27 July 2010

Getting The Cart Before The Horse

Kevin Levin has, once again, offered up negative criticism of 
something which he's not read nor seen. In a recent post, Kevin criticizes the book, Entangled in Freedom: A Civil War Novel, by novelist Kevin Weeks and website author, Ann DeWitt. Kevin's negative comments are quite amazing when one considers he's not read the book. (The book won't even be available until January 2011.):

"In the end, it is simply a reflection of their gullibility, lack of basic historical knowledge relating to the Civil War and an inability to properly interpret primary sources.  On the other hand and as a teacher, I am disgusted when children are brought into the picture.  They become the victims of the stupidity of others."

Now, could someone please explain to me how one makes such broad, negative comments about a book that he hasn't even read? Certainly, one could not draw any conclusions from the very brief description of the book:

"Entangled in Freedom, the first novel in this young adult fiction book series, takes a closer look at the life experiences of African-Americans in the Deep South during the War Between the States. Young adult readers follow main character Isaac Green through the dirt roads of Georgia, Tennessee, Kentucky and Virginia to Cumberland Gap where Isaac serves with the 42nd Regiment Georgia Volunteers C.S.A. Historical accounts are derived from 19th century official government records as well as real life family narratives of co-author, Ann DeWitt."

Kevin has made assumptions (nothing new), about something he hasn't read or seen, based on his own prejudices and perspectives regarding historical interpretation. He also makes assumptions, which he can't possibly know, about Ms. DeWitt's own family narratives:

"It’s unfortunate that Ms. DeWitt did not take proper care of her family’s narrative.  Sometimes simply repeating family stories does not honor the memory of one’s ancestors, especially if those stories are inaccurate."

Who is Kevin to judge whether or not Ms. DeWitt has taken  "proper care of her family’s narrative?" And how does he know whether or not "those stories are inaccurate?" And then there's this:

"On the other hand and as a teacher, I am disgusted when children are brought into the picture." 

Let's assume, for the sake of illustration, that Kevin's concerns and criticisms are true. Does anyone think the book will be widely circulated in schools? I'm a little perplexed why Kevin seems so indignant about a book which has not yet even been published, and which is unlikely to be widely read in an educational setting, when he expressed so little concern over the radical leftist "social justice" movement which IS being taught in schools and which is endorsed by the Nation's two largest teacher's unions.

How about a little balance and perspective here?


Brooks D. Simpson said...

Richard--I hope you return to Kevin's blog now that I've commented over there. Maybe you'll never think of me quite the same way again. :)

Richard G. Williams, Jr. said...

Hey Professor. Yes, I read your comments at CWM and would agree with you. Very well stated, in my humble opinion. You and I got off to a bad start, and will likely disagree in the future, but I enjoy reading your commentary and have learned from you.

Kevin and I tend to go at it sometimes and I think his perspective is, quite often, from another solar system. But he and I would have far less to blog about were it not for these different perspectives. I still believe that he'll one day come around to see things my way. ;o)

Kevin said...


Or we could meet half-way in Crozet for a drink - non-alcoholic, of course. :D

Richard G. Williams, Jr. said...

Kevin - that's gracious of you. I get over that way from time to time. The next time I have some lead time, I'll let you know. You may drink whatever you like. A good stiff one might loosen you up a bit. ;o)

Will we need a moderator?

13thBama said...

Drat! Censored again :( lol I am going to turn Democrat. Nothing they ever say is censored :)

Richard G. Williams, Jr. said...


Sorry my friend, I just didn't want the discussion to go down that road. I appreciate your visits, comments and emails. Nothing personal.

13thBama said...

No problem. It is your right and you do not make a big deal of it, so I understand. I appreciate that it is not easy to keep the board moving along the right lines.

Richard G. Williams, Jr. said...

Thanks 13B - I appreciate the understanding. I actually agreed with your point, BTW.

Michael Bradley said...

In November 2009 I attended a ceremony placing markers on the graves of 18 black men who had served the Confederate Army of Tennessee. These men were recognized as laborers, cooks, farriers,and teamsters. Sixty four members of their families were present and took part in the program. Many of these family members recouinted stories of how their ancestors had been proud, life-long, of their service to the Confederacy. Three of these men had become members of the local bivouac of the United Confederate Veterans. Their membership in the UCV had been granted because they, on more than one occasion, had taken up arms and had gone into combat.

I have been doing some research into the reunions of the UCV and have found that all the meetings included a committee to make arrangements for the housing and feeding of "Colored Confederate Soldiers and Former Slaves." That is rather convincing evidence that the veterans knew some black men who had been soldiers, not civilians who did rear-area tasks.

It is very sad to see someone become ridden with an agenda that they lose sight of the complexity of history.

Richard G. Williams, Jr. said...

Professor Bradley:

Thanks for the comment. While I'm not one who believes there were 100's or even 10's of thousands of slaves or free blacks that took up arms, I do believe there were likely more than we know. I also believe the term "soldier" applies to more than just those who bore arms.

Michael Bradley said...

I agree that "soldier" is a flexible term. I also wonder what term should be applied to the free men of color who were subject to the Conscript laws in the Confederacy? If they drove wagons, etc, but were conscripts does this make them soldiers?

By the way, if one will read the Provost Marshal records of the U.S. Army (hardly any historians have)one will learn that Unionist slaveowners received a bounty if they enrolled their slaves in the USCT. Those same records have numerous complaints from U.S.Army officers that "forced enlistnemts" was causing numerous problems in he ranks of the USCT.

I also agree that there were not huge numbers of black Confederate combat soldiers but there were some and there were many others who served in support roles, doing so loyally and well despite their legal status of "slave."

Richard G. Williams, Jr. said...

Michael - I agree. Those who are so aghast and repulsed at those who exaggerate the numbers of black Confederates jump into another ditch by not wanting to recognize the service of support roles, as if that type of service is not worthy of recognition in some form.

Kevin said...

Richard and Michael,

I completely agree with the two of you. It is essential that we provide serious analysis of the roles that free blacks played in Confederate armies. However, claims of loyalty or anything having to do with motivation and assessment are going to be extremely difficult given the lack of primary source material. I am extremely weary of using postwar evidence such as images of reunions and pension records. It seems to me they tell us much more about about that period rather than the war. I would love to be pointed in the direction of wartime evidence that illustrates how white southerners assessed the presence of conscripts. We know that slaveowners believed that the conscripting of their slaves constituted a direct violation of their rights as property owners.

Dr. Bradely, -- You may want to look at Joseph Glatthaar's "Forged in Battle" and especially Dudley Cornish's "The Sable Arm" regarding Union conscripts.

Richard G. Williams, Jr. said...


I'm certainly aware that the slaves who served in whatever capacity didn't have any choice. And I acknowledge the difficulty in assessing motivations. That does not negate, in my opinion, the fact they should be acknowledged for their service. We've had that debate at length before. Some of these men, like Jim Lewis, became attached to their units, if not "for the cause", certainly emotionally to the Confederates with whom they served. This is common in military units, even today. Those fighting may not be in favor of the "cause", but they bond with the men in their unit for practical and emotional reasons.

Kevin said...


I certainly agree that army life would have brought slaves and soldiers together in ways that led to strong emotional bonds, but when it comes down writing history we need evidence of it. The problem, as you know, is that this evidence is very difficult to come by. In the case of free and enslaved blacks who were present with the army I would need their own accounts before I went ahead and spoke for them or assumed anything about how they experience/perceived the situation as it unfolded. I certainly would be weary of postwar accounts, most of which are not written by these men. That doesn't necessarily mean that they should be discounted, but it isn't much to stand on.

Richard G. Williams, Jr. said...


I can't disagree. And, of course, the postwar accounts need to be considered in light of social relations at the time. I've acknowledged that before. But there are individual examples which support my contention that service should be acknowledged and honored. My problem with both sides of this issue is that generalizations are made and the unique, and often fascinating stories of the individual gets overlooked.

Ghost said...

Prof. Bradley:
I agree that "soldier" is a flexible term. I also wonder what term should be applied to the free men of color who were subject to the Conscript laws in the Confederacy? If they drove wagons, etc, but were conscripts does this make them soldiers?

It seems this Soldier controversy is not limited to the South.

Not everyone in the North counted the USCT as soldiers which included the United States War Department-

"...Acting upon the provisions of the law passed by the last Congress, which had no bearing upon the matter, the Paymaster's Department of the U.S. Army adjudges the regiments of colored men now in the service of their country to be 'military laborers,' not soldiers. As the former, they would be entitled to pay at the rate of $10 per month, of which $3 per month may be drawn in clothing.' "

New York Herald-Tribune, 23 Dec 1863

USCT who were free before the war did not receive equal pay until June 1864.
For those who were slaves before the war- no equal pay until March 1865.

Michael Bradley said...

Forged in Battle was published in 1990, The Sable Arm came out in 1987. I read these books when they were first put on the market. I would point out that both these books fail to include any referrence to the Provost Marshal Records, one of the most complete sources for information abouit the USCT since these troops did a great deal of service in that capacity.

In short, both Glattharr and Cordnish have failed to include information from an inportant source of primary documents.

Michael Bradley said...

There is, in the Official Records, a general order issued at Tullahoma, TN, by Braxton Bragg in the spring of 1863 which says "all employees of this army, white as well as black, shall receive equal rations, pay, and medical treatment."

Should we call the Army of Tennessee an equal opportunity employer?

Michael Bradley said...

I have been thiking over Mr. Levin's comments that he is "weary" of post-war accounts as evidence.

I understand that changing times may produce changing memories but a great deal of what we know about the war is the result of post-war writing by veterans from generals like Grant to privates like Sam Watkins.

If we depend solely on what was written during the war we would have a much different view of the conflict than we currently hold. McPherson said that about 10% of the letters of Union soldiers mentioned slavery, 5% of Confederate letters mentioned it. I know from personal research that most soldier's letters said nothing about motivation, they were recounting the news or asking for news from home.

Richard G. Williams, Jr. said...

Professor Bradley:

"I have been thiking over Mr. Levin's comments that he is "weary" of post-war accounts as evidence."

I believe much of that "weariness" comes from the fact that many post-war counts do not comport to what Kevin would refer to as "more recent scholarship" as if "more recent scholarship" ends all debate.

Michael Bradley said...

Today's "most recent scholarship" is tomorrow's "outdated historiography." Any person who has studied Civil War history knows that "most recent scholarship" has gone through numerous chaanges since 1870 and the topic continues to evolve.

So, Richard, I agree and I pity anyone who thinks that the last word has been spoken on the subject.

Richard G. Williams, Jr. said...

There is always a certain segment of every generation who believe they are so much wiser, enlightened and informed than every previous generation. It's easy to forget we stand on the shoulders of everyone who has gone before us.

Jimmy Price said...

Professor Bradley,

Not to be too much of a stickler, but The Sable Arm came out in 1953 – not 1987 – and, along with Benjamin Quarles's The Negro in the Civil War was one of the first works to examine the topic. Glatthaar’s work does have some glaring omissions (not going into the officer/soldier relationships in the Army of the James is a bit baffling). Two other works that help round out the picture of black Union service are Noah Andre Trudeau's Like Men of War and the indispensible Freedom: Series II: The Black Military Experience: A Documentary History of Emancipation, 1861-1867 edited by Ira Berlin, Joseph Reidy, and Leslie S. Rowland. Each work has its own particular failings, but taken together they help give the reader a broad understanding of the USCT experience.


Jimmy Price

Michael Bradley said...

Mr. Price,
Thanks for the correction. I took the date from the paperback edition. The rest of your reading list is also good. Except for the Berlin volume all are on my shelf and I have read the Berlin, et al, book. I still point out that most of the USCT served most of the time under the command of the Provost Marshal Dept and that none of the books you menion cite the massive amount of detail found in those records.

The Provost Marshal records are in the National Archives but they are still in their handwritten form--they have never been transcribed. This makes them a daunting source but they are most valuable.

I have transcribed the records for Military Sub-Ditrict #1, Defenses of the Nashville & Chattanooga Railroad and have read a good deal of the rest. An accurate history of the USCT cannot omit this source. Neither can an accurate hisory of the treatment of Southern civilians be written without consulting this source.