Now We’re Finally Getting Somewhere.
Over the last few weeks there’s been a good bit of discussion about Ann DeWitt and her website on Black Confederates, particularly since the announcement of a new novel for young adults, written by her and Kevin M. Weeks, Entangled in Freedom. The discussion has been pretty volatile over at Levin’s place — who coulda’ seen that coming? — but I’ve tried to steer a little clear of criticizing Ms. DeWitt personally, because she seems a sincere, if ill-informed, advocate for the idea, and because at this point anything else will be perceived as “piling on.” But now, I think, she’s actually (and unwittingly) done us all a favor, by acknowledging explicitly what skeptics have been saying for a long time: that at the core of Black Confederate lies a definition of the word “soldier” that is so broad, so vague and nebulous that the word can be taken to mean virtually anything, and is applied to any person who had even the remotest connection to the Confederate army.
This morning, I noticed her project home page now opens with a definition:
Merriam Webster Dictionary defines a soldier as a militant leader, follower, or worker.
If we’re going to quote the dictionary, let’s be clear: she’s quoting the secondary, alternate definition. By citing it, Ms. DeWitt tacitly acknowledges that the primary definition of the word — “a: one engaged in military service and especially in the army b : an enlisted man or woman c : a skilled warrior” — does not generally apply, or is at least too narrow to describe, Black Confederates as she identifies them. It is not too much to say, I think, that in citing such a broad definition, Ms. DeWitt just knocked over the whole house of cards that comprises most of the “evidence” for Black Confederates.
There’s an old saying that a “gaffe” is what happens when a politician accidentally speaks the truth. This is a gaffe. This is the truth that forms the foundation of most Black Confederate advocacy. To qualify as a Black Confederate, one needs only to qualify as a follower or a worker. In short, the term “soldier” applies to anyone — enlisted man, musician, teamster, body servant, cook, hospital orderly, laundress, sutler, drover, laborer, anyone – involved with the army in any capacity.
A long time ago, I learned a rule that has stood me in good stead ever since: any time a writer or public speaker starts off his or her essay by quoting a definition from the dictionary, you can safely stop reading or listening, because nothing worthwhile or new is likely to follow. That’s still true, but it this case Ms. DeWitt’s use of the technique does do us all a genuine service, by admitting what Black Confederate skeptics have been saying all along — that the movement’s advocates are so loose with the their definitions, so willing to conflate service as a volunteer, enlisted soldier under arms with a slave’s compelled service as a cook and body servant to his owner and master, that the narratives they offer cannot stand close historiographical scrutiny at all. To borrow an analogy allegedly coined by Lincoln himself, Black Confederate advocacy is like shoveling fleas across the barnyard — you start with what seems to be a shovelful, but by the time you get to the other side, there’s very little actually there.
Update, August 22: I just noticed this on the website, as well:
Another challenge is the fact that 19th century CSA enlistment forms and pension applications did not include race, so unless all current SCV members come forward with more historical accounts, the world may never know the total number of African-Americans (Blacks) who served in any and all capacities of the American Civil War.
If I’m reading this correctly, Ms. DeWitt views any Confederate enlistment or pension document that doesn’t explicitly state otherwise to be potential evidence of a Black Confederate. Wowza!
Not sure what the call for “all current SCV members come forward with more historical accounts” means.