Thursday, October 21, 2010

Things a Virginia Fourth Grader Needn't Know

I was floored when I read the Washington Post article noting that the primary fourth grade Virginia history textbook states that thousands of black folks fought for the Confederacy.  I love that it was an historian (Carol Sheriff from William & Mary) who sounded the alarm on this issue.  Ironically, we both attended a conference on Race, Slavery and the Civil War at Norfolk State University just last month, and one of the key issues discussed that day was the role blacks played in the Confederacy.  There was a distinct effort on the part of the various historians who were speaking to make it clear that this notion that there were thousands of black Confederate soldiers is just false.  Even University of Virginia historian Ervin Jordan, who recently published a work covering blacks fighting for the Confederacy, argued that the historical evidence simply does not support the idea of thousands of black Confederate troops. 

Like many other historians who have looked into this issue (one of my first papers in graduate school was an examination of Confederate slave impressment legislation in South Carolina), I was done when I read that the textbook also states that two black battalions fought under Stonewall Jackson.  In the Post article, the textbook's author, Joy Masoff cites Jordan's book and Internet research as her sources for her points regarding black Confederates.  But two things need to be known on the Jackson issue.  First, blacks were not allowed to bear arms for the Confederacy until 1865, as the Civil War was coming to a close.  Second, Stonewall Jackson was killed in 1863.  Unless Jackson openly defied the government of the Confederacy before his death, which is highly unlikely, there is no way that he commanded two battalions of black soldiers.  Masoff's research was simply shoddy on that front, and if it hadn't been caught, thousands of Virginia fourth graders, including my nephew, would have been taught lies presented as facts.

Instances like this remind me of why I am so glad that I chose American history as my field of study, but it also reminds me of what so many people don't know.  Knowing American history should not be a privilege, yet it sometimes feels that way. 

1 comment:

Micheal Sisco said...

Sam Harris said it best about Americans (though he was referring to the god virus infected people, but it's just as instructive on our ignorance in general)...
"we appear at the dawn of the century as a lumbering, bellicose, dimwitted gia nt ..."