Envisioning Black Soldiers, Not Black Citizens

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.

Boston Loves its Abolitionists

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.

“Before 2Pac, Before Barack, There Was Nat Turner”

Update: Those of you in Virginia may want to check out the upcoming Nat Turner Rebellion Symposium.

I learned of this planned movie about Nat Turner from my twitter feed and via this blog post. It’s hard to know what to make of the movie website. There is a script, but the casting call is open to anyone who wants to audition over YouTube. The trailer, which echoes some of the gratuitous violence of Django, will likely disturb some of you. Whether we ever see this movie in the theaters is anyone’s guess. At this point that might be a good thing.

“12 Years a Slave” Trailer

I’ve known for about a year that there is a movie script about Frederick Douglass that is being bandied around, but this is the first I’ve heard of a movie about Solomon Northup.  The movie is based on Northup’s autobiography, which I’ve used numerous times in the classroom. The movie boasts an impressive line-up of actors so it will be interesting to see if it does justice to the book. If you are going to make a movie about slavery Northup’s story is ideal for some of the same reasons that the story of the Amistad proved attractive to Spielberg. Both stories end with freedom. I hope the movie somehow makes it clear that Northup’s story before the Civil War was highly unusual.

The movie hits theaters this coming October.

Commemorating the 54th Massachusetts in the Heart of the Rebellion

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This Thursday marks the 150th anniversary of the 54th Massachusetts Volunteer Infantry’s unsuccessful assault at Battery Wagner outside of Charleston. Though the amount of attention focused on this event pales in comparison with the recent commemoration of the battle of Gettysburg, the event constitutes the “high water-mark” of the black soldier experience in the Civil War and in our popular memory. This is due in large part to the success and continued popularity of the movie, “Glory”. On the one hand, the movie obscures the rich history of those black men who fought for the United States during the war beyond the 54th, but it also opens a door that will hopefully be exploited by those involved in this commemoration over the course of the week. Continue reading “Commemorating the 54th Massachusetts in the Heart of the Rebellion”