Phony history controversies will swell with Lincoln, Civil War anniversaries

By Robert McCartney
Washington Post Staff Writer
Wednesday, October 20, 2010; 10:06 PM

Voltaire said history is a pack of tricks we play upon the dead. He should have added that the living are victims, too.

Virginia fourth-graders are the latest targets of historical misinformation. A textbook distributed to students last month included the gross falsehood that two battalions of African American soldiers fought for the Confederacy under famed Gen. Stonewall Jackson.

This wasn't just a minor factual error, like saying that Jackson lost his right arm at the Battle of Chancellorsville when any self-respecting Civil War buff knows it was his left.

The passage represents a deliberate distortion of history driven by a political agenda. It was foisted on kids by a sloppy author using Internet research who mistakenly drew from works done by Confederate heritage enthusiasts.

The latter like to promote the canard that large numbers of African Americans carried arms willingly for the South. The rebel revisionists do so because it helps cover up two historical truths that put their Lost Cause in a bad light.

One truth is that blacks at the time were overwhelmingly pro-Union, and they fought in large numbers for the North because they recognized that a victory by that side represented their best chance at winning freedom. The second, larger verity - which, to its credit, the schoolbook did make clear - is that sectional disagreements over slavery were the primary cause of the war.

Carol Sheriff, a Civil War expert at the College of William and Mary, discovered the error in her daughter's copy of the offending book, "Our Virginia: Past and Present." Sheriff clarified the facts in a Web chat Wednesday on washingtonpost.com.

"As far as we know from the historical record, not a single black person participated in a battle under the command of Stonewall Jackson," Sheriff wrote. "There is historical evidence that individual blacks, usually servants who followed their masters to the front, occasionally picked up guns in the heat of battle. But it was illegal in the Confederacy to use blacks as soldiers until the waning days of the war (early 1865). A few companies . . . were raised then, but none saw battle action, as the surrender followed shortly thereafter. Stonewall Jackson had died in 1863, so no black soldiers could have served under his command."

Sheriff said that thousands of blacks worked as laborers for the Confederate army, most of them involuntarily, including under Jackson's command. But that's very different from agreeing to risk your life in combat on behalf of a government committed to your enslavement, as some Confederate apologists would have us believe.

Such arguments have been going on for generations, and they are about to become more public and acute. One reason is that Nov. 6 is the 150th anniversary of the election of Abraham Lincoln, which led to the war because it prompted Southern states to begin seceding.

That means the nation is entering a nearly five-year string of commemorations - Fort Sumter, the Emancipation Proclamation, Gettysburg, Appomattox - full of opportunities to revive the controversies over the Civil War. (It will also familiarize many people for the first time with the word "sesquicentennial," for a 150th birthday.)

In addition, it so happens that 2010 is a time when the nation is sharply divided by ideological differences that in some ways parallel those of 1860. I've heard the comparison made by participants in the Glenn Beck rally in August and in an interview with a Virginia leader of the Sons of Confederate Veterans.

Both said resistance today to health-care reform and other alleged excesses of "big government" is reminiscent of the Southern states' battle against what they viewed as Northern aggression. In a column in April, I quoted the Confederate veterans leader as saying the rebels of the 1860s "were fighting for the same things that people in the 'tea party' are fighting for now."

Moreover, there's been a surge in activity, especially among conservatives, to adjust history teaching to reflect contemporary political positions. One prominent recent effort occurred in Texas in May. The state school board revised social studies standards to increase study of Confederate leaders and reduce emphasis on the Founding Fathers' commitment to separation of church and state. Some wanted to stop referring to the slave trade and substitute a euphemistic phrase, the "Atlantic triangular trade," but that idea was, thankfully, dropped.

The Virginia Department of Education has conceded its error in allowing the misleading textbook to be used in classrooms. On Wednesday, it sent an e-mail to school superintendents and history specialists warning them that the offending passage is "outside accepted Civil War scholarship." The department said that it anticipates teachers "will have no difficulty working around one objectionable sentence" in using the book.

I don't think that's enough. A lot of teachers will neglect to pass on the message about the mistake. Also, many fourth-graders are going to have a hard time understanding that one part of the book is wrong but that they need to learn the rest.

The state should yank the book and replace it with an accurate one as soon as possible. It should also investigate why a review committee approved the book and what steps are necessary to prevent such mishaps from occurring in the future.

The First Amendment protects Confederate sympathizers' right to write this nonsense. But public schools should take greater care not to help spread such myths.

Staff writer Kevin Sieff contributed to this column.

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