Frederick Douglass, Time Traveler?
John Stauffer’s essay at The Root (“Yes, There Were Black Confederates. Here’s Why“), that claims to establish the reality of African American Confederate soldiers, has been pretty thoroughly dismantled by both Brooks Simpson and Kevin Levin. But I’d like to point out one small item that neither of them have mentioned. Stauffer cites Frederick Douglass’ oft-quoted assertion from the summer of 1861 that there were black Confederate troops at the site of the then-recent Battle of Manassas, “as real soldiers, having muskets on their shoulders, and bullets in their pockets.” Stauffer continues,
What were Douglass’ sources in identifying black Confederates? One came from a Virginia fugitive who escaped to Boston shortly before the Battle of First Manassas in Virginia that summer. He saw “one regiment of 700 black men from Georgia, 1000 [men] from South Carolina, and about 1000 [men with him from] Virginia, destined for Manassas when he ran away.”
Stauffer likely picked up this quote from an endnote on p. 467 of Frederick Douglass: Selected Speeches and Writings (Philip S. Foner and Yuval Taylor, eds., Chicago Review Press, 2000). Unfortunately for Stauffer, Foner and Taylor also provide the source for the quotation — a speech given in Boston on February 5, 1862, and quoted the next day in the Boston Daily Journal and Evening Transcript newspapers. Stauffer is claiming that Douglass, writing in the summer of 1861, based his claim on a speech that wouldn’t be given for another six months.
Douglass did, in fact, hear this story, because he was the headline speaker at the Emancipation League meeting in Boston where the unnamed “Virginia fugitive” told it — but not in 1861.
Frederick Douglass was a remarkable man, but as far as I know he wasn’t a time traveler. In citing an 1862 speech as a source for a Douglass essay written in 1861, Stauffer has either (1) broken genuinely new historical ground in his discovery that Douglass had mastered the fourth dimension, traveling forward through time and space to Boston in February 1862 to collect information he would use upon his return to 1861 Rochester, or (2) shown himself to be just as sloppy and misleading in his efforts as most of the other folks who’ve taken up the mantle of “scholarship” on this subject.
You decide which of those possibilities seems more likely.