What Counts as Historical Evidence? The Fracas over John Stauffer’s Black Confederates

Yesterday, John Stauffer — Professor of English and African-American Studies at Harvard — published a piece for The Root entitled, “Yes, There Were Black Confederates. Here’s Why.” In it he argues that “between 3,000 and 6,000 served as Confederate soldiers. Another 100,000 or so blacks, mostly slaves, supported the Confederacy as laborers, servants and teamsters.”

It did not take very long for a number of Civil War historians to protest these conclusions, and to persuasively dismantle Stauffer’s argument piece by piece. First, Brooks Simpson got into it, and then Kevin Levin. Glenn David Brasher, whose book The Peninsula Campaign and The Necessity of Emancipation, details African-American involvement in that Union offensive, added his voice to the debate in the comments on Levin’s first post about the essay.

Now, this particular topic — black Confederates — has always provoked heated arguments, usually between historians and Lost Cause enthusiasts. But this latest fracas also brings up interesting questions about the uses (and misuses) of evidence in Civil War history, and about what actually constitutes “evidence” — and who gets to analyze it.

It is important to remember that Stauffer is a cultural studies scholar; he teaches and writes about nineteenth-century America through close-readings of written (and some visual) texts that produce cultural rhetorics and political action. I would imagine that he hit upon the topic of black Confederates through Frederick Douglass, whose writings are the subject of many of Stauffer’s articles and books.

In his essay for The Root Stauffer uses literature published in the North (in this case, Douglass’s speeches, newspaper articles, and also fugitive slave/freed peoples’ autobiographies and other wartime accounts) as his evidence. Now, if he had used these works to prove a point regarding ideas about southern black soldiers in circulation during the Civil War era, or about the production of the black Confederate image in Civil War literary and visual culture, the essay would have been more persuasive. But he did not. The problem is that he uses literature to try to prove a statistical (or, if you wish, a “historical” point): that there were thousands of southern slaves and freed people who “supported” the Confederacy.

And this problem begets another: Stauffer’s sweeping claims in this essay — and his inability to prove them with literary evidence — just make it harder for cultural historians who are researching and writing Civil War history to make a case for their approach.

This second problem is evident in Kevin Levin’s  second post on the essay, in which he uses Stauffer’s methodological missteps to argue again for “increased attention to military history.” “The gulf between the claims made and the kinds of evidence applied by Stauffer in support of his conclusions,” Levin writes, “ought to be seen as a warning to anyone who makes the decision to wade into a new field of historical inquiry” (emphasis added).

To be clear: I agree with Levin that Stauffer needed to expand his evidentiary base beyond literature, to find corresponding documentation in the OR and especially in Confederate military and manuscript records. And I agree that all cultural historians should be both clear and careful about their methodologies. But this last bit reads as ominous — a “warning”? Really?

What this sounds like to me is a form of gatekeeping, and it echoes the assertions in the Gallagher/Meier and Hess essays that I found most irritating.

Some of the smartest and most cutting-edge research on Civil War history is coming from scholars who are striking out toward and then writing at the intersections of military history and other fields of study: cultural memory (Anne Sarah Rubin), environmental history (Katy Meier, Lisa Brady), Native American history (Ari Kelman), and disability studies (Brian Craig Miller, Jim Marten, Frances Clarke) — to name just a few.

The work of these scholars is so revelatory because of their willingness to wade into new fields of historical inquiry. They bring new methodologies to bear on long-standing questions; they use print, visual, and material sources in addition to the OR and soldiers’  diaries and letters in innovative ways. They heed no warnings. And in the end, they tell us something we did not know before about one of the most-studied periods in our national history.

The title of this post has changed from the original.

15 thoughts on “What Counts as Historical Evidence? The Fracas over John Stauffer’s Black Confederates”

  1. I don’t think this is about one subfield versus another subfield, or that it fits very well into the recent debate about military history. Stauffer used Douglass’s remark as not only political speech but as accurate reporting, and in the process made other errors, some of which have nothing to do with fields or subfields but simply remind us of the need to follow sound research practices (see Andy Hall’s http://deadconfederates.com/2015/01/20/frederick-douglass-time-traveler/). Stauffer offers other assertions without support, and he managed to mangle the state of the discussion in the first place: nothing he said is new (unless it was also wrong).

    I don’t think this is a question of gatekeepers and boundaries, especially when we are trying for cross-fertilization and the need to bring to bear many perspectives in an effort to understand something better. But (for example) it would have been easy to check an order of battle listing participating regiments or any standard account of First Manassas to understand that there were no such thing as three black regiments at the battle. That’s simply good research practice. I’m sure that if I were to venture into cultural or literary studies that someone would remind me that there are some basic things to understand as well. As for the rest of the squabble about Civil War military history, I’m sorry, but I don’t really get it, at least as it has been presented to me. I don’t care about Stauffer’s field: what I cared about was that he misrepresented the current discussion, bungled the handling of evidence, and offered unsupported assertions as if they were explanations. I’ve seen nothing so far challenging any of those objections.

    1. Thanks for your comment, Brooks. As I note in my post, I am all for responsible research practices and that you and Kevin (and Andy Hall) do a great job dismantling Stauffer’s arguments and methodology. But I also think that part of the debate about the future of military history — and about the future of Civil War history more generally — is rooted in debates about method: which sources we use and privilege, and how we use them. And I think it’s a good thing that we’re talking about this, and debating methodology in open forums. These conversations can really help people think about history and how it is produced.

  2. I just finished Race & Reunion for a Reconstruction class at APUS. I know I am going out on a limb here, but that book has a great reputation, and I’d like to point something out: Blight devotes many pages of analysis to authors of fiction. He gives Thomas Nelson Page, Albion Tourgée, Joel Chandler Harris, and Ambrose Bierce a lot of credit for making mighty contributions to postwar ideas concerning Reconstruction. Isn’t that the same thing (more or less) that Stauffer did? Look at work written as something other than history and try to make it substitute for something a bit more factual? With the low literacy rates in the South, and the lack of postwar leisure time, I have a difficult time believing that a short story or a novel had much impact on causes lost or otherwise.

    1. Thanks for your comment, Meg. And yes, in *Race and Reunion,* Blight uses fiction to prove that Northerners and Southerners were abandoning black rights in favor of white reunion — not only in laws, but in culture. The different between his approach and Stauffer’s is that Blight is using literature to make a cultural point (as you note, about ideas) while Stauffer is using literature to make a more military historical point (the numbers of black Confederates supporting the Confederacy). And literacy rates in the South, although lower than in the North, were actually still quite high; literary texts circulated widely and even those who could not read would often hear these stories read aloud by others. The challenge for literary historians, of course, is to try to determine how widely novels and short stories circulated–thus their reliance on sales figures, reprints in newspapers with discoverable circulation numbers, etc.

        1. There’s a whole field of Civil War cultural studies that focuses on literature, with debates 1. about whether the Civil War provoked an outpouring of literature or constricted such creative impulses and 2. about whether or not the Civil War was the moment that transformed the American literary tradition from romanticism to modernism. And there are many Civil War cultural historians who use literature and poetry as sources (like Anne Rubin, in both of her books). The most important work that focuses solely on popular literature is Alice Fahs’ *The Imagined Civil War*.

  3. Hi Megan,

    Thanks for the shout-out, but I think you are making too much of my post. Perhaps I should not have referenced the recent fracas over the state of military history, but I think my point is sufficiently clear and not controversial at all.

    Let me also state that I have no interest in wading into the debate of how John Stauffer ought to be classified as a scholar. He is making claims about the past and I am offering my take on his use and misuse of evidence.

    I am not making any kind of claim regarding the gatekeeping of any area of history. I’ve written extensively against it on my blog.

    In fact, I am not even sure where there is disagreement between us. John Stauffer’s article reflects very little understanding of the kinds of sources that must be consulted when researching Civil War armies. It seems to me this captures at least the spirit of some of what Gallagher, Meier, and Hess were getting at in their essays.

    Thanks again.

    1. Kevin, I don’t think we disagree at all about the issues with Stauffer’s approach and methodology in his essay. And you and Brooks do a great job of critiquing the disconnect between sources (literary) and larger argument (military). But as I brought up in our earlier text exchange, there is a difference in approach and methodology between Stauffer (as a cult studies lit guy) and Civil War cultural historians like me, or the scholars I mention in the post (and those whom Gallagher/Meier and Hess reference in their essays). Stauffer’s essay is on the extreme end in terms of its massive leap from evidentiary base to argument — and military historians should not use it as representative of Civil War cultural history more broadly.

      What I think is most important about this fracas is that it brings up the question of evidence, and what sources are perceived as “legitimate” in Civil War history. Ex: I get both the most push-back and the most compliments on my readings of Civil War illustrations and engravings as both historical evidence and cultural products in *Ruin Nation*. I think I was very clear about how and why I was using these as sources, though — and cultural historians do need to do this in their work.

      I don’t think I “made too much” of your post — as a cultural historian, I do use the close-reading methodologies of literary studies, you know. ; ) Obviously, what I objected to most was the word choices in that last section. You may not have meant to take a gatekeeping tone, but it certainly read that way to me.

      1. Thanks for the response, Megan. I understand where you are coming from, but this is just not my fight. I treated Stauffer’s essay as a work of history and I evaluated it based on the kinds of sources that are available in connection with his chosen subject. My point: Stauffer would have done well to consult the kinds of sources that military historians go to as a matter of course.

        That’s it. Nothing more, nothing less.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *