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.