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Text's Civil War account disputed

Thursday, October 21, 2010


A textbook on Virginia history approved for use in fourth-grade classrooms across the state has drawn criticism for a passage about the role of black Southerners in the Confederate army.

The book, "Our Virginia: Past and Present," is being used by fourth-graders in Henry County, said Bill Bullins, director of elementary instruction for the county schools. It is not being used in Martinsville, said city schools spokesman Kim Barto.

The Washington Post reported Wednesday that the book, written by Joy Masoff, says that "Thousands of Southern blacks fought in the Confederate ranks, including two black battalions under the command of Stonewall Jackson."�

Scholars and historians are "nearly unanimous" in calling that type of account of black soldiers a misrepresentation of history, the Post reported.

Patrick Henry Community College Professor Terry Young, who teaches history as well as legal administration and political science, said the notion that thousands of blacks fought for the Confederacy is "wildly inaccurate."�

Historians know that slaves served in supportive roles for the Confederate army, such as growing food and transporting goods, Young said. However, he agreed with officials interviewed by the Post who said the idea that slaves fought among the rank and file is outside mainstream scholarship.

"Is it possible there were slaves that fought in Confederacy? I think, considering the magnitude of the war, the different engagements at different places - certainly there's no question it's a possibility there were slaves who took up arms alongside their masters," Young said. "But to suggest that this was widespread" just doesn't reflect reliable scholarship, he said.

Young said he had never heard the assertion that two battalions of black soldiers fought under Jackson, a Confederate general, and knows of no reliable sources suggesting that happened.

He did note that Virginia organized two companies of slaves near the war's end, after doing so was authorized by the Confederate Congress. However, the war ended before the two Virginia companies saw action, Young said.

According to the newspaper's account, author Masoff, who is not a historian, said she used mostly Internet sources for the passage in question. When the Post examined three links Masoff used, it found that each referred to work by the Sons of the Confederate Veterans.

That organization is a heritage group that asserts, according to its website, that "the preservation of liberty and freedom was the motivating factor in the South's decision to fight the Second American Revolution."�

Some issues about the war, such as whether it was more about slavery or states' rights, can be debated, Young said. But others, such as the statement in "Our Virginia," cannot.

That is particularly troubling considering the age of the target audience, he said.

"You're not critically thinking about information in the fourth grade," Young said. "If inaccurate information is being delivered to students, they may have that misconception for the rest of their lives."�

On the other hand, the passage "may be a teaching point," he said, adding that teachers could use it to illustrate to their students that "Even if you're in the fourth grade, you need to view things with a critical eye."�

The Virginia Department of Education approved the book for use in fourth-grade classrooms. The Post reported that education department officials said the vetting of "Our Virginia" was flawed "and that they will contact school districts across the state to caution them against teaching the passage."�

Reached Wednesday afternoon, Bullins said he had not heard about any problems with the book. However, he said the county schools will follow the direction of the education department about the passage in question.

The book was adopted by the county after a division-wide textbook committee made up of teachers of various specialties reviewed it, Bullins said. That committee's recommendations are approved by the school board, he added.

This is the first year the book is being used in the county schools, and Bullins said he didn't know Wednesday whether fourth-graders have reached the time in the year when they study the Civil War.


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