Textbook should reflect truth about Civil War

Tuesday, December 14, 2010

I am responding to the stir that has been caused by the Virginia History textbook which stated that thousands of blacks fought for the Confederacy including two battalions in Stonewall Jackson’s Corps.

The Register & Bee reported on October 31 that both the Danville and Pittsylvania school systems had ordered the book and were using it.

Both school systems had committees appointed to review segments of the book to make sure they met Virginia Standards of Learning requirements.

A representative for the Pittsylvania County School system said: "our approach is to teach the Virginia Standards of Learning, not to teach the textbook."

If they don’t teach from the textbooks what do they do with them and why did they spend thousands of dollars ordering them?

How did committees from two different school systems miss the perceived error?

When "accepted" Civil War scholars started criticizing the textbook the "PC two-step" began in the school systems.

A Roanoke TV station went to interview renowned Civil War historian and Danville native James I. Robertson about the textbook.

The comments from Robertson were interesting and I was very disappointed to hear someone of his scholarly standing blatantly disregard historical facts.

Mr. Robertson stated that "the idea that blacks would fight for the country that wanted to keep them enslaved was illogical." With this comment he does not even acknowledge the free blacks in the southern states.

According to the 1860 census there were 58,000 free blacks in Virginia alone (659 in Pittsylvania County which Danville was a part of).

The irony of his comments is that one of his own books that he authored in 1984 titled "18th Virginia History" in the "Virginia Regimental History Series" lists one of these free blacks who enlisted in the regiment (which contained two companies from Danville and one from Spring Garden) as a drummer.

On page 50 of the book, in the muster roll section, this black soldier is listed. It reads: Dix. Austin; Field and staff (June 30, 1861); freed black; drummer, discharged from service, August 31, 1863.

This means that he was in all of the regiment’s actions from Manassas to Gettysburg.

Also in the same book on page 77 the following soldier’s record appears: Slate, Dick; Field and Staff (June 30, 1861); Colored; served as drummer through April 1862. It is unknown whether he was free or slave. Did Mr. Robertson forget about these two "illogical" blacks listed in his own book?

In regard to the textbook’s statement that two battalions of blacks served in Stonewall Jackson’s Corps I will concede that probably no one has done more research on "Stonewall" Jackson than James Robertson.

He has said in another interview that he never found any information supporting this claim and I too have never seen any information regarding two organized battalions in Jackson’s corps.

However there is an eyewitness report from a Lewis H. Steiner, a U.S. Sanitary Commission inspector that claims thousands of blacks fitted as soldiers in a column containing Jackson’s corps.

It is true that Confederate Congress did not authorize blacks to serve as armed combatants until March 1865; however this did not prevent the states from enlisting them. Keep in mind that the issue of "states rights" was not just limited to the seceded states’ view of the United States government’s abuses of power but they would hold this same view to the new Confederate government if they thought their rights were being threatened by it.

There was much friction between the governors of North Carolina and Georgia toward the actions of the Confederate Congress.

Many times the units would not denote race in their muster roll records or would not even put the blacks in their records so they could circumvent the Confederate government’s prohibition on armed black soldiers.

However, even with the scarcity of official Confederate records on black Confederate combatants, there is overwhelming evidence that blacks did indeed fight in combat for the Confederacy, or their states if you will, and in large contingencies.

There are numerous accounts in the Official Records of the War of the Rebellion, newspaper articles, diaries, letters, etc.

There are many more accounts like these. Probably the strongest statement to confirm black Confederate combatants was a letter written by black abolitionist Frederick Douglas in September 1861 entitled: "Fighting the Rebels With Only One Hand."

It reads:

"It is now pretty well established, that there are at the present moment many colored men in the Confederate army doing duty not only as cooks, servants, and laborers, but as real soldiers, having muskets on their shoulders, and bullets in their pockets, ready to shoot down loyal troops, and do all that soldiers may to destroy the Federal Government and build up that of the traitors and rebels."

How did a distinguished historian such as Robertson miss these accounts in all of his years of Civil War research? Or, does he intentionally dismiss them because they don’t fit his idea of logic.

One thing I’ve discovered and continue to discover in my Civil War research is that when you think you understand it all you find more information that defies the common logic.

There is more gray than black or white in the facts relating to that war.

Unfortunately I’m afraid that the Sesquicentennial Civil War commemoration that we will start experiencing next year will be four years of the National Park Service, politicians and "accepted scholars" like James Robertson, Gary Gallagher and James McPherson expounding their edited and partial histories to the world.

With all the technology and resources available to us now we can do our own research and not allow these people, who let their agendas and reputations get in the way of truth, dictate to us the real history of the Civil War.

Tim Hutcherson
Danville