Black Confederates, the Internet, and Historical Interpretation

UPDATE: In his post, Kevin also cites Gary Gallagher, from an editorial in “Civil War Times” where Gallagher comments on the black Confederate “controversy,”:

FURTHER UPDATE: Historian Donald Shaffer, today on his blog “Civil War Emancipation,” in a post entitled “Amen, Brooks Simpson,” also weighs in on these subjects (black Confederates, and use of the web for historical research and sources):

A controversy of sorts has broken out among scholars of the American Civil War over the degree to which scholarly blogs on this topic should cover the myth of mass participation by African Americans as soldiers in the Confederate Army. Such prominent Civil War historians as Gary Gallagher of the University of Virginia and Peter Carmichael, Director of Gettysburg College’s Civil War Institute, have criticized prominent scholarly bloggers like Kevin LevinBrooks SimpsonAndy Hall and others, basically accusing them of inadvertently giving credibility to the black Confederate myth by spending so much effort in their blogs trying to debunk it.

I am not entirely unsympathetic to Gallagher and Carmichael’s argument. Some scholarly Civil War bloggers have arguably written too much on black Confederates and related topics. Brooks Simpson, in particular, has in recent months energetically gone after the Confederate-sympathizing “Heritage” community on the web, with a particular enthusiasm reserved for Heritage activist, Connie Chastain. I can see the worry about how a distinguished Arizona State University professor and other history professionals devoting so much attention to such people, might unduly draw attention and credibility to their factually faulty ideas.

“Nonetheless, today on his blog, Crossroads, Brooks Simpson makes a powerful argument for scholarly Civil War bloggers giving so much attention to black Confederate myth and its proponents. In a nutshell, he argues that serious scholars must address this faulty notion because: 1) of the increasing tendency of the public to utilize the World Wide Web as their information source of first resort; 2) the black Confederate myth mainly lives on the web where it is perpetuated by pro-Confederate Heritage activists.”

“Attention on numerous blogs can make an unworthy topic appear to be serious. The “debate” over black Confederate soldiers is a perfect example. This non-issue is kept alive, so far as I can tell, almost solely on blogs. The best bloggers have made clear from the outset, with unimpeachable evidence to back them up, that there were not thousands of black Confederate soldiers. They argued what any scholar familiar with wartime sources knows; namely, that substantial numbers of slaves accompanied Confederate armies and worked in myriad noncombatant roles, and that these men were not soldiers “serving” in the Confederate army. Like slaves who labored on fortifications or harvested crops or worked at Tredegar Iron Works, they contributed to the Confederate war effort as part of a system of forced labor that allowed the incipient slaveholding republic to mobilize a very high percentage of its white military-age population. The nearly obsessive attention lavished on Andrew and Silas Chandler strikes me as worse than unproductive because it helps keeps alive the hallucination that large numbers of black men shouldered arms in support of the southern rebellion.”

Until I am able to continue trips to the local library, and puruse the Hampshire Gazette from the CW era and match responses on those dates to significant national events, political, military, and social, I will continue to highlight scholarship and blogs on the internet concerned with various aspects of the War. Kevin Levin, on his blog, Civil War Memory,” has an entry today entitled “At the Heart of the Black Confederate Matter,” in which he draws attention to a talk by historian Peter Carmichael, which addresses both the “black Confederate question, and the issue to which historians have won the interpretive “debate” over what it means. Here is a brief excerpt from that talk:

“So we’ve got to move ahead. One thing that strikes me is that we have a hard time doing as historians, public historians or academic historians, that we need to recognize that the interpretive battle has been won. Certainly there are pockets of the lost cause out there, and we certainly need to contend and address those issues, but we often bring undue attention to those pockets of resistance. And the blogging is largely responsible for that, in exciting and talking about the issue of the Confederate slave. Man, that’s not an issue among professional historians, that’s not an issue with most of the public, but it is an issue with really, I think, a small minority.”

He points to the effectiveness of blogs in having engaged the battle over the role of blacks in the Confederacy, and with Confederate armies, and I would cite in particular those of Kevin Levin, Jimmy Price, Andy Hall, and Brooks Simpson in this regard.

Jimmy Page

(to the far left, with bass guitar) Kevin Levin

Frederick Douglass (to the right)

Brooks Simpson


About marcferguson

I teach history, including the American Civil War Era, as an Adjunct at American International College in Springfield, Ma. I also teach survey courses in U.S. history, Western Civilization, and World History, and have taught at other area colleges, including the University of Massachusetts/Amherst, and Holyoke Community College. While my academic background is in European History, my interest in the American Civil War began about a decade ago. Other areas of interest include Modernism, 20th century World Thought and Culture, The Rise of the West after 1400, 19th c. American Society and Culture, Central and Eastern European History and Culture, and Local History. I have in recent years cut back my teaching drastically in order to devote more time raising my kids (15 year old twins now), including working part-time at their elementary/middle school for the past 6 years, they are now launched and off to High School, and I plan to crank up my involvement in teaching history and local history projects, particularly in light of the American Civil War Sesquicentennial.
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