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On the Myth of Black Confederates

April 18th, 2011 by Brendan Wolfe · No Comments

Ta-Nehisi Coates, a blogger and correspondent for the Atlantic, calls attention to Encyclopedia Virginia‘s new entry on the controversial subject of black Confederates. According to our contributor, Jaime Amanda Martinez, “Black Confederates is a term often used to describe both enslaved and free African Americans who filled a number of different positions in support of the Confederate States of America during the American Civil War (1861–1865).”

So what’s so controversial? Well, some folks believe that significant numbers of African Americans served as Confederate soldiers during the war. Back in October, the Washington Post even reported that Virginia’s new fourth-grade textbooks claimed—and this is from page 122 of the textbook—that “Thousands of Southern blacks fought in the Confederate ranks, including two black battalions under the command of Stonewall Jackson.”

From a purely historical perspective, this is not only untrue; it’s complete nonsense. But the textbook’s author told the Post that her sources for the claim were websites, each of which “referred to work by Sons of Confederate Veterans or others who contend that the fight over slavery was not the main cause of the Civil War.”

Disturbing Thing One About That: the writer of a Virginia history textbook knows so little about Virginia history;

Disturbing Thing Two About That: the writer of a Virginia history textbook does not know how to evaluate sources; and

Disturbing Thing Three About That: the writer of a Virginia history textbook has now caused suspicion to be cast on all online resources.

As you might imagine, Disturbing Thing Three is of especial concern to those of us at Encyclopedia Virginia. The web is much, much bigger than the Sons of Confederate Veterans, and we hope that teachers, parents, and learners of all ages will remember that good information is out there. In fact, good information is right here!

As it is, the bad information is gaining traction. A recent episode of the radio show The Takeaway featured black Confederate soldiers, and historians howled.

Soon after, the producers saw fit to do a follow-up interview with Kevin Levin, whose blog Civil War Memory has done much to call attention to and debunk the myth of black Confederates.

And now Kevin reports hearing from a Virginia parent who worries that, even after the textbook controversy, bad information is being taught. Writes that parent:

My daughter just finished her Civil War unit, and despite Mr. Pyle’s assurances of ample guidance, Eva’s recent study guide for her test specifically included the point that blacks fought for the Confederacy. I tried to explain to my daughter why this was not true, but because her own teacher had just lectured her on it she would not believe me.

It’s frustrating, yes. But what’s at stake in this debate? After all, says the Virginia textbook’s author, “It’s just one sentence. I don’t want to ruffle any feathers.”

What’s at stake, I think, is the most basic understanding of what it meant to be enslaved. And that basic understanding is dangerous to some people, because the more you pursue it, the more you try to wrap your head around it, the more uncomfortable you’re bound to feel about the institution the Confederacy existed to defend.

PS: Thanks to Kevin Levin for recognizing our contributor Jaime Martinez’s excellent work.

IMAGE: Marlboro Jones, manservant of Confederate captain Randal F. Jones of the 7th Georgia Cavalry, sits for an ambrotype dressed in Confederate uniform.

 

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