Understanding Virginia's History Textbook Lie

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This morning's Washington Post fronts news that a fourth-grade Virginia textbook outrageously claims that "Thousands of Southern blacks fought in the Confederate ranks, including two black battalions under the command of Stonewall Jackson." It is the myth that will not die, presented as fact to children too young to question. 


The textbook's author, Joy Masoff, performed her research online, relying on websites written by or drawing upon the work of the Sons of Confederate Veterans. It's worth noting that Masoff has built something of a career for herself by collecting thinly-sourced, counterintuitive factoids, and packaging them into such weighty tomes as Oh, Yikes! History's Grossest, Wackiest Moments. It's tough to understand, really, how that sort of tabloid sensibility could possibly have proven problematic when applied to textbooks.


And Masoff, tellingly, couldn't even manage to crib quack revisionism from the Web without garbling it. The sources she cites in her defense claim that there were two companies of colored soldiers in the Jackson Battalion, raised almost two years after Jackson's death from the workers and convalescents at a Richmond Hospital bearing his name. Those companies morph, mysteriously, into "two black battalions under the command of Stonewall Jackson."  

But the problems go beyond "just one sentence," as Masoff put it. The offending section begins by explaining that "The war between the states was a war between peoples of all colors, on both sides of the fight. White men, and enslaved and free African Americans all those sides [sic]. Most American Indians did not take sides during the Civil War."

At the simplest level, this is the sort of mindless pablum so often produced to satisfy poorly-conceived curricular standards, which take a check-list approach to evaluation. Virginia mandates that textbooks describe "the roles played by whites, enslaved African Americans, free African Americans, and American Indians" in the Civil War. The passage seems carefully-tailored to allow the review committee to check that box off its list. (Meanwhile, a far superior history textbook with a more sophisticated account of the war was challenged for its failure to mention the Canadian shield.)

But then, there's the substance. It offers a false and pernicious equivalency, as if race were no more than incidental to the struggle. If the occasional slave was brought to the front by his master as a man-servant, or if slaves were used as laborers, or if in the waning days of the war, a handful of blacks were grudgingly allowed into uniform, it does not alter the core meaning of the struggle. These are fascinating exceptions, presented as if they were the rule, and without any sense of the tensions and contradictions they embody. To present the Civil War as a fight "between peoples of all colors, on both sides" is to utterly misrepresent the causes and meanings of the bloodiest struggle in our history.

The worst sins here, though, are those of omission. Where is the capsule biography of George Henry Thomas, the Old Dominion's noblest son? Where is the account of the thousands of Virginians who emancipated themselves, fled through the lines to freedom, and demanded the right to don the Union blue and free those still enslaved? Is Virginia not equally proud of their courage and sacrifice, given to a cause that was moral and just? 

If there is a silver lining here, it is that we are having this discussion at all. Not long ago, this sort of prevarication would hardly have raised an eyebrow in the Commonwealth. That today, it is front-page news and roundly condemned is a sign of significant progress. We are, I suspect, hearing more about the Lost Cause of late because its remaining adherents are now an embattled and fading minority, and the once sympathetic mainstream now finds their antics deeply embarrassing. And nowhere is that truer than in Virginia, as the Capitol of the Confederacy continues to urbanize, diversify, and develop. That, at least, is encouraging. 

The full text, after the jump:
Black and White, Blue and Gray

The war between the states was a war between peoples of all colors, on both sides of the fight. White men, and enslaved and free African Americans all those sides [sic]. Most American Indians did not take sides during the Civil War.

The Virginia Confederates

Like Robert E. Lee, most white Virginians supported the Confederate cause, and most Virginia men became confederate soldiers. But not all Virginian soldiers were white, and there were other ways to support the South without firing a gun. 

Both free and enslaved African-Americans worked for the Petersburg railroads to keep the trains running during the War. The Confederacy relied on slave labor to raise crops for food for the army, as well as cooking, driving gun carts, building roads, and digging trenches. Thousands of Southern blacks fought in the Confederate ranks, including two black battalions under the command of Stonewall Jackson.

[The text is supplemented by a photograph of Richard Poplar, and a quote from Charles Tinsely, neither given appropriate context.]


This post first appeared here under the name Cynic.
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Yoni Appelbaum is a social and cultural historian of the United States. He is a doctoral candidate at Brandeis University, and a lecturer in history at Babson College. He previously contributed to TheAtlantic.com under the name Cynic.

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