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Are there any black historians?

American Civil War

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Edited: Aug 14, 2011, 9:35am Top

I started reading Retreat from Gettysburg, newly out in paperback, which has some great and not often told vignettes such as Robert E Lee stricken with diarrhea at Gettysburg or uncourtly acknowledging the thievery of his soldiers. Not quite the marble man. The author's Lee aversion is the exception in this very pro-Southern account of too many happy slaves tales and apologetic about the Army of Northern Virginia's involvement in hunting slaves (using the excuses one hears from advocates of a clean Wehrmacht).

"Although there is only scant evidence of civilians being physically harmed, the seizures of free African Americans undoubtedly occasioned much grief and heartache amongst those who lost loved ones or who were separated from their families. The unfortunate captives became, in effect, runaway slaves returned to Confederate control." (p.31) Note first the subtle distinctions between "civilians" and "free African Americans" who languish in some property limbo. The emotions chosen ("much grief and heartache") underplays the horror of enslavement. We are not talking about a broken heart but being put at the mercy of slave drivers (The enslavement of free men in another state would have been illegal according to the states right doctrine at that time.). The main point is that these lines would have been written differently if the author was named Kwame Brown instead of Kent Brown.

Thus my question: Are there any (somewhat prominent) black historians who focus on the American Civil War? The phalanx of white men has recently been broken by a few women, but I am unable to name even one black Civil War historian. The only name that comes to my mind is journalist blogger Ta-Nehisi Coates, a national treasure as far as Civil War blogging is concerned (see for instance, his thoughts on Gettysburg).

Aug 14, 2011, 12:31pm Top

Barbara Fields (Free At Last: A Documentary History of Slavery, Emancipation, and the Civil War), Ervin L. Jordan (Black Confederates and Afro-Yankees in Civil War Virginia), and Weymouth T. Jordan come to mind.

Aug 14, 2011, 1:15pm Top

Thanks, John Hope Franklin's Runaway Slaves sounds interesting. I just listened to Charlie Rose interviewing him about the book. Looking through the LT recommendations, I found William S. McFeely who has written a Pulitzer winning biography of Grant and also one about Frederick Douglass.

According to the voices on Amazon, Ervin L. Jordan's ingeniously titled Black Confederates and Afro-Yankees in Civil War Virginia might make my head explode, as he seems to be not so squeamish to go way beyond the facts ... Looks like a fun read, though.

The further reading section, one can look into via Amazon, in Barbara Fields' Free At Last: A Documentary History of Slavery, Emancipation, and the Civil War, a weighty anthology, points mostly to the classics of McPherson, Glatthaar etc.

One interesting aspect is where these books find their first placement in US bookstores: in the African American or the Civil War section.

Aug 14, 2011, 4:43pm Top

Your question is somewhat confounding for two reasons:

- first, I don't usually note the race of historians

- secondly, does "Civil War" include studies of slavery? The antebellum period? Reconstruction?

Here are several African-American historians that I do know of:

- Henry Louis Gates, Jr, the author of many studies about African-Americans

- Charles L. Blockson, the author of several books on the underground railroad

- Herbert Aptheker, the author of studies on slave revolts

- Benjamin Quarles, author of several studies including The Negro in the Civil War

- W. E. B DuBois, perhaps the first African American historian

I wish this list were more comprehensive than it is, but I hope it helps.

Aug 14, 2011, 4:52pm Top

> 5

Herbert Aptheker was not African-American.

Aug 14, 2011, 7:01pm Top

> 6

I stand corrected. Thank you.

Aug 15, 2011, 4:54am Top

>5 NLytle: You identified the crux of the matter. There are two fields of study (African American studies, civil war history) that barely communicate. With notable exceptions (McPherson, Foner), the African American perspective is given little room (and then as object not subject) in the civil war narrative, which results in spectacular misfires (e.g. the recent discussion about whether the civil war was a tragedy).

Self-selection (as well as self-restraint to African American topics) and the commercial reality that Confederate stuff outsells everything (according to Gary Gallagher), in my view, distorts the perception of the civil war. I hope that the 150th anniversary will offer a new perspective to the traditional Team Blue vs Team Grey approach. An African American would be perfect for this iconoclastic job.

Thanks and please continue adding to the list of authors.

Aug 15, 2011, 4:15pm Top

jc, your comment that Confederate stuff outsells everything is something that is personal to me. When I was a young teenager I went to Gettysburg and I was much more interested in Confederate merchandise and I bought a CSA belt buckle. As I got older and I understood better what the CSA stood for I stopped wearing that belt buckle.

Aug 16, 2011, 6:58am Top

>9 LucasTrask: Isn't not wearing belt buckles part of growing up ;)

I wouldn't be too harsh about Confederate symbols, though. Most of the original symbols have lost their incendiary meaning as only specialists recognize a Bonnie Blue flag, the Stars 'n' Bars or the abbreviation "CS".

Even the meaning of the battle flag (in its ugly rectangular form) has morphed. I'd argue that almost nobody intends it to express pro-slavery or states right opinions. It retains its sting/taint of racial superiority but all depends on the context of its use (One of the key messages of Foner's outstanding The Fiery Trial is to show that racism wasn't confined to the South. The North (and the rest of the world) was a hotbed of racism too, a major reason why it was so difficult to diffuse the situation.).

The battle flag has undertaken a remarkable transformation: As part of the Lost Cause symbology, the flag as a symbol of a reactionary state founded to protect government intervention to prop up an out-moded production system has become a classic symbol of a rebel, an outcast (mostly from a rural background - rednecks/bikers not hippies). A symbol of oppression turned into a sign of defiance against (supposed) oppression.

Outside the US, the battleflag also has strong connotations with the Wild West: My first contact with the American Civil War was playing with a mix of cowboys/indians, US and CS toy soldiers. Pitching the similarly armed US and CS soldiers against each other I always interpreted as a sign of fairness (the poor bow and knife armed indians stood little chance of winning a fight). A 1970s spaghettti western is not complete without a complement of (former or active) Confederates ...

Edited: Aug 19, 2011, 1:55am Top

Black historians have been involved in writing about the Civil War almost from the moment the war ended. Much of their work published between 1867 and 1890 was directed toward commemorating African American soldiers and sailors. Already by the time Woodrow Wilson entered the White House, these histories were buried under an avalanche of mainstream scholarship that played down the role of slavery as a cause of the war and treated black people as passive objects acted on by white initiative. White people emancipated blacks, and white people manipulated black voters and politicians during Reconstruction — or so it was said for most of the 20th century.

Here are some authors and works (lifted from a seminar paper I wrote four years ago):

In 1867 William Wells Brown published The Negro in the American Rebellion. The book makes a case for a black tradition of martial valor extending back to North Africa. It recounts black military exploits in the American Revolution (mainly on the Continental side, although in fact a larger number of enslaved blacks fought for Britain in hopes of winning emancipation). Brown was himself a veteran of the United States Colored Troops (USCT).

George Washington Williams, also a Civil War veteran, published A History of the Negro Troops in the War of the Rebellion in 1888 through Harper & Brothers. Two years later Joseph T. Wilson released The Black Phalanx, a further attempt to preserve the memory of black military exploits in the Civil War. Wilson has an interesting personal story. Being light enough to “pass,” he successfully enlisted in a New York regiment along with two Spanish-speaking men. When his identity as a “Negro” was discovered, though, Wilson was promptly discharged without papers. Once the Union changed its policy in 1863, Wilson enlisted again.

Estimates of the total black enlistment for the Union hover around 200,000 or more — outnumbering the entire Army of Northern Virginia by the time Lee surrendered. The vital role of black soldiers was obvious at first, but before long, for a number of reasons, only a few among the aging white Union veterans continued to honor the service of black troops.

In 1953 African American historian Benjamin Quarles revived the history of the USCT with The Negro in the Civil War. The subject entered the mainstream, though, only after a white historian from Kansas (Dudley Cornish) treated the same subject in his book The Sable Arm. Even then, the history of black soldiers remained a fairly marginal topic. Not until the 1989 movie Glory did the general public get a sense that black men had fought to help defeat the Confederacy.

African American historians also pioneered the study of black civilians during the Civil War, both enslaved and free. Rehearsal for Reconstruction: The Port Royal Experiment (1964), by Ms. Willie Lee Rose, is the first notable study of this kind. It tells of an “experiment” in emancipating slaves on the occupied Sea Islands near Beaufort, S.C. This wartime enterprise was run by paternalistic missionaries from the North, but Rose finds that the former slaves had a well developed sense of their own best interest and tried to act on it.

It took time — decades, in fact — for white historians to pick up this trail of inquiry. Now it is commonplace to describe emancipation, not as a gift from the sainted Lincoln, but as a messy process initiated by slaves, who took unexpected initiative in fleeing to Union lines and demanding to play some role in securing their own freedom. Lincoln, being anxious to keep the border states in the Union, tacked to the right on slavery, until pressure from the army command — which was itself under pressure from black “contrabands” and sympathetic white soldiers — steered the president toward emancipation and recruitment of black soldiers. That’s what got the ball rolling. In a word, though, slavery did not die easily.

Another outstanding study of black civilians, this time in the border state of Maryland, is Slavery and Freedom on the Middle Ground by the already mentioned Barbara Jeanne Fields. Besides telling a complex story of how emancipation actually occurred in one state, Fields advances a (to me) convincing theoretical point that urbanization was an implicit threat to the chattel slave system. In other words, slaveholders had reason to regard the growth of Baltimore with suspicious eyes. To me this is the most impressive of the state-level studies of the end of slavery.

I’ve also read Black Confederates and Afro-Yankees in Civil War Virginia, by archivist Ervin L. Jordan. The best thing about the book is that it calls attention to the fact that some black southerners did see themselves as having a personal stake in the success of the Confederacy. Generally this was because of personal attachments or felt obligations to white Confederates. Jordan acknowledges that these “Afro-Confederates” (his term) were quite a small group, resented by other “Afro-Virginians.” Some of the book’s flaws spring from Jordan’s manifest Virginia patriotism; he assumes that black Virginians of the 1860s felt the same love for the Old Dominion that he does. Jordan also tends to overinterpret his evidence to support his quixotic thesis of a “biracial” Confederacy. Jordan is not naive, and he doesn’t intend to say that white and black Confederates had the same politics, or that white Confederates were not racist defenders of chattel slavery. But the book is all too amenable to selective quoting by neo-Confederates willing to ignore these qualifications. An effective rejoinder is Confederate Emancipation by Bruce Levine, a rigorous study of Confederate recruitment of slave soldiers, with none of the eccentricities of Jordan’s book.

Concerning the late John Hope Franklin, I’d like to point out that his ambit included Southern history in the broadest sense, not just Civil War or African American history. Personally I regard him as a role model for engaged scholarship — neither an ivory-tower type nor a street agitator, but a great scholar who was too honest to hide his views — much less to let them determine the outcome of his research.

I suspect that Dr. Franklin may have been the first African American historian to direct the dissertations of white Ph.D.s.; it would be interesting to know for sure. In any case, one of his former students is now director of the Alabama Department of Archives and History. That’s not an outcome that I think the founders of the ADAH would have welcomed — but fwiw I do.

Aug 19, 2011, 1:16am Top

If there were some way to generally promote the above post I would. Thanks.

Aug 19, 2011, 6:43am Top

I concur, a very informative post. Thanks.

What I am still missing, is a black perspective on the Confederate leadership similar to how Jewish historians took on the Nazi leaders. The focus on African American history themes evades confrontation and a necessary reassessment of the Civil War.

Civil War history (and pre-20th century American history in general) suffers from a hagiographic approach. Even though there have been corrections on some of the marble men (Jefferson, Andrew Jackson, Lee), there exist few to no countervailing voices to, say, James I. Robertson's Stonewall Jackson biography and its cinematic version as a neo-Confederate wet dream Gods and Generals (love its flag intro, though).

Aug 19, 2011, 8:39am Top

Rob that was a great post. I was familiar with Brown and Williams' books, I found them while searching for slave narratives, but I have not yet read them. The other titles are new to me.

I would like to add The Black Brigade of Cincinnati from 1864. Early in the war it was assumed that Cincinnati would be attacked and African Americans were "recruited" for a work detail to build fortifications south of the city. Kentucky was Union but it was a slave state and therefore enemy territory for the workers. They feared that slave hunters would grab them if they became separated from the Union Army regulars they were working for. One man died in an accident and after the unit was disbanded several went east to enlist in the "Glory" regiment and fight with something more than a pick and shovel. It is an interesting story that I found while my attention wondered away from the project I was supposed to be working on at the time. I have meant to go back and look at the newspaper records and maybe write up something about it.

The book is available as a PDF here


Aug 23, 2011, 12:27pm Top

> 13

jcbruner wrote:
What I am still missing, is a black perspective on the Confederate leadership similar to how Jewish historians took on the Nazi leaders. The focus on African American history themes evades confrontation and a necessary reassessment of the Civil War.

Are you asking for a history that celebrates the Union and vilifies the Confederacy? These have not exactly been lacking. Those who want such histories can easily find them, and those who reject them can easily avoid them (while nurturing a sense of grievance that they were ever written).

I do appreciate your comment about getting past the “Team Blue vs. Team Grey” approach to the war. Too much writing and reading about the Civil War amounts to a kind of escapism. I wonder how many “buffs” have ever grasped for more than a moment the emotions that gripped almost every single individual in the U.S. during those four terrible years in the 1860s: panic, terror, blinding hatred, horror, disgust, shame.

Making sense of the disaster, and willfully associating the mountains of carnage with such things as honor and duty, consumed most of our intellectual energy and imagination for at least the next 40 years. In the process, white supremacy, which seemed to lose the war, won the peace in a landslide.

So if African American historians have not seemed to tackle the war as such, I think one reason is that they don’t see much point in addressing the war without its broader context: both what came before and what followed.

“What came before” includes both a total history of slavery — why it existed in the first place, how it adapted to changing times, how the enslaved actually lived, how enslavement was enforced, how it was justified under the law of a “liberty and equality” state, how slavery made the South the wealthiest region of the United States — and a serious engagement with the ideology and politics of the South.

Traditional historiography pretended that slavery was unprofitable and paternalistic, that the South was essentially irrational in defending the institution, and that southerners contributed nothing of substance to the intellectual history of the U.S. (which was confined to Philadelphia, Boston, and Concord, Mass.). The truth turns out to be much messier. Slavery was in fact immensely profitable, slaveholders were well qualified capitalists, and southerners were inventive in devising intellectual justifications for slavery as world opinion turned against it. Note that the founding generation of Virginians was morally troubled about slavery, but the 1850s generation championed it as a positive good and a bulwark of civilization. Defense of slavery became the linchpin of southern nationalism, even among people with no realistic prospect of owning slaves. No less disturbing, this ideology found powerful adherents in the North.

“What followed”: The war didn’t start out as a crusade against slavery, but it ended that way. The abolition of slavery and extension of citizenship to former slaves were conditions for the readmission of the southern states to the U.S.A. However the leadership of the southern Democrats was determined to preserve as much as possible the labor relations that had existed under slavery, and to deny honor and dignity to black men and the households they aspired to head. Most northern Republicans had tired of the “southern problem” by 1876, while a critical mass of southerners proved willing to resort to any means, including deadly violence and a resumption of sectional strife, to regain white-only rule. The pressure for reconciliation between the sections ended up selling out the interests of African Americans.

This process is of understandable interest, not just to black historians. The 20th century began with a resurgence of Social Darwinist white supremacy, and it is in this context that the last enslaved generation had to try to make its way.

So it’s my belief that African American historians would rather set the war in its broader context and elevate the long-neglected study of Reconstruction, rather than deal with the years 1861 to 1865 alone. But maybe the sesquicentennial will inspire something new in that line, and not just from the Civil War industry as we know it.

Of course, the worst outcome would be for a professional clown like Jesse Lee Peterson to exploit the occasion with a book that flattered white racists while provoking enraged lash-outs from black raconteurs. I’m afraid that such a book might create one of the greatest publishing sensations since The Bell Curve. (I see that the LT touchstone has picked out one of the books that refutes the despicable 1994 bestseller by Herrnstein and Murray. Good.)

Aug 23, 2011, 6:31pm Top

>15 Muscogulus: What I seek, is some kind of synthesis similar to the one that was achieved in the Thomas Jefferson/Sally Hemings case. Foner in his book about Lincoln's view on slavery does this magnificently. I just learned that Seward (and Lincoln) even offered the South to enshrine slavery, oops "domestic institutions", in the 13th amendment to the US constitution (actually ratified by Ohio, Illinois and Maryland!).

My interest lies in a less skewed playing field, so that instead of uncritical admiration for the "great family man" Jefferson Davis such as presented in James Swanson's recent "Bloody crimes", authors would show some awareness that these men fought for a truly vile cause. Currently, we have a "viewer discretion is advised" foil situation. Only Nathan B. Forest is treated with the reserve I'd like all Confederate leaders to be exposed to (well, apart from the numerous hagiographies to that vile man).

Reconstruction is an important subject of American history. An important subject the public is not interested in. Similarly, black history is often relegated to the ghetto of a Black history month instead of integrated into the canon. I think it would be helpful to have more black voices among the general books listed on the Civil War bookshelf.

For the 150th anniversary, I wish the American Civil War to be re-integrated into international history (a late 1848 counterrevolution; a comparison of US and Russian emancipation policies) and a slaying of the old canard of the 600,000 dead who "didn't die in vain". Most of them did because of the atrociously poor hygiene that defied international standards. The grim reaper harvested his men off the battle field (Frederick L. Olmsted's efforts in getting the US Sanitary Commission up to speed is a tale not often told.).

Edited: Aug 26, 2011, 5:09pm Top

Looking away from the "skewed playing field" of Civil War fantasy or escapist lit, I think the synthesis you seek is already well developed and having an influence on teachers. Any current Civil War survey from an academic press would probably meet your standards. (For example This Terrible War by Michael Fellman.)

Re Jefferson Davis, I wouldn't pigeonhole him either as idealized "family man" or as a mere fighter for a "vile cause." Recall that Davis was a latecomer to secession and a voice of moderation in Confederate politics. The "reserve" you recommend in the treatment of all Confederate leaders should not be applied indiscriminately, nor should it be withheld from all Unionists, as if most of them did not also uphold obnoxious doctrines including white supremacy. The US Sanitary Commission you mention was, in George Fredrickson's reading, a means to advance elitist ideals of professionalism in opposition to the Jacksonian egalitarianism that prevailed up to the war years. (See The Inner Civil War, which deals with the rise of such formerly marginal anti-democrats as Orestes Brownson.) The U.S. may have been a "herrenvolk democracy," but the part that most offended some influential Unionists was the democracy.

You mention the "ghetto" of Black History Month, an event that (IMO) may now be doing more harm than good, in that it has the unintended consequence of separating the history of black Americans. It is now commonplace to mainstream what was once "black history" in works by academic historians, and even more-popular writers are I think getting past the stage of inserting a chapter devoted to "minorities." Eventually even the sentimental/escapist Civil War industry will catch up. It exists to please readers, and eventually a critical mass of readers will tire of the traditional platitudes — some of them.

Aug 28, 2011, 7:18pm Top

>17 Muscogulus: I am probably reading a bit too much low brow military history where the synthesis has only partially taken hold. There is a certain reluctance of many US academics to get into the in-fight (or is it wrestling with pigs, cf. the recent VA Civil War "text book" case). In McPherson's essay collection This Mighty Scourge, he restricts his textbook critique to the safely racist pre Civil Rights era titles.

Ta-Nehisi Coates' post made me aware of David Blight's upcoming book American Oracle The Civil War in the Civil Rights Era (pre-ordered) who says in the video interview linked by Coates that "the Civil War and Civil Rights became almost like planets orbiting separate suns".

Re Jefferson Davis, Janet Sharp Hermann's The Pursuit of a Dream about his brother's slave kibbutz plantation at Davis Bend is high on my TBR list. Quite a different trajectory of the two brothers. If one looks what happened to traitors/rebels in other nations, Jeff Davis escaped virtually unpunished.

In my limited reading, the US Sanitary Commission was mainly an end run around the US military bureaucracy. As events in the Iraq War have shown (cf. Walter Reed scandal, body and vehicle armor scandals), the military bureaucracy tends to ignore the private soldier's plight. Resistance to the US Sanitary Commission came from the generals (the Red Cross came into being also as a civilian initiative. The French and Austrian emperors didn't care about the thousands of wounded and dying at Solferino.).

You're right that Unionist aversion to colorblind democracy doomed Reconstruction.

Aug 30, 2011, 5:41pm Top

> 18

I’m glad to know about The Pursuit of a Dream, about “three attempts to create an ideal community on the river bottom lands at Davis Bend south of Vicksburg. There Joseph Davis's effort to establish a cooperative community among the slaves on his plantation was doomed to fail as long as they remained in bondage. During the Civil War the Yankees tried with limited success to organize the freedmen into a model community without trusting them to manage their own affairs. After the war the intrepid Benjamin Montgomery and his family bought the land from Davis and established a very prosperous colony of their fellow freedmen.” (Publisher’s description)

On the U.S. Sanitary Commission, Fredrickson argues that there was a large volunteer effort to care for Union soldiers, and that the Commission was organized more to impose a hierarchy of expertise on this spontaneous philanthropy than to maneuver around military bureaucracy. (It’s interesting that there was, apparently, no comparable volunteerism in the South.) Not that the Commission was without value — it was more efficient than decentralized volunteerism like that of army nurse Walt Whitman, and it may have saved lives. But IIRC Fredrickson charges that the USSC, far from being a beacon of benevolence, was an ideological organization devoted to training Americans to submit to order and discipline. Providing aid to soldiers, which it did through paid agents rather than volunteers, was mostly a means to this higher end.

Aug 30, 2011, 11:59pm Top

I believe it was in the Hudson Strode biography of Jefferson Davis I read that Benjamin Montgomery was less than successful, went bankrupt and Davis never saw most of the money owed him from the sale of the land.

Aug 31, 2011, 4:54pm Top

>20 LucasTrask:

I only know the book at third hand, but I believe The Pursuit of a Dream agrees that Montgomery’s first attempt was unsuccessful, but he tried again. It seems likely that more has been learned about Benjamin Montgomery since Strode published the final volume of his Davis biography in 1964.

Sep 3, 2011, 11:28am Top

>20 LucasTrask:+21 Well, the odds were stacked heavily against them: Agriculture, during the Reconstruction era, by African Americans in the South, in a cooperative, with probably little to no financial reserves. A single factor may lead to bankruptcy, the combination almost guarantees it.

A liberation without redistribution and financial assistance (in the form of a Marshall plan) is bound to disappoint. According to Wikipedia: "Thomas Shapiro, in his book The Hidden Cost of Being African American, states that the median white family has an average of $81,000 in net worth (in 2004) while the median black family only has $8,000." Even 150 years after the end of slavery, black families have been able to accumulate next to no net wealth.

Dec 23, 2011, 7:28am Top

john hope franklin is an excellent black historian. his books on reconstruction and the war are excellent.

Jan 1, 2012, 4:33pm Top

Ta-Nehisi Coates has been commissioned to write a book about the Civil War, expanding on his Atlantic article Why Do So Few Blacks Study the Civil War? in the 150th ACW anniversary issue.

The article triggered a vicious turf-protecting response from the director of the Washington, DC, African American Civil War Memorial & Museum. The museum was unfortunately closed during my last visit to DC. The monument on Vermont Ave is in a rather less prominent spot beyond the tourist magnets (and, I kid you not, opposite the Department of Corrections!). In contrast to Boston's great 54th MA/Shaw monument, the cramped African American Civil War Memorial looks like a group of soldiers backed up against a wall with no way out.

Any way, I look forward to Coates' book.

Jan 10, 2012, 11:30pm Top

One could look to the writings and speeches of Frederick Douglass before, during, and after the American Civil War era for a facet of African American experience/ voice on the subject. I would agree that WEB DuBois was an excellent historian and his early work chartered much that later historians have only recognized in the near recent past.

Jan 30, 2012, 8:21am Top

An article from the book Presenting the Past suggested that The colored patriots of the American Revolution was the first published American history written by an African-American. It was published in Boston in 1855. It actually gave an interesting history of African-American history done by African-Americans.

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