It’s a beautiful morning here in Boston. I do most of my work in a local cafe within walking distance of my home. In the morning it’s filled with a vibrant group of older Albanians, which often makes me feel like I am overseas. I absolutely love it.
Back to the Civil War. I am making my way once again through sections of Clarence T. Mohr’s book, On the Threshold of Freedom: Masters and Slaves in Civil War Georgia, which is essential reading on the subject of how both free and enslaved blacks both involved themselves in the Confederate war effort and how they were often forced to take part. I just finished reading the section in which Mohr analyzes evidence of volunteerism in 1861 within the free black community of Augusta, Georgia. First, here is an incredibly insightful comment by historian Matt Gallman, which was left on Brooks Simpson’s blog:
Rather than focusing on the highly empirical questions (how many guys were black soldiers? how shall we define a soldier?) and rather than paying any attention to the useless presentist questions (who were really the ‘good guys’ in this drama?) why not ask a set of questions that are informed by our understanding of contingency and identity.
First, contingency: It is useful to keep in mind that events matter in shaping the events to come. It is surely useful to keep in mind that a Union victory was not preordained, and universal emancipation – regardless of who won – remained a long shot until very deep into the war.
Then, identity: One might argue that African Americans – in both the North and the South – had every reason to understand that they were interested bystanders, watching a war between white people. That was surely the case until late 1862, but really remained the case long after that. [nb: If you are at war and your wife can’t ride on the streetcar, and you are not making the same money as your white comrades, you might reasonably conclude that you are essentially fighting as a mercenary for somebody else]
So. if we consider events and decisions within an historic context, it is perhaps reasonable to look at the wartime decisions of black men and women in both the Union and the Confederacy as decisions made by individuals who were weighing the merits (and future chances) of two competing nations. What personal decisions are likely to maximize long term security? Is it obvious in January 1862 that the smart money is siding with the Union? Or, might some freedmen reasonably conclude that their future is best protected by casting their lot with the Confederacy (like the New Orleans Militia)? Or, what about free blacks in the North who essentially survey events and conclude that this war has nothing to do with them?
My sense is that within the African American community the presumption among most folks was that on balance the Union was on the side of the angels, but many reasonable people concluded that neither side was really on the side of African Americans. So, how did they respond to that terrain, as it existed in 1861-1863? All this suggests shifting the focus away from the decisions and preferences and legislation of white people, and instead asking how African Americans might have surveyed their options in a changing universe.
I think Matt nails it. All too often the popular discussion of free black volunteerism in 1861 follows the one-dimensional portraits of various interested parties. What is lost is any attempt to understand the complexity and even contradictory expressions of loyalty that were shaped by conditions on the ground. The analysis resonates with me when I have to make decisions meant to “maximize long term security”. I am rarely consistent and most of my decisions are fraught with confusion and sometimes contradiction. How many of us would want to be judged based on one or two documents without any understanding of the context in which our decisions are made?
Consider the following public statement addressed to Brigadier General Lawton, Commanding Military District:
The undersigned free men of color, residing in the city of Savannah and county of Chatham, fully impressed with the feeling of duty we owe to the State of Georgia as inhabitants thereof, which has for so long a period extended to ourselves and families its protection, and has been to us the source of many benefits–beg leave, respectfully, in this hour of danger, to tender to yourself our services, to be employed in the defense of the state, at any place or point, at any time, or at any length of time, and in any service for which you may consider us best fitted, and in which we can contribute to the public good. (Mohr, p. 66)
Taken completely out of the environment following the Brown’s failed raid the above declaration of loyalty can mean anything we choose. We can accept it at face value or dismiss it without any consideration. In the context of the precarious position that free blacks found themselves in, however, we are presented with a much more complex picture. Here is Mohr’s analysis of the above declaration and others like it:
In the final analysis Georgia’s nonslave Negroes stood at the periphery of the Confederate revolution, tied to the Southern cause by their weakness and need for white protection from extremist elements within the secession movement itself. The position was ambiguous in the best of circumstances and productive of little that could be called genuine patriotism. Indeed, for most Georgians, whether free or slave, loyalty to the Confederacy as a political entity was all but impossible in 1861. The moral gulf between blacks and whites under slavery fostered racially distinct value systems for oppressor and oppressed–modes of perception and thought that were outwardly compatible but inwardly at odds. White Georgians spoke of the sectional struggle in terms of abstract principles and moral absolutes. Blacks necessarily took a different view as they weighed alternatives on a scale of relative advantage. Slave “loyalty” and self-interest overlapped in most circumstances prior to emancipation, and it was largely this ethical fusion which guided the conduct of bondsmen during the secession crisis. Once the Civil War was actively under way, black Georgians would demonstrate beyond all questions their willingness to form independent moral judgments, and to act upon those judgments decisively. (p. 67)
I find much in common between Mohr’s and Matt’s analysis. It also brings us full circle back to a comment made by Henry Louis Gates at Stauffer’s talk: “Black people are just as complex as anybody else.”