Why the Emancipationist Legacy of the Civil War Matters

[Hat-Tip to John Hennessy and David Blight]

Update: Click here for Hennessy’s Fredericksburg Free Lance-Star article on John Washington.

The recent discovery of John Washington’s slave narrative along with next week’s event in Fredericksburg, which will include a number of his descendants, serves to remind us of just how important the Civil War is to the history of this nation.  More to the point, the fact that his descendants had no idea of this document’s existence nor the rich history of John Washington reinforces the extent to which the theme of emancipation has been lost to our modern memory of the war.  In the minds of all too many people the memory of the war is distorted to include talk of tens of thousands of loyal black Confederates and benevolent-champions of "enslaved black men and women" such as "Stonewall" Jackson.  Such talk only reinforces dangerous generalizations about the kindness of slaveowners and content slaves.  It’s as if Gone With the Wind premiered just yesterday.

Luckily we don’t have to wait for individual narratives to surface (they are quite rare for the obvious reasons) to understand how black Americans contributed to the emancipation moment.  This talk of benevolent slaveowners and black Confederates fails to stand up even against a cursory perusal of the relevant evidence.  We have the letters and diaries of white southerners on the home front and in the armies who wrote about the loss of slave labor along with the recruitment of tens of thousands into the Union armies.  We have the letters and diaries of thousands of Union soldiers who passed fugitives on the march and who interacted with them in camp.  Finally, we have the military records of the USCTs themselves which reveal the bravery of the men who were willing to pay the ultimate sacrifice for their freedom even as the recent decision in Dred Scott v. Sanford failed to acknowledge black Americans as citizens. 

The price of this collective amnesia and distortion can be discerned in next week’s event.  I already mentioned that Washington’s descendants were unaware of this document, but to what extent do black Americans generally know about an ancestor’s possible flight to freedom.  Are they even aware of the question itself?  This past summer I took a few weeks to interview a number of black Americans who are somehow connected by their interest in the Civil War.  What stood out during those interviews was the almost complete absence of an early education that emphasized the centrality of black history to the Civil War.  No one remembered learning about the contributions of USCTs or they way in which the lives of fugitive slaves impacted the course of the war.  On the flip side we have the likes of H.K. Edgerton whose treks across the south with his Confederate flag and uniform reflect a desire to feel connected to a past even if it is a fantasy.

Next week’s event has meaning on a number of different levels.  A select few will walk away with an important piece of their family history as well as the history of this nation.  Residents of Fredericksburg with an interest in the Civil War will learn about the history of a section of the community that for much too long has been ignored and/or distorted.  Finally, David Blight and John Hennessy will be reminded of why their respective crafts (public and scholarly history) are so important.

p.s. Isn’t this a wonderful example of southern heritage at its best?

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