We can now add Jim Downs to the list of historians who has decided to wade into the debate about the existence of black Confederate soldiers. Rather than directly engage Stauffer’s claims, however, Downs offers a meta-analysis of my response. He begins by mis-characterizing my own view by suggesting that I believe there were no black Confederate soldiers. I don’t believe that I have ever made such a statement.
The crux of his argument comes down to the following:
The problem of Levin’s criticism lies in its formulation. He is asking Stauffer to retrieve archival evidence from the 19th century that fits a 21st century definition of soldiers. He is asking Stauffer to practice historical research that privileges white, Confederate record-keeping over the ways that black people observed, wrote, and remembered the war. He is asking Stauffer to play according to the rules in which traditional historiography, often the purveyors of epistemic violence, define evidence and engage in archival collecting.
This is simply inaccurate. In fact, anyone who has spent any time reading this blog or the few articles that I’ve published is aware that I am interested primarily in what the concept of the citizen-soldier meant to Americans in the 1860s. More to the point, I am not asking John Stauffer to play by any specific set of rules beyond offering a reasonable interpretation of the evidence that he chose to emphasize.
If Jim Downs believes that Stauffer has offered a reasonable interpretation of his preferred evidence than so be it. But rather than offer a reflection on how historians interrogate the archives (can’t believe I actually just said that.), I would prefer that Downs actually engage with the evidence and interpretation offered by Stauffer – an interpretation that includes a problematic reading of a well-known Douglass source. The rest of it is little more than a distraction. None of the lessons that Downs hopes to impart to his readers through a critique of my response are present in Stauffer’s essay.
Finally, Downs offers the following observation about Stauffer’s approach to this subject.
Levin wants Stauffer to generate a record from the Confederacy, but as a scholar trained in interdisciplinary methods, Stauffer smartly reaches for a range of other sources to support his claim: cultural memory, printed images, and other cultural ephemera.
Stauffer didn’t ‘smartly reach’ for anything. If Downs was at all familiar with the most popular sources in this ongoing controversy he would know that Stauffer did nothing more than ‘reach’ for what was handy. There was no research involved. In fact, it’s an incredibly lazy piece of work. You can find all of the sources within five minutes by doing a quick Google/Image search.
For the second time in two days I’ve been criticized for not acknowledging that John Stauffer is approaching this subject from a place not strictly bound by the rules of historical interpretation. I honestly don’t know what to say about this nor do I really have any interest in engaging in such a debate. John Stauffer decided to recycle a pretty bad talk that I heard him give back in 2011 and I offered some observations about specific points made.
Nothing that Downs has offered tells me much of anything about the veracity of the claims made by Stauffer or the specific claims in my response. I do think, however, that we learned quite a bit today about how Jim Downs approaches the archives.