There is a scientific method for conducting research. However, everything after that is pure art. The quality and accuracy of your final analysis is dependent upon the purpose of your research. All research is conducted in one of two ways, to see what you can find, or to look for information to support what you already know or believe.
The former is the most time consuming, but if you are after accuracy this is the way to go. The latter is the quickest way to conduct research, and the least accurate because you can disregard any information that does not support what you know or believe. To look to see what you can find is a very difficult way to conduct research. It is innate to see and understand things through the prism of your own experiences, a tendency you must fight if you want an accurate snapshot of that moment in time you are researching. To do accurate research you must look for data with a totally open mind, ignorant of everything you knew previously to your research. Even the best of us fail at this from time to time.
Even when you have done your best it is still possible to miss important data. As I was writing this I saw an episode of “Pawn Stars” that proves this point. A gentleman brought in an authentic civil war pistol which was engraved with the original owners name. A black civil war officer with the 1st Louisiana Native Guard. The customer said he was a Confederate officer. They called in an historian (“Mark”) to verify the story and a gun expert to verify the authenticity of the gun and the engraved name. The gun and the engraving was authentic. The historian confirmed the original owner was a black civil war officer, but he said he was a Northern officer and that there were no black Confederate officers. He said the 1st Louisiana Native Guard was a Yankee unit formed after General Butler captured New Orleans.
Well, yes and no. The 1st Louisiana Native Guard was formed on 27 September 1862 (New Orleans fell in April 1862). But, that was not the first 1st Louisiana Native Guard. The first, 1st Louisiana Native Guard was formed on 2 May 1861 and disbanded by the Louisiana state legislature on 15 February 1862. This earlier unit was a Confederate unit. Many men were members of both the Confederate and the United States unit, which had the same name, including the officer who had originally owned the pistol. So, despite what the credentialed historian thought, the 1st Louisiana Native Guard had also been a Confederate unit, meaning the Confederacy did have black officers within that unit. As I said, it is easy to make mistakes in research.
Now. Back to our story on Andrew and Silas Chandler ( http://video.pbs.org/video/2152291788/ ) and my analysis. We will start at the beginning of this series. Dr. Berry said that no black men served in the Confederacy as soldiers, it was illegal. She also said that Silas was not a freedman, it was illegal. Yes and no, Silas was not legally free, and probably was not freed until the end of the war. Now those who disagree with Dr. Berry may believe that she is part of the politically correct contingent which is trying to rewrite history. I disagree with this evaluation of Dr. Berry’s motive. If you look at Dr. Berry’s resume it would be hard to imagine her saying anything else.
Dr. Berry has spent her professional life in public service and in education (including public appearances, published articles, papers, and books, and consultations that go with those professions). In public service one of the jobs she had was on the Civil Rights Commission (read law) and in education she is of the History of American Law and the History of Law and Social Policy. So, you see, throughout her professional life the doctor has been concerned with the law, and quite naturally looks at history through the prism of what the law says. So, based on her personal experiences, she is absolutely correct. However, in real life, the law is rarely followed so strictly by everyone.
One of America’s greatest military generals quite often found himself in deep trouble for not doing what he was supposed to. At the end of World War Two, General Patton was in charge of the occupation army in Germany and got into quite a bit of trouble for not following the law. The United States Congress had passed “de-nazi-fication laws.” Those laws barred former members of the Nazi party from being in public service or working for public utilities and services. Patton ignored those laws, and when questioned he reportedly said that when he was supplied with the people to run the trains, phones, and electrical plants who were not former members of the Nazi party he would use them, until then he would use the people he needed to keep things running. They relieved him of his command, but the war was over. During the war, they chastised General Patton and punished him, but they always promoted him, gave him another army to command, and sent him right back into battle, which was where Patton wanted to be.
Another of the often used comments of those who say blacks did not serve in the army, is that blacks served as servants, cooks, they worked in supply, and helped as medical orderlies, so they were not part of the army. Of course, most of the people making that claim never served in the military. For centuries we have action reports of battle where these “non-military” people are used in combat. It was towards the end of the 20th century before blacks were allowed in jobs other than support roles in the military. In the submarine service the crews are much smaller than on surface ships. Due to crew size, every man in a submarine crew must learn every job on board the submarine. During World War Two, submarine service attracted many blacks in the navy, expressly because of this. For the first 50 years of the submarine service this offered the only path blacks had to learn technical skills in the military. On the submarines I served on, our support people were also part of our battle stations. They worked out fire control data for the torpedoes, they help load torpedoes, stood watch in sonar with the sonar techs and (like all members of a submarine crew) were also part of the damage control parties. During routine watches these men could qualify for almost any watch they wished to stand: lookout, helmsman, quartermaster, sonar operator, as well as others. When in battle commanding officers will use whoever they have available to try and win a battle … the laws of politicians be damned. And when a man proves himself in battle, often those men are used more regularly.
Confederate troops were almost always outnumbered and so it stands to reason freedmen and slaves would eventually be used as combat troops no matter what the law said. But, of course, since it was illegal, looking at Confederate action reports would not reveal the use of blacks as combat troops. No officer is going to write and sign a report that could result in charges being brought against them. So, the best place to find evidence of blacks used as combat troops is not in the Southern action reports. The best place to find primary source evidence of blacks being used by the Confederates as combat troops, is in the action reports of the enemy, written by officers in the US Army.
As for the many web sites that talk on this subject, most are partisan at best. One good example of this is a web site that quotes the 65,000 blacks fighting for the Confederacy and claims the person using this must have made it up and that they have no idea where such a preposterous number could have come from. Actually the man who originates this number explains in detail how he arrived at the number. He calculated this number from the action report of one Union officer in one battle who stated there were 3,000 blacks fighting with the Confederates. Then calculated the percentage of blacks in the Confederate ranks for this one battle and calculated what the number would be if that same percentage represented the number of blacks in the entire Confederate Army. His math was correct but his method flawed. And the first web site was being dishonest in an effort to discredit anyone claiming blacks fought for the Confederacy.
Books written about the war since the war are at best secondary sources. When doing research, secondary sources can point the way for the direction of your research, but primary sources should always be used to base your research upon. In this case the best primary source reference on the civil war is The Official Records of the War of the Rebellion (commonly referred to as the “OR”)
Beginning in 1864 (after April 1865 for Confederate records) the War Department of the United States began collecting first-hand accounts, orders, reports, maps, diagrams, and correspondence (created as the events were happening) from the war departments of the United States and Confederate States. They were published by the United States government, including a separate series for the Union and Confederate navies.
The OR was published as 128 books organized as 70 volumes with over 130,000 pages, and more than 1,000 maps and diagrams. The last of the books was published in 1922. This is the best primary source information available, though it is obviously not complete as some of the material would have been accidentally or intentionally destroyed during the war.
The best evidence to support blacks fighting for the Confederacy is not a book someone wrote 100 years after the war. The best evidence is to take a Confederate unit that supposedly use blacks in combat and then look for the action reports of the Union officers who fought against that Confederate unit in the many battles that specific Confederate unit fought in. What I found was a consistency in the reports of blacks being used in some units. The numbers would not be accurate as the Union officer was estimating while fighting in combat. But an officer stating their were 3,000 blacks in battle against him may be off by several hundred, but certainly would not mistake 3 or 30 for 3,000.
It is important to look at several battles, because in an emergency a commanding officer would use anyone who could hold a gun to keep from losing a battle. We are not looking for that emergency, but we are looking to find out if blacks routinely fought for the Confederacy, even though it was illegal.
I have my own copy of the OR, but if you would like to do your own research using these series, you can access them at most libraries, or you can now read them online thanks to Cornell at this link http://ebooks.library.cornell.edu/m/moawar/waro.html
One of the other claims made to refute the idea that blacks fought for the Confederacy is that they had no choice. Since they were slaves (in this argument I guess the existence of freedmen is ignored) they were fighting because they were told too and could not refuse. The argument also ignores the possibility that some of the slaves may have chosen to fight for the Confederacy if they were given the choice. Looking at this argument from our modern time it does seem logical. But, to arrive at the accurate facts of the matter we need to look at this argument from the mind-set of people in the mid 19th century.
In 2014, it has been four decades since we had a draft, in the United States, we have an all volunteer military – no one can be forced to serve in the military. But before that, in a time of war large percentages of the fighting force were drafted. They had no choice. They could show up for military service or go to jail, just like Muhammad Ali in 1967.
No one would think of not honoring a Vietnam veteran or a World War veteran as a veteran simply because they were drafted. So why would anyone refuse to honor a Civil War veteran as a veteran? Two answers immediately come to mind. The first reason, looking at the mid 19th century and judging it by our modern opinions, beliefs and ideals; instead of judging it with mid 19th century opinions, beliefs, and ideals. The second reason, is as old as ancient Egypt, pure politics.
Being accurate is difficult, but always should be the goal of any one doing research. Even the most well intentioned person can make an innocent mistake, but not all errors are unintentional mistakes or innocent.
If you do make a mistake, claim it as soon as possible, people will place more faith in your work. I hope you will look at the OR sometime, just to see what is available if nothing else, it is indispensable for anyone wanting to do serious research on the civil war.
I will be tackling more of the controversial issues of the Civil War this year.