01/23/2015 02:32 pm ET Updated Mar 25, 2015

'Do You See What I See': The Debate Over Black Confederates

Historians are at it again. This time they are arguing about the legitimacy of Black Confederate soldiers. John Stauffer argues that about 3,000-6,000 served as Confederate soldiers; whereas, Kevin Levin argues that none served in the Confederate Army. Levin takes apart Stauffer's argument by claiming that Stauffer does not offer one piece of evidence from the military records that prove that Confederates did, in fact, contribute to the war effort as soldiers.

The problem of Levin's criticism lies in its formulation. He is asking Stauffer to retrieve archival evidence from the 19th century that fits a 21st century definition of soldiers. He is asking Stauffer to practice historical research that privileges white, Confederate record-keeping over the ways that black people observed, wrote, and remembered the war. He is asking Stauffer to play according to the rules in which traditional historiography, often the purveyors of epistemic violence, define evidence and engage in archival collecting.

In short, Levin's criticism fails to even acknowledge that the very construction of the archive, the collection of sources, and the writing of history reflect the same racist dynamics and oppression of black people that caused the war in the first place. The archive is not like the Wizard of OZ; historians are not Dorothy who get to ask an omnipotent force a question and get the answer. The archive is a political construction, the result of a power dynamic, which has historically failed to capture the experience of black people.

The archive cannot spit out a case number of a Confederate soldier that adheres to some intellectually acceptable way of doing history. In other words, historians' investment in archival evidence as a proof for their arguments is a relatively new invention that developed in the late 19th century. The historical profession's invention of a set of commandments that dictates historical practice is also a relatively new development that gained momentum in the early 20th century. In short, we have invented the standards to determine the legitimacy of Black Confederates, and we have created the rules by which they became visible in the archives. Our definitions have little to do with whether a Black Confederate brandished a rifle in the face of a Union soldier.

Writing the history of black people during the Civil War (or any other oppressed group) demands a reckoning with how sources enter the archive in the first place and even the various political, economic, social and, most of all, ideological forces that led to the mere construction of the archive. To simply find black people in documents and to claim that we know something about them because they fit into a constructed definition of historical practices overlooks the process by which they became legible. Better questions to ask would be: who compiled wartime military records? Did black people contribute to the construction of this vast archive? What was left out? What was emphasized?

Scholarly analysis from W.E.B. Du Bois' formulation of "double consciousness" to Darlene Clark Hines' concept of "dissemblance" to Sadiya Hartman's "Story of Venus" powerfully indicates the ways in which black people said one thing but meant another; how they evaded historical documentation; and how they subverted the power structures that attempted to say their name. Doing black history means more than just finding black people in the archives and stating whether they did or did not do something, it means engaging a whole host of questions that range from the Confederates' use of the bureaucracy to track black experience in the same way as they charted white people's experience; it means understanding that enslaved people's decisions to join the Confederacy as soldiers might not fit either the past or the present's definition of soldiering and that it may not fit into the frameworks of how we understand enlistment in general. Stauffer rightly gestures toward this mode of analysis by placing enlistment in the context of the Atlantic world where enslaved populations joined military campaigns for all kinds of idiosyncratic reasons that challenge our definitions of war, slavery, and emancipation.

Writing black history further means that the sources used to write white people's experience will not be the same sources used in writing the history of black people. Levin wants Stauffer wants to generate a record from the Confederacy, but as a scholar trained in interdisciplinary methods, Stauffer smartly reaches for a range of other sources to support his claim: cultural memory, printed images, and other cultural ephemera.

The debate about Black Confederates tells us more about us than it does about them. It uncovers more insight about how we write about the past than the actual events that transpired. It exposes more about the political imperatives that shape how we want to see the past rather than the ways that the past may have wanted to be seen.

Jim Downs is the author of Sick from Freedom: African-American Illness and Suffering during the Civil War and Reconstruction (Oxford U.P., 2012).