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A recent post over at Brooks Simpson’s Crossroads has got me thinking about the tragic nature of the Civil War. Brooks offers the following in response to two recent editorials by Ta-Nehisi Coates and Richard Cohen:
Was it an awful war? Sure. Was it tragic? In some ways, yes, but not necessarily in the ways in which Coates contests the term. It was tragic that white Americans could not bring themselves to realize the promise of their own revolutionary and Revolutionary rhetoric. It was tragic that in the end they could not bring an end to slavery short of secession and war. Doubtless Coates would agree that Reconstruction was a regrettable tragedy that illustrated the same shortcomings. In short, even as the destruction of slavery is cause for celebration, that it had to come to that through war is cause for reflection and contemplation. Moreover, if we continue to concentrate on the story of the destruction of slavery and the achievement of emancipation as a wartime phenomenon, we risk losing sight of the fact that what freedom meant remained undefined and incomplete, and that during Reconstruction, a truly tragic era, white Americans once more fell short of realizing the ideals which they claimed to cherish, leaving a legacy with which we still wrestle.
I tend to agree with Brooks’s assessment, but I wonder if this characterization of the tragic nature of the war reflects the continued hold that the “War to End Slavery Narrative” exercises over our collective memory. Yes, I am reflecting on this in the wake of having finished reading Gary Gallagher’s new book, The Union War. In other words, our definition of what makes the war tragic reflects the value that we have come to place on emancipation and slavery, which may not match up so easily with how the citizens of the United States in the 1860s viewed the meaning of the war.
I get a real kick out of the good folks over at the Southern Heritage Preservation site. They spend a great deal of time calling for the preservation of African-American history by pushing the black Confederate narrative, but when a black man disagrees with their preferred view of the war all bets are off. Consider this little give and take over an editorial written by Tony Norman for the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette. The editorial is par for the course compared with most editorials written this year. Norman places too much weight on recent polls and completely ignores the dramatic changes that can be seen in recent Civil War commemorations and the overall public dialog. That hasn’t prevented the folks at SHP from going for the jugular. For people who are committed to preserving black history they sure don’t have much patience for black people.
I am putting the finishing touches on my presentation for tomorrow evening at the Western Virginia Historical Society in Roanoke. One of the points that I want to stress is that the black Confederate reference is relatively new to our cultural lexicon. As I’ve suggested before, references to hundreds or even thousands of loyal slaves serving as soldiers in the Confederate army can be traced to the period following the movie, Glory in 1989. Despite the insistence on the part of a small, but vocal group black Confederate soldiers simply did not exist in our collective memory until recently. We have already discussed the case of the Confederate monument at Arlington, which was dedicated in 1914 [and here]. Primary source material related to the dedication ceremony as well as early histories of the site clearly references the image of the black man following soldiers into battle as a body servant (slave). To insist otherwise is to engage in presentism.
It may be helpful to consider a scene in Gone With the Wind that features just the kind of image that is so often misrepresented today. During the evacuation of Atlanta and amidst all of the confusion of Federal shells and runaway carriages Scarlett happens upon former slaves from Tara, including “Big Sam”. He reassures Scarlett: “[T]he Confederacy needs it, so we is going to dig for the South…. [D]on’t worry we’ll stop them Yankees.”
Let’s put aside for now the overt imagery to loyal slaves that is pervasive throughout the movie. What is worth pointing out is that no one describes these men as soldiers and it is unlikely that moviegoers would have made this assumption as well. They would have viewed these men simply as loyal slaves to the South. More specifically, it looks like these men functioned as slaves impressed by the Confederate government.
In the hands of the careless they are whatever you want them to be.