PBS’s Black Confederate Problem

Andrew and Silas Chandler

Andrew and Silas Chandler

Update: Here is another clip in which Ms. Berry shares that thousands of black men fought as soldiers with the Confederate army. The full segment can now be viewed (begin at 10:30 mark), which does a better job of handling the history of James and Charles Dearman.

We all remember the debacle that took place on The Antiques Roadshow back in 2010 when appraiser Wes Cowan attempted to interpret the famous tintype of Silas and Andrew Chandler. Thankfully, PBS corrected the problem a few years later on an episode of History Detectives.

Unfortunately, it looks like PBS has once again found a way to butcher the history of African Americans and the Confederacy in their new series, Genealogy Roadshow. In this short video Kenyatta D. Berry suggests that “many African Americans were forced into fighting for the Confederate army.” This certainly would have been news to actual Confederate soldiers and civilian leaders.

According to Berry, no one knows for sure but somewhere between 3,000 and 10,000 were forced to ‘serve’ in the Confederate army “among hundreds of thousands of white Confederate soldiers.” This statement perpetuates the myth that whites and slaves fought in integrated units as opposed to the segregated Union regiments. Berry draws a clear distinction between men who fought in the army and tens of thousands of slaves who performed various supportive roles.

I have little doubt that Berry is referencing the argument made by John Stauffer in a fundamentally flawed piece that appeared last year in The Root. Needless to say, this is incredibly unfortunate. This is what happens when you allow an antiques appraiser and genealogist to interpret a subject that deserves a historian familiar with the basic facts concerning Confederate military policy and the broader subject of slavery during the Civil War.

I guess the only upside is that this kind of nonsense keeps me moving toward completing my manuscript on camp slaves and the myth of the black Confederate soldier.

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30 comments… add one
  • Nathan Towne Jun 2, 2016 @ 17:07

    The problem is that anyone who knows anything whatsoever about the subject matter knows that this narrative of tens of thousands of black Confederates is just a political ploy. I don’t understand the point in fighting with people who have no interest at all in the historical record and couldn’t be bothered by anything that doesn’t satisfy their narrative. What is the object in fighting that?

    • Kevin Levin Jun 2, 2016 @ 17:08

      Who is fighting?

      • Nathan Towne Jun 2, 2016 @ 17:20

        I only meant fighting as in contesting.

        • Kevin Levin Jun 2, 2016 @ 17:22

          Keep in mind that I am not doing anything that I haven’t done for years now in connection with this particular subject.

          • Nathan Towne Jun 2, 2016 @ 17:48

            I understand and there is definitely a place for scholarly work on the subject. The tenor of these posts has a tendency to garner a rise out of the typical crowd though and we both know where that goes.

          • Nathan Towne Jun 3, 2016 @ 4:24

            If I may, I will say that I commend your patience on this issue. I don’t want you to think that I am attacking you or anything that you have written here. That was not my intention at all. I was just wondering why it is important to contest a narrative so frequently that doesn’t even attempt to ground itself in the historical record. Just a question.

            • Kevin Levin Jun 3, 2016 @ 5:16

              I see it as part of my role as a public historian.

              • TFSmith Jun 4, 2016 @ 14:19

                And good for you for doing so; along with speaking truth to power, doing the same to ignorance is the foundation of scholarship and citizenship.


  • Forester Jun 2, 2016 @ 8:04

    You’re being too charitable, Kevin. Being a genealogist does NOT excuse such a laughable error. If anything, a genealogist should know better than the average person.

    Genealogy research is what led me to that pension record that correctly labels my ancestor’s slave as a personal servant, not Confederate soldier. How many black genealogies has this lady ever traced back to one of those “thousands” of black Confederates? Of course the answer is none, because there weren’t any. Berry should know better. There is no excuse.

    • Kevin Levin Jun 2, 2016 @ 8:26

      To be fair Berry does correctly interpret the guest’s ancestor as an impressed slave. The problem is the reference to thousands of slaves who “fought” as soldiers for the Confederacy that is contained in the segment as well as the short video that accompanies it.

  • Shoshana Bee Jun 2, 2016 @ 0:21

    ‘I guess the only upside is that this kind of nonsense keeps me moving toward completing my manuscript on camp slaves and the myth of the black Confederate soldier.”

    I know that there are amongst us people who were raised with the Lost Cause as thee CW narrative, yet, something they read, heard, learned made them depart from the ranks of ‘causers’. In some families, the departure was as radical as if one walked away from a cult. I always wonder: What was the defining moment for those people? Perhaps they read a book at just the right time and place in their lives and it changed how they saw everything. I like to think that another day is coming when someone will pick up your book, Mr. Levin, and abandon yet another myth.

    • Ray H. Jun 2, 2016 @ 8:59

      Great post. Count me as one of the recent converts. Growing up and still living in north Louisiana, I am literally surrounded by Lost Cause’ers. Heck, there are two confederate flags flying within a 1/4 mile from my house in my neighborhood. My high school mascot was “the rebels” and they play Dixie still after scoring a touchdown. You want to see an awkward moment in the stands when this gets played? Sheesh.

      I think a large segment of the south doesn’t want to acknowledge their ancestors truly engaged in shameful behavior, to whatever degree you want to talk about. The Lost Cause narrative helps ease this worry.

      I found this blog while digging for more information on “the free state of Jones” movie/story. Which in turn led me to dig into other of blog postings here, and a different way of thinking. I’ve had this same conversation I’m having now with you with some co workers and friends this past week, and I’m happy to say they accept my comments/suggestions about this issue way better than I thought it may go over. The Lost Cause way of thinking has very deep roots in the south….

      If you would have asked me 5 years ago the reason for the civil war? Its a very different answer than today.

      • Kevin Levin Jun 2, 2016 @ 9:03

        Hi Ray,

        Nice to know you found your way here. This blog goes back 10 years so there should be plenty to keep you occupied. 🙂

      • Shoshana Bee Jun 2, 2016 @ 16:37

        I learned a new word recently, Ray, and I think it fits: Huzzah! There is nothing more empowered than a man who has sought out the truth.

  • Joe Overstreet Jun 1, 2016 @ 10:02

    Why is it you can;t let it alone? They did not share your PC BS. They look proud to be in the service of their country and if you would just accept they were just as proud as Black Soldiers that fought in the Revolutionary War, fighting for their Country. Please, a Southroner fighting for his Country should be respected and not all these “Silly” modern excuses you all stack on to justify your blind PC notions. Frankly, you make me want to puch

    • Kevin Levin Jun 1, 2016 @ 10:09

      I think you mean, “puke”. Thanks for chiming in, Joe.

  • Rblee22468 Jun 1, 2016 @ 7:12

    Stone Mountain Park is in the planning stages of developing a museum dedicated to the role of blacks in the Civil War. They are looking for experts. You should contact them, if they haven’t contacted you already.


    “The ambitious King idea was quietly scrapped in favor of the more tenable museum component, which would be a permanent museum exhibit and would tell the story of the black role in the Civil War.”

    ““We are still in the first phase of the project,” Stephens said. “We are looking at similar efforts elsewhere, identifying researches and scholars who have already done some of this legwork”

    • Andy Hall Jun 1, 2016 @ 7:44

      I don’t think anything can really be done to “fix” Stone Mountain. Putting an MLK museum or memorial on top, while well-intended, reeks of desperation and false “balance.” It’s like putting a flower pot on top of a septic tank — you’re not really fooling anybody.

      A museum dedicated to African Americans’ role during the Civil War would be a welcome addition anywhere, especially in the South, but putting it at Stone Mountain Park is almost as contrived as the earlier proposal. The museum’s location and content should be driven on its own merits, not as a cynical means of countering the message and meaning that Stone Mountain has had for this last century, and continues to have for some right down to the present.

      • Rblee22468 Jun 1, 2016 @ 7:57

        I definitely agree with your sentiment, but if they are going to build the museum and create the exhibit anyway, I definitely think it is important that they get the opinions of people knowledgeable on the subject and who will approach it from a strictly factual point of view.

        I’m also of the opinion that it’s valuable to challenge people on these types of things. I sent several emails in the wake of the recent William Mack Lee debacle. Of course, I only received one response which was from the author, and it was pretty much what I would characterize as dismissive.

  • David Kent Jun 1, 2016 @ 6:11

    I will. Thank you. My wife and I watch that show regularly, but I must have missed that episode.

  • David Kent Jun 1, 2016 @ 5:51

    Is there a place where you can get Mr. Stauffer’s reference data without reading his book? If there’s a roster of a black confederate anything, I’d sure like to see it. I don’t believe it exists.

    • Kevin Levin Jun 1, 2016 @ 5:55

      Other than the piece in The Root, John Stauffer has not published anything on the subject. All of the evidence he cites in that essay is easy to find. His interpretation for much of it adds nothing new and in places he makes serious interpretive errors. See my response linked to in the post.

  • bob carey Jun 1, 2016 @ 4:24

    At the risk of sounding like an intellectual snob I think the problem here is that PBS has credibility among the more sophisticated people of our society. This mistake on the show will allow the “heritage correctness” types (I’m borrowing this term from Dr. Simpson) to point toward PBS as verifying their propaganda.

    • Kevin Levin Jun 1, 2016 @ 5:23

      Not just PBS. I can’t tell you how many times I have seen John Stauffer’s essay cited on a Confederate heritage website. It’s one of the few examples where they embrace Harvard scholars. 🙂

  • Will Hickox May 31, 2016 @ 19:55

    A notice in the Richmond Enquirer on March 23, 1865, about “the first battalion of colored troops in the Confederacy,” describes thousands of Richmonders flocking to “catch a glimpse” of them–something it’s doubtful they would have done if black Confederates were common.


    • David Kent Jun 1, 2016 @ 6:48

      If that truly happened, I’ll bet you they didn’t have any ammunition! You’d have to think that the people were wondering which way they’d point their rifles when they did get it. The whole idea of arming slaves is ridiculous.

  • Margaret D. Blough May 31, 2016 @ 19:19

    Is it possible that he doesn’t understand the difference between conscription (the draft) into the army as soldiers and impressment of slaves and free/freed blacks into various support roles for the military? The Confederacy certainly understood the difference. They were completely separate pieces of legislation/procedure. I hate to say it but impressment of slaves wasn’t much, if at all, different than impressment of horses/cattle/supplies. I find it fascinating when people trying to advance the idea of “black confederates” accuse those who show that this simply isn’t true of “presentism” when it is, quite often, they who are guilty of it. They may argue for a broad definition of soldier, but whites, particularly southern whites, were very specific, and narrow, in their definition of soldier as the reaction of W.H.T. Walker to Cleburne’s proposal and Howell Cobb to Jefferson Davis’ last-minute proposal showed.

  • Kevin Dally May 31, 2016 @ 18:30

    You write it, I’ll read it!

    • Kevin Levin May 31, 2016 @ 18:32

      Thanks. It’s still a ways away, but I am hoping to make a big announcement early next month.

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