Many European-Americans tend to treat the U.S. Civil War as a sort of travelling, endless hobby we all share, divided into interest groups such as documents, weapons, music,battle reenactments, photographs, and maps.
Other white people express a poignant, sort of haunted nostalgia re. the war, which is really a deceptively sentimental rumble of anger, even a threat. I think these represent two of several major themes that function to erase the meaning of this war from our national memory.
We haven’t been able to heal that wound, not because we’re all haunted by mixed feelings about the war itself – try to find one African-American who’s ever felt the slightest sense of loss or twinge of bittersweet ambivalence, for example – but because we haven’t finished dealing with slavery.
In fact, contemporary evidence of America’s unfinished business with slavery is so massive as to have assumed the shape of normalcy for many. But under that increasingly frayed surface, we all know better.
And precisely because they do know better, precisely because they can’t stomach the human cost any longer, white Americans should resist the lure of a cultural tradition that prevents us all from coming to terms with the real meaning of this war.
The American Civil War was a fight to the death over slavery, and everyone knew it – especially the slaves.
This wasn’t a war Americans figured out as they went along. They’d been engaged in furious, passionate conflict over it for half a century, and they didn’t keep that a secret. Major religious denominations separated, new organizations continually sprang up, violence broke out on the floor of Congress, people hatched plots, smuggled escaped slaves to freedom, renounced their families, wrote books, started newspapers, and sent speakers to troll the globe for international support.
In Kansas, people slaughtered one another by the dozens, and entire towns were burned to the ground. A small inter-racial band of men took over a federal armory in Virginia, tried to incite a national slave rebellion, and were shot or hung.
The United States was the only country in the world that hadn’t abolished slavery. You could come to America, buy a human being, and do whatever you wanted to do to that person – and if she was a woman, you could will all of her children, grandchildren, and great-grandchildren to your own family.
Your family could own their family – forever!
Their wasn’t anything banal or ordinary about it. It was intimate all right: Intimate and brutal. American slavery was maintained only through extreme violence, which includes the ever-present threat of violence.
And yet .. America was also supposed to be “the city on the hill”. A light for all the nations, one that proclaimed itself the repository of the truth, insisting that all men were created equal and given rights – including liberty – by God himself.
This contradiction wasn’t lost on anyone – including American slaves. They were well-informed about the political climate, discussed it constantly, and prepared to position themselves to make a move when the time came.
They didn’t just wait to be freed.
Well before the Union had penetrated the South, its military relied on well-established communication networks developed by slaves. Slaves served as invaluable guides and smugglers. They escaped from their owners and volunteered to return to slavery as spies, saboteurs, and assassins. They monitored Union troop movements like hawks, and entire plantations of slaves disappeared overnight, reappearing a week later behind Union lines.
. Northern officers quickly learned to rely upon slave knowledge of the terrain, of food sources, Confederate troop movements, celestial navigation, plant medicine, and hunting. Some slaves were highly skilled, trained as carpenters, cabinet makers, masons, tailors, blacksmiths, grooms, and chefs.
Slave labor, skilled and unskilled, was a critical, key asset to the Union.
But their greatest desire was to enlist in the Union army and fight for their own freedom. They wanted to prove themselves, yes. But they also wanted to make sure the North won.
Many historians mark the Union decision to enlist former slaves as the turning point of the war, for they swelled the Union ranks as the Confederacy ‘s numbers dropped. Often sent into the most dangerous situations, these newly freed soldiers fought with courage and fierce determination.
Put the slaves front and center, rather than trotting them out from the wings periodically, and restore them to the center of the story.
That’s where they belong