Thursday, December 30, 2010

Civil War Mythology and the Indoctrination of the Young

Headlines today about school history textbooks being taught in Virginia caught our eye, primarily because of the claim in those textbooks that "African Americans fought in large numbers for the South during the Civil War."

Funny claim, that. Made, obviously, to prove that slaves were really quite happy with their lot in the South, and when that way of life was threatened by the "Northern War of Aggression," they willingly picked up arms to defend Massa and the Missus against the Yankees.

I just finished reading a history of the Civil War ("The American Civil War: A Military History," by John Keegan: Alfred A. Knopf, 2009) and remembered that Keegan had some things to say about the participation of ex-slaves in the armies of the North ... and this bit following about certain proposals by some Southerners to force slaves into defending the South:
At the very end of the war, as the clouds of defeat began to gather over the Confederacy, there arose a mood even there to make good its growing shortage of manpower by enlisting slaves. The proposal to arm and train slaves as soldiers, advanced by General Patrick Cleburne of the Army of Tennessee in January 1864, found favour with many of his senior subordinates, who accepted his argument that black enlistments would greatly expand the South's fighting strength. Others, however, violently disagreed. Cleburne's proposal simply caused division and ill feeling until Jefferson Davis [president of the Confederacy] forbade its being further discussed or even mentioned. By November 1864, however, Davis called on the Confederate Congress for permission to purchase slaves to be used as military cooks and transport drivers .... [The Confederate] Congress, however, drew back ..., with the former presidential candidate Howell Cobb stating, "You cannot make soldiers of slaves or slaves of soldiers. The day you make soldiers of them is the beginning of the end of the revolution. If slaves will make good soldiers our whole theory of slavery is wrong."

Take time to think about how enlisting slaves to save the institution of slavery would expose the practice to ridicule. Cobb was right. Plus the Nat Turner slave rebellion in Virginia, which preceded the Civil War by a couple of decades, could still sent a shiver of fear down the backs of many Southerners who contemplated for even a second the thought of hundreds of slaves holding guns and bayonets.

General Robert E. Lee weighed in on the issue in February 1865, just a couple of months before his forced surrender to U.S. Grant. Lee wrote a letter to a Confederate congressman in which he concluded that "if the enlistment of blacks was the only means to avert defeat, then blacks must be accepted as soldiers."

Historian Keegan:
By March 1865, the Confederate Congress officially called on slave owners to make up to a quarter of the slaves in any one state available for military service. Eventually only two companies of black soldiers were enrolled, and they had taken no part in fighting before the Union army arrived in Richmond to impose surrender.

In other words, though moves were afoot to try to enlist slave soldiers to save the Confederacy during its death throes, only about 200 were ever mustered in, and those never took part in any battle.

So much for the bogus claim that African Americans fought "in large numbers" for the South.

Southern generals were justifiably worried about what sort of fighters coerced slaves would be. Black soldiers fought very well for the Union, incidentally, but they were literally and figuratively fighting for their individual freedoms. Ultimately, between 180,000 and 200,000 black men served in the Northern armies. Twenty-three of those soldiers won the Congressional Medal of Honor before Appomattox.


shyster said...

Jerry, I was most interested in your last comment about African-American service in the Civil War. While it is correct that 23 African-Americans received the Medal of Honor during that war, there are questions about how and why it was awarded.
It was a new medal and full qualifications had yet to be ironed out. If I am not mistaken during the Civil War whole units were awarded the medal for important actions. I seem to remember a review of those medals and a number of those awards were later revoked. Of the 23 awards to African-Americans 13 were awarded for the same battle (Chaffin's Farm).
Not to diminish the actions of any soldier, sailor, airman or marine, the history of the MOH and African-Americans is an interesting one. In WWI – one medal was awarded; in WWII – zero were awarded until a review in1992. Seven were awarded following that review. Korea – 2 and Vietnam- 20.
Like the history of all race relations in America, even the recognition of valor can be twisted up with politics and bigotry.

J.W. Williamson said...

I'm unqualified to judge the merits of any Medal of Honor recipients, but certainly you're correct about race playing a part in the Union army, even one newly populated with black soldiers (after the Emancipation Proclamation). The Battle of Petersburg is a pretty good example of the Union officers doubting the abilities of the black soldiers, who were originally supposed to lead the attack into the breached earthworks, once they were blown up. According to my man Keegan, a less trained white formation was substituted at the last moment and were duly slaughtered in the crater. The Rebs effectively counter-attacked and also caught the black division and decimated them.

There were also, evidently, certain P.R. considerations in the North for enlisting black soldiers. It evidently made the Union look better to the anti-slavery forces in Great Britain.

Keegan agrees that the widespread opinion in the North did not esteem the abilities of black soldiers. But they DID fight and sometimes well and with valor, as at Port Hudson near Vicksburg on May 27, 1863, and at Milliken's Bend on June 7, 1863.

I'm deep into a Civil War obsession currently. I'm also reading U.S. Grant's memoirs, all billion pages. He was an excellent writer!

brotherdoc said...

Jerry--glad you have taken on the Rebel Revisionists and I offer you James M. McPherson's _Battle Cry of Freedom: the Civil War Era_, which is in the Oxford History of the United States series (C. Vann Woodward, ed.). Published in 1989, it is still good scholarship and a monument to readable narrative history. One of his great themes is the different ways "freedom" and "lberty" were understood North and South. Since these definitions had remained elusive almost since the founding of the Republic, and since more soldiers died in the Civil War trying to give it the American definition, it is sobering to remember that, sadly, the struggle must be engaged anew in each generation.

BikerBard said...

I, too, am a Civil War buff, having belonged to the Civil War Roundtable from my previous area. The chapter for western NC meets once a month in Jackson Co Criminal Justice Bldg (wherever that is.) I would be willing to carpool with anyone else who is interested. Their next meeting is the evening of Jan. 10.