Monday, November 15, 2010

How to lie with fake research

As Kevin Sieff reported in the Washington Post last month, it appears that a new Virginia history textbook aimed at fourth graders, Our Virginia: Past and Present, makes the claim that "Thousands of Southern blacks fought in the Confederate ranks, including two black battalions under the command of Stonewall Jackson." Needless to say, this news comes as a surprise to most Civil War historians.

In the follow-up to the initial story, it has become clear that no historians reviewed the textbook before it was distributed. According to Sieff, the problem was first discovered by William & Mary's own Carol Sheriff, a professor history. The textbook's author, meanwhile, has admitted to relying primarily on the internet in doing her "research." Apparently, she has much to learn about the reliability of internet sources .

The Virginia Gazette has an informative interview with prof. Sheriff, discussing the error of the textbook claim. Next, for reasons that are not entirely clear, George Mason professor of economics Walter Williams decided to wade into the fray, and in the process demonstrated why one should be wary not only of internet sources, but also of the "evidence" put forward by people with an axe to grind.

In a syndicated column titled "Virginia's Black Confederates," Williams first cannily reduces the textbook claim to "blacks fought on the side of the Confederacy," which is of course not controversial at all. The controversy is over the "thousands" and over those two Stonewall Jackson battalions.

Be that as it may, Williams next claims to examine accepted scholarship on this "controversial" fact. Here is Williams's "accepted scholarship":

In April 1861, a Petersburg, Va., newspaper proposed "three cheers for the patriotic free Negroes of Lynchburg" after 70 blacks offered "to act in whatever capacity may be assigned to them" in defense of Virginia. Ex-slave Frederick Douglass observed, "There are at the present moment, many colored men in the Confederate Army doing duty not only as cooks, servants and laborers, but as real soldiers, having muskets on their shoulders and bullets in their pockets, ready to shoot down ... and do all that soldiers may do to destroy the Federal government."

Charles H. Wesley, a distinguished black historian who lived from 1891 to 1987, wrote "The Employment of Negroes as Soldiers in the Confederate Army," in the Journal of Negro History (1919). He says, "Seventy free blacks enlisted in the Confederate Army in Lynchburg, Virginia. Sixteen companies (1,600) of free men of color marched through Augusta, Georgia on their way to fight in Virginia."

Wesley cites Horace Greeley's "American Conflict" (1866) saying, "For more than two years, Negroes had been extensively employed in belligerent operations by the Confederacy. They had been embodied and drilled as rebel soldiers and had paraded with white troops at a time when this would not have been tolerated in the armies of the Union."

Wesley goes on to say, "An observer in Charleston at the outbreak of the war noted the preparation for war, and called particular attention to the thousand Negroes who, so far from inclining to insurrections, were grinning from ear to ear at the prospect of shooting the Yankees."

This discussion appears to be drawing on 4 sources, representing "accepted scholarship": Frederick Douglass, the Petersburg, VA newspaper, the Wesley article, and Horace Greeley. As we shall see, however, the last 3 "sources" really turn out to be just a single source: Charles Wesley's "The Employment of Negroes as Soldiers in the Confederate Army," published in the Journal of Negro History in 1919. Let's take each piece of "evidence", briefly, in turn.

The statement by Douglass was made in the service of calling upon the Union to draft African American soldiers. It is from "Fighting Rebels with Only One Hand", published in September 1861. The goal of the piece was not to establish evidence, but rather to convince a recalcitrant Union to broaden its recruitment. Moreover, Williams' quote is disingenuous. Douglass' statement does not begin "there are at the present moment...", but rather "It is now pretty well established, that there are at the present moment..." which gives a better sense of the indirect and second-hand nature of Douglass' claim.

Next, the apparently primary source material: the Petersburg, VA newspaper. In fact, it seems unlikely that Williams saw the paper himself. His information appears to be drawn from Wesley, who in turn draws from Greeley, so Williams' information is tertiary at best. Greeley mentions the article immediately after describing the Confederate Congress passing a bill limiting the ability of individual towns to pass laws drafting local free blacks. Here's Greeley's description: "The Lynchburg Republican (Va). had, so early as April, chronicled the volunteered enrollment of 70 of the free negroes of that place, to fight in defense of their State." (Greeley, vol. 2, p. 522).

First, note that these men were volunteered, which is very much different from volunteering. Second, neither Greeley nor Wesley says these volunteered men said they would "act in whatever capacity may be assigned to them." It is possible Williams draws this from the original source, but I highly doubt it. In fact, Wesley describes a desperation act passed in March 1865 by the Confederate Congress drafting slaves "to perform military service in whatever capacity he [the President] may direct" (p. 251), and it appears likely this is where Williams got his language.

On to the next claim. Williams says that Wesley writes: "Seventy free blacks enlisted in the Confederate Army in Lynchburg, Virginia. Sixteen companies (1,600) of free men of color marched through Augusta, Georgia on their way to fight in Virginia." This is a manufactured quotation. In fact, Wesley writes only that a paper in Lynchburg, VA (i.e. the "source" already mentioned by Williams) commented "on the enlistment of 70 free Negroes to fight for the defense of the State." Here too, note that Wesley, in contrast to Williams, does not argue that these men enlisted on their own; he notes simply that the enlistment took place, voluntary or not.

The second sentence is also made up by Williams, although his creative rewrite does not diverge much from Wesley's description (p.245). However, Wesley claims to be drawing this information from Greeley, even though Greeley offers no such information. In fact, Wesley appears to have derived his data from Christian Fleetwood's "The Negro as Soldier" (1895) which states: "the 'Charleston Mercury' records the passing through Augusta of sixteen well-drilled companies and one Negro company from Nashville, Tenn." Note that there is nothing here about these 16 companies being colored. So Wesley's footnote is wrong and his interpretation of Fleetwood's sentence is wrong; on top of this Williams manufactures a quotation out of Wesley's somewhat longer description. Not exactly quality "research" on anyone's part.

On, then, to Greeley as a source, as cited by Wesley, as cited by Williams (who shows no evidence of having bothered to look up Greeley's work himself, even though it is readily available online). The first quotation ("For more than two years, Negroes had been extensively employed...") is correct, but does not of course imply that the "employment" was at all voluntary. The second quotation correctly quotes Wesley, who incorrectly quotes Greeley. Moreover, Greeley here is reporting about an item in the The Evening Post of New York, sent by a Washington correspondent, who heard from "A gentleman from Charleston," who did not call particular attention to (instead, he just mentioned) "the thousand negroes," who in any case were busy building batteries, not being trained as soldiers.

In sum, Williams' definition of "accepted scholarship" appears to be "an article from 1919 that I happened to find online and which I will creatively quote from without doing any further investigation". The irony of all this is that it is not actually controversial that there were some black Confederate soldiers, which appears to be the thing Williams is so desperate to "prove." Moreover, given the reams of research on the Civil War that have been produced since 1919, it is odd that he is not apparently aware of any. One hopes that his teaching of economics (his academic home department) does not present "accepted scholarship" from 1919 as cutting edge!

Sorry for the long rant. Lesson for the day: the internet puts many research resources at your fingertips. Use them wisely and use them well: don't trust just any information you find, and do double-check the sources used by those whose information appears reliable. There is a depressing amount of intellectually dishonest "information", even from sources that may appear reliable (Williams is "John M. Olin Distinguished Professor of Economics" at George Mason University). Other information is simply wrong due to sloppy research (as in Wesley's interpretation of Fleetwood's report).

Second, lesson, for my students only: I will check some of your sources, and even your sources' sources. And if I find errors, whether deliberate (dishonesty) or sloppy (laziness), I will get grumpy. Doing good research is important; learning to do it well will stand you in good stead throughout your careers.

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