Carole Emberton Reconsiders the Black Military Experience

ffusctreI’ve been thinking quite a bit about the current state of interpretation re: the history of black Union soldiers during the Civil War and beyond in preparation for the Future of Civil War History Conference, which will take place later this week in Gettysburg.  As I’ve said before, I think there is much to celebrate as we look back over the past 50 years.  The number of scholarly and popular books being published continues at a brisk pace and popular representations of black soldiers can be seen in recent Hollywood movies such as Cold Mountain and Lincoln  and even a historical novel about USCTs at the Crater by Newt Gingrich. Most importantly, many history textbooks now devote significant space to black Union soldiers and their contributions.  Throughout much of the Civil War sesquicentennial USCTs have been front and center in museum exhibits, symposia, in the pages of local newspapers as human interest stories as well as in the form of new monuments and markers.

It would not be too much of a stretch to suggest that the story of the USCTs has come to dominate  our collective memory of the war.  The story of emancipation and the central role that black Union soldiers played in helping to bring it about is an important historical story to tell, but it is also problematic when we employ it for self-serving purposes.  Our interest in the story of black soldiers, at times, seems to be more about reinforcing our need for redemption and a “birth of freedom” – one that fits into a broader narrative of freedom’s inevitable march throughout our history.  It emerges most vividly in that ever popular sesquicentennial theme of “From Civil War to Civil Rights,” which takes its cue from Frederick Douglass and the abolitionist community that service in the Union army was necessary to prove that blacks were worthy of citizenship and civil rights.  On the one hand this framework allows us to look more closely at the contributions of African Americans to the preservation of the Union and the end of slavery as well as the continued challenges that blacks faced during Reconstruction and beyond. At the same time, as I suggested in a previous post, it may make it more difficult to fully acknowledge those uncomfortable aspects of the USCT story that detract from their place in our preferred narrative of the war.

But what if the narrative itself is problematic?  Today I took the time to re-read Carole Emberton’s essay “‘Only Murder Makes Men’: Reconsidering the Black Military Experience” which appeared in the September 2012 issue of The Journal of the Civil War Era.  In it, Emberton argues that the insistence among abolitionists such as Frederick Douglass that blacks would make good soldiers and that such service should lead to citizenship and civil rights forced its advocates in the army and in Washington to “articulate a rationale” that challenged racist assumptions about the docile nature of blacks and at the same time assuaged the fears of many in the North associated with concerns about arming blacks.  White northerners wanted to be reassured that blacks could be controlled once they learned how to kill.  [Interesting that these were some of the same concerns expressed by white Southerners during the debate over the arming of slaves late in the war.]

Through an analysis of the American Freedmen’s Inquiry Commission, a War Department committee staffed by white abolitionists, Emberton argues that it was the Union army that worked to allay white Northern fears by setting the terms of freedom.

Even more than the church and the schoolhouse, the army provided “the most efficacious” means of disciplining the troublesome population of refugees growing within Union lines.  The AFIC concluded that strict military discipline would help slaves un-learn certain “vices,” such as lying, stealing, and promiscuity, and instill in them the virtues of honest, hard work, and fidelity.  The discipline of military life stood in bold contrast to the presumed life of idleness and indolence southern slaves had led.  Men in contraband camps would be encouraged not only to enlist in the army but also to marry the mothers of their children and establish proper families.  With his wages, he could support his dependents, and if he refused to marry, he nonetheless would be “compelled to contribute to their support.”…. (379)

What former slaves needed was “judicious management,” and the military ensured that the growing population of refugees “need not be, except for a brief period, any burden whatever on the Government.”  Drilling, marching and parading in uniform, even if it was only for show, instilled in refugees a sense of purpose and honor. (380)

Along the way Emberton surveys the disturbing and often violent practice of slave and contraband impressment by the Union army.  They include just the kind of stories that do not fit our preferred narrative of blacks willingly flocking to the colors to fight to end slavery, preserve the Union and ultimately earn that elusive badge of full citizenship.  In fact, these stories make very little sense from that perspective.  For many in the army and in Washington military service was not a ticket to the kind of freedom envisioned by Douglass and others.  It was a means of easing the transition from slavery to freedom.

The one section of this essay that I wanted to hear more about is the brief discussion of other examples in world history of slave recruitment into the military that did not lead to citizenship in the form of equal rights.  We need more comparative history like this.   Of course, the Reconstruction Amendments and other steps by the federal government following the war reflect a commitment to redefine the American body politic, but as Emberton hints at, perhaps her essay also points to why it was so short lived.

I am very much looking forward to her forthcoming book, Beyond Redemption: Race, Violence, and the American South after the Civil War, which will no doubt flesh out many of the ideas in this essay even more.  While we should highlight the importance of emancipation and the service of black soldiers in our civil war, Emberton’s essay suggests to me that presentism may be rearing its ugly head in our insistence on assuming such a close a connection between freedom and civil rights.

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