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Hey, Is This Going To Be On The Test? Confederates In The Classroom

October 26, 2010, 3:13 pm

Cartoon by Walt Handelsman.

Let’s hear it for the Virginia Department of Education, which approved a textbook called Our Virginia: Past and Present for fourth graders in its public schools.   It features the information that, according to this story in USA Today “thousands of black troops fought for the Confederacy….author Joy Masoff told The Washington Post that she found the passage on the Internet.”  In case your brain is busy stereotyping Masoff as a renegade Daughter of the Confederacy, she is from Westchester, NY, and is the author of numerous children’s books.

Masoff’s Wikipedia entry has one account of the three Internet sources Masoff used that it claims link back to this document generated by the Sons of Confederate Veterans, a group which works hard to separate the rebellion from the stink of involuntary human servitude.   One way to do that is to imply massive black support for states’ rights (as opposed to the right of states to pass laws that enslaved people because of their race.)  One wonders if it was these lines that Masoff cobbled into that one pithy sentence:

“There are at the present moment, many colored men in the Confederate Army doing duty…as real soldiers, having muskets on their shoulders and bullets in their pockets….” Frederick Douglas, former slave & abolitionist (Fall, 1861).

How many? Easily tens of thousands of blacks served the Confederacy as laborers, teamsters, cooks and even as soldiers. Some estimates indicate 25% of free blacks and 15% of slaves actively supported the South during the war.

Young historians:  beware the ellipse.  And honestly?  If you didn’t know who Frederick Douglass actually was, that first line is impenetrably confusing. 

This was brought to the attention of the authorities in question by our colleague, Carol Sheriff of William and Mary, whose child was assigned the book. “Sheriff says blacks occasionally took up arms to defend their masters, but it was illegal to use blacks as soldiers in the Confederacy until toward the war’s end. None of those companies saw action on the battlefront and most worked involuntarily as laborers.” Note:  Sheriff is not claiming that no black person did service that supported the Confederacy, only pointing out that thousands of enslaved people did not sign up to risk their lives with the goal of perpetuating slavery — which is what Masoff’s odd little factoid strongly implies.

Textbooks do make mistakes, and they can be corrected.  And yet, an erroneous fact like this one would be field-changing were it true, and Masoff has to be criticized for not recognizing that and pursuing the question further.  That the text also then slipped through nnumerous other hands before ending up in Virginia classrooms is a scandal.

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