Melvin Patrick Ely, William R. Kenan Jr., Professor of Humanities, was featured Nov. 7 on Fox's "America's News Headquarters," hosted by Shannon Bream, in a discussion on the role of free and enslaved blacks in the Confederacy during the Civil War. The live appearance included a leader of the Sons of Confederate Veterans. The pair discussed the recent discovery by another William & Mary professor, Carol Sheriff, that a fourth grade history textbook used in many Virginia school districts contained errors including a paragraph claiming erroneously that two battalions of African American soldiers fought under Confederate General Stonewall Jackson and that thousands of blacks fought for the Confederacy overall.
Ely told Fox, "I would be only too happy, if I saw good evidence that many thousands of blacks fought for the Confederacy, to bring that forward. I do not have a political agenda here. But, if we look at the evidence we see that in the winter of 1864-65 when the Confederate Congress was debating whether to use black soldiers, both the proponents and the opponents of using black soldiers dealt with the issue as if it were a new issue.
"If black soldiers had been used in numbers in the Confederacy," he continued, "why did General Lee have to go to the Confederate Congress in the winter of 1864-65 and say it's time that we started using black soldiers because the enemy is using them against us to such good effect?"
Ely is a leading authority on free and enslaved blacks in Virginia. He serves with Sheriff on the Sesquicentennial of the Civil War Committee, which is organizing a conference to take place at William & Mary in 2013 on the 150th anniversary of the Civil War. He is also the author of the award winning, “Israel on the Appomattox.” The book documents and analyzes the free black community of Prince Edward County, Virginia, from the 1790s through the Civil War. In 2005, the book received the Bancroft Prize in American History, the Beveridge Award and the Wesley-Logan Prize of the American Historical Association, and the Literary Award for nonfiction from the Library of Virginia. Ely, a native of Richmond, Virginia, is also the great-grandson of a Confederate veteran.