Lessons From the Virginia Civil-War Textbook Flap

No, thousands of blacks didn't fight for the Confederate cause

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This week, The Washington Post reported that a textbook for use in Virginia elementary schools claims that "thousands of Southern blacks fought in the Confederate ranks, including two black battalions under the command of Stonewall Jackson." The book's author, Joy Masoff, says that she based the assertion on Internet research, and according to the Post, at least a few of Masoff's sources trace back to groups like Sons of Confederate Veterans, who maintain that slavery was not the principal cause of the Civil War. The vast majority of Civil War historians reject the notion that blacks were a significant presence in the Confederate army, and there doesn't seem to be any evidence for Jackson's "two black battalions" at all.

Since learning of the controversial passage, Virginia education officials have said they will discourage schools from teaching it. Masoff has stood by her work and pointed out that a review board hadn't flagged the passage prior to publication, but she added that "it's just one sentence. I don't want to ruffle any feathers. If the historians had contacted me and asked me to take it out, I would have." What takeaways have people isolated from the episode?

  • Thoroughness Counts!  NPR's JJ Sutherland upbraids Masoff for her research methods. "I'm not saying the Internet doesn't know everything, but when you're writing a history textbook, checking your sources might be a good idea. I'm just saying."

  • More Than 'Just One Sentence'  At Ta-Nehisi Coates's blog on The Atlantic, a writer known as Cynic objects to Masoff's characterizing the Civil War as "a war between peoples of all colors, on both sides of the fight." Such a formulation "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."
  • We Need to Reexamine the Textbook Selection Process...  The Washington Post's Valerie Strauss has a long and thoughtful column on the methods by which certain books get approved for classroom use. Only about 20 states put their textbooks through an adoption process like Virginia's, explains Strauss, "and this takes time. Committees are formed to review the proposals, and publishing company lobbyists woo ... Historically the big adoption states--Texas, California and Florida--have had outsized influence in the books that smaller states eventually use because publishers are trying to please the big-buck purchasers."

  • ...Especially in Virginia, Apparently  At Change.org, Carol Scott wonders: "Why is an untrained historian who's naive enough to pull her information from a Sons of Confederate Veterans website writing textbooks taught in Virginia public schools? And is Virginia's textbook-approval process really so flimsy that a blatant revision of Civil War history -- a hot-button issue that's treated with special sensitivity in Virginia, home of the former Confederate capital -- can fly on by?"

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