Why Southern History Can Be So Dodgy

P

opular histories about the Confederate States of America can be dodgy, as a recent controversy over a school textbook approved for Virginia fourth-graders shows.

In her book “Our Virginia: Past and Present,” author Joy Masoff claims that thousands of Southern blacks fought fo the Confederacy, including two entirely black battalions under the command of the famous Virginia Gen. Thomas “Stonewall” Jackson.

Masoff, who is not a trained historian, says she got the infromation from a Web site. It can be traced to the Sons of Confederate Veterans, a Tennessee-based group open exclusively to males who can show that their ancestors fought for the Confederacy.

Disputes like this used to be fairly common some years ago, and it is surprising that they continue to crop up. Many serious historians note that very few African-Americans fought for the Confederacy, although some slaves were used as forced labor to build fortifications or as valets for Southern officers.

Critics say that assertions such as Masoff’s ought to be strongly opposed because they are designed to give the Southern cause — maintaining slavery — credibility. Groups that tend to romanticize the traditional white Southerners’ view of the conflict counter that a lot of honest history gets lost in politically correct versions that have been taught in schools for decades.

I am not a Southern by background but have lived a good part of my life in the South. One still cannot escape what some whites wish could have been.

I now live near Richmond, whose beautiful Monument Avenue is marked by traffic circles guarded by giant statues of Jackson, Robert. E. Lee and J.E.B. Stuart. Some 100,000 Confederate veterans attended the unveiling of Lee’s statue on May 29, 1890. Granted the real history of these men can be a bit grey (no pun intended). Jackson, for instance, broke state law by teaching black children to read and write at Sunday school.classes when he was at the Virginia Military Institute before the war, according to a biography by noted historian James. I. Robertson Jr.

My first newspaper job was at a small daily in eastern North Carolina where my family lived. I worked there summers when I was in college. It was a pleasant little town with the usual characters waxing eloquent about moonlight and magnolia.

I had a month off one college winter and needed a study project for school. So I went to the newspaper and proposed a Civil War history of the town based on a diary of a Union Navy officer I had found in the local library.

In 1862, Lincoln sent Union gunboats to a number of small river ports in the Carolinas to keep Southerners from getting war materials. This was the case in my little town. But when I read the diary, my eyes opened wide.

According to the author’s account, the town’s elders paddled out in a rowboat to greet their Northern captors with open arms. They were merchants who found that the Southern cause was bad for business, and they were treated to an elegant dinner with wine aboard one of the Yankee gunboats.

Naturally, when my series was printed, it was not well received. One of my critics was a self-styled historian who would fit right in with the Sons of Confederate Veterans. I’m not saying my history was spot on –I was 20 years old at the time — but the experience taught me that anything written about so painful a period has to be undertaken with great care.

You would think that anyone with a hand in the contents of a grade-school textbook would understand that. Cribbing material off a Web site posted by a member of the Sons of Confederate Veterans is suspect at best.

Peter Galuszka

(First posted on TheWashington.Post.com)

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12 responses to “Why Southern History Can Be So Dodgy”

  1. Was that Edenton?

  2. I can remember in fourth or fifth grade being taught, emphatically, that the civil war was over states rights, not slavery.

    I probably did not know about indoctrination or brainwashing then, but I could recognize thou dost protest too much.

    Even kids have a BS monitor.

  3. James A. Bacon Avatar
    James A. Bacon

    I have to say, I was shocked when I first read about Masoff's version of history that found its way into Virginia textbooks. The idea that two battalions of African-American troops fought under Stonewall Jackson is absurd. There is no excuse for such innaccuracies to appear in our textbooks.

    As Peter noted, blacks were conscripted into building fortifications, and some served as valets. It is also true that toward the very end of the war, the Confederate congress debated (or perhaps passed) a bill that would grant slaves their freedom if they joined the Confederate army. I doubt the Confederates got many takers. Maybe a handful, but not many.

    I always found that particular footnote of history to be interesting, though. It demonstrated how far the sense of Confederate nationhood had advanced in four years of shared sacrifice in warfare. The same Confederate leaders who had led their states into secession in order to preserve slavery, now were willing to sacrifice their peculiar institution to save their nation.

    My 12-year-old is studying the Civil War and Reconstruction right now, and I have to say that I am very pleased with the factual and objective presentation of history — no obvious right-wing or left-wing biases — in his textbook. Actually, I'm learning (or re-learning) a lot as I help him study in the evening.

  4. Gooze Views Avatar
    Gooze Views

    Hydra,
    No, not Edenton. It was Lil' Washington (the original one not the one in Virginia) on the Pamlico.
    Just to provide some extra perspective, the town got it from both sides.
    In 1863, the Confederates surrounded much of the town and laid siege with artillery fire to it for about two weeks. Some of the downtown buildings still have shell holes from this. Then, the Southerners withdrew without taking the town.
    The town was quiet until the very end of the war. Drunken Yankee garrison troops got out of hand, set the town on fire and, in their alcoholic stupor, chopped up the town's fire hoses. Ha-ha!
    It's a lovely little place and I'd like to get back there some day. Union Navy vessels seized Edenton, New Bern, Hatteras, Jamestown — just about everywhere but the all-important Wilmington which served as a crucial port for blockage runners supplying the South mostly with British goods.
    Peter Galuszka

  5. Anonymous Avatar

    I've studied Civil War history for many years and two of my great great grandfathers fought in Union blue. The idea that two battalions of blacks willing bore arms for the Confederacy is absurd. But some blacks willing did fight, at least in engagements, for the South. It probably was more of a situation where their participation was ad hoc, i.e., grabbing a rifle in the midst of a battle. There are some old film recordings of blacks at Civil War reunions, inluding the United Confederate Veterans, talking about bearing arms against the Union. But this is a far cry from two battalions.

    Confederate general Pat Cleburne was a strong supporter of trading freedom for slaves in exchange for bearing arms for the South. That never happened. Whether many blacks would have taken up the offer would, indeed, be an interesting question.

    TMT

  6. Both lovely places. i think it was in Edenton when my cat wandered away from the boat and (entirely unusually) didn't come back.

    Mid-morning, a woman came down the dock with he cat in her arms and said she figured it came from the marina, since it wasn't one of the local cats.

    Now that, is a small town.

  7. For a little more insight into the issue of who was fighting for what – do a little research into what happened to black soldiers fighting for the North that were captured.

    Hint: they were not returned with the white soldiers in prisoner swaps.

  8. For a little more insight into the issue of who was fighting for what – do a little research into what happened to black soldiers fighting for the North that were captured.

    Hint: they were not returned with the white soldiers in prisoner swaps.

  9. excellent posted reference!

    yes…. this captured clear efforts on the part of some to depict a view of the history of the civil war that is not validated by any research but apparently made up of whole cloth.

    We often hear both opposing sides of an issue accusing the other of revisionist history.

    Is this an example of such?

    or is it possible that people have their own idea of what the history was and just go ahead and memorialize it without fact checking?

    Either way – it sort of exposes the fact that some people want to believe what they want to believe and don't screw it up with actual history.

    and it's important – because for those who say the war was primarily about states rights, it is critical to believe that slaves were also defending states rights, eh?

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