Everywhere there are cherished lies. Japan refuses to meaningfully apologize for its war crimes. Turkey won’t admit to its genocide of the Armenians. Some Ukrainians insist the Holodomor was not political. We’d like to think that Americans are above such things, that we’ve admitted our crimes – Hiroshima and Nagasaki, My Lai and Abu Ghraib – but, in history, one can always dig deeper. There are parts of our past, things closer to home, that still maintain an insidious grip on our collective unconscious.
There are, for instance, great errors in how we conceive of the Civil War today: as a war between white people. In this war, black people played a minor role: there were a few plantation runaways, a few Union regiments, a few token battles. There was Harriet Tubman. There was the movie Glory. But black people, to our minds, were never more than a sideshow to the real battles, to Gettysburg and Manassas, to every triumph or tragedy that makes the Civil War a titan in our national memory. The impression we keep is of powerful, dynamic white actors risking their lives, fighting over slavery, vying to grant or deny black people the few rights they would experience in the nineteenth century.
We don’t mention the truth nearly enough: that these people fought for their own freedom in battles at least as awe-inspiring as Vicksburg. We think of them still as passive pawns, as children riding on white shoulders, as hapless refugees too bewildered by the outbreak of conflict to act in their own defense.
The Civil War did not bewilder slaves. It galvanized them. They knew exactly what was happening, and few dared to let this moment in history – for all they knew, their only chance for freedom – pass them by. The boldest ran to Union troops in numbers that a chaplain compared to “the coming of cities,” forming camps larger than the old plantations. Others escaped to the North as quickly as possible. Even those who stayed put, out of wariness toward new things or distance from the Union lines, still rebelled: they demanded payment and better conditions from their masters, then pressed home their new power by slowing down work, going on strike, and in one case ominously building a gallows in front of the big house.
Yet they couldn’t become soldiers. At war’s beginning, escaped slaves weren’t considered free – just “contraband.” Seized property couldn’t enlist, of course, and so former slaves worked the first years of the war constructing Union forts, transporting supplies, and doing laundry. This situation didn’t stem merely from timidity, but from the deep-seated racism of Northern whites who didn’t trust them to fight. (President Lincoln wouldn’t press the issue, as he feared scaring away the loyal border states if he started giving black people guns and telling them to shoot whitey.) Union recruiters turned many away; one potential soldier named Harry Jarvis, eager to fight for freedom in 1861, was told that “it wasn’t a black man’s war.” He responded prophetically: “It will be.”
Time proved him right. Hundreds of thousands died as the war dragged on and manpower ran dangerously low. Eventually, Congress had to consider using black men as soldiers in the war; 180,000 signed up or were recruited, more than half of them from the South. The battles they fought in were at least as dramatic, as bloody, as worthy of history as those others we vaunt now. Take, for example, the first time black troops saw combat: Milliken’s Bend.
At this curve in the Mississippi, a bit to the west of the besieged Southern stronghold of Vicksburg, 1250 black soldiers defended Grant’s rear from a quixotic Confederate attack. They had back-up: 160 white troops, as well as a couple gunboats. But it was the black troops – no other – that held off the rebel assault.
All black troops in the Civil War lived, died, and fought under conditions abysmal even by Civil War standards. Leaving aside the discrepancy in pay, rations, clothing and overall treatment, they had the worst weapons and the least training – few in the Union army expected them to ever actually fight. The troops at Milliken’s Bend had been soldiers for, at most, two months. With little training, few knew which uniform pocket held the caps necessary to arm their rifles, or even how to fire those rifles reliably. Given those conditions, one might have expected a massacre of black Union soldiers. An overwhelming victory for the better trained, more experienced Confederates.
But when, around 3:00 am, rebel troops suddenly burst through the hedges around the Union camp, the black troops didn’t falter. Though they only fired one volley before the enemy bore down on them and trapped them against the levees, though their white allies immediately retreated to higher ground and left them alone in a ditch between embankments, they stood firm. Pressed up against the raised earth, their ranks did not dissolve but rebounded against the aggressors; firearms worthless, they fought with rifle butts and bayonets, clubbing and stabbing the enemy advance. Behind them, white Union troops fired haphazardly into the Confederates, and the gunboats, their vision blocked by the levee, rained shells in the general direction of the Confederates without ever hitting one.
Armed with guns they hadn’t been trained to use, backed up only by a blind gunboat and 160 fleeing white troops, the black soldiers at Milliken’s Bend held their ground through sheer grit in a brutal melee. Bayonets broke off in rebel bodies; wooden handles shattered against bone; the black troops suffered losses proportionally worse than white soldiers would later suffer at Gettysburg. When the Confederates retreated after 8 hours of bloody hand-to-hand combat, it wasn’t the ear-pounding tremble of ironclad artillery that routed them. It was black resistance.
And everybody knew it. For a time, Milliken’s Bend entranced the North. Many Federal troops who had ridiculed the notion of black soldiers now accepted them as, at the least, effective combatants. High up in the Union government, the use of black soldiers became an accepted necessity of the war despite once triggering vicious controversy. Even the Confederate commander from Milliken’s Bend had to write that his “charge was resisted by the negro portion of the enemy’s force with considerable obstinacy” as the white troops fled “like whipped curs.” When Union veterans built memorials to Vicksburg and its surrounding battles, they included – despite all the prejudice of their times – metal tablets dedicated to the black troops of Milliken’s Bend.
But as the nineteenth century wore to a close and the new century began, a rosier view of the old South seized the American imagination. A generation of Southern authors, newspapermen, and former generals relentlessly published counterfactual histories designed to save face and “win the peace.” As their claims slowly trickled into the American mind, as the memory of true events faded, a new impression of the antebellum South took root. The American popular imagination, fed on Birth of a Nation and Gone with the Wind, came to believe the South a chivalrous and romantic society where black people enjoyed their place. Even the fact that the Civil War began over slavery – that the North feared slavery’s expansion would unravel economic opportunity for white people, and so took steps towards abolition that spurred Southern secession – was denied and forgotten.
In this climate, the idea that black people had showed any agency became anathema. And the plaques of Milliken’s Bend, the only physical trace of the bravery and perseverance of African-Americans fighting for their freedom, were melted down in the ‘40s. (Strangely, despite the wartime shortage of metal for bullets, most memorials to the feats of white soldiers were kept intact.)
It’s hardly shocking that, from 1900 to 1940, we whitewashed the Civil War. At that time the country – the entire world – had steeped itself in the doctrines of white supremacy. But what does astonish is that our perception of the Civil War remains whitewashed in schools and common memory today.
Why? Because, for the sake of the Union, we need to allow the South its myths? Because it’s just plain easier to believe that both sides were right in their own way? Because Americans hate to hold other Americans accountable, just as France and Korea hate to mention their own citizens’ widespread collaboration with invaders? Or could it be simple, indefatigable cultural inertia?
Or, I worry, Do we remember a re-written Civil War for the same reason we’ve rezoned our neighborhoods and schools, the same reason we dismiss clemency for nonviolent drug offenders – to keep black people out?
(Further reading and sources on the next page.)