Blacks and the Civil War

Moderated by Rick Badie

The Civil War remains a complex and controversial issue, not just in the South but the nation as a whole. One of today’s guest writers wonders whether the struggle still matters in the 21st century. The other writer explains why the war resonates with so few African-Americans, yet challenges them to re-examine its rich history.

Re-examine the Civil War

By Natasha L. McPherson

Aside from a handful of professional historians, history buffs and perhaps a few fans of the movie “Glory,” most African-Americans regard the Civil War with relative indifference. We pay our respects to black leaders of the era, and we may even examine the major political debates that once divided a nation. For most African-Americans, however, the Civil War was a series of events that played in the background while the black liberation struggle occupied the main stage.

This year, as Americans commemorate the 150th anniversary of major Civil War events including the Emancipation Proclamation and the Battle of Gettysburg, let us examine the complex relationship between African-Americans and the Civil War. The war was a pivotal moment in history that gave birth to modern democracy and led to the emancipation of enslaved blacks.

So why don’t black folks care?

First, this wasn’t our war. Many African-Americans fought and died on both sides of the conflict, but they were excluded from the decision-making process. Without political representation, African-Americans have come to regard the Civil War and its memory as the white people’s burden. The black historical narrative places less emphasis on the Civil War itself and tends to highlight actions of African-Americans in response to the war. This seems practical, considering the modern African-American experience emerged directly from individual and collective actions of blacks during and after the Civil War.

Exploring African-American perspectives on the war also means confronting the painful history of slavery. Certainly, the causes of the Civil War were many — preservation of the Union, conflicts over states’ rights and changing meanings of freedom. To be sure, slavery was at the heart of the conflict. For many Americans, slavery is still a sensitive topic, and one that is often too difficult to discuss.

But the Civil War led to the abolition of slavery, right? Maybe. But abolition became possible only once the nation had been torn apart by war, violence and unimaginable bloodshed. For many, this hardly feels like something worth commemorating.

Even if African-Americans observed the Civil War as a proverbial launch pad for liberation, the path toward emancipation and equality has been long and arduous. Immediately following the war, the former Confederate states began enacting black codes to restrict the freedoms of slaves not yet fully emancipated. Jim Crow segregation quickly replaced slavery as the primary obstacle to freedom and citizenship for the next 100 years. For African-Americans, the Civil War and emancipation fell short of their promise.

But perhaps it is time to reexamine our relationship with the Civil War. It may not have been a magical moment for black liberation, but the war was a critical step toward achieving equality and full citizenship for all Americans, and that is definitely worth remembering.

Natasha L. McPherson is visiting assistant professor of U.S. and African-American history at Spelman College.

Find your story

By Brian S. Wills

Ask anyone who belongs to an organization connected with the American Civil War, and one detects an underlying concern regarding the future. So many members seem to be longer in age and experience than the younger generation they hope to attract to their ranks.

This does not mean persons of all ages do not take an interest in the conflict in particular or in history in general. Some embrace these subjects at an early point and continue their historical passions and pursuits throughout their lives. But these numbers appear small when compared to the general population. Furthermore, the increased diversity of the population, with more and more people with no direct ties or links to the turbulent events of the 1860s, is worrisome as well.

 The concern persists that with the passing of the Sesquicentennial or 150th anniversary of the Civil War, there may also be the loss of this piece of the American story before another milestone.

Perhaps there is reason to be troubled. Yet with Georgia set to serve in 2013-2014 as the foundation for activities that occurred in the crucial Western Theater in 1863-1864, there are fewer grounds for concern than might be thought on the surface.

Whether they are long-term natives or recent arrivals, Georgian residents will find that the power and poignancy of the collective history we share is hard to resist. No one who has an interest in any aspect of life — from politics and religion to food and communication — will fail to find something in the conflict with which one  can be engaged.

Personalities in the story may not trigger the visceral reaction attached to William Tecumseh Sherman, the Union general who vowed to “make Georgia howl” and then did. But even “Cump” Sherman had complications and complexities of personality and experience that are compelling. Thousands of similar individuals existed as well.

Can the Civil War sustain itself for generations?

If we remember that the diversions of youth and the demands of early adulthood regarding families and employment were true for many of us, too, before we came to a closer connection with history, and that the stories include human beings of all races and genders who experienced these difficult times and often sacrificed so much to endure them, then we will recognize the value that remains in examining these events.

Fresh eyes and interpretations promise to reinvigorate interest in the Atlanta Campaign and the March to the Sea. In a way, that will demonstrate the vibrancy and vitality of Civil War history, especially to those who might not notice otherwise or who believe their stories are not caught up in this one.

Your story is there. You have only to find it.

Brian S. Wills is director of the Civil War Center at Kennesaw State University.


13 comments Add your comment


August 2nd, 2013
11:28 am

@ Alan Skerrett.

You’re certainly correct to remind Mr.Liberty of the many Caribbean slave revolts of the 18th-19th century, and the great amount of blood spilled by the slaves (and some white abolitionists) who fought for their freedom. It’s easy to think that “abolition” only involved white supporters, but it was the large number of slave revolts in the region (including the United States–let’s not forget Nat Turner’s Rebellion) that made abolition seem increasingly urgent. And let’s not forget that the abolitionist movement began in England, not the United States, and that England abolished slavery in all its colonies in 1833–long before the Civil War began.

[...] recently lamented the lack of black people at Civil War events along with potential reasons why this is the case, Jimmy Price described an experience at the macro level that I have experienced on a micro [...]

Alan Skerrett

August 1st, 2013
10:14 pm

RE: The Tariff of Abominations, the “American Plan” (of high tariffs, high taxes, and government subsidies for Northern manufacturers), and other policies and legislation of the Lincoln administration were the spark (for secession).

Well, let’s see what the secessionists themselves said about why they were dissolving the Union:

Mississippi Secession Declaration:

“In the momentous step which our State has taken of dissolving its connection with the government of which we so long formed a part, it is but just that we should declare the prominent reasons which have induced our course.

“Our position is thoroughly identified with the institution of slavery– the greatest material interest of the world. Its labor supplies the product which constitutes by far the largest and most important portions of commerce of the earth. These products are peculiar to the climate verging on the tropical regions, and by an imperious law of nature, none but the black race can bear exposure to the tropical sun. These products have become necessities of the world, and a blow at slavery is a blow at commerce and civilization. That blow has been long aimed at the institution, and was at the point of reaching its consummation. There was no choice left us but submission to the mandates of abolition, or a dissolution of the Union, whose principles had been subverted to work out our ruin.”

Texas Secession Declaration:

“Texas abandoned her separate national existence and consented to become one of the Confederated Union to promote her welfare, insure domestic tranquility and secure more substantially the blessings of peace and liberty to her people. She was received into the confederacy (ie, the United States) with her own constitution, under the guarantee of the federal constitution and the compact of annexation, that she should enjoy these blessings. She was received as a commonwealth holding, maintaining and protecting the institution known as negro slavery – the servitude of the African to the white race within her limits – a relation that had existed from the first settlement of her wilderness by the white race, and which her people intended should exist in all future time…

“We hold as undeniable truths that the governments of the various States, and of the confederacy itself, were established exclusively by the white race, for themselves and their posterity; that the African race had no agency in their establishment; that they were rightfully held and regarded as an inferior and dependent race, and in that condition only could their existence in this country be rendered beneficial or tolerable.

“That in this free government all white men are and of right ought to be entitled to equal civil and political rights; that the servitude of the African race, as existing in these States, is mutually beneficial to both bond and free, and is abundantly authorized and justified by the experience of mankind, and the revealed will of the Almighty Creator, as recognized by all Christian nations; while the destruction of the existing relations between the two races, as advocated by our sectional enemies, would bring inevitable calamities upon both and desolation upon the fifteen slave-holding states.

“By the secession of six of the slave-holding States, and the certainty that others will speedily do likewise, Texas has no alternative but to remain in an isolated connection with the North, or unite her destinies with the South.”

Mississippi Senator Jefferson Davis (Future CSA President), farewell speech to US Congress, 1/21/1861:

“I, however, may be permitted to say that I do think (Mississippi) has justifiable cause (to secede), and I approve of her act. I conferred with her people before that act was taken, counseled them then that if the state of things which they apprehended should exist when the convention met, they should take the action which they have now adopted…

“It has been a conviction of pressing necessity, it has been a belief that we are to be deprived in the Union of the rights which our fathers bequeathed to us, which has brought Mississippi to her present decision. She has heard proclaimed the theory that all men are created free and equal, and this made the basis of an attack upon her social institutions; and the sacred Declaration of Independence has been invoked to maintain the position of the equality of the races.”

Alexander H. Stephens (CSA Vice-President), Cornerstone Address, 3/21/1861

“…the new (Confederate) Constitution has put at rest forever all the agitating questions relating to our peculiar institutions-African slavery as it exists among us-the proper status of the negro in our form of civilization. This was the immediate cause of the late rupture and present revolution…

“Our new Government is founded… its foundations are laid, its cornerstone rests, upon the great truth that the negro is not equal to the white man; that slavery, subordination to the superior race, is his natural and moral condition. [Applause.] This, our new Government, is the first, in the history of the world, based upon this great physical, philosophical, and moral truth.

“This truth has been slow in the process of its development, like all other truths in the various departments of science. It is so even amongst us. Many who hear me, perhaps, can recollect well that this truth was not generally admitted, even within their day. The errors of the past generation still clung to many as late as twenty years ago. Those at the North who still cling to these errors with a zeal above knowledge, we justly denominate fanatics.”