Black Confederates at Harvard

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Kevin Levin reports on the bizarre and dismaying trend of Harvard professors espousing Neo-Confederate bunk as history. Levin took in a talk by John Stauffer and Henry Louis Gates. The results were evidently lamentable:


The talk itself failed to add anything new to the discussion. In fact, I would go so far as to argue that Stauffer needs to step back and think more carefully about some of the fundamental questions involved, specifically when it comes to the proper definition of a soldier. Earlier on he suggested that anywhere between 3-10,000 black Confederate soldiers served in the army, but he never qualified this with anything approaching an analysis of what the concept means. While Stauffer went on to note that this number is statistically insignificant he did argue that they held "immense symbolic value" though I am still unsure as to what he meant. He quoted from a few primary sources pointing to the existence of these men, which included the infamous Douglass quote as well as a soldier from Connecticut...

What seems to be lacking here is basic application of methodology. The citation of Frederick Douglass is telling. In September 1861, Douglass wrote in his eponymous publication:

It is now pretty well established, that 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 loyal troops, and do all that soldiers may to destroy the Federal Government and build up that of the traitors and rebels. There were such soldiers at Manassas, and they are probably there still. 

There is a Negro in the army as well as in the fence, and our Government is likely to find it out before the war comes to an end. That the Negroes are numerous in the rebel army, and do for that army its heaviest work, is beyond question. They have been the chief laborers upon those temporary defences in which the rebels have been able to mow down our men. Negroes helped to build the batteries at Charleston. They relieve their gentlemanly and military masters from the stiffening drudgery of the camp, and devote them to the nimble and dexterous use of arms. Rising above vulgar prejudice, the slaveholding rebel accepts the aid of the black man as readily as that of any other. If a bad cause can do this, why should a good cause be less wisely conducted?

The first few sentences of this quote are a staple for Neo-Confederates. (They generally omit the rest of the quote.)The argument seems to be that Douglass's abolitionism somehow makes him an unimpeachable source. If avowed abolitionist Frederick Douglass claims that there are black Confederates, then there must be right? 



But as historian Brooks D. Simpson notes, the job of of a historian--professional or lay--is to interrogate primary sources, not fetishize them. Did Douglass actually witness black soldiers at Manassas? If not, then who was his source? Are there other corroborating reports? Muster rolls, for instance?  

If there were black Confederate soldiers at these early battles, why are Confederate generals--some three years later--debating over whether to admit black soldiers to their ranks? If it was "pretty well established in 1861" why the debate in 1864? What was Douglass's own agenda? In 1861, his notion of arming of black soldiers seemed like it was going nowhere. Did his relentless advocacy color his perspective?

I am not a historian. But in my experience these are the kinds of questions that practicing historians might ask. Surely they're the kinds of questions you'd expect a professor in the department of the History of American Civilizations to ask. Failing all of that, the president of Harvard is one of the most celebrated Civil War historians of her time. Why not ask her about it?

But this last part of Kevin's report indicates a rather puzzling disregard for the field itself:

What I had the most trouble with, however, was the apparent mistrust of Civil War historians, who have apparently too quickly given the back of their hand to the possibility of black Confederate soldiers. Once again, no one has suggested that a few black southerners did not manage to join the ranks for one reason or another. Both Henry Louis Gates (who introduced Stauffer) and the speaker suggested as much. At one point Gates suggested that James McPherson's dismissive attitude can be explained by not wanting to admit something that would threaten his view of the war as a Second American Revolution for African Americans. 

That isn't even a critique. It's just ad hominem. It doesn't marshal any new primary sources, or research. It's just an attack on someone's alleged motives, not their arguments. I haven't seen video or heard audio from the event, so I'm actually hoping that Kevin heard this wrong. This sort of anti-intellectual, anti-expertise cynicism is depressing.

In the end, I think this really shows how much work there is left to do. Very few people understand the Civil War. This apparently extends deep into the highest offices of academia. There is a vague sense--in the most progressive of circles--that it was about slavery. But outside of Civil War historians, we don't seem to grasp how much it was about slavery. That it was about a slave society. 

My hope is that over the next few years the wall between Civil War historians and the lay populace will break down a bit. The fact that this battle has to be fought at institutions like Harvard and NPR should offer some sense of how far we really have to go. As I said before, when Neil Degrasse Tyson endorses creationism, we're in trouble.
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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.

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