Jim Downs Comes to the Defense of John Stauffer

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.

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44 comments… add one
  • James F. Epperson Jan 26, 2015 @ 8:18

    Something that amazes me in this discussion is the apparent acceptance (by Stauffer and Downs) of a couple of artist’s renderings as evidence of the existence of black soldiers in gray, over and above the utter lack of serious and substantial documentary evidence.

  • TF Smith Jan 25, 2015 @ 19:57

    I wonder if Prof. Downs would accept that if there’s no documentary evidence that he teaches at Connecticut College, it is reasonable to presume he in fact, does not teach at Connecticut College?

    I mean, seriously, I have never seen any definition of the historical method that revolved around “absence of evidence is not evidence of absence.”


  • Andy Hall Jan 25, 2015 @ 7:20

    . . . you have to play fast and loose with the definition of “black” or the definition of “soldier.”

    The “black Confederate” narrative relies heavily on poorly-defined terms like “served” and other loose definitions.

  • AD Powell (@mischling2nd) Jan 24, 2015 @ 18:50

    In order to have “black” Confederate soldiers, you have to play fast and loose with the definition of “black” or the definition of “soldier.”



  • Emmanuel Dabney Jan 24, 2015 @ 16:32

    My family, free mulattos, were forced (their language and official Confederate government language) into different roles in the war. Two brothers spent part of the war as teamsters and all of the male children of my great,great, great grandmother spent the final months and weeks of the war digging earthworks.

    My great, great grand uncle Robert Dabney stated in the 1870s, “I had five brothers pressed into the Confederate service. I did not contribute to their support. I got them out as soon as I could. They were none of them soldiers.”

    My other great,great grand uncle, Benjamin Dabney testified in the 1870s about the work of him and his brothers being “forced” and that “They were all used as laborers + never as soldiers.”

    So at least these black people believed soldiers were not laborers and laborers were not soldiers. This sort of thing is also nicely covered from the perspective of Virginia, North Carolina, and the Confederate governments use of slave labor in Jamie Martinez’s Confederate Slave Impressment in the Upper South. Too bad these things were not consulted before launching on this misreading of the sources.

  • Glenn B Jan 24, 2015 @ 14:28

    I have largely (and purposely) kept my head down in this fight, but, as Brooks has pointed out in his most recent blog, I do have a book that directly engages in most of this. So, I’ll just lean on it to make my case, as well as repost an essay I wrote for the Civil War Monitor’s blog (based on a well-received paper I presented at a conference last spring).


  • Paul Taylor Jan 24, 2015 @ 7:36

    I read Professor Downs’ article several times over and was still shaking my head at the end, thinking that I had seriously misinterpreted something. I admit, this is the first time I have ever seen scholarly archives described as racist and oppressive.

    In any event, I inferred that the author says we need to consider the black viewpoint in many of the “Black Confederate” issues and that that perspective may not be found within the white-created archive.

    On the issue of “Black Confederates” however, it is precisely that white Confederate view that is paramount. I think all agree that it is most likely that black teamsters or body servants occasionally picked up a musket and fired it at Union troops as they followed their masters into battle.

    But the central debate is whether or not these white Confederates viewed their chattel as fellow “soldiers”? Hence, your long-standing request to be shown a wartime era document from a white Confederate that refers to any black serving within the army as a “soldier.” Thus, Professor Downs’ argument that you are “asking Stauffer to retrieve archival evidence from the 19th century that fits a 21st century definition of soldiers” is completely wrong. It seems to me that you are, in fact, seeking evidence that pertains to the 19th century definition of what constituted a soldier.

    • Brooks D. Simpson Jan 24, 2015 @ 13:53

      Among the amusing aspects of Downs’s article is that it implicitly privileges the observations of northern whites (especially artists working for Harper’s Weekly) over Confederate soldiers, who certainly should have known what was going on in their ranks. It also dismisses the discussions of Confederate leaders over black enlistment … you would think they would have brought up instances of previous service in the debate over black enlistment late in the war. Finally, in suggesting that we are looking in the wrong places for evidence just because the evidence isn’t there, Downs comes close to sounding like advocates of the black Confederate myth who say that those records were deliberately destroyed.

      • Pat Young Jan 24, 2015 @ 14:12

        Anyone who reads Pat Cleburne’s Jan. 1864 emancipation proposal has to be impressed with the scope of his arguments. The one argument he does not make is “We are already using black soldiers.”

        • Michael Lynch Jan 24, 2015 @ 15:44

          Maybe he didn’t know about the black Confederates because they were all deployed in the Muslim no-go zones.

  • Hugh Lawson Jan 24, 2015 @ 2:36

    The black-confederate proposal seems unlike a historical-scholarly question. It doesn’t seem like a thesis proposed for discussion with regard to evidence and logic, before scholarly bodies devoted to such forms of discussion. For those who embrace it, the black-confederate idea must be good for something. But what might that be?

    • Kevin Levin Jan 24, 2015 @ 2:44

      In the last week it has been discussed by John Stauffer and Jim Downs, two well-trained scholars. I suggest you take up your concerns with them rather than offering comments that distract from the point of this post. Thank you for your understanding.

    • Brooks D. Simpson Jan 24, 2015 @ 13:33

      Dr. Lawson can ask his question of Dr. Stauffer in the comments section to this link:


      Dr. Lawson can ask his question of Dr. Downs here:


      I look forward to seeing his questions appear.

      All too often historians avoid engaging in a discussion by asking why one should have the discussion. In some cases that conceals the fact that they themselves never did anything worthwhile when it came to scholarship. In other words, those who didn’t ask others why they do.

      • Kevin Levin Jan 24, 2015 @ 13:34

        Dr. Lawson is offering up nothing but distractions. Either engage in the issue at hand or set up your own blog and pontificate all you want.

      • Hugh Lawson Jan 25, 2015 @ 4:04

        When I first heard the reports that there were significant numbers of blacks in the rebel armies, it seemed that CSA-reverencers advanced it to defend the Confederacy’s reputation. So I dismissed it as an unsubstantiated rumor. That is still my opinion, after reading the two articles Dr Simpson suggested. Neither do they shed any light on why the matter attracts attention in this forum, which is what I was wondering about. Since Mr Levin considers my questions about this off-topic, I shall say no more about them here, out of respect for him.

  • Jimmy Dick Jan 23, 2015 @ 20:27

    The comments section of that article is interesting in its own right. Note how those that believe in the broad concept of black confederates offer no proof to support their ideas while Brooks really takes both Downs and Stauffer to task for their statements with no proof to back up their claims. I think you’ve done a wonderful job of picking apart this issue over the years and I really wish you would work on that book idea you had for this. I do realize that it really would end up on debunking the myths generated in the modern era and your research would be about exposing those myths. Had there actually been well documented cases the book would of course be wonderful, but like you’ve pointed out, where is the evidence?

    • Kevin Levin Jan 24, 2015 @ 4:54

      Well, according to Jim Downs I am not sufficiently prepared to approach the archives. 🙂

      • Jimmy Dick Jan 24, 2015 @ 11:44

        This somehow feels like academic territorial protection more than anything else. Stauffer and Downs are behaving worse than first year grad students convinced that they can’t be wrong on anything. Their failure to use facts in generating their interpretation is very appalling in that they are historians. They are not gaining any points in their favor on this matter.

        • Kevin Levin Jan 24, 2015 @ 11:49

          Jim Downs is an excellent historian. I have had nothing but positive things to say about Sick From Freedom. In this case, however, he is way out of his league. Why he chose to enter the fray with so little understanding of the controversy and the sources is beyond me.

          • Jimmy Dick Jan 24, 2015 @ 12:29

            Agreed. That is why I think this feels like a territorial dispute. Something is missing from this puzzle.

            • Kevin Levin Jan 24, 2015 @ 12:34

              Well, this is what Jim Downs posted on his Facebook page underneath his Huffington Post piece: I felt I had to say something — so much of the politics surrounding production of history that many of us were trained to see in good ole Fayerweather have fallen by the wayside.

              And there you have it. What I needed was an education from someone trained in “the politics surrounding [the] production of history.” I guess he told me. 🙂

              • M.D. Blough Jan 24, 2015 @ 12:49


                • Phil Ross Jan 24, 2015 @ 13:33

                  Refers to one of the buildings at Mr. Jefferson’s academical village at Charlottesville.

                  • Brooks Simpson Jan 25, 2015 @ 10:59

                    Actually, Jim Downs went to Columbia for his advanced degrees.

              • Brooks Simpson Jan 24, 2015 @ 13:27

                If Jim Downs wants to make this about Harvard arrogance, he’s welcome to it. After all, three people involved in this have Harvard ties. As for what they teach there, I hope what we’ve seen is not representative of the research skills imparted. The people I know well from Harvard know better.

                • Kevin Levin Jan 24, 2015 @ 13:32

                  I think Jim Downs is pretty clear in regard to his role in all of this. Jim hopes to impart knowledge pulled from his training as a professional historian. Apparently, I am unqualified to speak on this topic or I am but what I have to say is grounded in a flawed methodology. I don’t think this has much to do with an affiliation with Harvard.

                  Now, what I want to know is where is my friend from “Old Virginia” who is always pointing out the elitism of academics. Why hasn’t he come to my rescue? 🙂

    • M.D. Blough Jan 24, 2015 @ 6:32

      Jimmy, I agree. People like Downs and Stauffer either don’t bother to discover and/or don’t care that the Black Confederate myth had its origins and is still maintained, for a considerable part, by people who are desperate to deny the realities of slavery, especially as the cause of the Civil War.
      It doesn’t require dismissing, or even minimizing the role or the dignity of slaves. It requires recognizing the forms their resistance during the Civil War really took. It also requires that the people who really denied the dignity and humanity of slaves were the white men controlling the rebellion. They truly did not care WHAT the slaves and free blacks under their dominance wanted.

      • Jimmy Dick Jan 24, 2015 @ 7:48

        Let’s be honest, M.D. Those people prefer not to think about slavery at all. It is all part of their fantasy about the South. For them the South, Inc. was a wonderful, magical place where every known freedom was possible and no one complained about anything. Faithful darkies gladly worked the fields and performed manual labor for whites gratefully in return for all the benefits and creature comforts their blessed masters could bestow upon them. Thus when the South, Inc. was forced to secede from the Union after it had been taken over by evil people bent on destroying this WonderLand of Freedom enraged darkies went to war alongside those benevolent masters to repel the foreign mercenaries of that evil Hitler clone, Lincoln.

        Only by using the Internet was Lincoln able to prevent Henry the VIII from recognizing the Blessed Confederacy. At the same time, the Pope, Pontius Pilate, in his unending quest to squash freedom and God’s only true religion, Protestant Christianity, joined forces with Jews and Muslims to aid Lincoln. Many brave Confederates were sacrificed like the Aztecs used to do when they ripped out hearts, and two members of the Holy Trinity, St. Thomas Jackson the Stonewall and St. Jeb Stuart were murdered by the evil Yankee hordes.

        Finally, St. Bobby Lee (pause for a moment of reverence) had to surrender his army and the war ended at President Jefferson Davis entered prison and began his tribulations at the hands of his enemies until God delivered him from bondage and gave him the Holy Words to speak until the Second Coming of Christ and the South, Inc., “Deo Vindice!”

        I know, I left out the undead horde of Zombies and how Lincoln was a werewolf killed by John Wilkes Booth with a silver bullet.

        • M.D. Blough Jan 24, 2015 @ 9:28

          Jimmy, Yep, that’s Moonshine and Magnolias 2.0. This is the late 20th-21st century edition; the post-CW original version that was used through much of the 20th century stopped with the happy slaves (with the exception of a few of what they portrayed as simple souls deluded into abandoning this Eden by nasty, undercover serpents (abolitionists (all white)).

  • Forester Jan 23, 2015 @ 19:11

    Even if someone had evidence of Black Confederates, it doesn’t prove that they fought willingly. I was reading slave narratives in the ODU library last week, and some owners told their slaves wild tales about how horrible “Yankees” would be if they caught them. Lies and misinformation might have be enough to scare a slave or two into firing a gun.

    My gut tells me that when (or if) blacks fought for the Confederacy, they were still victims without any choice in the matter. Even the black troops that began drilling in Richmond six weeks before surrender — weren’t they just enlisting to gain their own freedom? “Fight this war, or stay a slave” is hardly a humanitarian choice.

    • Andy Hall Jan 24, 2015 @ 8:00

      I was reading slave narratives in the ODU library last week, and some owners told their slaves wild tales about how horrible “Yankees” would be if they caught them. Lies and misinformation might have be enough to scare a slave or two into firing a gun.

      Stauffer provides a quote from a fugitive slave about black troops at Manassas, but he omits the very next line (emphasis original):

      They were told that the people of the North designed to enslave them, sell such as they did not want, and skin and eat the remainder. He believed the slaves of the South would all take the side of the North if they understood that the North was friendly to them.

      Did Stauffer omit those sentences because he failed to check to the source was never saw them, or did he omit them because they fundamentally undermine the notions of slaves fighting willingly for the Confederacy?

      • Kevin Levin Jan 24, 2015 @ 8:28

        Hi Andy,

        Thanks for reminding me of this. I have no expectation that Stauffer will follow up with any type of explanation as to how he arrived at his conclusions or how he went about gathering his sources. Since it is such a sloppy piece of research I wouldn’t doubt that he came across one of the many versions of the Douglass source that fails to include the sentence in question. In other words, I have no reason to believe he went to the original source, which speaks to the ridiculous claim made by Downs, who believes that Stauffer somehow has succeeded in taking this discussion down a new avenue.

  • Hugh Lawson Jan 23, 2015 @ 18:04

    Why bother with the black-rebel issue? There must have been some persons in the rebel ranks who would be accounted black somewhere. The well-informed know that the secessionists wanted to protect slavery.

    How important is the black rebel issue, any way? Compared with, say, the thesis that the New Deal was a wrong turn in American history, and that it should be reversed? Compared with JFK assassination theory? Compared with the thesis that FDR put the fleet out at Pearl Harbor for bait, so he could get into the war?

    There has to be some existential quality to the concern about black rebels. What is this existential quality?

    • Kevin Levin Jan 23, 2015 @ 18:48

      I really have no idea how to address your question. You should steer clear of certain subjects if they don’t interest you.

      • Hugh Lawson Jan 24, 2015 @ 5:40

        Thanks for the reply, Kevin.

        Concerning the black rebel question, I’m curious why anybody takes it up. Maybe it seems a harmful myth that should be scotched. Maybe it’s a matter of idle curiosity. Sometimes a doctrine affronts loyalties, and motivates a critique of the offending idea.

        For the black-rebel-doctrine proponents, a provincial or sectional (almost sectarian) form of social resentment looks like a motive: a desire to poke a finger in the eye of a group’s “cultured despisers”, to borrow Schleiermacher’s phrase.

        So I have a ready-to-hand proposed motive for support for the black-rebels idea.

        • Kevin Levin Jan 24, 2015 @ 5:41

          Concerning the black rebel question, I’m curious why anybody takes it up.

          If you are curious than I suggest you inquire with the people who are focusing on it. I have offered my own explanation on this blog on more than one occasion. Again, let’s stick to the subject of this post.

    • Brooks Simpson Jan 23, 2015 @ 20:55

      Dr. Lawson, I suppose one could counter your inquiry by asking why a certain retired academic spent years and years on various usenet groups talking endlessly about “the South as other” while claiming as original insights perspectives that had been in circulation for some time.

      But that never stopped you. Perhaps you should take up blogging so that at least someone would endlessly discuss the topics that interest you.

      • Hugh Lawson Jan 24, 2015 @ 5:41

        Dear Dr Simpson,

        Thanks for the reply, and the suggestion.

  • Buck Buchanan Jan 23, 2015 @ 17:44

    When it comes to this entire “argument” I think….when you hear hooves behind you, think horses and not zebras.

    Can’t think the number of volunteering Blacks was above the double digit range through the entire war.

    • Kevin Levin Jan 23, 2015 @ 18:21

      Like I’ve said all along, the numbers are largely irrelevant. That saying, if you are going to make such a claim you should at least be able to offer a reasonable explanation.

  • Dudley Bokoski Jan 23, 2015 @ 14:48

    I’m probably thinking about this too simplistically, but the three to six thousand number sounds implausible. If there had been that many African-Americans in Confederate service would not at least a few significant portions of the number had come into military service together and served in substantial numbers within a single regiment? Because if you don’t accept that notion then you have to believe three to six thousand men came into numerous existing regiments sporadically and were integrated within these units. And also that there would be little or no comtemporary record of soldiers in those units commenting in letters home on what would have been a highly unusual event.

    Years ago I bought a complete set of the Official Records and have gotten through about three years worth of the war trying, for fun, to read about the events of the war chronologically. Don’t know about the last year of the war, but so far I haven’t seen anything in volume after volume of war records that would suggest a number as high as what is discussed here.

    • Kevin Levin Jan 23, 2015 @ 14:51

      I have always maintained that the numbers question is misplaced. We should be looking at how the war framed the master-slave relationship. The really disappointing point in the essay is Stauffer’s apparent agreement that there were two full black regiments, which he makes no attempt to confirm.

    • Woodrowfan Jan 24, 2015 @ 6:59

      and you’d think a few would have shown up in Union prison camps as POWs.

  • Jerry McKenzie Jan 23, 2015 @ 14:22

    So if that is case, why so much documentation of Black Union soldiers (I bump into these records all the time doing genealogy) and virtually nothing on Black Confederates (other than pensions for servants)?

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