Amen, Brooks Simpson

A controversy of sorts has broken out among scholars of the American Civil War over the degree to which scholarly blogs on this topic should cover the myth of mass participation by African Americans as soldiers in the Confederate Army. Such prominent Civil War historians as Gary Gallagher of the University of Virginia and Peter Carmichael, Director of Gettysburg College’s Civil War Institute, have criticized prominent scholarly bloggers like Kevin Levin, Brooks Simpson, Andy Hall and others, basically accusing them of inadvertently giving credibility to the black Confederate myth by spending so much effort in their blogs trying to debunk it.

I am not entirely unsympathetic to Gallagher and Carmichael’s argument. Some scholarly Civil War bloggers have arguably written too much on black Confederates and related topics. Brooks Simpson, in particular, has in recent months energetically gone after the Confederate-sympathizing “Heritage” community on the web, with a particular enthusiasm reserved for Heritage activist, Connie Chastain. I can see the worry about how a distinguished Arizona State University professor and other history professionals devoting so much attention to such people, might unduly draw attention and credibility to their factually faulty ideas.

Nonetheless, today on his blog, Crossroads, Brooks Simpson makes a powerful argument for scholarly Civil War bloggers giving so much attention to black Confederate myth and its proponents. In a nutshell, he argues that serious scholars must address this faulty notion because: 1) of the increasing tendency of the public to utilize the World Wide Web as their information source of first resort; 2) the black Confederate myth mainly lives on the web where it is perpetuated by pro-Confederate Heritage activists. Simpson writes:

To my mind, bloggers correctly grasp how students and the general public come to engage in historical inquiry in cyberspace: that includes the rather facile use of the search engine and various websites and discussion groups.  Books, magazines, and talks no longer enjoy the monopoly they once did: we now have television and the internet (note that is how we came to learn so quickly about what Peter had said).  We also have various outlets where many people, regardless of training or qualification, discuss and dispense historical interpretations and hold forth on evidence.  It’s a far richer, more diverse, more democratic, and more confusing world out there when it comes to historical “knowledge,” information, and interpretation.

For professional historians to ignore that is simply foolish.  After all, we’ve had a cottage industry grow up in Civil War studies in the past several decades: the field of memory studies.  That endeavor seeks to show how people in the past have reshaped and even distorted the historical narrative to serve various ends.  The debate over black Confederate soldiers is simply a continuation of that exercise.  Are we really to believe that professional historians think we should read what they say about this process in the past while heeding their admonition to refrain from entering that fray in the present?   Is calling attention to a flawed interpretation to be decried because it draws more attention to it?

As a former instructor on traditional university campuses and now a full-time instructor of college-level history online, from where I sit Brooks Simpson is quite correct. College students increasingly cherry pick sources for their assignments off the web, ignoring the peer-reviewed and edited resources found in the library. While I resisted this tendency when I still taught at brick and mortar institutions, I have had to become more tolerant of it since I moved exclusively online. Most of my students are working adults raising children with precious little time to visit a physical library (although I’m impressed some still make the effort). I also teach a fair number of deployed military personnel with no access to a physical libraries at all. While I try to guide these adult learners toward the online library resources of the institutions I work for, and encourage them to use a physical library when they can, I also generally no longer object when they pull sources off the open web unless they are obviously non-credible. So I agree with Brooks Simpson when he argues that scholars need to be on the web to make sure better and more credible history can be found there, especially when a community of enthusiasts exists actively distorting the past. So while Brooks needs to diversify his subject matter more on Crossroads, as far as his post today goes all I can say in response is “amen.”

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About Donald R. Shaffer

Donald R. Shaffer is the author of _After the Glory: The Struggles of Black Civil War Veterans_ (Kansas, 2004), which won the Peter Seaborg Award for Civil War Scholarship in 2005. More recently he published (with Elizabeth Regosin), _Voices of Emancipation: Understanding Slavery, the Civil War, and Reconstruction through the U.S. Pension Bureau Files_ (2008). Dr. Shaffer teaches online exclusively (i.e., a virtual professor). He lives in Arizona and can be contacted at donald_shaffer@yahoo.com
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3 Responses to Amen, Brooks Simpson

  1. Pingback: Black Confederates, the Internet, and Historical Interpretation | Western Mass Civil War Sesquicentennial

  2. Daniel O'Sullivan says:

    I tend to agree with your post. My brief foray into the online Black Confederate phenom left me despairing for humanity. Many of these sites are thinly veiled neo-Confederate racist sites. I wish American historians, like my hero Gary Gallagher, felt more comfortable engaging the general public on these matters. I understand the “giving them a spot light” argument, but the alternative is to abandon the field to them and nurture yet another generation of badly misinformed Americans.

  3. Only a decade ago, someone not in the neoConfederate orbit would only have heard about Black Confederates if a Kevin Levin or Brooks Simpson mentioned them in a talk or article. So back then it made sense to avoid talking about that myth. Now I hear about BCs all the time from non ideological people who have encountered it on the net. Not talking about it doesn’t seem to be working.

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