Sunday, April 12, 2015

Why Black Southerners Fought

Nearly two hundred thousand African Americans served in Union forces during the Civil War. Most of them had formerly been enslaved; others were free Blacks from the North. Nearly all of these 200,000 served in the last two years of the war, after the Lincoln administration finally yielded both to military necessity and Black demands, allowing the formation of Black regiments. In 1863 there were horrific draft riots in the North and for much of 1864 Lincoln assumed he would lose the presidency, and with it the Union. It's not at all clear the North could have won the war without the mobilization of Black troops. As Lincoln put it in 1864:
Abandon all the posts now garrisoned by black men, take one hundred and fifty thousand men from our side and put them in the battle-field or corn-field against us, and we would be compelled to abandon the war in three weeks.
The addition of Black troops proved not only to be a decisive military advantage, it also wreaked havoc on White southern ideology. African Americans were said to be docile and content in their natural condition of slavery. When enslaved people violently resisted, White southern ideology tried to drain the violence of any political content, chalking it up to innate savagery. White southerners assumed that African Americans did not have a capacity for organized violence. As Howell Cobb wrote:
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.
The trouble was, by the summer of 1863 Black troops in the blue uniforms of the federal government were marching into the South carrying deadly weapons, and were manifestly making good soldiers. The first significant engagement with large numbers of Black troops occurred at Port Hudson, Louisiana in May, 1863. It was a disastrous attack in a winning campaign (Vicksburg fell on July 4, cutting the confederacy in two), but the discipline of the Black troops under fire surprised Union officers. Charles Dana wrote,
The sentiment in regard to the employment of negro troops has been revolutionized by the bravery of the blacks in the recent battle...prominent officers, who used in private sneer at the idea, are now heartily in favor of it.
Not only that, the northern public began to see images of Black troops on the attack. In our visual age, the images may look stale or even silly, but this was how the northern public saw the war. For a White northern public that took Black inferiority for granted, images of Black soldiers heroically dying for the Union were revelatory and substantially changed northern attitudes.
Image published in the North after the battle of Port Hudson
Why did these Black soldiers fight? There are, of course, as many reasons as soldiers, but there are at least three that stand out. They fought to prove their manhood, to gain citizenship rights, and to free enslaved people. As Frederick Douglass wrote,
Let the black man get upon his person the brass letters US...a musket on his shoulder, and bullets in his pocket, and there is no power on earth or under the earth which can deny that he has earned the right of citizenship in the United States.
As Black troops continued to serve with distinction, Colonel Thomas Higginson of the 33rd USCT (reflecting the racism of the moment, Black regiments had White officers) wrote:
No officer in this regiment now doubts that the key to the successful prosecution of this war lies in the unlimited employment of black troops...Instead of leaving their homes and families to fight they are fighting for their homes and families, and they show the resolution and the sagacity which a personal purpose gives.
It is important, after all, to avoid an essentialist reading of Black performance in the Civil War, as if they had an innate capacity to be good soldiers that others did not possess. Rather, as Col. Higginson observed, they had more to fight for. For one thing, Black troops who tried to surrender on the battlefield risked being murdered or reenslaved by irate Confederate forces. And if the ideas of manhood and citizenship could dissolve into abstractions, the people for which Black soldiers fought were all too real. In many cases, African American troops had friends and family who were still enslaved. One such soldier was Spotswood Rice. In September 1864, Rice wrote to his former enslaver, Kittey Diggs,  to warn her that he was coming for his enslaved children. The letter is worth chewing over for a long time. I present it here with spelling and grammar uncorrected.
The Original Letter of Spotswood Rice
I received a letter from Cariline telling me that you say I tried to steal to plunder my child away from you now I want you to understand that mary is my Child and she is a God given rite of my own an you may hold on to hear as long as you can but I want you to remembor this one thing that the longor you keep my Child from me the longor you will have to burn in hell and the qwicer youll get their for we are now makeing up a bout one thoughsand blacke troops to Come up tharough and wont to come through Glasgow and when we come wo be to Copperhood rabbels and to the Slaveholding rebbels for we dont expect to leave them there root near branch but we thinke how ever that we that have Children in the hands of you devels we will trie your vertues the day that we enter Glasgow I want you to understand Kittey diggs that where ever you and I meets we are enmays to each othere I offered once to pay you forty dollers for my own Child but I am glad now that you did not accept it Just hold on now as long as you can and the worse it will be for you you never in you life befor I cam down hear did you give Children anything not eny thing whatever not even a dollers worth of expencs now you call my children your property not so with me my Children is my own and I expect to get them and when I get ready to come after mary I will have bout a powrer and autherity to bring hear away an to exacute vengencens on them that holds my Child you will then know how to talke to me I will assure that and you will know how to talk rite too I want you now to just hold on to hear if you want to iff your conchosence tells thats the road go that road and what it will brig you to kittey diggs I have no fears about geting mary our of your hands this whole Government gives chear to me and you cannot help your self.
The Confederate Capital. Richmond, VA, May 1865
Short version: he is coming at the head of 1,000 Black soldiers to execute vengeance and restore his children to himself, and Kittey Diggs will burn in hell for what she has done.This is why Black soldiers fought. This is the revolution White southerners feared and desperately tried to forestall. At war's end, their docile contented slaves were a federal army, armed to the teeth to execute vengeance as they marched into the Confederacy's destroyed capital. Sometimes, at least if you stop the narrative at the place of your choosing, history really does have happy endings.

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