Black Confederates at Harvard, Cont.

I received an e-mail, yesterday, from a gentleman who asserting that there were, in fact, significant numbers of black people fighting for the Confederacy. I get these e-mails fairly often, and generally they offer an accumulation of anecdotal evidence -- almost always a report of black Confederates doing picket duty or fighting with Nathan Bedford Forrest or some such.


A typical example drawn from the e-mail:

Official Records, Series I, Vol. XVI Part I, pg. 805, Lt. Col. Parkhurst's Report (Ninth Michigan Infantry) on General Forrest's attack at Murfreesboro, Tenn., July 13,1862: "There were also quite a number of Negroes attached to the Texas and Georgia troops, who were armed and equipped, and took part in the several engagements with my forces during the day."

It's taken from the Official Records of the Union Army in reference to the first Battle of Murfreesburo. The ORs are good source, and indispensable for historians writing about the war. But they also are a singular source no more immune to standard historical methodology than any other. In this case that would mean corroborating reports, muster rolls, journal, entries, etc. 

It would seek to answer macro questions, like why Patrick Cleburne was appealing for the recruitment of black Confederates in 1864, when they'd been fighting out West as early as 1862. It would ask why Jefferson Davis ordered all discussion of the issue quashed in 1864. 

It would request the same level of proof for the existence of black Confederate soldiers that it requests of black Union soldiers. We don't know the 54th existed because Frederick Douglass said so, for instance. We have muster rolls, first hand testimony, photographic evidence, news accounts all corroborating the regiments existence. 

That's not just the work of a historian. It's the work of a critical mind. It's what thinking people do when confronted with a claim. It's precisely what good teachers urge upon their students, and what our greatest educators should urge upon the broader public.

I think that's what so dismaying about John Stauffer's claim that there were between 3,000 and 10,000 black people who "shouldered arms for the Confederacy." It's not simply that Stauffer's claim is erroneous -- which it is -- it's that its rooted in the same sort of thin, uninterrogated sourcing which Neo-Confederates routinely deploy:

In arguing that there were some black Confederates, Stauffer draws on at least one ironic source: 19th-century social reformer Frederick Douglass, whose life Stauffer studied for his 2008 book "Giants: The Parallel Lives of Frederick Douglass and Abraham Lincoln." In August 1861, Douglass published an account of the First Battle of Bull Run, which noted that there were blacks in the Confederate ranks. A few weeks later, Douglass brought the subject up again, quoting a witness to the battle who said they saw black Confederates "with muskets on their shoulders and bullets in their pockets."

 Douglass also talked to a fugitive slave from Virginia, another witness to Bull Run, who asserted that black units were forming in Georgia, South Carolina, and Virginia. It is well known that in Louisiana and Tennessee, Stauffer added, Confederate units were organized by elite, light-skinned freedmen who identified with the slave-owning white plantation culture. (The Tennessee troops were never issued arms, though, and the black unit known as the Louisiana Native Guards never saw action -- and quickly switched sides as soon as Union forces appeared.)

Notice the slick parenthetical at the end, which quickly undercuts the claim of shouldering arms. But more to the point, if Stauffer has any evidence beyond a quotation from Douglass he doesn't cite it. Moreover, he leaves Douglass uninterrogated. He neglects to mention that Douglass was himself a bias advocate, not a stenographer, aggressively lobbying the Union to allow black troops to fight.

This is poor history. But worse, it's poor thinking. It's not simply a disservice to the hard work of getting at the past, its a disservice to the kind of skeptical inquiry which universities should stand for. 

On a personal level, it's just disheartening. It's one thing to have to cope with people whose ancestors died for the Confederate cause. I find their need for black Confederates understandable, though ultimately corrosive. But to see historians and department chairs at our best universities floating myth as history is humbling in all the wrong ways.

There is so much work to be done.

H/T to Kevin Levin, who has more on this.
Presented by

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.

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