Earlier this month Schuyler Kropf shared the story of Polly Sheppard, who was surprised to find the grave of a black Confederate soldier in the cemetery of the Emanuel African Methodist Episcopal Church of Charleston. The individual in question is Louis B. Middleton, whose grave is marked with a soldiers’ headstone. This has all the earmarks of another in a long line of distorted stories about blacks who somehow managed to evade Confederate law and a society committed to keeping weapons out of their hands. Continue reading
During my last visit to the American History Museum in Washington, D.C. I got to see their Changing America exhibit on the Emancipation Proclamation and March on Washington. It was predictable from beginning to end. The exhibit was divided between the two key events in an overall narrative that highlighted America’s inevitable embrace of freedom and civil rights. It’s as watered down an exhibit as you can get and no doubt appealed to our sense of ourselves as exceptional and heroic. Visitors leave the 1863 side with little understanding of Reconstruction and Jim Crow, but with the echo of that overused phrase: “The Promise of Freedom.” It’s a phrase that fits comfortably within an overall narrative that points to the possibilities of freedom in the form of civil rights and an acknowledgment of the sacrifices made by blacks for the preservation of the Union. Continue reading
A few months ago I was invited by the Library of Virginia to participate in a panel discussion on the legacy of the American Civil War and the release of the New York Times’s collection of Disunion essays in book form. I think they still thought I lived in Virginia and unfortunately I was unable to attend. They asked for a recommendation and I immediately thought of Robert Moore, who blogs at Cenantua. Given his research interests in Southern Unionism I thought his perspective would add an important perspective, which it did. So glad he was able to make it.
General Patrick Cleburne’s plan to arm slaves is often highlighted as an enlightened vision of racial progress in the Confederacy, which proves that slavery was incidental to the formation and maintenance of the Confederate nation. As David T. Gleeson explains in his new book, The Green and the Gray: The Irish in the Confederate States of America (University of North Carolina Press, 2013), it’s a bit more complicated.
Cleburne may have been naive about the possibility of emancipation, but not in the importance of slave labor to the Confederacy. Cleburne’s vision was for black soldiers, not black citizens in the Confederacy. On the contrary, their “emancipation” was to be a limited one. While family relationships would be legalized, “wise legislation” would be needed to “compel [former slaves]. . . to labor for a living.” Somewhat ironically, Cleburne drew on the Irish experience he had fled from, concluding in one letter that “writing a man ‘free’ does not make him so, as the history of the Irish laborer shows.” Cleburne understood clearly then that the subordination of blacks would be a key element of the independent Confederacy that he continued to fight for with such gusto. Through his proposal, he believed that “we can control the negroes. . . and they will still be our laborers as much as they now are; and, to all intents and purposes will be our servants, at less cost than now.” To let the North win and the Confederacy be destroyed would, instead, lead to the dreaded racial “equality and amalgamation.” (p. 96)
That’s a pretty straightforward explanation of Cleburne’s proposal, but it got me thinking.
Just how different was the plan to enlist black soldiers in the United States army? Of course the crucial distinction is that freedom in the North was guaranteed by 1865 for all African Americans while Cleburne’s proposal called for a very limited emancipation. However, while African Americans clearly viewed military service as a stepping stone toward increased civil rights, it was certainly far from the majority view in the United States. Certainly, many white Northerners entertained some of the apocalyptic visions of their Southern neighbors regarding the political and social consequences of emancipation. There was nothing inevitable about the passage of the Reconstruction Amendments and we know the sad story of their enforcement throughout much of the country by the end of the nineteenth century.
Just as Cleburne hoped that the Confederacy would be able to maintain a strict racial hierarchy indefinitely even through the disruption caused by military service, it could be argued that much of the history of this country during the postwar period, in part, was a struggle to come to terms with the tension between emancipation/military service and a very deep commitment to white supremacy. Just a thought.
This historical pageant was performed back in May at Boston’s Tremont Temple as part of the “Freedom Rising” symposium. It tells the story of a young black woman who must write a history essay on an American abolitionist. Her Haitian father impresses on her the importance of Toussaint Louverture, but her instructor forces his student to stick to the textbook. The rest of the show highlights Louverture’s influence on the abolitionist community in Boston and the Civil War. Danny Glover plays Louverture.
It’s well worth watching, but it once again highlights just how central abolitionism is to this city’s Civil War memory. You would think that the abolitionists were always in the majority and even celebrated here in Boston.