In the news as of late, there has been a concerted effort by some to highlight “American exceptionalism” which has gained traction and also caused substantial controversy. The states of Texas and Colorado come to mind at the forefront of this overt and very bold attempt to rewrite history. Highlighting exceptionalism seems benign on the surface (America is a great nation that is a source of pride and a beacon of hope for many) but a closer look shows that in many cases, the narrative is completely changed and certain aspects of history are omitted altogether. This has raised and should raise a flag or two for anyone who is paying attention particularly as it relates to motives. Why is American exceptionalism being championed? Some would argue that it never stopped being highlighted so why the persistent blitz NOW to do so? My take on things is that history has always been recorded and told as one saw fit to relay a message (propaganda takes on a similar form also). The victors or the dominant class of society set the tone with regard to the accepted narrative of the day. Not to say that the less dominant class or the defeated (with regard to the victor/defeated dynamic) do not also tell or record history as they see fit because that happens as well. More often than not, the message of the victors or the dominant class lingers around longer.
History has always been (and still is) one of my favorite subjects to learn, study, and discuss. A single event can have a plethora of explanations, perspectives, actors, and of course propaganda. As a nation, we recently observed the annual tradition of Thanksgiving Day and every time this day comes around, it amuses me to see just how much one can learn about an event, so much so that the event doesn’t even resemble what you were initially told about it. For me and some other people, the story of Thanksgiving was presented and steeped in an almost improbable lore. Pilgrims, arriving at the New World with a dearth of food, supplies, and morale that seemed to be in a dire situation that would have surely resulted in mass casualties. Native Americans, skeptical of the arrival of people that were foreign to them, assisted the travel weary Pilgrims by assisting them with food, shelter, instructing them on how to acquire & provide sustenance to their folk to ensure they could survive the harsh winter and beyond. They sat down to dine together and the rest is history! (Sounds like a tailor made Hollywood film, huh?). I remember being in the 3rd grade and we were doing an exercise on the Thanksgiving Day tradition. I was puzzled a bit because the Native Americans that I saw in the textbooks helping the Pilgrims were nowhere to be found in the present day attending my class, school, living in my neighborhood, or residing in the borough for that matter in significant numbers (there were illustrations in the textbooks showing a lot of Native Americans). So, I asked my teacher, “Where do the Native Americans live now? I don’t think I have seen one before.” The look on her face was almost one of horror and trepidation; I can analyze it a bit better now as an adult, but back then, I wasn’t sure what was going on. It seemed to be a combination of being a bit shocked that it came out of nowhere and also a bit of anxiety on whether to tackle the topic and perhaps even where to begin. Some of my classmates echoed my sentiment and joined the chorus of questions and pretty soon, the class was out of control. In the midst of the commotion and the teacher trying to restore some semblance of order in the classroom, the question I posed was never answered.
PATRIOTS OR TRAITORS?
“The idea of “black Confederates” appeals to present-day neo-Confederates, who are eager to find ways to defend the principles of the Confederate States of America. They say the Civil War was about states’ rights, and they wish to minimize the role of slavery in a vanished and romantic antebellum South…but most historians of the past 50 years hold that the root cause of the Civil War was slavery. They bristle at the idea of black Confederates, which they say robs the war of its moral coin as the crucible of black emancipation.” – Corydon Ireland
The Civil War was and continues to be a fascinating (and controversial) period in American history and is often the topic of much discussion and debate. Growing up, the topic was initially presented as a struggle between “Good” and “Bad” (North versus South, Union versus Confederacy). The North fought to free the slaves that the South did not want to give up, the war was even started over slavery (there were many reasons for secession but slavery is the significant economic reason). President Lincoln even freed the slaves through the Emancipation Proclamation and that act later cost him his life. Black soldiers fought for the Union against the Confederacy which was highlighted on the big screen in the movie Glory (one of my favorite films), which showed the heroics of the 54th Regiment Massachusetts Volunteer Infantry. While there is no shortage of noteworthy commentary about the Civil War, I find one area about that struggle fascinating and has been a source of consternation in the story that has been told thus far. It is an uncomfortable proposition for many people to discuss (much less accept) but it is not a secret (although it isn’t exactly put forth as a headline story except maybe by a certain group of people) that Black soldiers fought/served PROUDLY for the Confederacy. There are various groups that are currently charged with keeping this history alive and honoring their legacy.
The question of “WHY would a slave fight on behalf of the person(s) that were keeping them enslaved?” definitely comes up when posed within the traditional narrative that I mentioned earlier. It “made sense” for blacks to willingly fight for the Union against the Confederacy (and many did) but for a black person to willingly fight for the South against the North seemed incomprehensible. When I first learned this aspect of history, I initially figured that it was probably more propaganda being spewed by proponents of slavery using a warped sense of the hero complex to show how happy blacks were in bondage. I mean, the slavers “rescued” them from a life of barbarism in the jungles of Africa and gave them an opportunity to be civilized while toiling and supporting the economy of the pre-Civil War South. Seems plausible, right?
Just how profound was the role of the black soldier in the Southern push for secession? It is a fact that many southern leaders were against arming slaves or any blacks (fearing that those weapons would be used against them) but many were pushing for different ways to use the human resources that were at their disposal. Even before General Orders 14 (the official decree from the Confederate Congress authorizing the formal enlistment of blacks into the ranks), there is evidence that blacks had rallied to the Confederate cause. Solid evidence is hard to come by to show that blacks were actual soldiers but they served in other capacities such as scouts, guards, chaplain, cooks, and general laborers to name a few roles. I was interested in the story of the 1st Louisiana Native Guard, a militia comprised mainly of free persons of color who had organized to defend the state against any Union advancement. In this instance, there were FREE persons of color who were fighting on the side of a cause that wanted to uphold the institution of slavery. I am a supporter of the notion that blacks (as much as some people want to believe otherwise) are not monolithic in thought and with that truth is an awareness and acceptance of varying beliefs, ideologies, theories, etc. With that as a backdrop, it is actually plausible that some blacks WILLINGLY fought to defend the way of life that they had become accustomed to. I always reference the fact that in most cases of slave insurrections (either active or in the planning stages), the rebellion was foiled not always by a white person but by a black person who reported the activities to the master and/or the plantation owner’s support system. Coupled with the House Negro versus Field Negro dynamic, it is feasible that a field hand would perform certain acts to curry favor with the master of the plantation and improve his or her quality of life or a house Negro would perform acts to keep their way of life that they have worked hard to earn from being disrupted. Harriet Tubman once said, “I freed a thousand slaves. I could have freed a thousand more if they only knew that they were slaves.” Is it possible that some blacks had grown so accustomed to their servitude that they did not see themselves as slaves? It seems one can be excused for being impressed into servitude but willing casting one’s lot with a cause that seems to be against one’s overall interest hints at a psychological event (I immediately think of Stockholm’s Syndrome, or variances of it such as Oslo & Lima syndromes).
Regardless of the rationale for joining the Confederacy, when the narrative of Black people in America is being told, this aspect of their involvement in a defining moment in this nation’s history has not been embraced wholesale by the Black community. I am not certain as to how their legacy will be seen years from now but I am of the belief that the story needs to be told in the same vein as the other well-known stories of the Civil War era.