Steven Hahn Gets It

My summer break is quickly winding down as I try to put the finishing touches on a chunk of my Crater research, including an article on understanding the battle as a slave rebellion from the perspective of Confederate soldiers for one of the Civil War magazines. With that in mind, I came across a very interesting essay by historian, Steven Hahn on the lack of scholarly attention concerning Marcus Garvey and his Universal Negro Improvement Association. Hahn offers two points of reassessment that are needed if we are to better understand the dearth of scholarship. First, we need to move from viewing emancipation as two separate events – one in the North following the American Revolution and the other one in the South during the Civil War.  According to Hahn, it “should be be viewed not as two discrete events but as a single protracted process (more protracted than anywhere else in the Atlantic world), associated most closely with state formation—the rise, developing capacity, claims to authority, and consolidation of a nation-state—rather than with an “irrepressible” conflict between free and slave societies.”

The second interpretive stance that needs to be corrected is the way we analyze and remember the actions of slaves during the Civil War:

A second reassessment concerns how we might interpret, in political terms, what slaves did during the Civil War. It would be difficult to identify a reputable historian these days who does not think that slaves played an important role in ending slavery and defeating the Confederacy. But it would be almost impossible to identify a historian who is ready to argue that slaves engaged in rebellion. Indeed, most scholars make special efforts to refuse such an interpretation.

Why? Slaveholders and Confederate officials of the time had little doubt that the slaves’ vast flight from plantations and farms and subsequent arming as Union soldiers constituted a rebellion; their correspondence and diaries crackled with the language of slave rebelliousness, referring to “insurrections,” “mutinies,” “stampedes,” “turnouts,” “strikes,” and “revolts.” Even more to the point, the Confederacy designated black Union soldiers as slaves in rebellion and expected to treat them accordingly if they were captured.

Most historical accounts begin with the outbreak of the Civil War itself and thereby fail to illuminate the connections between how slaves thought and acted during the war and how they thought and acted before the war. In exploring those connections and comparing what happened in the South and what happened on the island of Saint-Domingue between 1791 and 1804 (in what is known as the Haitian Revolution and currently understood as the greatest and only successful slave revolt in modern history), I believe a case may be made for a much larger and perhaps even more successful slave rebellion in the United States, since the slave population of the United States was 10 times the size of that in Saint-Domingue, and, once liberated, African-Americans won unprecedented civil and political rights.

Interestingly, Hahn argues that resistance on the part of white and black historians to such an idea stems from our tendency to highlight black actors who engaged in “integrationist” policies that more easily fit into the standard slavery to freedom narrative rather than those who pushed for “separatism and community development.”  Even W.E.B. Dubois believed Garvey’s policies to be “dangerous, ill-considered, impractical.”

I am not familiar with the historiography related to Garvey and the UNIA so I can’t assess such a judgment, but Hahn’s suggestion that we should understand the presence of black soldiers in Union ranks as a slave rebellion from the perspective of the white South, fits perfectly into my ongoing research on the Crater.

Searching for Black Confederates: The Civil War’s Most Persistent Myth

“Levin’s study is the first of its kind to blueprint and then debunk the mythology of enslaved African Americans who allegedly served voluntarily in behalf of the Confederacy.”–Journal of Southern History

Purchase your copy today!

8 comments… add one
  • Peter Aug 12, 2009 @ 7:14

    Hahn’s book, based on lectures as Mark says, came out several months ago. It is “The Political Worlds of Slavery and Freedom.”

    • Kevin Levin Aug 12, 2009 @ 7:19

      Thanks Peter. I will check it out.

  • Mark Aug 11, 2009 @ 20:38

    I’ve not seen it yet, but i think Hahn already has a new book out, lectures, on which this essay is based. Two comments on the substance of Hahn’s thoughtful piece. First, Du Bois wrote of the Civil War as a being a large scale slave rebellion in BLACK RECONSTRUCTION IN AMERICA (1935), and I think plenty of scholars have accepted that argument in the last 7 decades. Second, there’s been a lot more scholarship on Garvey and Garveyism that Prof Hahn seems aware of; it’s hardly been neglected in the last 25 years. The bigger question is what the broad implications are for African American history once we look at Garveyism. That movement had more internal contradictions that a quick glance suggests.

    • Kevin Levin Aug 12, 2009 @ 1:32


      Thanks for the comment. I didn’t see anything new on Amazon. I am familiar with DuBois’s _Black Reconstruction_ and will go back and find the references.

  • Kevin Levin Aug 10, 2009 @ 11:52

    Thanks for the comments. It would have much preferred a much more detailed and lengthy essay by Hahn. Of course, he will flesh out all of his ideas in his next book, which will no doubt be a worthy follow-up to _A Nation Under Our Feet_.

  • Larry Cebula Aug 7, 2009 @ 16:45

    Amen. But I dont think it goes far enough to say that we should understand the presence of black soldiers in Union ranks as a slave rebellion from the perspective of the white South. Surely it just plain WAS a slave rebellion–from the perspective of many present, but also from the perspective of the historian trying to describe what took place.

  • TF Smith Aug 7, 2009 @ 10:27

    I read that article as well, and immediately thought of some of the work you have done here, Kevin; one thing that left me scratching my head a little was Prof. Hahns comment that the movement toward full emancipation in the US was more protracted than anywhere else in the Atlantic world, which disregards how long it took to abolish de jure slavery in Brazil and (IIRC) the Spanish colonies (Cuba, for example) in the Western Hemisphere.

    Other than that, I thought he makes some great points.

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