From Civil War to ?

58172-art-american-imperialismThis will probably be the last post I write before I put together my final thoughts as an introduction to the panel on interpreting USCTs at Civil War sites that I will be moderating on Saturday at Gettysburg College. I am still thinking about Carole Emberton’s essay, which I briefly touched on a few days ago.  She’s got me thinking about the place of black Union soldiers within a narrative arc that stretches from the Civil War to the Civil Rights Movement and the unquestioned assumption that closely links their service and sacrifice with a postwar reward of civil rights.  Emberton argues that this narrative stood in sharp contrast with a widespread belief that service in the military functioned to tame those characteristics that many white Americans (North and South) believed prevented African Americans from enjoying the benefits of full citizenship. 

Such a perspective goes far in framing how we assess Reconstruction.  Arguably, one of the most popular narratives takes for granted that Reconstruction occurred at all and deems it a tragic failure once the experiment in black political action ended in 1877.  Lithographs of maimed soldiers by artists such as Thomas Nast certainly reinforce our own beliefs concerning the obligations of the federal government to the newly freed slaves and especially to black veterans.  The normative perspective is appropriate when thinking in the abstract, but as public historians I wonder if such a view comes at the price of ignoring the broader sweep of American history in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries.

What happens when we situate the Civil War era as part of the nation’s inexorable sweep west to the Pacific and beyond?  Native Americans and non-whites in places such as the Caribbean and the Philippines were all prevented from joining the body politic and/or establishing governments of their own by virtue of perceived deficiencies in their racial status.  They would first need to be properly educated or “tamed” as Emberton argues was the prevailing belief regarding blacks who served in the Union army.

Perhaps in our tendency to see Reconstruction as a bump in the road to the Civil Rights Movement we’ve missed appreciating just how much of an impact service in the army had on the push for black political rights during the first ten year following the war.  That Reconstruction occurred at all given the direction of the nation ought to be our starting point.

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

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5 comments… add one
  • London John Mar 19, 2013 @ 12:26

    That cartoon appears to express the same idea as Kipling’s call to the US to “take up the white man’s burden”. Where does it come from?

  • Bummer Mar 14, 2013 @ 7:17

    What this “old guy” noticed was the lone Native American in the back of the room and the Asian peering in. At least the “Chief” got a seat at the back of the bus. When will it be his turn? He’s been waiting longer than the brown or the black kids that have their own seats front and center of Uncle Sam.


  • Bryan Cheeseboro Mar 13, 2013 @ 10:26

    This is off the subject but I’m really struck by the caricatures in the political cartoon, particularly the African-American window washer as compared to the other brown people in the illustration. As far as I know, this is the first time I’ve ever seen the two caricatures in the same cartoon. It’s interesting to me that, though unhappy, the facial features of the island people are are not demeaning or degrading like those of the overtly big-lipped Black character.

    This all remids me of something Stephen Douglas said in the debates with Lincoln- that “in all latitudes and climates wherever the negro has been he has been inferior to whatever race adjoined him.” Looks like the artist of this cartoon agreed with him.

    • Pat Young Mar 13, 2013 @ 18:58

      I’m not so sure… My first thought was “No wonder Latin Americans hated us for so long.”

  • Andy Hall Mar 13, 2013 @ 8:45

    “Perhaps in our tendency to see Reconstruction as a bump in the road to the Civil Rights Movement we’ve missed appreciating just how much of an impact service in the army had on the push for black political rights during the first ten year following the war.”

    Yes. Many folks have pointed out that African Americans’ widespread service in World War II — even though generally in segregated units — really set the stage and tenor for the Civil Rights Movement of the 1950s and 60s. There was a real expectation that, having served and sacrificed in the greatest of this country’s wars, that nothing less than full citizenship in both name and in practice was due. That’s not a foreign concept; military service (whether in war or peacetime) is still widely seen as the ultimate evidence of one’s loyalty, patriotism and commitment to the nation.

    So it makes perfect sense that something similar would be the case in the decade after the Civil War. It’s easy to imagine an old USCT in his fifties or sixties, looking back on the war, emancipation, the promise and failure of Reconstruction, the re-establishment of white rule and the codification of Jim Crow laws, asking himself, “what exactly did we win, again?”

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