Wednesday, October 20, 2010

Virginia School Textbook: Thousands of Slaves Fought for the Confederacy

The Washington Post reports that a history textbook used in 4th grade classrooms in Virgina says that "thousands" of black soldiers fought for the Confederate army. According to the textbook, Our Virginia: Past and Present, "Thousands of Southern blacks fought in the Confederate ranks, including two black battalions under the command of Stonewall Jackson."

The Post report says that the author relied on historically biased websites, including the Sons of the Confederate Veterans.

In its article, the Post quotes Princeton historian James McPherson, who says, "These Confederate heritage groups have been making this claim for years as a way of purging their cause of its association with slavery."

In the war over the next generation's minds, textbooks have been the source of controversy in numerous states, including and especially Texas.

Our Virginia: Past and Present was recommended by the education superintendent for review in January 2010 and presented to the Board of Education for final review in March 2010. The Virginia Education Department deemed the book "accurate and unbiased."


  1. Ummm...There were black people, African Americans, slaves, free black people all sorts of groups that fought for the Confederacy for any number of reasons, most being the same as the reasons which brought white southerners to fight. I am not sure about the number which the text book claims or the units, but if you believe that the Confederate Army was all white, you are a product of revisionist history.

  2. There were some slaves who "fought" on the side of the Confederacy during the Civil War, but certainly not thousands. And those slaves who were part of the Confederacy were most laborers, not armed soldiers.

  3. Robert McCartney's column in today's Washington Post does quite good job in a small space of establishing what is and is not in the historical record (mainly by consulting with actual authorities on the subject, and not, as the textbook author did, by copying something found on the internet). There were no "battalions" of blacks, slave or free, fighting under Stonewall Jackson's command. The Virginia Dept. of Education has now conceded that this paragraph in the textbook is in error and has emailed to let the teachers know that they should make that when they get to this passage in the US history class, they should tell their 4th grader that it's not so. (I guess you're never too young to learn that you mustn't believe everything you read.)

    One additional point: While it is true many slaves and some free blacks were forced or recruited into labor on the Confederate side, they were not armed; what white Confederate commander would want to arm slaves? What Robert McCartney did not go on to report (he may not have had the space in his short column) but which has been the subject of other civil war research is the position of most white slave owners in staunch opposition to having their property (their black slaves) commandeered by the Confederate government that was supposedly fighting for slaveholders' rights. Even the argument that the taking of slaves for labor was a necessity to free up more white soldiers for combat and thus improve the odds that the south would win (this was late in the war and the confiscation of slaves was part of a last-ditch push) did not sway most of the slaveholders, who by and large continued to oppose this infringement of their property rights. Of course, the interpretation of the historical record provides fuel for a continuing debate about the role of blacks on both sides of the Civil War, and it's certainly too much to expect 4th graders to learn history at this level of detail. Still, we don't want them taught something that is simply factually incorrect, as was the case in the particular passage that was in the state-approved textbook.