My summer break is quickly winding down as I try to put the finishing touches on a chunk of my Crater research, including an article on understanding the battle as a slave rebellion from the perspective of Confederate soldiers for one of the Civil War magazines. With that in mind, I came across a very interesting essay by historian, Steven Hahn on the lack of scholarly attention concerning Marcus Garvey and his Universal Negro Improvement Association. Hahn offers two points of reassessment that are needed if we are to better understand the dearth of scholarship. First, we need to move from viewing emancipation as two separate events – one in the North following the American Revolution and the other one in the South during the Civil War. According to Hahn, it “should be be viewed not as two discrete events but as a single protracted process (more protracted than anywhere else in the Atlantic world), associated most closely with state formation—the rise, developing capacity, claims to authority, and consolidation of a nation-state—rather than with an “irrepressible” conflict between free and slave societies.”
The second interpretive stance that needs to be corrected is the way we analyze and remember the actions of slaves during the Civil War:
A second reassessment concerns how we might interpret, in political terms, what slaves did during the Civil War. It would be difficult to identify a reputable historian these days who does not think that slaves played an important role in ending slavery and defeating the Confederacy. But it would be almost impossible to identify a historian who is ready to argue that slaves engaged in rebellion. Indeed, most scholars make special efforts to refuse such an interpretation.
Why? Slaveholders and Confederate officials of the time had little doubt that the slaves’ vast flight from plantations and farms and subsequent arming as Union soldiers constituted a rebellion; their correspondence and diaries crackled with the language of slave rebelliousness, referring to “insurrections,” “mutinies,” “stampedes,” “turnouts,” “strikes,” and “revolts.” Even more to the point, the Confederacy designated black Union soldiers as slaves in rebellion and expected to treat them accordingly if they were captured.
Most historical accounts begin with the outbreak of the Civil War itself and thereby fail to illuminate the connections between how slaves thought and acted during the war and how they thought and acted before the war. In exploring those connections and comparing what happened in the South and what happened on the island of Saint-Domingue between 1791 and 1804 (in what is known as the Haitian Revolution and currently understood as the greatest and only successful slave revolt in modern history), I believe a case may be made for a much larger and perhaps even more successful slave rebellion in the United States, since the slave population of the United States was 10 times the size of that in Saint-Domingue, and, once liberated, African-Americans won unprecedented civil and political rights.
Interestingly, Hahn argues that resistance on the part of white and black historians to such an idea stems from our tendency to highlight black actors who engaged in “integrationist” policies that more easily fit into the standard slavery to freedom narrative rather than those who pushed for “separatism and community development.” Even W.E.B. Dubois believed Garvey’s policies to be “dangerous, ill-considered, impractical.”
I am not familiar with the historiography related to Garvey and the UNIA so I can’t assess such a judgment, but Hahn’s suggestion that we should understand the presence of black soldiers in Union ranks as a slave rebellion from the perspective of the white South, fits perfectly into my ongoing research on the Crater.