Earlier this month Boston-based, amateur historian Kevin M. Levin published a volume titled, Searching for Black Confederates: The Civil War’s Most Persistent Myth (University of North Carolina Press), in which, against substantial evidence both contemporary and modern, he maintains that it is simply a myth that Southern blacks, whether slave or free, fought for the Confederacy. In his screed Levin takes aim in particular at North Carolina Museum of History Curator Earl Ijames. Mr. Ijames, who is himself black, has done substantial research on “colored Confederates,” including the production of an acclaimed film on the topic, in which he documents black Confederate soldiers and their participation in Confederate ranks.
An article in The [Raleigh NC] News & Observer (September 12) describes Levin’s approach:
“The ‘black Confederate’ narrative is intended to fundamentally shift the history of the Confederacy,” Levin said in a phone interview with The News & Observer. “It’s an attempt to get the Confederacy right on race relations. That’s its goal. That’s what I was attempting to undercut with the book.” Of Ijames, Levin said, “He is operating under a fundamental misunderstanding of the Confederacy and of the Civil War in history. He has pushed this false narrative.”
Curator Ijames’ 75-minute documentary film, released in 2014, titled “Earl Ijames’ Colored Confederates and U.S. Colored Troops,” offers documentation that blacks aligned with both sides during the Civil War in the hopes of securing their freedom. “It’s just an inconvenient truth for some people” that blacks served as Confederate soldiers, Ijames has stated.
In the same news article, Frank Powell of the North Carolina Sons of Confederate Veterans was quoted in support of Ijames:
“To call him [Levin] an historian is a misnomer. Most of his stuff is wrong. He’s more of an agenda-pusher. We have a real problem nowadays with these people who don’t want to just change our history, but to eradicate it. And not just Confederate, but all of Western history. They want to tear all of that down so they can remake it to their liking…The problem is that, unfortunately, they didn’t keep very good [troop] records. A lot of the records got destroyed at the end of the war. I’ve read accounts about numbers. Some say 50,000 and some say 500,000. You just don’t know because of the lack of records. Five hundred thousand is probably too many. But 50,000 may not be enough.”
Not content to engage in debate, since debate implicitly suggests at least two legitimate sides to an argument, zealous supporters of Levin's position go so far as to suggest that Earl Ijames should be perhaps even dismissed from his position. W. Fitzhugh Brundage, a William Umstead Distinguished Professor of History at the University of North Carolina who wrote an endorsement for the jacket of Searching for Black Confederates, has declared that “if the museum in any way allows its name to be associated with, or provide space for, an uncontested description or claim about substantial numbers of black Confederates, I think it’s doing a disservice to North Carolina citizens.”
What emerges with indelible transparency in this debate is that the fanatical Progressivist Left is pushing an agenda, an ideological template. And in that template there is no room for dissent or disagreement. In our present cultural context race and racism have become weaponized, talismanic cudgels for totalitarian Progressivists with which to beat historically-dominant European civilization and “white supremacy” over the head, poisoned arrows in the quiver of the post-Marxist social justice warriors employed to advance their agenda. Jarring and glaring exceptions that interrupt or undermine this narrative must be rejected and condemned at all costs: that blacks, whether slave or free, would have fought for the Confederacy simply cannot be true because it does not serve the ultimate goals of the revolutionary race zealots.
In other words, if history doesn’t confirm my ideology and my bias, well then, just go back and rewrite that history to make it so! And this methodology dominates the craft of the vast majority of current historians and the history tomes that they obediently churn out—ideologically tendentious and shaped to further an agenda.
How does this differ from the intellectual environment of the old Soviet Union, except perhaps that it is more insidious and more pervasive?
Boyd D. Cathey holds a doctorate in European history from the Catholic University of Navarra, Pamplona, Spain, where he was a Richard Weaver Fellow, and an MA in intellectual history from the University of Virginia (as a Jefferson Fellow). He was assistant to conservative author and philosopher the late Russell Kirk. In more recent years he served as State Registrar of the North Carolina Division of Archives and History. He has published in French, Spanish, and English, on historical subjects as well as classical music and opera. He is active in the Sons of Confederate Veterans and various historical, archival, and genealogical organizations.