Bryant Gumbel woke up today believing that his great-grandfather briefly volunteered as a soldier in the Confederate army. Since the airing of Finding Your Roots on Tuesday evening tens of thousands of Americans now believe that the Confederate government recruited black soldiers into the army as early as the first two years of the war.
No one denies that mistakes will be made when doing historical research, but this is a different kind of mistake altogether. Americans are once again divided over the legacy of the Civil War and how it is remembered in public spaces throughout much of the former Confederacy. The staff should have been aware of this and taken extra steps to ensure that their research is sound.
Henry Louis Gates, PBS, and the entire research staff at Finding Your Roots had a opportunity to challenge one of the most pernicious myths about the Civil War and the Confederacy specifically. Other than passage of legislation in the final weeks of the war the Confederate government and military never actively recruited black men into the army. In fact, it specifically denied them service on multiple occasions through public statements and dismissing those individuals whose racial identity was discovered once in the ranks.
Think about the extent to which African American history has been distorted and manipulated. The black Confederate myth is nothing more than an attempt to re-cast the Confederacy as an experiment in progressive race relations. It is intended to deny that the Confederacy was fighting to establish a slave holding republic built on white supremacy. Its goal is to absolve the Confederacy of everything we now know and publicly recognize about its identity.
The entire team at Finding Your Roots now sits next to the distortion machine of the United Daughters of the Confederacy, Sons of Confederate Veterans and any other group that has intentionally manipulated this history for their own purposes. But this is actually much worse because this show gains its legitimacy, in large part, from Gates’s association with Harvard University. He is a professor of African and African American Studies and the director of the university’s Hutchins Center.
PBS’s audience places its faith in Gates that the history he is presenting is accurate and not simply driven by a desire to shock his guests and viewing public with new insights that will pull the rug out from under your feet. What some people view as a small mistake is actually a serious betrayal of trust with the general public and a violation of an ethical contract that every public historian/intellectual signs when stepping into the wider world from the confines of their college or university.
But the most galling ethical violation is the one with their guests, who have volunteered to place themselves into a potentially vulnerable position in front of the entire world. It was painful to watch Gates ask Bryant Gumbel more than once how he felt about having a Confederate ancestor in his family tree. Indeed, how did he feel and how does he (along with the rest of his family) feel today about what must be the most personal historical narrative that one can possess?
Regardless of whether Finding Your Roots reaches out to the Gumbel family the damage has been done. We can only hope that the show’s staff takes a long hard look not simply at how they conduct basic historical research, but about the relationship that they occupy with their guests and their viewing public.
Perhaps it’s professional arrogance on my part, but it’s worth pointing out that Henry Louis Gates is not a historian; all three of his degrees, from Yale and Cambridge, are in English literature.
Others have pointed this out, but I don’t think it helps much. What matters is that his statements are evaluated for their historical content.
My memory of this episode is that Gumbel pushed back, saying something like, “he had a gun to his head”, or some such, implying that this enlistment with the Confederates was coerced. Which indeed seemed to be the case when this black ancestor later joined the Union side as soon as the war was over and become some sort of Union military policeman. Gumbel then let out a huge “AHA!”. Really, you are making a mountain out of a molehill. I saw that episode and understood it in a completely different way – Gumbel did too, you are being one of these uptight pointy headed intellectuals so full of your precious “knowledge” that you are totally hallucinating something in that episode that did not happen. Gumbel was fully engaged with Gates in this story of his ancestor and never once believed that his ancestor willingly joined the Confederates. Gumbel needs no apology. You should apologize for posting this idiotic webpage.
Thanks for taking the time to comment. Happy Holidays.
Don’t forget that Gates (or his producers) altered a primary source document in a segment with Anderson Cooper, rearranging the content on the page, apparently for dramatic effect. They didn’t alter the meaning per se, but it’s intellectually dishonest nonetheless.
I always enjoy soliciting an opinion about these hot button Civil War related issues from my completely disinterested, but extremely intelligent assistant. His observation was that Gates was attempting to suck us all into a “page turner moment” where there was the pregnant pause when we/Gumbel went from the *gasp^ moment of betrayal (making it sound as bad as possible “fought for the Confederacy”) to the sigh-of-relief moment of “the rest of the story” when the individual deserts and join the Union. Poetic license for the effect of drama, is akin to selling one’s soul when it comes to compromising the facts. It is a tricky thing when trying to jazz up the story for the sake of ratings, as the probable unintended consequences are now playing out.
“pubic statements” fix your typo on this blog I stopped reading after that… BYE!
Thanks. Happens to the best of us. Hope you come back. 🙂
There is no disservice to scholarship, only “YOUR” scholarship!
Thanks for the comment, but I am not sure what this means.
More on Gates and what passes for history:
The author was long considered a pioneer of African-American women’s literature. Her novel was rediscovered by Henry Louis Gates, Jr. and served as an inspiration for him to compile the 40-volume Schomburg Library of Nineteenth-Century Black Women Writers in 1988
Gates is not a historian; he only passes as one.
A graduate student discovers that a 19th-century novelist who has been hailed as an early black female writer [by Henry Louis Gates, Jr.] was actually white.
I suspect that the reference to CSA is intended to contrast it with the other Wikipedia entry for the USA. It is misleading.
The CSA unit was the inaugural unit, formed by the free Black men of New Orleans. The second one was formed after New Orleans fell to the Union, comprising of some of the people that were in the old CSA unit.
You don’t seem to understand that the Native Guard was a never connected to the army of the “CSA.”
I am a bit confused by this post as to what exactly happened as I do not follow the show at all. The impression that I get from this post is that Mr. Gumbel’s ancestor was identified as having served in the Louisiana Native Guard and that Mr. Gates informed him that he “fought for the Confederacy.” If so, I would entirely agree with the thrust of your post as that, by itself, is really a very poor explanation of what happened.
I would also note that the oldest verified person in history, a woman named Jeanne Calmer, died at 122 years of age, so I will just say that I have my doubts as to the veracity of the account provided by the user above.
Perhaps you should watch the episode, which is now available at their website.
A’s a 14 or 15 yr old I had the pleasure of meeting briefly with Sylvester Magee, a former slave. This was in the early 1960’s at the V.A. hospital in Jackson, Mississippi. He had been granted veteran status by the V.A. because of his service in, I believe, the confederate army. He lived to be 127.
He likely received a pension from Virginia for functioning as a body servant or some other support capacity. Virginia actually had a more expansive program than the other four states that offered former slaves pensions, but even here they were distinct from the pensions received by soldiers. Thanks for the comment.
Magee was somewhat famous at the time, although corroboration of either his age or military service is lacking.
John Stauffer is a professor of English and African and African-American studies, and former chair of American studies, at Harvard University. He is the prize-winning author or editor of 14 books, including The Black Hearts of Men: Radical Abolitionists and the Transformation of Race; Giants: The Parallel Lives of Frederick Douglass and Abraham Lincoln; and The Battle Hymn of the Republic: A Biography of the Song That Marches On (with Benjamin Soskis).
He writes that there were black troops in gray, mostly at the beginning of the war.
Yes, I am aware of this article. You can read my response to it and judge for yourself.
We should also point out Dr. Gates’ degrees are in English literature, not history. While a number of good historians are not academically trained in history, much of Dr. Gates’ cachet is due to his being a Ph.D. at Harvard and folks assume his training is in history. In my opinion, this is shaping up to be a classic case of the appeal to authority fallacy. Gates is given a bully pulpit based on his academic cachet, but the pulpit is not in the field for which he is trained.
I am a little uncomfortable with criticizing anyone for researching outside of his degree area. It is a limiting view of a degree as an end to training in one field, not the beginning of work in many. The traits acquired while pursuing an English Literature degree is a great foundation for cross discipline work. I am not sure assigning a fallacy to those who do so is helpful. Full disclosure: I am an English major who wrote a historical dissertation. 😉
He gets credibility because of his Harvard professor pedigree. But his training is in English Lit, so giving him automatic credibility in history, a field outside his training, is a textbook example of the appeal to authority fallacy.
I do not know how seriously confederates categorized people but I’ll certainly take your word for it. And I won’t deny, based upon your fervent testimony, that it was a serious and important distinction and you are enlightening your audience to this fact. The Webster’s Ninth New Collegiate Dictionary on my desk defines soldier as 1 a : one engaged in military service and esp. in the army b : an enlisted man or woman c: a skilled warrior 2 : a militant leader, follower, or worker 3 a : one of a caste of wingless sterile termites usu. differing from workers in larger size and head and long jaws. b : one of a type of worker ants distinguished by exceptionally large head and jaws. 4: one who shirks his work. So somewhere between 1 & 4, I think it possible that blacks could have been soldiers. For those not keeping score, one who volunteered to raise a rifle that was engaged in military service, would be a “soldier”, regardless of official recognition/categorization or not. Regarding apologies, I wouldn’t presume speak or think for other people nor guess at their motives. But I do believe your limiting the cause of the confederacy to only the establishment of a slave holding republic is an oversimplification and denies the magnitude of other factors such as expansion of slave states to the west and economic differences between the north and south. Thanks for all your time and insight today. I have to go to class.
PLEASE DO NOT TAKE MY WORD FOR IT. Start with some reading. I highly recommend Bruce Levine’s book Confederate Emancipation (Oxford University Press). It’s not long and a great place to start.
Seconding that recommendation. Levine uses tons of clearly referenced primary sources, many of which include letters to the editor and newspaper editorials.
This has been very interesting. I was just drawing a parallel with Stephen and the thinking at the time, regardless of position. Not trying to highjack the thread. Gates could have been more careful in his word choice which makes me wonder how much of what he says is scripted, and therefore, if it was predetermined, then he absolutely undermines his authority and furthers the myth. While the question, “…how does that make you feel” is no doubt predetermined as it is asked on nearly episode, perhaps his word choice after the question was more off-the-cuff and he was speaking in general, oversimplified, but inaccurate terms. So Bryant’s great grandfather wasn’t a soldier in fact, but he was in a unit that formed and volunteered for service for the Confederacy. Citing Ben Butler and the Louisiana Native Guard 1861-1862 it begs clarification on terms like “regiment”, “troop”, “militia” and “Native Guard” which all seem “soldier related” even if inaccurate. Those same tens of thousands of American who saw the show are also unlikely to distinguish “soldier” from a one who is a member of a “regiment”, “troop”, “militia” or the “Native Guard”. Maybe “Trooper” would have been more appropriate than “soldier”. You said that no one denies that mistakes will be made when doing research into the past and then you roast Henry Louis Gates, PBS, and the entire research staff at Finding Your Roots for making a mistake.
You can choose to take seriously how Confederates categorized slaves and free blacks who were associated with state militias and/or the Confederate army or not. I am a historian, which means that I must stick to the available primary sources and interpret them to the best of my ability and within the current historiography.
I did say that and I stand by every word. I explained why this is a different kind of mistake and that this is not the first time that Gates has pushed this myth. If you want to apologize for him that is your choice.
‘pubic notice’. Hmmm. As with everything else — including proof-reading — the devil is in the details.
Seems to me that those black Louisianans who signed-up were smart people who knew how precarious their positions were in the local white and creole societies of the times. They took steps to prevent troubles by appearing to ‘sign-up’ in support of the CSA…probably aware thet they would not be asked to fight against their own best interests.
When opportunity presented itself, at least one man — Gumbel’s ancestor— willingly signed-on to the Union.
Let us not fall prey to the idea that the motives of many people whom we did not know, who did not leave any written record, can easily and clearly fathomed. Nothing in life, relating to our actions as humans, is usually that simple.
My own impressions about Professor Gates and his TV show are and shall remain my own. Suffice to say that, genealogy is (at best), an imperfect business, no matter who is undertaking it. Even the less-than-perfect interpretations of the DNA results, are or should be, at times, up for discussion and/or dispute.
For better or worse, Gates has taken the time to shine lights on things personal and cultural that are worth contemplating. If he and his staff do not always ‘get it right’ (read: perfect), I prefer to look at what positive impact the show, in general, can possibly make on helping viewers gain some understanding of the idea that each of us fits somewhere, on a monumental tree, and that language, religion, geography, nationality, and yes, even race, are less important than who we each are, and what we have each made of our time allotment.
I am amazed at the extent to which people are willing to go to excuse Gates in this case. As I said before, mistakes will be made. No one is perfect, but it is a mistake to characterize this as imperfect nature of genealogy. This is about a basic misunderstanding about the Civil War and the Confederacy. Someone in Gates’s position should already understand that the goal of the Confederacy would preclude the recruitment of black soldiers or it should at least result in a warning light. That Gates and the rest of the show forged ahead suggests that basic knowledge of the relevant history was not consulted or it was ignored.
It’s probably due to the parasocial relationship phenomenon. People develop deep connections to celebrity figures, singers, DJs, newscasters, ect. If they’ve seen the show enough times, Gates becomes (in their subconscious mind) like someone they actually know, and they want to defend him. It doesn’t MATTER if you’re right … you’re accusing their “friend.”
I think this also applies to historical figures. Shelby Foote exhibited clear signs of a parasocial attachment to Lincoln and Forrest. He described how he feel into a deep depression when Lincoln died in his Civil War history. He wrote, “I killed Lincoln today,” which is very telling. Much of the time, when people jump to defend a historical figure, what they are actually defending is the one-sided relationship they have formed.
Amazing how much pushback you are getting here, Kevin. Bravo for your diligence.
One point I’d like to make is that is entirely possible, if not quite likely, that Gumbel has an ancestor who fought for the Confederacy. Just not the one Gates had in mind. Rather, a *white* ancestor.
Awesome and insightful Joshua. Thanks for sharing that piece on the formation of the government. As a side note, it is interesting this was done in 1861 and that 3 years prior Lincoln also said since the two races must live together there must be a position of superior and inferior. But he wasn’t basing a governmental system on it. Fascinating.
Abraham Lincoln has nothing to do with this post. Stay on subject or go somewhere else.The reason the Stephens speech is essential is because it clearly laid out the goals of the Confederate government. It is also raises the question of why neither Gates or anyone responsible for putting the Gumbel episode together thought to step back and re-think the idea of black Confederate soldiers in light of Stephens’s “Cornerstone” speech.
Lincoln never said that. What he said was “There is a physical difference between the two, which, in my judgment, will probably forever forbid their living together upon the footing of perfect equality, and inasmuch as it becomes a necessity that there must be a difference…”: https://www.nps.gov/liho/learn/historyculture/debate1.htm
Note that Lincoln artfully never said what the difference was. I personally believe it was the most obvious: skin color, and that Lincoln was taking a hidden shot at bigotry. From that, the rest of the quote implies that the physical difference was being artificially enforced.
In his life, Lincoln was neither a believer in racial equality or a white supremacist, though he was moving towards the former. In 1858, around the time of the Lincoln-Douglas debates, Lincoln wrote his “Fragment on Pro-slavery Theology”: https://quod.lib.umich.edu/l/lincoln/lincoln3/1:27?rgn=div1;view=fulltext
He began it with these words:
“Suppose it is true, that the negro is inferior to the white, in the gifts of nature; is it not the exact reverse justice that the white should, for that reason, take from the negro, any part of the little which has been given him? “Give to him that is needy” is the christian rule of charity; but “Take from him that is needy” is the rule of slavery.”
To Alexander Stephens in 1861, white supremacy was “this great physical, philosophical, and moral truth.” To Lincoln in 1858, white supremacy was “Suppose it is true…” And in Lincoln’s view, even if white supremacy was true, it would be an argument against slavery.
Have you thought of reaching out to Bryant Gumbel about this?
No. I believe that Henry Louis Gates and PBS have an ethical obligation to reach out to him.
I’d have better luck with my magic 8 ball. There is enough hard and anecdotal evidence to support most any argument one wishes to make. Nothing in the civil war or slavery is so black and white as 2 plus 2 equals 4. There is no way to really know what was in the mind of a slave, “soldier”, or camp slave if you wish. I didn’t know Bryant’s great-grandfather nor observe him, but we seem to be putting a fine point on the soldier argument. I believe you to be correct and spot on there were no black confederate soldiers, technically speaking. But we have this thing today where people are charged and convicted of being an “accessory” during the commission of a crime. If not a soldier, but one who does 51% of what a soldier does, OR be it carrying, loading or providing firearms, knives, swords, food, water, or items that are used during the commission of fighting, then at least nearly a soldier they make. It is the absolutism of with which arguments over fine details that are tiresome. As is the narrative that slavery was a southern issue when in fact is was also a northern issue and a world issue. GW and the original rebels pushed off slavery as an item of debate in order to save a coalition to move against England while simultaneously slaves and free blacks fought the brits and patriots.
There is no way to really know what was in the mind of a slave, “soldier”, or camp slave if you wish.
Over at Civil War Talk, we have a thread entitled, “Black Southerners and the Confederate Cause–What the newspapers said: 1861-1865.” In this thread there are over 1,000 newspaper articles, stories, and editorials, are relating stories about black slaves and freemen joining and fighting with Confederate soldiers. Not as teamsters or camp slaves, but as fighting soldiers.
For myself, I tend to put these articles, often listed without sources or names (but a few who list such), on the same level as later day stories about UFOs: Lots of stories about sighting and landings, but not one UFO ever recovered.
But there is no denying the articles of the time period and the numerous stories in the newspapers of slaves and freedmen volunteering and fighting for the Confederacy.
What is your take on these newspaper articles? If you would like to view the thread at Civil War Talk, I give it here:
Would appreciate your views.
I have seen the same newspaper articles. Glenn Brasher does a great job of interpreting those published in 1862 as an attempt to convince the Lincoln administration to begin recruiting black men into the Union army. Like any source these need to be interpreted and confirmed, which the vast majority of people do not do. They present the document and assume that it speaks for itself. They fail to ask, among other things: 1. Where was it published? 2. Who was the editor and what was his political affiliation. 3. Is it based on direct observation or reported second hand? etc.
Neil, those newspaper reports are really very easy to understand:
I had seen your above article before and appreciate you posting it again.
I ask if you have visited the site/thread I mention above over at Civil War Talk and ask your opinion of it. Your input would be greatly appreciated.
Great post and I agree with you totally. He is in a position where he can share the true stories of our families. The contributions that we have made and the fact that we were more than slaves.
Ummm…you state, “Confederacy was fighting to establish a slave holding republic built on white supremacy.” That is a politicized comment. The Confederacy wasn’t establishing a slave holding republic, there were states that already allowed slavery, so there was no “establishing”. THey were fighting for a way of life, which was supported by “the North”. Triangle anyone? You say “Built on white supremacy”, I say politics as usual. WHites were in power and owned the slave, but “supreme”? Yes some believe that, some didnt’. Slaves were as we think of cars today- possesions. And if you really want to go there, wasn’t it Lincoln who said blacks were inferior? Yep. He did. So maybe you are correct, supremacy, but limited Southern Confederates. NewYokers had slaves too.. Good day.
You should take this up with Confederate Vice-President Alexander Stephens and others and other public leaders.
Excerpts from the “Cornerstone Speech,” Alexander H. Stephens, Savannah, Georgia, March 21, 1861:
1. “The new [Confederate] constitution has put at rest, forever, all the agitating questions relating to our peculiar institution African slavery as it exists amongst us the proper status of the negro in our form of civilization. This was the immediate cause of the late rupture and present revolution.”
2. “Our new government is founded upon exactly the opposite idea [of the abolitionists]; its foundations are laid, its corner- stone rests, upon the great truth that the negro is not equal to the white man; that slavery subordination to the superior race is his natural and normal condition. This, our new government, is the first, in the history of the world, based upon this great physical, philosophical, and moral truth.”
I live in Texas and all you have to do is to read the Secession Document to see what their goal was:: to preserve the institution of Negro slavery. Couldn’t be more clear.
I agre that some points in the episode should have been handled with greater clarity. It’s my understanding that the unit of Bryant’s great grandfather was formed and volunteered for Confederate service, but that they weren’t accepted. Gates points out that they never fought, but then goes on to say that your ancestor “fought for the Confderacy. This no doubt can lead to a bit of confusion. But the fact that this unit of free men of color was willing to fight for the CSA was in fact correct.
Thank you for taking the time to comment. It is common knowledge that the LNG volunteered to serve in the Confederacy and it is very likely that they did so out of concerns of economic/social self-preservation. So far, so good. Pointing out that “they never fought” means that they never saw the battlefield, which is still consistent with his blatantly false claim that he fought for the Confederacy. Gates knew exactly what he was saying because he has said it numerous times in the past.
At this point we need to move on from trying to excuse his behavior. This is one of the most insidious myths out there. Two South Carolina legislators are proposing to erect a monument to black Confederate soldiers on the State House grounds. This is not just about whether “colored” men fought for the Confederacy, but about how we understand some of the most fundamental questions about the Civil War that still have an impact on our own discussions about race and politics. Gates is entirely responsible and must issue a public statement correcting this mistake for both Mr. Gumbel and the general public.
Many Blacks served, if they did not why did they go to reunions, apply for and receive pensions, appear in the CSA stature at Arlington. You are rewriting history. Democrats wrote the Jim Crow laws and rewrote history to remove many of the accomplishments of the Blacks during the war.
Thanks for taking the time to comment, but it is just the kind of evidence that points to the need to be very careful when addressing this issue. Many African Americans attended Confederate reunions, but they did so as former body servants or what I call camp slaves. They were not welcomed as soldiers because no Confederate believed they ever served as such. All you have to do is read the relevant postwar documents. Five former Confederate states eventually extended their Confederate pension programs to include former slaves. But again, all you have to do is look at the documents themselves to see that they were issues specifically to former slaves and not soldiers. Finally, the Confederate monument at Arlington does not depict a soldier, but a body servant (slave) heading off to war with his master. The official history of the monument published by the United Daughters of the Confederacy refers to that man as a slave and not as a soldier. The black Confederate narrative is a very recent myth that only got started in the 1970s.
After reading your article, my question is simple: where’s your research to refute the army of researchers who produce the content for Gate’s show?
History as we know it has been created and formed for specific purposes that often have little to do with the truth. History is a specific person’s perspective–that in and of itself assures that other perspectives are not included because no one can see and know every experience that actually makes a full historical account. It is only now that we have more tools to find out more perspectives that we stridently deny what we think we have known as gospel truth until it’s not.
Well, I am just about finished a book-length study of this subject for the University of North Carolina Press. You can go back eight years on this blog and find hundreds of posts on this subject. I have published articles about the myth of the black Confederate soldier in magazines and academic journals. Should I go on?
Beyond this I can refer you to the latest scholarship on the history of the Louisiana Native Guard as well as the place of African Americans in the Confederacy.