The fact checkers:
Willoughby Mariano: writer, researcher
Elizabeth Miniet: editor
Jim Tharpe: editor
Note: I am of a Southern family and have studied the Civil War in some depth, though with no particular attention paid to this particular issue. I have no personal interest in the truth of the matter either way, other than as a matter of favoring the truth over something less.
Ray McBerry, spokesperson for the Georgia Sons of Confederate Veterans, appeared on public radio station WABE after the History Channel stopped airing a commercial that advocated a minority view about the American Civil War.
Context (transcript mine):
STEVE GOSS:One of the spots on the Sons of Confederate Veterans' Web site refers to the war as a time when--I'm quoting here--(")Men and women of the South stood courageously for liberty.(") unquote. How can the Sons of Confederate Veterans make a sweeping statement like that when millions of blacks were enslaved in the South?
RAY MCBERRY:The reason that the Sons of Confederate Veterans are able to say that Southern men and women were standing up for the issue of liberty is because those foundational bedrock principles upon which the, the Confederacy was formed, were the exact same principles embodied in the Declaration of Independence, and when the South chose peacefully to secede in 1861, um, they were really doing the exact same thing that our founding fathers had done from England in 1776. That was, attempting to peacefully secede and just go their own separate way. And had Mr. Lincoln and the North allowed that to happen, it would have been a peaceful separation.
STEVE GOSS:Shouldn't your ads, when they refer to "the people of the South" have an important qualifier and maybe just say "the white people of the South" and that would be historically accurate?
RAY MCBERRY:No, in order to be accurate, uh, we believe they should be written the way they are. Because there were also many freed blacks who actually fought on behalf of the South during the war. In fact, uh, one of the largest slave owners, I think in Louisiana, was a freed black man, uh, was a doctor there in the Louisiana area, and many freed blacks, as well as slaves, fought voluntarily on the side of the South during the war. Um, you'll find, uh, blacks in almost every regiment throughout the South who fought right alongside, uh, white Southerners, and in almost every case they--it was a voluntary decision that the free blacks made.
I take McBerry to say that blacks either slave or free occurred in nearly every Confederate regiment and that it was almost always a voluntary decision in the case of the free blacks. He mentions both slave and free soldiers and does an imperfect job of keeping the two groups distinct during his discourse.
The PolitiFact reaction:
Blacks? Fighting in almost every regiment? For a regime that backed slavery?Three question marks in the first sentence hints at incredulity. The fact check is afoot.
When we asked McBerry to elaborate, he said that it is "an incontrovertible fact of history" that blacks fought willingly as soldiers and in large numbers.
Historians typically scoff at the idea that black soldiers served in large numbers for the Confederacy.Uh-oh! We're headed for trouble already with this fact check. How do we define "large numbers"? If the definition is not reasonably consistent we'll fall into a fallacy of ambiguity. And PolitiFact lists but two historians among its interview subjects. Unless the "typically scoff" idea came from one of them--and if so the writer should tell us as much--then we're left to suppose that a sample of two allowed PolitiFact to figure out what historians typically do. Pretty amazing, if the latter is the case.
PolitiFact lists sources other than the interviews with historians. Perhaps the information came from one or more of them (the literature review was extensive, so I moved it to the "Afters" section at the end).
The attempt to follow PolitiFact's logic led fairly directly to a fallacy of equivocation:
"I've been fighting this myth (that black soldiers served in large numbers for the Confederacy) for years," said William Blair, a professor at Pennsylvania State University and director of the George and AnnRichards Civil War Era Center.It is important to note that PolitiFact moved from evaluating McBerry's original claim in favor of the claim from McBerry paraphrased by PolitiFact to the effect that many black Confederate soldiers served in the war. The fact check focuses on debunking the notion that many blacks were arms-toting members of the Confederate armies. But that isn't really what McBerry stated. The story later obliquely acknowledges the discrepancy:
Documentation of blacks fighting for the South is scarce. There are anecdotes where blacks in Confederate regiments picked up muskets to fight or to defend themselves, but not enough to prove that it happened often, Blair and other historians said.
McBerry and Barrow boost the number of black Confederates by counting black laborers as soldiers, saying soldiers perform similar duties for the present-day U.S. Army.Exactly! Yet PolitiFact already spent a solid handful of paragraphs battling against a notion that McBerry and Barrow do not advocate. In logic, that's a straw man fallacy, and it's established by using a different definition of "soldier" than used by McBerry and Barrow (fallacy of equivocation). The final grade for McBerry rests in turn on PolitiFact's equivocation:
We find that McBerry's claim that blacks "fought right alongside white Southerners" and "in almost every regiment throughout the South" is incorrect, if not absurd. Even supporters of his theory have found nothing more than isolated cases.On the contrary, PolitiFact confirmed that blacks fought right alongside Southerners, albeit not in great numbers. The second proposition ("in almost every regiment") is only plainly false if taken to refer to the aforementioned full-fledged gun-toting soldiers. The charitable interpretation of McBerry, however, suggests that he was talking about black laborers as well as personal slaves who accompanied their masters to war.
The conclusion continues:
If McBerry's claim were true, it would not only mean that thousands of blacks took up arms for a government that supported their enslavement, it would also mean they were willing to battle overwhelming odds to do it.Note that although PolitiFact acknowledged that McBerry expanded the notion of "soldier" to include cooks and laborers, that is promptly forgotten in this part of the summary. If McBerry's understanding of "soldier" applies then it would not "mean that thousands of blacks took up arms for a government that supported their enslavement." In logic, a non sequitur.
We rate McBerry's statement Pants on Fire.
Summarizing the path of error: 1) Failing to read McBerry charitably, 2) equivocating on McBerry's intent in spite of acknowledging it, 3) focusing the fact check on the straw man version of McBerry's argument.
Add to that the fact that PolitiFact failed to place any focus on McBerry's underlying argument.
For what it's worth, I detect two underlying arguments from McBerry. First, that armed blacks serving the Confederacy justify his group's claim in the commercial he was discussing during his radio appearance. That's a good argument. Second, that having a black laborer, at minimum, serving in nearly every Confederate regiment contributes to the same claim. That's a bad argument. Slaves brought unwillingly into service in the war do not properly count toward McBerry's claim. He erred in appealing to the number of blacks serving overall rather than sticking with the stronger argument based on free blacks serving in Confederate armies.
One more appalling aspect of the PolitiFact story: It falsely minimizes the evidence produced in favor of McBerry's point of view. One of the striking evidences omitted from any mention in the PolitiFact story was a statement made by Frederick Douglass:
It is now pretty well established, that 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 loyal troops, and do all that soldiers may to destroy the Federal Government and build up that of the traitors and rebels. There were such soldiers at Manassas, and they are probably there still. There is a Negro in the army as well as in the fence, and our Government is likely to find it out before the war comes to an end. That the Negroes are numerous in the rebel army, and do for that army its heaviest work, is beyond question. They have been the chief laborers upon those temporary defences in which the rebels have been able to mow down our men. Negroes helped to build the batteries at Charleston. They relieve their gentlemanly and military masters from the stiffening drudgery of the camp, and devote them to the nimble and dexterous use of arms. Rising above vulgar prejudice, the slaveholding rebel accepts the aid of the black man as readily as that of any other.Douglass was a former slave and pro-Union. He made the above statement in the context of pushing for the Union to allow blacks to enlist.
PolitiFact is calling Frederick Douglass a liar, in effect.
Willoughby Mariano: F
Elizabeth Miniet: F
Jim Tharpe: F
I'd like to credit the group for using an abundance of source material. But no amount of source material can make up for repeated misapplications of logic. PolitiFact's logic doesn't follow. They quote-mined McBerry and fact checked something other than what he said. It may be that McBerry offered a questionable justification for his statement, but given the other errors I'm not giving PolitiFact the benefit of the doubt unless they publish the response from McBerry on which the paraphrase was based. And even then the fact check needs to match the statement PolitiFact claims to be checking.
A review of the historical works cited by PolitiFact:
"Black Confederates" (1995)
By Charles Kelly Barrow, the source to which McBerry referred PolitiFact, "Black Confederates" provides anecdotal evidence in support of the idea of black confederates serving significant military roles.
"Black Southerners in Confederate Armies" (2001)
Described as a collection of historical accounts, compiled by a group including Barrow.
"Black Southerners in Gray: Essays on Afro-Americans in Confederate Armies" (1994)
The essays concern accounts of blacks who served with Confederate armies. It isn't a likely source for the notion that historians typically scoff at the notion that large numbers of blacks fought for the South.
"Virginia's Black Confederates"
-A column by Walter E. Williams providing additional anecdotal evidence supporting the presence of free blacks in Confederate armies.
"Slavery and Public History: The Tough Stuff of American Memory" (2006)-One essay from this volume, by historian Bruce Levine, comes pretty close to scoffing, albeit while using instructive language:
Some [champions of the black Confederate cause--bww] deem it prudent to acknowledge (if hurriedly, in passing, almost under their breath) that "the number of armed black Confederates was always small."The scoffing comes close to conceding the point at issue in the PolitiFact story.
Still others prefer simply to elide the distinction between soldiers and military laborers.
"Confederate Emancipation: Southern Plans to Free and Arm Slaves During the Civil War" (2006)
Any scoffing in this tome won't really help, because it is likewise authored by Levine. The same person twice does not "historians" make.
"On the Threshold of Freedom: Masters and Slaves in Civil War Georgia" (1986)
I had little success in finding information on this book other than a not-particularly-helpful review.
"The Gray and the Black: The Confederate Debate on Emancipation" (1972)
Historian Robert F. Durden makes the case that the Confederacy was forced to reconsider one of its foundational doctrines (chattel slavery) for the sake of achieving independence. PolitiFact notes that the Confederate emancipation movement occurred late in the war.
"The Confederate Negro: Virginia's Craftsmen and Military Laborers, 1861-1865" (1969)
As the title implies, this work is primarily about the critical role of black labor to the Confederate cause in Virginia.
"Black Confederates and Afro-Yankees in Civil War Virginia" (1995)This book covers the same general area as the preceding one.
Jan. 10, 2011: Added the missing "fe" from "Confederate" in the title.