Confederate Hair Tonic

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George Mason University economist and syndicated columnist Walter Williams weighs in on the myth of black Confederate legions:


Kevin Sieff, staff writer for The Washington Post, penned an article "Virginia 4th-grade textbook criticized over claims on black Confederate soldiers," (Oct. 20, 2010). The textbook says that blacks fought on the side of the Confederacy. Sieff claims that "Scholars are nearly unanimous in calling these accounts of black Confederate soldiers a misrepresentation of history." William & Mary historian Carol Sheriff said, "It is disconcerting that the next generation is being taught history based on an unfounded claim instead of accepted scholarship." 

Let's examine that accepted scholarship. 

 In April 1861, a Petersburg, Va., newspaper proposed "three cheers for the patriotic free Negroes of Lynchburg" after 70 blacks offered "to act in whatever capacity may be assigned to them" in defense of Virginia. Ex-slave Frederick Douglass observed, "There are at the present moment, many colored men in the Confederate Army doing duty not only as cooks, servants and laborers, but as real soldiers, having muskets on their shoulders and bullets in their pockets, ready to shoot down ... and do all that soldiers may do to destroy the federal government." 

Charles H. Wesley, a distinguished black historian who lived from 1891 to 1987, wrote "The Employment of Negroes as Soldiers in the Confederate Army," in the Journal of Negro History (1919). He says, "Seventy free blacks enlisted in the Confederate Army in Lynchburg, Virginia. Sixteen companies (1,600) of free men of color marched through Augusta, Georgia on their way to fight in Virginia." 

 Wesley cites Horace Greeley's "American Conflict" (1866) saying, "For more than two years, Negroes had been extensively employed in belligerent operations by the Confederacy. They had been embodied and drilled as rebel soldiers and had paraded with white troops at a time when this would not have been tolerated in the armies of the Union."

It's worth noting that Williams is not actually examining the accepted scholarship which Carol Sheriff is referencing. Williams is not debating with James McPherson's Pulitzer Prize winning Battle Cry of Freedom. He does not confront historian Bruce Levine's Confederate Emancipation. He is not interested in Stephanie McCurry's Confederate Reckoning. Instead Williams offers up--unchallenged, uncorroborated and wholly accepted--primary testimony from 150 years ago, along with two works of history both more than seventy-five years old. 

In this instance, it must be said that Williams is practicing history in the manner of a phrenologist practicing brain surgery--with similarly ghastly results. In raising primary sources to the level of indisputable fact, Williams employs a methodology which does not merely argue for the existence of black Confederate legions, but for UFOs, orcs, the Dover Demon, elves and magic. The sable Confederate arm is too modest. Surely, Nessie awaits. I would not demand that history remain solely the property of professionals. But I  would simply see a basic commitment to honesty from academics plying a borrowed trade. 

What makes Williams spiritualism so appalling is that like his forebears, he is preying on a deep pain. It is utterly agonizing for Americans--regardless of color--to face the Civil War as it was. No honest broker of history can fail to admire the military exploits of Stonewall Jackson or Nathan Forrest. It is utterly discomfiting that the same honest broker must admit that these men charged backwards into history. What Walter Williams offers here is a credentialed con--a way of avoiding the agony of American history, of ducking the mixed inheritance that is our responsibility.  It is American citizenship on the cheap. It is lard packaged as a salve. It is charlatanism. And it should always be known as such. 
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Ta-Nehisi Coates is a national correspondent at The Atlantic, where he writes about culture, politics, and social issues. He is the author of the memoir The Beautiful Struggle. More

Born in 1975, the product of two beautiful parents. Raised in West Baltimore -- not quite The Wire, but sometimes ill all the same. Studied at the Mecca for some years in the mid-'90s. Emerged with a purpose, if not a degree. Slowly migrated up the East Coast with a baby and my beloved, until I reached the shores of Harlem. Wrote some stuff along the way.

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