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.