Dead Confederates, A Civil War Era Blog

“You think I’m making this stuff up?” Um, yes, I do.

Posted in African Americans, Memory by Andy Hall on March 15, 2011

There’s been a vigorous discussion over at Kevin’s regarding the scholarship of Edward Smith, an Assistant Professor of Anthropology who’s frequently cited as “the foremost authority in America on black Confederates and the participation of blacks for the Southern side in the War Between the States.” But apart from a 1989 presentation to the Civil War Society, an article in Civil War Magazine that same year (which apparently draws heavily on the dubious Steiner account of Frederick), and several presentations since then, Smith has not, as far as I can tell, published anything scholarly on the matter.

While poking around the web today, I came across this quote, included in the transcript of a 1998 Washington City Paper article:

Carved in stone [sic.] – plain as day – is a black Confederate in uniform marching alongside his comrades-in-arms. According to Smith, it is a clue to a secret history. “When you look at that [Confederate memorial at Arlington], and you see this black guy in uniform, that’s undeniable,” he says. “And the sculptor, Moses Ezekiel, a Confederate veteran, he knew what those units looked like, and therefore, to not include that black soldier in that statue, he would have created a lie.”

A native Virginian and graduate of Virginia Military Institute, Ezekiel fought at the Battle of New Market, where several black Confederate soldiers saw action. (A recent re-enactment at the Shenandoah Valley battlefield featured one black man in gray.) Smith says it’s often difficult to convince people that blacks fought for the South; and it’s even harder explaining that the creator of a graven image of a black Rebel was himself a Jewish Rebel. “[American University] is a very Jewish campus,” he says. “I tell my Jewish colleagues that there were over 10,000 Jews in the Confederacy. I say, ‘Who the hell do you think put the monument over there in Arlington Cemetery? His name was Moses Ezekiel – you can’t get any more goddam Jewish than that. You think I’m making this stuff up?”

You don’t really want an answer to that last question, do you?

But he doesn’t stop with the figure on the monument; Smith goes on to claim in the piece that tens of thousands of African Americans fought as combatants in Confederate ranks. Using Steiner’s figure of 3,000 black men he claims to have seen, “Smith says that if you take this figure and extrapolate it to the rest of the Southern army, his estimate of 50,000 is conservative.”

Historians specializing in the African American experience in the Civil War challenged Smith’s claims:

[Ervin] Jordan readily admits that he hasn’t uncovered tens of thousands of black Confederates in wartime Virginia – in fact, he’s found barely a fraction of that. And many of those weren’t the black-power Rebs making the rounds at re-enactments today; they had to hide their race to get their horse and pistol. Often, they were light-skinned blacks who passed – usually with a knowing wink – as whites to gain their place in a regiment. (In one unit, a black volunteer was even mockingly mustered as an “honorary white” soldier.)

Asa Gordon, then head of the Washington, D.C.-based Douglass Institute of Government and now Secretary General of the Sons and Daughters of United States Colored Troops, was more blunt in the 1998 article: “Ed knows that a lot of what he’s saying is garbage, but he is able to separate himself from the pack of true black scholars.”

This post is not intended as a slam on Smith personally. He’s clearly a compelling educator, and one of his students took time at Kevin’s to speak highly of him. But I do want to point out that there are real, and serious, limitations to his work on BCS as it’s generally cited. Smith seems to be a self-taught cultural anthropologist of sorts, specializing in the African American experience. This is a valuable and important skill, and his work undoubtedly becomes more valuable to the Anthro Department at AU with every passing year. I’ve met folks like Smith who without much formal training are genuine treasures to their universities, valued for their experience, their connections to the community, and the institutional memory they carry.

But lookit — Smith’s undoubted experience and longevity in cultural anthro doesn’t get him any closer to being able to look critically at the historical, documentary record on African Americans in the Confederacy in 1861-65 than any other layperson. Formal, academic training in history isn’t just sitting in class and learning a bunch of obscure historical facts. More than anything else, practicing history involves looking closely at the original documents — diaries, newspaper accounts, memoirs, photographs, and so on — and asking hard questions that go beyond the actual words on the page. It involves making decisions what sources, what witnesses, are reliable and which are questionable. It involves looking at the likely intentions and audience of the author. It involves looking for corroborating sources. Most of all, it involves knowing the limitations of the sources themselves, and imposing a constant check on oneself against reading too much into any single source.

And you certainly don’t take an account like Steiner’s, which is questionable to begin with, and extrapolate that out into tens of thousands of black men in the Confederate ranks across the South.

It doesn’t take a faculty appointment at a university or an advanced degree to write history well, but it does take a systematic and critical approach to the work, and to the source material. What I’ve seen so far of Smith’s is largely lacking in that regard. Those who cite Smith as “the foremost authority in America on black Confederates” seem not to understand these limitations in his work. (For that matter, they don’t know enough to get Smith’s actual title right.) Instead they see Smith’s affiliation with American University, and latch onto that as an imprimatur of his work on BCS. (Something similar goes on with university economists Walter Williams and Thomas DiLorenzo, both deemed intellectual heavyweights of modern Lost Cause historical narrative, neither of whom have published peer-reviewed, scholarly works on the subject.)

As I’ve said many times, we all stand or fall on the quality of the work we do, regardless of professional affiliation, formal educational attainment, or title. What I’ve seen of Smith’s work, and the claims based upon it, don’t really measure up.

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12 Responses

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  1. TheRaven said, on March 15, 2011 at 10:15 pm

    “And the sculptor, Moses Ezekiel, a Confederate veteran, he knew what those units looked like, and therefore, to not include that black soldier in that statue, he would have created a lie.”

    Is “Assistant Professor of Anthropology” a punchline?

  2. Scott Manning said, on March 15, 2011 at 11:00 pm

    It still makes me cringe that you guys are using this student’s feedback to support your case against Smith. After seeing more of the evidence, you do not need it. It is overkill. The anonymous student’s comments about his folksy wisdom and “sketchy” research methods are not positives for a history person no matter how much the student admires him. “He’s a great buy, but he sucks at history.”

    Without that quote from the student, Smith is still overwhelmingly wrong on his statements. I’m also convinced that his 1989 article and double-disc DVD will yield the same conclusions. The facts are what is convincing, not the student’s comment.

    • Andy Hall said, on March 15, 2011 at 11:08 pm

      Scott, you’re dead right. I’ve re-edited the post accordingly.

      • Scott Manning said, on March 15, 2011 at 11:31 pm

        Andy, I’d rather be dead right than a dead Confederate. You continue to impress. Keep up the good work.

  3. Dick Stanley said, on March 15, 2011 at 11:59 pm

    I’m not out to defend Smith, but I recently came across a semi-black possible Confederate soldier. You might want to try researching him, Andy. He’s buried in the Confederate cemetery at Beauvoir.

    http://www.beauvoir.org/cemetery%20list.html

    His name was N.J. Johnson, of the 21st Alabama. I say semi-black because he’s listed on the cemetery roster as a Redbone, capital R, the only man on the list I can find with a racial designator. You’re probably familiar with the term. If not, it means someone of mixed race, usually black and American Indian.

    Course he could have been a servant, rather than a soldier. And I’m not sure whether, for the purposes of the controversy, y’all would accept a Redbone. But to have been buried at Beauvoir, in about 1917, according to the death date, indicates he was more than a servant.

    • Andy Hall said, on March 16, 2011 at 7:36 am

      Interesting, thanks. I see a service record for a Pvt. “N. Johnson” in the 21st Alabama, who seems to have been enlisted but spent much of the war assigned to the Quartermaster’s Dept. as a teamster. Captured in the capitulation of Fort Gaines (Battle of Mobile Bay) in Aug 1864, and paroled at the end of the war.

      Fun fact: His old colonel in the 21st, Charles DeWitt Anderson, lies a moulderin’ in the grave a few blocks from my home.

    • Andy Hall` said, on March 16, 2011 at 10:04 am

      Added: minor quibble, I want to push back just a little with the idea of my “accepting” this or that person as a BCS — my interest is to identify individuals and their 1861-65 status as a clearly as possible. My beef with much of what is claimed as “evidence” for the status of this or that specific individual is that it simply doesn’t hold up to close scrutiny of the extant primary sources. When I challenge the claims made about a specific person, my intent is to show the flaws in the research on which the claim is being made, and to set the historical record straight as best I can. Whether this or that person was considered a soldier in 1861-65 isn’t my call, or anyone else’s living today; that’s a determination made 150 years ago. What’s up to us is to dig to find out what that status actually was, as much as we can.

      I’m not entirely certain that the “N. J. Johnson” at Beauvoir is the same as “Pvt. N. Johnson” in the National Archives service records, though it seems likely it is. And the latter was cerrtainly considered a soldier at the time. The designation “Redbone” is somewhat ambiguous to me, and I don’t know how it might have figured in his enlistment — or potentially the fact that he got detached from his unit for much of his military service as a teamster for the QMD. This Wiki, on the “Redbone” community in Louisiana, suggests they were often light-complexioned and that African heritage is not necessarily part of individuals’ ethnic makeup. Ambiguous stuff.

      Unfortunately, the lack of a full name and the commonality of “Johnson” as a surname will make finding corroborating material (e.g., census records) difficult in this case.

  4. Tim from Alabama said, on July 2, 2011 at 8:59 am

    Southern planters were forced to adopt a hypocritical approach to the management of the “peculiar institution” to maintain order and a facade of sanity and integrity on the surface. To maintain the possibility of prosperity, in the future, based on minimal labor cost it was necessary to rationalize the unfair and grossly dishonest practice of slavery. Basing a culture on chivalry, honor, duty, integrity and loyalty to family, friends and country required a certain common sense approach that could not be rationalized unless slavery was dealt with in some fashion consistant with those lofty ideals. In my opinion, this is how most deep south leaders rationalized the belief Africans were of some different type of human origin that would allow them to maintain a false claim of honesty when actively dealing with the institution of slavery in real terms. By basing it all on ignorance and misinformation. Lincoln and Lee reenforced this belief in their writings on the subject. Deep south politicians were not as subtle as border state and northern tier southern leaders of that day.

    That is my impression of the confederate black soldier suggestion. There is a gray area here between non combatants and combatants. There are photos of blacks in group shots of white confederates for different reasons. Blacks definitely existed as we can all agree. However, calling a member of a military group a combatant when they were present in a support role only is another case of misinformation based on the need to rationalize behavior that was irrationale in origin. Spinning a falsehood makes it more believable when you change the subject regularly. The question of equality and justice was avoided by basing an original premise on misinformation in both cases.

    • Andy Hall said, on July 2, 2011 at 9:30 am

      There is a gray area here between non combatants and combatants. There are photos of blacks in group shots of white confederates for different reasons. Blacks definitely existed as we can all agree. However, calling a member of a military group a combatant when they were present in a support role only is another case of misinformation based on the need to rationalize behavior that was irrationale in origin.

      That’s substantially it. No historian disputes that the Confederate war effort, both at homne and in the field, relies very heavily on the labor of African Americans — mostly slaves, some free. The difference lies in being specific about the nature of that service, and how those men were viewed at the time.

      They were not recognized generally as soldiers, either by white soldiers or by the Confederate government. Even on those occasions when they did pick up a weapon — of which there are numerous anecdotal accounts — it’s clear from the context that these were (1) viewed as notable and therefore worth mentioning, and (2) usually framed as an act of personal loyalty to his master, rather than to the larger, political struggle.

      Folks who push the BCS meme often make analogies to the modern-day military, arguing that modern U.S. soldiers in support roles are nonetheless soldiers, That’s true, but they’re soldiers because they are formally enlisted and sworn as soldiers, regardless of their day-to-day job in the military. That was not generally true of African Americans working as cooks, personal servants, and so on, who served their individual masters, rather than the military hierarchy, as an enlisted soldier does.

      Ed Smith, outlined in this posting, is often cited as a serious academic authority on the subject of BCS, but as seen here, his reasoning and evidence is very thin indeed. That’s generally true with most of what’s offered in “evidence” for BCS, in that it doesn’t hold up to a lot of close scrutiny.

      It does seem that very recently, some of the loudest advocates for BCS have backed off from using the word “soldier,” instead opting for a designation of “colored Confederate” applied to any African American, in any capacity, associated with the Confederacy during the war. OK, fine, but it’s important to remember that in this, as with everything else, the more widely the term is applied, the less meaning it has. It dilutes the brand, and really does undermine the claims they’re trying to make.

  5. Marc Ferguson said, on July 2, 2011 at 9:46 am

    “It does seem that very recently, some of the loudest advocates for BCS have backed off from using the word “soldier,” instead opting for a designation of “colored Confederate” applied to any African American, in any capacity, associated with the Confederacy during the war. OK, fine, but it’s important to remember that in this, as with everything else, the more widely the term is applied, the less meaning it has. It dilutes the brand, and really does undermine the claims they’re trying to make.”

    “Confederate Slave” is more accurate, and doesn’t water down the distinction between soldier and slave laborer. Throwing in the term “Confederate,” without the clear identification of most of these men as slaves, obscures the matter just enough so that some folks can continue to insinuate agency and forms of “loyalty” and ideological motivation consistent with the “faithful slave” trope and the “it was about states’ rights, not slavery,” narrative.

    • Andy Hall said, on July 2, 2011 at 10:06 am

      Adam Serwer referred the BCS as the “Confederacy’s black friends”:

      White guilt is generally characterized as a liberal phenomenon. The idea is that liberals seek to exonerate themselves from past racism rather than simply meet their obligations to their fellow citizens. To the extent that the former is an accurate description of someone’s motives, the criticism is warranted. But the attempt to minimize the suffering caused by slavery and segregation, to recast the Lost Cause as one motivated by “honor” and self-determination rather than racial supremacy and the preservation of chattel slavery, arises out of the same contemptible emotional impulse. The Lost Causer insisting that the Confederacy was not built on racism because of the presence of black soldiers isn’t any less mired in guilt than the liberal quietly mouthing the names of their black friends as they count them on their fingertips. In both cases, the individual trying to free themselves from history ends up drowning in a bottomless pit of self-pity and self-deception that, over time, can only ferment into rage over inability to find an absolution that will be forever beyond their reach.

  6. Tim from Alabama said, on July 2, 2011 at 1:16 pm

    I agree on almost every point.

    It does not apply in every individual case.

    Trying to speak for the intent of another individual in general terms is quite a stretch but the point is well taken.

    White guilt is found everywhere today. Minimizing human suffering throughout history is impossible to begin with. It is not so simple in all cases since each individual can be motivated by different reasons. Thus we run the risk of “stereotyping”. Something we know has been a mistake in the past.

    The Civil War had many causes and was after all is said and done a war. Not necessarily a noble crusade to “win the lost”. Liberals suffering from white guilt love to argue with that.

    We do not owe anyone anything. We are not obligated to anyone. Unless you do not pay your credit card off every month. We are products of a system that has been improved upon slowly over time. A system that will be perfect soon enough. To believe otherwise is what got us into trouble in the first place.


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