Sara Toth | Guest Writer
The country is recovering from a long bout of historical amnesia when it comes to the Civil War, Clement Price said in his lecture at 10:45 a.m. Tuesday in the Amphitheater.
Price, professor of history and director of the Institute on Ethnicity, Culture, and the Modern Experience at Rutgers University in Newark, N.J., and a Board of Governors Distinguished Service Professor, said the purpose of his lecture, “Break Every Yoke, Let the Oppressed Go Free!” was to impress upon his audience the importance of the sesquicentennial of the Civil War, which takes place this year.
The next four years are important ones, Price said, for the commemorative season “will reveal much about the nation’s understanding of itself, or its several selves.”
However, the nation’s understanding of itself often avoided the profound anxieties brought to the surface by two generations of slavery in a country that professed itself as a crucible of liberty, Price said.
Still, he said, he was a bearer of good news, because finally, the historical narrative of the Civil War was complete with the reconciliation of the Negro History Movement of the late 19th century, with the notion of new American history, one that took into account African-Americans and the active, involved role they played in the Civil War.
“Freedom was on their minds before it even came,” Price said.
Setting the stage for a reconsideration of the Civil War, Price invited lecture-goers to go back in time with him 150 years, to a time when “pastures turned into killing grounds … which underscored the incompleteness of an earlier revolutionary age.”
For the first time, Price said, we are able to understand what Barbara Jeanne Fields, professor of American history at Columbia University, meant when she said, “The slaves freed themselves.”
Blacks knew the war would have an impact on their lives, Price said, and noted that by the time the war began, they could be called Afro-Americans, Negro-Americans, or enslaved or oppressed Americans. The importance of that, Price said, was that they had already come to identify themselves as Americans.
“They realized their future would be tied up in the future of the American republic,” Price said. “Such a perception, seeing themselves as an American people, figured into the way blacks comported to themselves during what was a turbulent time.”
Before, during and after the war, Price said, blacks contributed in extraordinary ways to the makeup of a country striving to be a free and just nation — by exhibiting their humanity toward each other, by fleeing the places where their bodies were “policed and worked” and by fighting for the Union.
Price used the example of three young black slave men who, in May 1861, crossed the James River and sought asylum at the Union’s Fort Monroe in Virginia.
“They were declared contraband, as thousands of others would be throughout the South,” Price said. “There was an array of contraband camps in the South, where an often dangerous and demeaning form of slavery ended for thousands of black women, children and men.”
Most in those camps were women, Price said, which helps center women in what was the first step taken by black people to become free.
Even those slaves who remained on plantations of their enslavement, those who remained a “vulnerable people,” Price said, took “symbolic and concrete advantages” of that change coming in their lives.
“Over the course of the generation leading up to the war, slaves left indelible marks of their humanity, their respect for each other and their willingness to act in their best interest when the opportunity arose,” Price said.
Before and after the war, blacks began to make themselves present in the public sphere of American life, making that sphere the battleground for civil rights. Blacks also took part in a more literal battlefield, Price said, with 186,000 men joining the U.S. Colored Troops. More than 38,000 of those men died, Price said, at a much higher rate than their white counterparts.
“We need to fully appreciate what it must have taken for so many black men to join the Union army, and to fight,” Price said. “They fought to save the Union, of course, but consider from its inception the Union had hustled them to the bottom of society. They fought to save that Union.”
Price played two clips from the 1989 movie “Glory” to highlight the psychological impact of black men serving in the war. The movie about the 54th Massachusetts Volunteer Infantry — the first all-black volunteer company in the Union — starred Matthew Broderick, Denzel Washington and Morgan Freeman — was snubbed by the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences, Price pointed out to laughter. But Price said that after the movie came out, he witnessed many people claiming they’d had no idea blacks had fought in the Civil War.
The sacrifices of those soldiers helped create the notion — however faint — in the minds of whites that blacks were capable of valor, courage and patriotism. Still, their accomplishments were diminished because they were caught up in a “white man’s war, a fratricidal war, a war between white brothers,” Price said.
That image of the Civil War as a white man’s war emerged after the war, though, Price said, citing historical amnesia again.
“It seemed blacks were nearly invisible in (the war),” Price said. “It’s much easier to bind up the nation’s wounds and reconcile the differences that brought on the war if black men and women were ushered to the sidelines.”
Bad memories became the last casualty of the war, Price said.
As the sesquicentennial season unfolds, Price said, it is essential that all Americans have a credible understanding of the Civil War era.
“Black men and women were not passive observers on the sidelines of the war, or impervious to the changes wrought by military conflict, or the evolving vision of a different kind of society at war’s end,” Price said, but rather, “in dramatic and subtle ways, tilted their lives toward freedom.”
The most important part of the Civil War narrative to know, Price said, is the agonizing transformation from slavery to freedom to citizenship the war accelerated. The war brought into relief that black men could be soldiers, and that black people could act in their own best interest.
Price ended with the words of W.E.B. DuBois: “Theirs was the most important first step toward a future that is now our present.”
Q: Can you comment about some of the responses that might have been contained in these new histories, unknown-to-us histories, about the black view of white abolitionists?
A: Well, that scholarship is now rather mature. I think it’s fair to say that the view is varied. There’s a difference between someone who’s opposed to slavery and someone who’s an abolitionist. A person could be opposed to slavery and be in favor of deporting blacks to Haiti or West Africa. But in terms of the abolitionists, the abolitionists had a much broader view of the end of slavery. You end slavery, they envisioned, and you also put in place a foundation upon which blacks can stand as citizens. So over the course of the last half-century, the view of white abolitionists by black Americans, I believe it’s fair to say, has become quite admirable. They are admired people in the African-American community because they ran against the grain of their society. It was not popular; I should turn this way; it was not popular to be an abolitionist, to speak out, to compose words to welcome blacks into your home, to perhaps participate in the Underground Railroad. They were, if you will, the freedom fighters at a time in which that whole concept of being in favor of black freedom was highly controversial.
Q: Why did so many Negroes die in the war? Were they in a more dangerous position? You mentioned 38,000.
A: Not unlike many white soldiers, a disproportionally large number of blacks died from disease and poor medical treatment. That’s number one. But unlike many white soldiers, blacks oftentimes were led into battle by military leaders of dubious qualifications. Now, the 54th Massachusetts is quite different, because Col. Shaw, who is depicted in the film (‘Glory,’ played by Matthew Broderick), he was an astute observer of military science. But I think you saw in the second clip why so many blacks, and indeed so many whites, died in that war. They were fighting what we would consider a modern war with pre-modern military tactics. The scene at James Island depicts that quite well, where men with pretty powerful firearms and rifles would essentially march into one another, guns blazing, as if they were fighting a Napoleonic war. So that military strategy, the marching toward one another, guns blazing, was probably best suited for an earlier age than the 1860s.’
Q: What’s the historical significance of African-American men getting to vote in 1870 and women not getting to vote until 1920?
A: Great question. Well, I’ll try to answer it, because it really is a great question. It shows how manliness is tied to the vote, but not the female gender. Lincoln actually was in favor toward the end of his life of giving black men the vote because they had fought. So this whole notion of manliness and valor and military service, which at the time was ascribed to men, helped to gender the vote until we turned our attention to a different age and we expanded the concept of citizenship. That is a great, great question. Had women been fighters in the 19th century, the vote probably would have come earlier. And actually, women were fighters. I tried — and hope I succeeded — in exceptionalizing the role that women played, not necessarily as soldiers, but changing the paradigm in the South. Many black women served as spies. Many black women were caught up in this whole movement to leave the plantation. Is that a part of the military reason for the North’s victory? I think so. Any time a slave put himself or herself at the disposal of the Union army, that weakened the Confederate war effort.
Q: What percentage of black troops escaped from slavery and were free?
A: The exact percentage is not known. But I would say that most of the blacks, certainly most of the blacks in the 54th Massachusetts, knew something of slavery. Some of them had managed to escape from slavery, some had managed to leave slavery — the domain of slavery by legal means — but throughout the South, the first military unit of black soldiers was not the 54th Massachusetts. It was a unit out of New Orleans. And that unit was comprised mostly of escaped slaves.
Q: How many African-Americans fought for the confederacy?
A: That’s a trick question, because it surfaced during the centennial of the Civil War, and it’s surfacing at the sesquicentennial of the Civil War. The Confederacy, not unlike the Union, initially used black male bodies to labor. So they were a part of the Confederacy war effort under duress. In terms of the number of blacks who fought, who donned a Confederate uniform, the evidence is scant, and to an extent — and I’ll say this because I respect the question that comes up year after year — why would blacks knowingly don the Confederate uniform and shoulder the Confederate cause, given what we now know about their aspirations, generations before the war began? So there may have been a small number of blacks who were mustered into service, who were promised pay, who were promised their freedom. During wartime, men and women usually seize the opportunity to improve their condition. A much better example would not be the Civil War; it would actually be the American Revolution, when black men fought on both sides of the Revolution. Some blacks who fought on the Loyalist side did so anticipating that if the crown won the war, they would be free. Blacks who fought in the Continental Army fought for the same reasons. So in the American Revolution and in the Civil War, blacks were pragmatists, but a larger number of those pragmatists fought on the Union side.
Q: Some of you may know that we are live-streaming this program into some assisted-living homes around the state, and we have a question here from Ithaca. What attempts by African-Americans to free themselves by 1860 contributed to ultimate liberation?
A: When am I going to get a bad question? That’s a great question. Clearly one of the causes for the Civil War was the problem of fugitive slaves. Those blacks who were streaming out of the South and seeking freedom in the decades between the American Revolution and the Civil War create a national emergency, and not an emergency — everyone who has taken a credible course in American history knows this — if a man or a woman manages to get to Philadelphia, is a Philadelphia law enforcement officer or a citizen obliged to return that escaped slave to his or her master? Over the course of the 19th century, fewer and fewer Northern whites wanted to sign up for such an obnoxious arrangement. And as that became an issue before the South, that actually hardened the South’s view that it could no longer stay in a Union where so many whites did not tie their identity and their aspirations and their sense of the nation to the view of the slave-holding class and the slave-holding states. So when I teach U.S. history or African-American history, I always remind the students that the coming of the Civil War — and I believe professor Gordon Wood said this yesterday probably much better than I can say it — that the beginning of the Civil War is found in the American Revolution. As I’ve said to my students over the years, the Great Emancipation, of which I talked about this morning, was made inevitable by what? The first Emancipation, which many Americans, blacks and whites, know very little about. When my book on blacks in New Jersey history was published, a lot of whites and more than a few blacks did not know that New Jersey was a slave state. It got rid of slavery over time, but the fact that there was a free black population in New Jersey, Pennsylvania, New York, Massachusetts, Rhode Island, small but vigilant, small but increasingly willing to place their freedom on the line on behalf of their brothers and sisters still enslaved, that actually does make the Civil War and the great Emancipation likely.
Q: Some of our questioners want to move a little bit forward into American history. A question from Ginger Cove: Your view of the sharecropping system and whether it was necessary or fair.
A: Definitely not fair. Let me go on the record. And the question asks us to understand how difficult, in retrospect, it must have been for the South to completely jettison the mythology of racial inferiority and superiority. We would want our Southern white brothers and sisters in the past to accept the concrete manifestations of freedom. The right to vote, the right to compete in the labor market, the right to organize on behalf of one’s individual and collective identity. But the fact of the matter is, soon after slavery ended, the South puts in place post-slavery institutions or practices that diminish the value of freedom. Sharecropping was one of those laboring institutions. You were free, but you were mired in poverty. You were free, but you were beholden to white landowners. You were free, but you were still tied to a backward, racially grounded labor system. You were free, but your children would have to wait another generation. I think one of your speakers later this week or later this season will be Isabel Wilkerson, who will talk about the next chapter after slavery. The next major chapter after slavery and emancipation is the Great Migration. And the Great Migration from all the scholarship, including hers, suggests that that was a manifestation of blacks saying, “The South is not working for us because of the labor system, because of the lack of educational opportunities, because of the terrorism that we face.” And they chose to do what? They chose to move. And many in this audience, I suspect, are of immigrant stock; we all are. What people do, if they can, to improve their conditions, is move on. So circling back to the question, sharecropping was unfair, profoundly unfair, and was it necessary? It was probably necessary as a nefarious transition, nefarious transition from slavery to a modicum of freedom.
Q: One questioner wanted to go into an even further chapter, which is the fact that our prisons are currently filled with people of color. I think this person cites about 75 percent. Would you like to make a comment about that? Seventy-five percent of our current prison population are people of color.
A: How much time to we have? It’s a sad paradox. Probably, and I’ll keep this short, probably related to— we can go back to Lincoln. Lincoln talked about the unfinished business. The business remains unfinished. How do we create a society where the progeny of slaves have not only the opportunity to, but the aspirations to, stand up on the shoulders of their forebears?
Q: The last question. Did we honor our Afro-American soldiers in the Civil War? Did they receive medals of honor or recognition?
A: That’s a great question. It took a while for the valor of black soldiers to be recognized. If you read David Blight’s book — I mentioned David Blight without giving the title. The book is entitled Race and Reunion: The Civil War in American Memory. During the early commemorations of the Civil War, white soldiers from the Confederate Army and the Union Army would essentially get together and resolve their difficulties as soldiers and applaud the valor that they both displayed on the battlefield. Black soldiers were left out of that, were not invited to those parties. As the 19th century made way for the 20th century, and as the nation increasingly looked back at its past and had, as I said in the beginning of my talk, a broader imagination and a deeper moral sensibility about its past, some blacks, obviously posthumously, were acknowledged for their valor. And over the course of the 20th century, in fact, one of the soldiers depicted in glory received what amounted to the highest military honor, because at the famous 54th raid at Fort Wagner, one black soldier refused to let Old Glory hit the dirt during all the battle that’s depicted at the end of the war, and he was given a very high honor for that. So yes, it happened, but over time.
—Transcribed by Leah Rankin