Textbook clash in Virginia over Civil War

Carol Sheriff
Historian, College of William and Mary
Wednesday, October 20, 2010; 12:00 PM

A textbook distributed to Virginia fourth-graders says that thousands of African Americans fought for the South during the Civil War -- a claim rejected by most historians but often made by groups seeking to play down slavery's role as a cause of the conflict.

The issue first came to light after College of William and Mary historian Carol Sheriff opened her daughter's copy of "Old Virginia: Past and Present" and saw the reference to black Confederate soldiers. "It's disconcerting that the next generation is being taught history based on an unfounded claim instead of accepted scholarship," said Sheriff.

Sheriff was online Wednesday, Oct. 20, at Noon ET to discuss the controversy.


Not too shocking to believe: I wouldn't find it shocking that blacks fought for the Confederacy. Are we supposed to believe there wasn't a single black person who fought against the Union? That's hard to believe. Besides, there were some black slave owners in the U.S., is that correct?

Carol Sheriff: Hi, this is Carol Sheriff at the College of William and Mary, where I teach and publish on the Civil War. Thanks for your question. 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 (a company was usually 100 men at full force) 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. There were, however, thousands upon thousands of free blacks and slaves who worked as laborers for the Confederate army, including under Jackson's command. Most of them worked involuntarily.


Glover Park, D.C.: While the inclusion of such an assertion that African Americans fought on the side of the Confederacy is ludicrous, I find it somewhat troubling too the assertion that the Civil War was fought primarily over slavery and that Lincoln was anti-slavery. The Civil War, I think you would agree, was fought primarily over the issue of states' rights vs. the power of a centralized federal government. At the crux of this issue was the institution of slavery. But Lincoln was not anti-slavery and was pretty clear on that topic. Freeing the slaves was a wartime tactic to rob the South of its production capacity and thus its ability to generate money to fund their war effort.

So I find myself troubled that anytime the Civil War and slavery are mentioned, we have this debates around a couple of misconceptions.

Carol Sheriff: What the article in this morning's paper does not state is that this same textbook also emphasizes that the sectional (regional) disagreement revolved around the issue of slavery. In that sense, and quite a few others, Ms. Masoff's narrative is in line with scholarly interpretations of the war, which makes her assertion that blacks fought under Stonewall Jackson all the more puzzling. Neither the Union nor the Confederacy toed a consistent line in terms of the states' rights versus federalism debate. For example, the Southern states supported the national Fugitive Slave Act in 1850 (authorizing, among other things, federal marshals to apprehend slaves who sought refuge in states where slavery was illegal), whereas northern states passed "personal liberty laws" that tried to undermine that act by asserting states' rights.


Chicago, Ill.: What exactly is wrong about the statement? I've got a master's degree in U.S. history and I have always understood that the South used black soldiers, especially in the final year of the war. Thanks.

Carol Sheriff: At the very end of the war (1865), after much internal disagreement, the Confederacy did make it legal to use black soldiers, though none was ever put into action. Many white Southerners vehemently opposed the use of black soldiers, and it was only when faced with imminent defeat that some Confederate officials began pushing for the use of black soldiers. For an extensive scholarly treatment of this issue, please see Bruce Levine's *Confederate Emancipation*.


D.C.: I guess the thing that really shocked me about this story was that a history textbook was written by someone who has no background in history. Is that common?

Carol Sheriff: I am most familiar with college-level textbooks, which are written by professional historians. But my understanding is that textbooks on the elementary and secondary level are often authored by non-specialists. There are some interesting books on this e.g......,.,. FitzGerald, *Revising America* and Loewen, *Lies My Teacher Told Me*. In this case, my regret is that the publisher did not (as I understand it from the news article) ask a professional historian to review the book before publication to catch mistakes that could be fixed. This mistake, unfortunately, has implications beyond just telling children factual mistakes. It misleads students about who might have supported the Confederate "cause," which the book has already told children involved the preservation of slavery.


Richmond, Va. (6th generation for what it's worth): The Richmond-Times dispatch (a fairly conservative newspaper) published a letter from Jefferson Davis (the VP of the Confederacy) in which he stated "Let me be clear, this war is about our right to own slaves." I've paraphrased only as needed by my memory. Let's lay that moot point to bed. The man himself said the war was about slavery. (I hate people thinking native Virginians are all Confederates and only come-heres remember who won the war and how right that was.

Carol Sheriff: There is ample evidence from the era that the Confederacy was, to paraphrase its vice president, founded on the "cornerstone" of slavery and the belief that blacks were racially inferior. People at the time spoke openly about this issue. Ms. Masoff's textbook *does*, to its credit, make slavery front and central to its story. As I've replied to other readers, it is the combination of assertions--that slavery was central to the war (which it was) and that blacks fought for a cause specifically about preserving slavery (which they did not do in appreciable numbers)--that is likely to confuse children.


What exactly is wrong about the statement?: "THOUSANDS"

Carol Sheriff: As far as we know from the historical record, not a single black person participated in a battle under the command of Stonewall Jackson.


St. Mary's City, Md.: James Loewen's "Lies My Teacher Told Me" has a good overview of the myth of black Confederate soldiers. More specifically, the myth that they volunteered to fight. Loewen reproduces a magazine illustration of the period that depicts a black slave working a Confederate cannon under gunpoint by white Confederate soldiers.

Even without such evidence, think about the fact that Southern slave owners were fearful of slave rebellions. John Brown's raid terrified them so much that they were arming for war even before the 1860 election. If some slaves had volunteered to fight for the Confederacy, any rational Confederate officer would have suspected them of planning sabotage from within, perhaps smuggling weapons to their colleagues at the plantations.

Carol Sheriff: As I mentioned to a previous reader, the most recent comprehensive study of this topic is Bruce Levine's *Confederate Emancipation*. I would recommend starting there if you would like more information on this topic.


Milwaukee, Wis.: Do you see any connection between assertions made in your daughter's textbook and efforts to rehabilitate the confederacy in Virginia -- in particular the governor's creation of Confederate History Month (without any mention of slavery). What about the general climate of right-wing historical revisionism -- the Tea Party, Glen Beck, etc.?

Carol Sheriff: This is an interesting question, but I would caution readers about leaping to conclusions about Ms. Masoff's intentions, which we cannot know. It is certainly unfortunate that she appears (from what I understand from the story in this morning's paper) to have used Internet sources indiscriminately, but I would not want to venture anything about motivations. Much of what she has written is consistent with historical fact and modern scholarship.


Voluntary or involuntary: Your note that many black laborers (not soldiers) served the Confederacy involuntarily got me thinking about the difference between serving voluntarily and involuntarily, regardless of slave or free status.

Were most Confederate soldiers (black or white) drafted or volunteers?

Were the few companies of black soldiers that you mentioned at the very end of the war, intended to be free blacks or slaves? In either case, were they drafted or did they volunteer?

Carol Sheriff: The figure one generally sees is that 20% of white Confederate soldiers were drafted, though evidence shows that many volunteered under pressure or to avoid the "shame" of being drafted. (The same was true in the Union, though the overall percentage of draftees was lower there.)

In terms of your last question: Confederate officials realized that slaves would not fight unless promised their freedom, so the understanding was that if they fought for the Confederate army, they would be granted their freedom after the war.


Former Student: Professor, What is more troubling, that the author based an entire section of their text solely on the internet postings of some Sons of Confederate Veterans or that the editorial staff and state education board didn't pick up on this error? I find it incomprehensible that the author wouldn't have sought out alternative sources to confirm the information she found online and that the publisher/state don't employ historians who would have caught this error. With all of the political intervention in the text book process (Texas) what expectation should we have that our texts reflect an accurate picture of our country's history as opposed to an attempt to alter that history in our national consciousness?

Carol Sheriff: Unfortunately, as you suggest, this problem could have been easily averted had the publisher asked a professional historian (or several professional historians) to review the book for factual errors before publication. I don't know whether the Virginia Board of Education sought the input of historians before choosing to recommend this book, or whether local school boards did before adopting it, but I think it would be a good idea to do so when faced with future decisions about which books to recommend or adopt.


Manhattan, Kan.: I am an American Historian teaching in a large public university. What astounds me about this is the utter lack of remorse by the author when confronted with her own sloppy research. I wonder if we shouldn't be teaching students at ALL levels about how to find accurate information about the past and why that is important?

Carol Sheriff: I agree: If nothing else comes out of this unfortunate incident, I hope that we will all learn to exercise more caution about how we use Internet sources. My hope is that maybe some teachers can use this incident as a "teachable moment" to help their students learn more not only about the Civil War but also how we need to perform research judiciously (in print as well as electronic sources).


Arlington, Va.: Jefferson Davis was the president of the Confederacy, wasn't he? Not the vice president?

Carol Sheriff: Yes, Jefferson Davis was the president. In my earlier reply, I was quoting Alexander Stephens, the vice-president. I meant to say that Davis was not alone in being open about the role of slavery in the Confederacy. As another reader has written as part of this discussion, there were "secession commissioners" who visited the state legislatures to try to convince them of the wisdom of secession, and their arguments were often based on what was the best course of action to preserve slavery. (There were, importantly, some slave owners who initially opposed secession; although their reasons were often grounded in patriotism, some also believed that slavery was safe where it already existed but might be threatened by a war. They turned out to be prescient.)


Los Angeles Calif.: Based on that inaccuracy, shouldn't the textbook be pulled out of the schools? Even if teachers don't teach that lesson, students will still read the information and many will believe it because it is in a textbook.

Carol Sheriff: My hope is that it will be revised for the next edition and that in the meantime, the Virginia Board of Education will follow through on what its representative told the *Post*'s reporter--that is, that it will inform the school districts about the mistake and ask them to handle it appropriately. As I mentioned in another reply, I think there's a teachable moment here. (There are a few other small issues with the book's coverage of the war that might well be revised, too. I would gladly offer my thoughts to the author, publisher, or School Board.)


D.C. Native American Attorney: This, in conjunction with the Texas textbook debacle, shows once again the need for national education standards. States cannot be allowed to whitewash history out of partisan intent. This is almost as egregious as teaching children Native Americans welcomed colonizers from Europe with open arms.

Carol Sheriff: You might be interested to know that the book's publisher did solicit input from people the publisher identifies as either Native American or affiliated with Native American organizations.


What else is wrong?: It doesn't seem to me that this book has the scholarly heft for classroom use. What else is wrong in this book?

Carol Sheriff: A book designed for fourth graders is, by necessity, going to be quite superficial. But the little bit it does say should be consistent with historical fact. Again, had a professional historian reviewed this book, the error would have been easily caught--and our children would have been saved a distorted view of history.


Great Falls, Va.: Professor Sheriff: LONG LIVE THE ERIE CANAL! Outside this presentation of the soldiers, how else is the presentation of the Civil War in the 4th grade curriculum. P.S. I loved taking your classes at William and Mary!

Carol Sheriff: At my daughter's school, at least, there are more than two hundred years of history to cover before they get to the Civil War. My hope is that now the Virginia Board of Education is aware of the error, teachers will be able to inform students of the mistake and, perhaps, offer a lesson on the challenges of doing research.


L'enfant Terrible: I think we need to know who the editors of the volume were. They are nearly as culpable here as the author.

Carol Sheriff: I agree that a more thorough review process would have surely avoided this problem.


Washington, D.C.: I was actually unaware that there were any black slaveholders until I read "The Known World" and reviews of it. Did the textbook in question address the issue of black slaveholders? Knowing that blacks owned black would, more than the false assertion that blacks were Confederate soldiers, lead me to wonder whether the Civil War was actually about the preservation vs. abolition of slavery. Thank you.

Carol Sheriff: I can't remember off the top of my head (but would be happy to check later), but its account of slavery is generally quite balanced. As for your last point, to say that preserving slavery was central to the Confederacy's cause is not the same as saying that the Union was fighting to end slavery. Midway through the war, the Union adopted emancipation as a wartime strategy, but--as others have noted in their comments--slavery remained legal in parts of the Union itself while certain parts of the South were exempted from wartime emancipation.


Any somewhat precise figures given?: I gather she said that "thousands" of blacks fought for the Confederacy. Does she give more exact figures("thousands" could mean just 2,000 out of millions)? And does she say how many were coerced? Interesting she says she found her information on the Internet. As Pierre Salinger found, when researching how a TWA jet might have been downed, not everything you find on the Internet is true (just on the WaPO site).

Carol Sheriff: Because this book was written for fourth graders and covers much more than the Civil War, she was necessarily constrained in terms of the details she could give. Yet that does not explain historical inaccuracy. The issue that the *Post* wrote about was not a matter of interpretation but fact. As others have noted (and as I have said, too), this problem could have been easily avoided. I am heartened that the Virginia Board of Education is committed to finding a solution to the problem.


Schools: What they should push is the idea to question what you are hearing or reading is true.

This isn't just for history...but true for politics, science, and many other fields....especially in this internet age where you can find a web page that claims the moon is made of cheese.

Carol Sheriff: I agree: The lessons here extend well beyond the discipline of history. Our children's textbooks should be vetted for accuracy by scholars (no matter what field).


Hampton, Va.: I wonder if this textbook also mentions the "Contrabands" of Fort Monroe. Three very brave African Americans escaped their slavery and sought freedom at the Union held Ft. Monroe. Instead of returning these men (or freeing them outright) they were allowed sanctuary as property deemed contraband of war. Compared to slavery this must have sounded a bit like freedom, as 10,000 slaves came to Hampton seeking that status. These people were far from willing to fight for the Confederacy.

Carol Sheriff: I can't remember off-hand whether Fort Monroe is mentioned, and because our time is running short, I can't check right now. But the book does mention that many slaves sought their freedom during the war and that blacks fought for the Union. The book does in many ways try to capture a diversity of wartime experiences for both whites and blacks (and has a brief treatment of Native Americans, too).


Professional review of textbooks: How realistic would it be for school boards to arrange for professions in every field to review textbooks? Where would the money come from? How would you account for bias? I think it would create more problems than it solves. I'm sure that there are loads of factual errors in textbooks that kids use, but the media focused on this one because most of the media don't like or support Virginia's governor.

Carol Sheriff: Although I can't answer this question with certitude, I can say that had I been approached by the Virginia Board of Education (or my local school board) I would have been willing to review, pro bono, this book's chapter for inaccuracies.


Washington, D.C.: My Great Great Great Grandfather was a free man in 1862 and he served in the Home Guard of Accotink, Va., on the side of the Union. He also filed a claim with the commission of Claims after the war for 40 cords of wood that the Union Calvary seized in its march to Fredericksburg, Va. I have the actual transcript of his hearing and throughout his testimony the Magistrate questioned his allegiance as to whether he sympathized with the Confederacy or the Union. So I'm sure there were some blacks who aided and served the Confederate cause.

Carol Sheriff: To receive reparation for seized or damaged propertyl, a claimant had to have been loyal to the Union. The Southern Claims Commission asked about claimants' loyalty as a standard part of its procedures--whether the claimant was white or black. It is important to remember that there were white Unionists in the South, too. There is evidence of black people aiding the Confederacy, whether out of idealism or pragmatism. There is no evidence that I have seen that there were organized battalions of black soldiers.


Spring Hill, Fla.: According to state records Mississippi had 1739 black Civil War pensioners after the Civil War. Colonel Stand Watie, an Indian Chief, formed two battalions of Indians to fight for the Confederacy very early in the War. As for the origins of the War, I ask people to consider what would have happened if secession had not occurred? The issue of slavery had been settled by the Supreme court in the Dred Scott decision, and the Missouri Compromise was fully in effect. Would Lincoln been as anti-slavery as he was later in the war. Lincoln is on record as having said that he would tolerate slavery if it would preserve the Union. So it is easy to draw an inference that abolition of slavery was not high on his list of priorities.

Carol Sheriff: Several of the questions have addressed the issue of Lincoln's views on slavery, and this is an issue that remains under debate by scholars. But whatever his personal views, he used emancipation as a wartime strategy to try to undermine the Confederacy's labor force and/or its morale. (And starting in 1863, he used it as a way to man the Union army; ultimately approximately 180,000 black people, many of them former slaves, served in the Union army.)


Arlington, Va.: How widely distributed is this book? Is it in every 4th grade classroom?

Carol Sheriff: I am uncertain, and the *Post* article did not say. It is on the Virginia Department of Education's list of recommended textbooks, but the procedures by which local school boards make their decisions about which to adopt are not clear to me.


Carol Sheriff: Thanks very much for so many thoughtful and thought-provoking questions. I'm sorry that there wasn't time to address each inquiry, but I very much appreciate your interest and input.


Editor's Note: washingtonpost.com moderators retain editorial control over Discussions and choose the most relevant questions for guests and hosts; guests and hosts can decline to answer questions. washingtonpost.com is not responsible for any content posted by third parties.

© 2010 The Washington Post Company