The other day I briefly noted my surprise by how little the war was being discussed in a conference devoted to Massachusetts and the Civil War. What I am struck by now looking back on the three days of talks at the MHS is the overwhelming emphasis on Boston’s abolitionist community. That should not come as a surprise given the location of the conference and the place of the abolitionists in local memory. I learned quite a bit about them and I accumulated a nice list of books and article from the papers, which were wisely precirculated.
By the end of the conference the abolitionists’ agenda had emerged as the dominant narrative of the Civil War. In fact, if this conference can be defined as reflecting a Civil War memory it would have to be that of the abolitionists themselves and their agenda beginning in the antebellum period through the war and into the era of Reconstruction. It was so palpable that even our understanding of the war’s meaning and the success or failure of Reconstruction had little chance of being critically examined without Garrison, Douglass, and the rest of the gang looking over our shoulders. There was little consideration of the importance of Union, as recently analyzed by Gary Gallagher in his new book, The Union War, nor was there much of an attempt to distinguish between the goal of ending slavery and the question of civil rights. The war had been reduced to an agenda with racial equality as its ultimate goal. In short, it was all or nothing.
This became abundantly clear to me during the final panel of the conference. Barbara Gannon offered a snapshot of the racial dynamic in the GAR from her award-winning book, The Won Cause: Black and White Comradeship in the Grand Army of the Republic. Barbara’s book does a brilliant job of showing through extensive research of GAR records that many camps were integrated and that African American veterans often achieved important positions. Black veterans were able to campaign for racial justice during camp meetings even if most whites did not support specific proposals. The extent of interracial cooperation was possible, according to Barbara, because both black and white soldiers enjoyed a shared experience of having saved the Union and destroyed slavery in the process. They shared a comradeship that was tested by battle. Her argument counters the claims by David Blight and others that the emancipationist narrative was ultimately sacrificed by white veterans in favor of sectional reconciliation by the turn of the twentieth century.
Although the moderator of the panel praised the book, he left little doubt that he believed Barbara’s central argument to be fatally flawed. Barbara had overstated the case for interracial cooperation and understanding because GAR camps did not stand up as a bulwark against the encroachment of Jim Crow and other forms of racial intimidation throughout the nation. In that very point we can see the fruits of giving the abolitionists run of the room in defining the Civil War’s legacy. Barbara’s response was quite composed when a sharper response would have been more than justified. The war left white and black veterans with a certain understanding of one another that had been shaped by their shared sacrifice during the war. They were bound to one another through victory, the destruction of slavery, and the shared experience of suffering and sacrifice. Again, Barbara reminded the audience of how important it is that we acknowledge the end of slavery as a signal accomplishment.
The problem as I see it is that we want to view these men as something they were not. We are the ones that want/need to see Civil War soldiers as civil rights crusaders and they will always come up short when we proceed from such a starting point. They were citizen soldiers who answered their nation’s call to service. In the process they saved the Union and by the middle of the war many of the men in the ranks understood that slavery also needed to be abolished. They believed both goals had moral worth. After they finished they went home and did their best to put their lives back together. They were proud of having accomplished these two goals. This brings me back to my earlier concern that a broader focus on the war in this conference would have gone a long way to understanding the experience of Bay Staters in the war. It goes without saying that not everyone, dare I say most Americans, was preoccupied with the question of black civil rights during and after the war. That appears to be our preoccupation having gone through the Civil Rights Movement. We would do well to place it in check.