Taking Free Blacks Seriously

Cockspur Island, Georgia following the arrival of the Union Navy, April 1862

It’s a beautiful morning here in Boston.  I do most of my work in a local cafe within walking distance of my home.  In the morning it’s filled with a vibrant group of older Albanians, which often makes me feel like I am overseas.  I absolutely love it.

Back to the Civil War.  I am making my way once again through sections of Clarence T. Mohr’s book, On the Threshold of Freedom: Masters and Slaves in Civil War Georgia, which is essential reading on the subject of how both free and enslaved blacks both involved themselves in the Confederate war effort and how they were often forced to take part.  I just finished reading the section in which Mohr analyzes evidence of volunteerism in 1861 within the free black community of Augusta, Georgia.  First, here is an incredibly insightful comment by historian Matt Gallman, which was left on Brooks Simpson’s blog:

Rather than focusing on the highly empirical questions (how many guys were black soldiers? how shall we define a soldier?) and rather than paying any attention to the useless presentist questions (who were really the ‘good guys’ in this drama?) why not ask a set of questions that are informed by our understanding of contingency and identity.

First, contingency: It is useful to keep in mind that events matter in shaping the events to come. It is surely useful to keep in mind that a Union victory was not preordained, and universal emancipation – regardless of who won – remained a long shot until very deep into the war.

Then, identity: One might argue that African Americans – in both the North and the South – had every reason to understand that they were interested bystanders, watching a war between white people. That was surely the case until late 1862, but really remained the case long after that. [nb: If you are at war and your wife can’t ride on the streetcar, and you are not making the same money as your white comrades, you might reasonably conclude that you are essentially fighting as a mercenary for somebody else]

So. if we consider events and decisions within an historic context, it is perhaps reasonable to look at the wartime decisions of black men and women in both the Union and the Confederacy as decisions made by individuals who were weighing the merits (and future chances) of two competing nations. What personal decisions are likely to maximize long term security? Is it obvious in January 1862 that the smart money is siding with the Union? Or, might some freedmen reasonably conclude that their future is best protected by casting their lot with the Confederacy (like the New Orleans Militia)? Or, what about free blacks in the North who essentially survey events and conclude that this war has nothing to do with them?

My sense is that within the African American community the presumption among most folks was that on balance the Union was on the side of the angels, but many reasonable people concluded that neither side was really on the side of African Americans. So, how did they respond to that terrain, as it existed in 1861-1863?  All this suggests shifting the focus away from the decisions and preferences and legislation of white people, and instead asking how African Americans might have surveyed their options in a changing universe.

I think Matt nails it.  All too often the popular discussion of free black volunteerism in 1861 follows the one-dimensional portraits of various interested parties.  What is lost is any attempt to understand the complexity and even contradictory expressions of loyalty that were shaped by conditions on the ground.  The analysis resonates with me when I have to make decisions meant to “maximize long term security”.  I am rarely consistent and most of my decisions are fraught with confusion and sometimes contradiction.  How many of us would want to be judged based on one or two documents without any understanding of the context in which our decisions are made?

Consider the following public statement addressed to Brigadier General Lawton, Commanding Military District:

The undersigned free men of color, residing in the city of Savannah and county of Chatham, fully impressed with the feeling of duty we owe to the State of Georgia as inhabitants thereof, which has for so long a period extended to ourselves and families its protection, and has been to us the source of many benefits–beg leave, respectfully, in this hour of danger, to tender to yourself our services, to be employed in the defense of the state, at any place or point, at any time, or at any length of time, and in any service for which you may consider us best fitted, and in which we can contribute to the public good. (Mohr, p. 66)

Taken completely out of the environment following the Brown’s failed raid the above declaration of loyalty can mean anything we choose.  We can accept it at face value or dismiss it without any consideration.  In the context of the precarious position that free blacks found themselves in, however, we are presented with a much more complex picture.  Here is Mohr’s analysis of the above declaration and others like it:

In the final analysis Georgia’s nonslave Negroes stood at the periphery of the Confederate revolution, tied to the Southern cause by their weakness and need for white protection from extremist elements within the secession movement itself.  The position was ambiguous in the best of circumstances and productive of little that could be called genuine patriotism.  Indeed, for most Georgians, whether free or slave, loyalty to the Confederacy as a political entity was all but impossible in 1861.  The moral gulf between blacks and whites under slavery fostered racially distinct value systems for oppressor and oppressed–modes of perception and thought that were outwardly compatible but inwardly at odds.  White Georgians spoke of the sectional struggle in terms of abstract principles and moral absolutes.  Blacks necessarily took a different view as they weighed alternatives on a scale of relative advantage.   Slave “loyalty” and self-interest overlapped in most circumstances prior to emancipation, and it was largely this ethical fusion which guided the conduct of bondsmen during the secession crisis.  Once the Civil War was actively under way, black Georgians would demonstrate beyond all questions their willingness to form independent moral judgments, and to act upon those judgments decisively.  (p. 67)

I find much in common between Mohr’s and Matt’s analysis.  It also brings us full circle back to a comment made by Henry Louis Gates at Stauffer’s talk: “Black people are just as complex as anybody else.”


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8 comments… add one
  • Andy Hall Sep 5, 2011 @ 5:56

    Mohr’s summary here:

    Slave “loyalty” and self-interest overlapped in most circumstances prior to emancipation, and it was largely this ethical fusion which guided the conduct of bondsmen during the secession crisis.

    . . . applies far more generally, to free and slave alike, and for decades after the war. Once one acknowledges the social, legal and cultural realities that shaped the lives and opportunities of African Americans in the antebellum South, the Confederacy and the Jim Crow South, much of the words and actions that were long depicted as loyalty, and are now being depicted as a sort of unalloyed patriotism, can be clearly seen as heavily self-interested. Then as now, people do and say what they need to to get along, and the fewer their practical options, the more likely they are to follow the path of least resistance both for themselves and their families.

    • TF Smith Sep 5, 2011 @ 7:54

      Something else that needs to be considered is that within the African-American population of the Confederate States,. there were tremendously significant divisions (totally overlooked by the BCM barkers), in terms of legal status and all that meant with regards to agency, demographics, culture, language, assimilation, etc.

      Even lumping AAs within the Confederacy into “subaltern” status is over-simplifying: an enslaved individual in Virginia vs a “person of color” in New Oreleans (or even a “person of color’ in New Orleans vs one on Natchez) were very different…as witness the Louisiana Native Guards vis a vis the non-existant equivalent in Mississippi.

      Having said that, however, I think Profs. Gates and Stauffer are both whistling in the graveyard – they are bypassing the macro-historical reality of the southern states as slave societies, with enslaved status dependent wholly on African ancestry, and to what end I can not fathom, other than media attention.

      Neither are trained or educated as historians, in any sense of the word; as public intelletuals, I think TN Coates, with his “250 Year War” meme, provides a far better tool for understanding the conflict than Gates’ “black people are just as complex as anyone else.”

      One historian who has not come up yet is Ronald F. Davis, whose work in the Adams County courthouse and other records in Natchez is really fascinating; not quite “Montaillou” in terms of micro-history, but really well done and very insightful in terms of how a slave society functioned. Well worth reading…


    • Ray O'Hara Sep 5, 2011 @ 8:15

      Slave loyalty is to the South, not Dear ol’Massa or the CSA but to the South the land of their birth.
      And a strong love it is to put up with the atrocious behavior of the Jim Crow era.
      Even today Blacks I know in Boston still have family and an emotional attachment to the South even though they were born and raised up here.

      how different things would have been if the “40 acres and a mule” was a real plan and carried out.

      • Kevin Levin Sep 5, 2011 @ 8:17

        Hi Ray,

        I assume that we could say much of the same for the history of race in Boston.

        • Ray O'Hara Sep 5, 2011 @ 10:30

          I assume you mean busing, that wasn’t about race it was about class.
          It is a complex issue about local control and where people’s kids went to school.
          would they go to school at the school they could walk to? or would they be shipped all around the city to satisfy people whose kids weren’t effected..
          Judge Garrity who ordered it lived in Wellesley and his kids went to private school.
          Towns like mine were unaffected by it as kids can’t be bused across city/town borders.

          so the only folks who were effected were the inner city blue collar types both black and white. Parents were removed from all participation.. How is some parent supposed to meet a teacher when that requires getting on the T and taking multiple subways and buses to get there
          the reasoniing was schools in black neighborhood were substandard{they were} the Schools in the White ethnic neighborhoods weren’t much better, but the idea was if white kids were mixed in with the black kids the White parents would get the quality of the schools raised. They reformers unfortunately thought that whites who were so politically powerless to not be able to resist their kids being shipped from, say Charlestown High across the city to Madison Park High would somehow have the political clout to improve Madison Park It didn’t quite work out that way.

          Parents who could afford it sent their kids to the parochial schools, other sent them to “live” with relatives in the suburbs. Howie Long is a well known person who went through that route. In the movie The Departed DiCaprio’s character is teased about it.
          Dedham , which as you know is right up against the city and whose residents are closely tied to many in Hyde Park, West Roxbury and Roslindale was scrupulous in hunting down kids trying to pull that off and to this day when new kids enroll in a Dedham School the Dedham Police will visit the address given to see if they really live there.

          But still city kids did get in, they’d live with grandparents and cousins and have to stay .and needless to say they stood out, Boston is just next door but a world away socially.

          In a post you made today you talked of hanging at a cafe filled with Albanians, Rozzy also had the main Greek community too. Boston is like that, ethnic enclaves, People living with their own kind.

          But it is also changing, when I was a kid up through HS Mattapan was a Jewish neighborhood, they moved to the suburbs and Blacks took it over, In the Sunnyside section of Readville along River Street, a still mostly Italian neighborhood, Blacks now live there right in among the Whites whereas 20 years ago any Black found on River Street was risking their life. Instead of letting Hyde Park High, was one of the schools most effected by busing , intergrate naturally, the poor were set on each other and ironically Blacks who can now live in the ” White” neighborhood can’t go to HP High,. they are instead randomly bused around the city like everyone else.

          Yeah the Irish in Southie didn’t like Blacks in their neighborhood, but they didn’t like Italians from HP the North End or East Boston {Eastie} coming around either and they’d get just as good a beating and vice versa., it’s a neighborhood thing not a race thing.

          • Kevin Levin Sep 5, 2011 @ 10:37

            I wasn’t thinking simply of court-ordered busing, but since you brought it up my understanding of it is based on my reading of Ronald Formisano’s, Boston Against Busing. Perhaps you are familiar with it. He acknowledges the role of class, but also provides an interesting analysis of the racial dynamic as well. It seems to me that race and class are usually not mutually exclusive categories, especially in a city like Boston.

          • Ray O'Hara Sep 5, 2011 @ 11:25

            i haven’t read that book, or any book on Busing, I saw it live and first hand, My first day of College was the fist day of Busing, Boston State where I went was on Huntington Ave and Boston English HS school a predominately Black HS was behind it.
            English was riot central in those days and there were a few occasions when classes were cancelled and we were sent home , once the bus between the Main Campus {now Roxbury CC} and the Fenway Campus{right next to the ball park} had every window shattered as were were riding along Longwood Ave, the Driver saw what was about to happen, he yelled to duck, we did and he floored it but the bus was still a mess by the time we cleared English High. there were times I sat in the Fens toking up right across from the Gardiner and watched the Helicopters circle and the tear gas rise from a riot a few hundred feet away but it would be perfectly calm there, it was all very strange.

            I looked up the book you mentioned and found this user review by someone who read the book and lived through busing. I haven’t read the book but this review does make sense if a bit pretentious in its word usage http://www.amazon.com/review/RD22WF2F1C539/ref=cm_cr_pr_viewpnt#RD22WF2F1C539

            In a recent series of posts you and Brooks have commented on the Lexington Flag Flap{groan, bad pun} and outsiders interfering in what was a local issue. that’s exactly what happened in Boston.

            Also most people from out of the area when they think of Boston think of Southie, a small part of the city that hardly defines the whole.

            • Kevin Levin Sep 5, 2011 @ 11:37

              Thanks for sharing the story, Ray.

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