Bad History done well
Evidence of Black Soldiers? Photo (cc) J. Stephen Conn.
I haven’t seen an edition of the Carnival of Bad History for a while, and I’ve mixed feelings about its demise. A lot of the writing in it was very good, but it’s very easy to write about Bad History badly. I’d be happier writing about popular history and talking about what is good or bad about it, rather than just talking about the bad. At the same time, if there’s something off in the popular press then I can see why it’s a good idea to blog about it. An excellent example of this has been recent discussion of Black Confederates on Civil War Memory. A search will bring up quite a few posts.
There are a couple of ways of looking at the Civil War. One is that it was about slavery, and a move to emancipation by the North which was resisted by the South. This makes the war against the Confederacy a war against racism, and clearly the guys in grey were the Bad Guys. That makes life difficult in the South. The Civil War isn’t in living memory it was fought in the 1860s. Still, there are people alive today who knew people who around in the Civil War and its aftermath. If you’re looking back in your family tree, it’s uncomfortably close. So how else can you look at it? The other way is that the war was a war over States’ Rights. This was a war fought to prevent the Federal government from exceeding its constitutional limits. Unfortunately the right which sparked the war was the right to own slaves. It’s a very difficult fact to spin.
I don’t know of anyone who’s arguing for a return to slavery, so its easy enough to acknowledge that the Confederacy was a product of its time. This is more palatable than arguing that your recent family were an unpleasant bunch. It’s a hard line to hold though if the neighbours to the North were abolitionists. So really what you need is evidence that the issues were more complex and more nuanced. Hence the need for Black Confederates. If you have, as some people claim tens of thousands of Black soldiers in the Confederate Army, then it shows that the Confederacy was different rather than repugnant. Kevin Levin has been looking over some of these claims and by going back to the sources, he’s been able to show that individuals (and it always seems to be the odd individual) that are claimed to be Black Confederates cannot be traced with certainty in the historical record. There are certainly Blacks working for Whites in the Confederate Army, but that might not be so surprising as one of the features of Black slavery is that they spent a lot of time working for Whites.
The response to the request for evidence of Black soldiers is peculiar. I couldn’t put my finger on it, but following a link from Civil War Memory I found the perfect analogy: Applying UFOlogy Techniques to the Search for Black Confederates at Cenantua’s Blog.
Craig Swain, the author has written up something which has been on my to-do list for a little while. It’s a write-up of how pseudohistories are created. He compares accounts of Black Confederates to the arguments for UFOs presented in a History Channel programme and is impressive on two counts. Not only does he show how sleight of hand turns lack of evidence into arguments for pre-selected conclusions, but he’s also found a historical use for the History Channel.* Something quite a way down my current list is writing an article on some of the more bizarre misuses of ancient history and archaeology. I’ll be referring back to Moore’s post (and the comments) when I finally write it because it neatly puts together how the motive for reaching a conclusion can drive the method of historical research.
If evidence for the greys is out there it’s difficult to find.