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By now if you have not heard of the Virginia textbook controversy you have been in the Amazon jungle for awhile. But for those few who were on such a journey let me provide the basic story.

It seems the state of Virginia has approved and distributed an elementary school social studies text that contained the following passage:

Thousands of Southern blacks fought in the Confederate ranks, including two black battalions under the command of Stonewall Jackson.

The problem is that passage is a crock, plain and simple.

Clarence Thomas Weighs In

There is an irony in this in that if you web search slaves and firearms you will find a considerable number of articles citing Southern laws against any African American, free or slave, possessing a firearm.  This history even made it into a Supreme Court opinion by Clarence Thomas in the famous gun control case involving the city of Chicago, McDonald vs. Chicago.

That case is famous because it ruled that the Second Amendment’s protection to keep and bear arms was incorporated into the Fourteenth.  Thomas’ concurring opinion is one of his longest, indicating that he was particularly vexed by the attempt to suppress the Second Amendment. One thread of his argument is the suppression of the right to bear arms by the slave states:

The fear generated by these and other rebellions led Southern legislatures to take particularly vicious aim at the rights of free blacks and slaves to speak or to keep and bear arms for their defense.

Many legislatures amended  their laws  prohibiting slaves from carrying firearms to apply the prohibition to free blacks as well.

Thomas quotes the following Georgia and Florida Laws:

It shall not be lawful for any free person of colour in this state, to own, use, or carry fire arms of any description whatever. [Georgia]

Florida made it the “duty” of white citizen “patrol[s] to search negro houses  or other suspected places, for fire arms.”  Act of Feb. 17, 1833, ch. 671, 1833 Fla. Acts pp. 26,  30.  If they found any firearms, the patrols were to take the offending slave or free black  “to the nearest justice of the peace,” whereupon he would be “severely punished” by “whipping  on the bare back, not exceeding thirty-nine lashes,” unless he could give a “plain and satisfactory” explanation of how he came to possess the gun.  [Florida]

The Virginia Textbook

Given Thomas’ opinion how could the passage about Stonewall Jackson make it into a textbook? Let’s start with the first guilty party–the author, Joy Massoff.  Although not a historian she has written history-related books for the Scholastic Press including works on the Revolution and Colonial America. Masoff is also author of The African American Story, published by her own Five Ponds Press, which is available in school and public libraries, so she is not unfamiliar with the African American experience.

I could find no reviews of this book that is shaping young American’s views of African American history.  As far as I can tell no one, including people in the African American community or professional historians, have reviewed his book. With Our Virginia the state at least had a review process in place. For $200 and credit towards renewing your license Virginia teachers review textbooks for the state.  Apparently three elementary teachers reviewed the Civil War passage and approved the book, saying it was “accurate and unbiased.”   To give the reviewers some slack, they typically are given several books to read, some over a thousand pages, with little time to check them over.

The Media

While the time-strapped teachers who read the book can perhaps be excused, the media are a different story.  Here is none other than the Washington Post:

State officials had no historian review the textbook “Our Virginia” before it was distributed to fourth-graders last month with a passage saying – wrongly, according to most scholars – that thousands of African Americans fought for the Confederacy during the Civil War. [my bold]

Historians have challenged the textbook’s statement that black soldiers fought in large numbers for the Confederacy. Some researchers, many of them affiliated with the Sons of Confederate Veterans, a heritage group, make such claims, but Pyle acknowledged that such conclusions are “outside of mainstream Civil War scholarship.

Contrast this with the College of William and Mary’s story about faculty member Carol Sheriff, a history professor who found the passage in her daughter’s textbook.

Sheriff, who teaches about the Civil War at the College and has authored a book on the subject, knew the passage in the textbook to be factually inaccurate. Historians, Sheriff said, universally agree African Americans did not fight in any organized way for the South. In fact, the Confederacy made it illegal until the last year of the war – and well after Jackson’s death, she said. Even then, there is no record of battalions of African Americans serving in battle, according to the professor. [my bold]

In short, the Post is making the objections to the textbook passage sound like a debate between rival groups of historians.  Note especially the Post’s quote “outside of mainstream Civil War scholarship.” and Sheriff’s statement, “Historians universally agree.”

The Post is the only media source hedging its coverage.  Here is NBC:

The Washington Post reports that a textbook given to fourth-graders in the Commonwealth of Virginia details that thousands of African American soldiers fought for the Confederacy during the Civil War — a claim rejected by most Civil War historians.

And the Christian Science Monitor:

Thousands of black soldiers fought for the Confederacy, including two battalions under Southern Gen. Stonewall Jackson. Really? No, absolutely not, most historians seem to agree. But a textbook being used in some of Virginia’s fourth-grade classrooms reports this as fact.

I could go on and add many more like this to the list, but you can do the search yourself. You can also see the pattern. From “universally agree” we go to the words  “most historians”  used by all three mainstream media sources.

The reason the media deserve little sympathy has to do with the real story.

The Real Story

The reference to Stonewall Jackson and two battalions makes more than a mere mistake. An ex-military person reading this page knows that a current battalion numbers about 500 troops.  I am no Civil War historian, but The Insider’s Guide to Civil War Sites in the Eastern Theater points out:

More usual in today’s army than during the Civil War, a battalion consisted of three to five companies. (p. 15)

A company at full strength had about 100 men.  The author of the Virginia textbook makes the preposterous assertion that Jackson had not one, but two of these units composed of African American troops. That is conservatively several hundred men.

But there is another more serious problem in the use of the word battalion–Stonewall Jackson only commanded one battalion–the First Virgina. The rest of his command was organized into regiments, as were most Confederate commands.  In fact there were only a handful of units named battalions in the entire Confederate Army.

What the media failed to point out is that  Nothing in the quote is right, not the African American troops or even the command structure.  There are a lot of Civil War buffs who will probably read this so I invite you to contribute your own evaluations. But essentially Masoff was asking us to believe one of the most famous units in military history somehow kept anyone from seeing several hundred African American troops organized into two distinct battalions in a command that had only one.

The Source

The media made much of the author’s use of the Internet for her research, as if she had dealings with someone in a back alley.  Frankly this is the media taking potshots at a competitor.  The Internet is just a tool. You can find all the evidence you need to refute the passage with fifteen minutes of research.  The Net can give you access to primary sources such as the Thomas opinion, to the full text of complete histories of the Civil War and to thousands of scholarly articles maintained by sources such as JSTOR.

The author chose to blame a group called the Sons of Confederate Veterans for her mistake.  The Sons is a creature of the Stephen D. Lee Institute whose purpose is stated in its quotation of a 1906 speech by the general for whom it is named.

To you, Sons of Confederate Veterans, we submit THE VINDICATION OF THE CAUSE FOR WHICH WE FOUGHT; to your strength will be given the DEFENSE OF THE CONFEDERATE SOLDIER’S GOOD NAME, the guardianship of his history, the emulation of his virtues, THE PERPETUATION OF THE PRINCIPLES HE LOVED and which made him glorious and which you also cherish. Remember, it is your duty to see that THE TRUE HISTORY OF THE SOUTH IS PRESENTED TO FUTURE GENERATIONS.

The Institute goes on to make the point that the Sons strongly supports the words it put in caps.  As for the real Stephen Lee his biographer notes he was an “unusually practical white supremacist.”  He quotes Lee:

We must either submit to Negro rule, adopt the shotgun policy, or change our franchise laws. [Herman Hattaway, General Stephen D. Lee, p. 175]

Welcome to the American version of Holocaust revisionism.  Until I researched this topic I did not realize there is a rather vigorous industry in this country determined to rewrite Civil War history to the point of inventing nonexistent units. At the center of this effort is the determination to prove that slavery was not really so bad, just as the Holocaust deniers have attempted to show the Holocaust either did not exist or was never that extensive.

This is where the issue of African American serving in the Confederate Army enters the picture. If it really happened then it would prove the absolutely ridiculous notion that African Americans so loved slavery they were willing to lay their lives down for it.

That this is the real agenda is made plain by a Confederate Veterans web site that ends with the following supposed quotes [I say supposed because they list no sources] about how African Americans loved slavery:

Adam Smith of Tate Co. Miss. “I liked being a slave, our white folks and ole friends are dead but we had plenty and dey were good to us.”

“De young folks don’t know nothing about good times and good living, dey don’t understand how come I wish I wuz still in slavery.”

Where Did the Evidence Come From

The most interesting part of the relationship between the Confederate veterans and Masoff’s quote about two battalions is that no Confederate site I could find substantiates the claim.  Here the plot thickens because in all my Internet searches I could not find no source that stated that two battalions of African Americans fought with Stonewall Jackson.  No Civil War buff would do so because Jackson did not have two battalions of any race.

The closest I could find was a site that claimed two companies of African Americans were part of what was known as the Jackson Battali0n.  What is more she seems to have the wrong Jackson as the Jackson Battalion is a much-honored unit of Tennessee volunteers (they helped to give the state its nickname) and later the Tennessee National Guard and is named after Andrew Jackson.

So the real mystery is where did Masoff get the information because it wasn’t the Internet.  Her Internet story does not hold up. There really are only two possibilities: she made up the entire offending sentence or she received it first hand from someone. If the former it makes you wonder about her ethics; if the latter it makes you wonder what circles she runs in.

Slipshod Language and Slipshod Research Lead to Slipshod Thinking

This makes the media’s use of the phrase “most historians” as bad as the textbook mistake itself.  Anyone reading “most historians” could be excused for believing that historians who had different opinions about the textbook passage.  They don’t because it is patently false.

The media seem to have let the outrageous statement that two battalions served with Stonewall Jackson conveniently slip away.  Instead by using the phrase “most historians” the media opened the door wide for people to believe that hundreds of African Americans did serve with Stonewall Jackson.

It took me a little over an hour to research much of what you are reading here, including Clarence Thomas’ opinion.  Does NBC or the Post not have someone who could spend an hour doing the same thing? Or why not just call up Sheriff and quote exactly what she told her college media people?  That would have only taken a few minutes. Or if they were even lazier just look up the William and Mary article and quote from it.  Or call up any Civil War historian or Jackson biographer and ask them if the statement was true.

I have yet to see Sheriff’s quotes in any mainstream media source. I have yet to see anyone in the media interview or quote from a Civil War historian about the ridiculous statement.  I have yet to see anyone in the media really nail this author for an inexcusable–and dangerous–error.  I have yet to see the media find anyone willing to say two battalions served with Stonewall Jackson.

Frankly this is why America is in trouble. Our media are letting us down.  We used to look to them to provide us with a properly-researched story, but now they cut corners and use slipshod language.  They permit something that is not true to be viewed as if maybe it is.  There is no excuse for this.

A History Lesson

Real historians use primary sources and document their assertions.  That is why the media’s use of “most historians” is so outrageous. Please NBC tell us which legitimate historians disagree with Sheriff? Where do they teach? What have they written? But most important, what is their evidence?

Real journalists do not make such false blanket statements any more than do real historians. In a true historical controversy both sides lay on the table the primary sources that support their claims.  What are the names of the African Americans who served in combat roles with Stonewall Jackson? What ranks did they hold? What battles were they in and what did they do in those battles?

The sad truth to be gleaned from this is that when a country loses its true history it loses itself.  When the media fail in their duty to tell the truth it becomes the creature of any reporter who wishes to twist it in their direction.

The ridiculous final resolution of the Virginia controversy is that they are going to paste stickers over the so-called offending passage. You can’t put band-aids over a lie any more than you can over a deep wound like slavery. Any idiot knows students will want to know what has been hidden from them. Then the whispering will begin and the distortions will follow.

If the Virginia textbook were a defective car it would have been recalled and the company sued for damages. If the author owned a bank she would be indicted for fraud.  If the head of the Virginia textbook committee worked for the federal government he would inspire a Congressional investigation.  If your local paper  made the same blunders as the Post it would be ridiculed by the national media.   But apparently we do not place as much value on students’ minds.

UPDATE:

As of January of this year (2011) the Washington Post was still using the phrase “most historians.” Preposterous. If anyone from the Post is reading this, please prove this in print. Find me a live body, a real historian with an appointment at an accredited university and who has research credentials who believes this trash.  Please cite our source for this generalization or you are not worthy of the title journalist.

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