needs to be properly interpreted.

      • Margaret D. Blough Aug 9, 2011 @ 8:34

        There’s a great deal on a simple search of the OR (thank goodness for Guild Press’s OR on CD-ROM) on impressment, not only the statutes but the response from slaveowners which was quite often less than enthusiastic. It was completely and totally separate from conscription of soldiers. A typical one was this;

        >>Act of the Legislature of Mississippi.
        AN ACT to authorize the impressment of slaves and other personal property for military purposes.
        SECTION 1. Be it enacted by the Legislature of the State of Mississippi, That to provide for the public safety by aiding the military forces of this State and of the Confederate States engaged in defending the same to repel invasion and repress insurrection, the Governor of this State be, and he is hereby, invested with full power to impress able-bodied male slaves between the ages of eighteen and fifty years, or so many thereof as he may deem necessary, or as may be required by the military necessities or exigencies of the State, or as may be called for or required by the military commander of the State or Confederate forces therein, with the use of tools and implements, wagons, teams, and harness which may be necessary to render the labor of the slaves impressed effective; also subsistence for the same.
        * * * * * * * * * *
        SEC. 2. Be it further enacted, That the owners of all slaves impressed into the military service under the foregoing section shall be entitled to the same pay, rations, clothing, or commutation therefor for each of them as privates in the military service of this State, the said pay to be made monthly in advance by warrant of the State treasury upon the requisition of the Governor to the auditor, founded upon the return by the party making the impressment; but if the owner or owners of such slaves as impressed shall refuse to receive such compensation, then the party making the impressment shall act as arbitrator in behalf of the State, and the owner shall select a disinterested party to act as arbitrator in his behalf, and they to select an umpire in case of disagreement, who shall proceed to assess the monthly value of the service of the slave or slaves so impressed, and the award shall be final.
        * * * * * * * * * *
        SEC. 11. Be it further enacted, That the Governor shall prescribe rules and regulations which shall be observed by all military commanders and other persons having charge of slaves hereby impressed, for the employment of suitable overseers or managers for the same, and also for the necessary care, protection, health, medical treatment, and return of said slaves.
        SEC. 12. Be it further enacted, That if any slave impressed under this act shall die or become permanently disabled by reason of neglect or want of proper attention or care on the part of any of the agents or officers of the government of the State or the Confederate States, or shall be killed, disabled, or taken by the enemy, the owner of such slave shall be entitled to be paid all damages sustained thereby out of the State treasury, and it shall be the duty of the Governor, on application of the owner, agent, overseer, manager, or person having possession of such slave, to appoint one suitable person as arbitrator on behalf of the State, and such owner, agent, overseer, manager, or other person shall appoint an arbitrator on the part of such owner, who shall proceed under oath to ascertain the value of such slave or other damage sustained by such owner, with power to appoint an umpire in case of disagreement, and the award of the majority of them, made in writing, shall be filed in the auditor’s office, and the auditor shall issue his warrant for the amount of such award whenever the Legislature shall have made an appropriation for that purpose.
        SEC. 13. Be it further enacted, That this act take effect and be in force from and after its passage, and continue in force for and during the continuance of the present war.
        Approved January 3, 1863.

        • Kevin Levin Aug 9, 2011 @ 8:38

          Hi Margaret,

          Thanks for the comment and OR reference.

          To say that their response was “less than enthusiastic” is an understatement. 🙂 They argued that the Confederate government’s impressment policy was a direct violation of their property rights. They viewed it as evidence of a government that had overstepped its proper boundaries. The major problem with the policy that comes through on so many pieces of correspondence between slaveowners and the government is that the former were worried that their slaves would run off, which they often did.

      • Elizabeth Laney Aug 13, 2011 @ 9:46

        Is there anyway to get in touch with Ms. Martinez? I have some sources on impressment in Charleston and on a SC plantation that she might be interested in.

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