- Black Confederates Out of the Attic and Into the Mainstream
Not long after the beginning of the 2010 school year, William and Mary historian Carol Sheriff decided to review the chapter on the Civil War in her daughter’s fourth grade history textbook. Sheriff noticed a number of factual errors and questionable interpretations in Joy Masoff’s Virginia: Past and Present, but one passage in particular caught her attention: “Thousands of Southern Blacks fought in the Confederate ranks, including two battalions under the command of Stonewall Jackson.” Sheriff reasonably wondered how such a claim could have made it into this book.1
Shortly thereafter, the story broke in the Washington Post and was soon picked up by newspapers around the country and beyond. Sheriff appeared on MSNBC’s Countdown with Keith Olbermann to discuss the issue.2 Stonewall Jackson biographer, James I. Robertson, confirmed the lack of evidence regarding the presence of African Americans under his command, and fellow academic historians echoed the scholarly consensus that little evidence can be found supporting the existence of significant numbers of black soldiers in the Confederate army. As the controversy flared up, a sharp divide emerged between the academic community and a small but vocal crowd that championed the existence of anywhere between a thousand and a hundred thousand black Confederate soldiers and a racially integrated Confederate military.3 In 2011 a new edition of Masoff’s book, without the offending passage, was approved for Virginia’s fourth graders but the controversy is far from settled. In fact, it is likely that this narrative will be even more entrenched in our public discourse about the Civil War at the end of the Civil War Sesquicentennial than it was at the beginning.
The success of the black Confederate phenomena can be traced directly to the expansion of the Internet, including access to rich databases of primary sources and the availability of digital tools such as blogs, wikis, and other platforms that allow practically anyone to publish a Web site and engage and influence a wide readership. This has led to a sharp increase in [End Page 627] the amount of history published online by individuals and organizations with little or no formal training in the field. As a result, the democratization of history through online publishing continues to blur the distinction between professional and popular historians and challenges any presumption of who has the right to research and publish history. While professional historians assume the responsibility of critically assessing the work of their peers, they have yet to explore their role in responding to and evaluating online content. The black Confederate narrative provides academic and public historians with an opportunity to reflect on how they might engage history enthusiasts and the broader general public in an environment that promotes an unregulated marketplace of ideas.
The black Confederate narrative includes a number of related claims concerning the roles and status of African Americans within the army as well as their significance to how we remember the Civil War. It is best understood as an extension of the loyal slave narrative, though its most recent incarnation is a direct response to the increased focus on slavery and race as central to our understanding of the Civil War that gradually came to dominate popular memory in the decades following the civil rights movement. Most interpretations that can be found online assume a broad definition of a soldier that encompasses personal body servants, impressed slaves, and free blacks, who performed a wide range of functions both in the army and on large-scale military projects such as the construction of earthworks and railroads. Little attention is given to their legal status, or to any analysis of the coercive nature of the master-slave relationship. Rather the mere presence of these men alongside Confederate ranks is seen as sufficient to count them as soldiers and therefore worthy of the same respect accorded to white citizen soldiers. The result is a picture of an interracial and integrated Confederate army that stands in sharp contrast with segregated Union regiments.
Its popularity is difficult to pin down. In response to the South’s rapidly changing demographics, the Sons...