CHAPTER 2. THE BACKGROUND: HISTORY, SLAVERY, AND CIVIL WAR
"TEN MILES OF NEGROES"
A white friend, knowing of my interest in Black History, once asked me, "How is it that you spend so much time dealing with the past? Aren't the present day problems confronting your people so massive, so pervasive that they deserve all of your attention?"
I told him that as I see it, the past, the present, and the future are all inextricably linked, each influences and impacts the other in such a way that they cannot be considered in isolation. To attempt to do so would be to concentrate one's whole attention on "Effect," giving no consideration to "Cause."
Furthermore, as I see it, there are great, compelling lessons to be derived from our history. That history provides, for those who will contemplate it, encouragement, fortitude, and strength with which to grapple with and overcome the problems of today.
In short, nothing is likely to happen to us in today's world that could possibly be worse than what has already happened to us in the monstrous trauma of slavery. And, if we were somehow able to survive that dark episode in our history, we can find the means to deal successfully with any lesser current and future evil, no matter how menacing, how threatening it appears.
Letter to the Editor from The News and Advance, Lynchburg, VA
The June 18, 1997 News and Advance has an Editorial "Apology unnecessary in national dialogue on race."
The newspaper's position may be summed up in the second paragraph, which reads, "But the proposed national apology to black Americans can serve no other purpose than to make the dialogue counterproductive and open wounds that should have healed long before now."
The wounds of that terrible time still fester in the minds and hearts of all thoughtful black people and it is right they do so, for it is an undeniable, inescapable part of our history. The only sure cure for the wounds of our slave experience is to forget, and it is my heartfelt prayer that we never forget.
Would the editorial writer have me forget that my slave grandfather, whose duties included taking care of the cows and other livestock on the Virginia farm where he was enslaved, having no shoes, would drive the cows up from where they had lain to warm his feet on the ground warmed by the body heat of the cattle? (Imagine, shoeless in Virginia's winters!) Or am I to forget the other millions of black people who bore the yoke and degradation of slavery, and in so doing purchased my right to every good and perfect thing that American citizenship confers?
I do not recall ever seeing an editorial suggesting that the appalling wounds suffered by Jewish people in the unspeakably dreadful days of the Holocaust should have been healed long before now. Nor do I recall seeing any editorial criticism of the Holocaust Memorial, that magnificent testimony to the Jewish determination that neither the Jews themselves, nor the rest of the world, ever be allowed to forget.
And what was the editorial position of the News and Advance in regard to the reparations paid to Japanese-Americans who were interned in America's concentration camps during World War II? Did the paper editorialize against such payments on the grounds that the wounds should have healed before now?
I consider the suggestion that we black people let time heal the wounds of our beginnings in this country, that is to forget the past, to be grossly inappropriate, if not insulting, to the memory of our noble forebears who lived that history.
THE GIFT OF SLAVES
Our slave forebears gave much to the times and to the world in which they lived. They gave much more than mere labor, for they had infinitely more than labor to give. Just as the slaves were influenced and affected by the cruel circumstances of their lives, the slaves, in turn, exerted a powerful though subtle influence on all who were in contact with them, and this influence, which touched nearly every important aspect of life in the Old South, slowly strengthened and spread to all sections of this country, profoundly affecting American music, dance, art, literature, and language and imparting a uniquely distinctive and piquant flavor to the American fabric.
But it is not the intent of this essay to inventory the gifts of our slave forebears, most of which are so well known to us that no detailed discussion is needed. I refer to them only as background for the following conclusion: the slaves gave great gifts to America and to the world, but the very best, the most precious, the most highly valued of all the slaves had to give, they gave to us, their black offspring.
For the slaves gave us the right to citizenship in this great land, and this gift, flawed as it is, imperfect though it may well be, purchased at an exorbitant cost in human misery, blood and sweat and degradation, represents the slaves' finest expression of love for their own kind, and their highest hopes for a better future for succeeding generations of black people.
Because of this gift, we black people in this land enjoy the freedoms that our slave ancestors could only dream of, and wish and pray for, and despair of. Because of this gift, we black people have before us opportunities that far exceed anything our slave ancestors could have conceived.
Upon us, then, the recipients of this magnificent gift, this priceless inheritance, purchased in full in the currency of the anguish and blood of our ancestors, devolves the awesome moral obligation to make the most of the good that American citizenship confers upon us. We share, every black American man, woman and child, the solemn and sacred responsibility to utilize to the fullest, whatever talents we possess to advance ourselves as individuals, as a race, and as citizens of this nation.
The slaves gave us more than citizenship. They left for us still another treasure. Our slave ancestors bequeathed to us a legacy of heroism and personal courage which confirms, beyond any doubt, that black men and women are capable of behaving in the finest tradition of courageous manhood and womanhood.
The story of that heroism is not readily available to us, for history texts have not dealt fairly or honestly with the courageous exploits of black Americans.
One is compelled to consult a number of sources, textbooks, periodicals, personal accounts, biographical data, and whatever other historical information he can find before he is able to piece together the story of our black heroes. Only then, after considerable research, is one able to sense the dimension of black courage and its importance to the development of this nation.
But the immense rewards of that study make the effort well worth while, for not only does it impart to us a broader knowledge of the lives and deeds of our ancestors, it also strengthens and reinforces the spiritual and emotional ties between ourselves and our forebears. For, as we agonize with our people through the humiliations, the heartbreak, the frightful injustice, the unspeakable atrocities of slavery, as we commiserate with our people as they made their painfully slow, upward climb from those dark days when men bartered in the flesh of their brothers, there intrudes upon our consciousness an overwhelming sympathy, and imperishable love, a deep and reverential respect for those who, through their suffering, paved the way for later generations of black people.
But the final reward of our study is the discovery of this one great truth: that this country has never produced a greater heroism than that displayed by our black forebears, particularly in the Slavery-Reconstruction periods.
For me, one of the most moving chapters in American History was written in the period just after Appomattox, for in that time, thousands of blacks, men and women alike, testing their new freedom, tramped the dusty, rutted highways of the Southland, in search of family members, husbands, wives, children, and friends from whom they had been separated in slavery.
Only rarely did these excursions meet with success. Only rarely were the searchers able to find their loved ones. Indeed, many ex-slaves spent the remainder of their lives in what was tragically often a fruitless effort to locate and make whole again the bonds of family and friendship.
W. E. B Dubois writes of the "dreadful uncertainty" of the slave experience. This uncertainty, this never being quite sure, this ever-present tension, tension fueled by the possibility of separation, was the stuff of nightmares. It haunted the dreams of the slaves throughout their lives. They knew only too well that a change in the fortunes of the owner, the division of an estate, a poor crop year, or foreclosure of the master's assets could easily result in the sale of some or all of the slaves. And all too often, slaves who were difficult to manage or who somehow incurred the owner's wrath were sold away.
Sometimes a marriage among the slave owning family, a joyous, festive time in the Big House, cast a shadow of darkest gloom and deepest depression in the quarters, for often the slave masters gave one or more of the slaves to the new bride and groom. And if the newly weds moved, as they frequently did, to some remote new location, they were in effect severing for all time, for the slave(s) who accompanied them, the relationships that had existed in the quarters.
There were humane masters who understood and respected the strong bonds of kinship and brotherhood developed in the quarters. There are accounts of masters who willingly incurred great financial loss in order to keep slave families together. There were others who considered their slaves to be family members, and who suffered great anguish and were deeply distressed when circumstance compelled them to sell slaves away from the plantation.
There were, however, other masters of a different stripe. These were owners who disregarded the humanity of the slaves. Such masters regarded the slaves strictly as property, and thus could and did sell family members away from each other without a qualm, and without the slightest compunction.
Slavery was a vast, injurious, tragic cruelty. And within the framework of the slavery institution, perhaps there was no greater cruelty than the division and separation of families. Children, sometimes at a very tender age, were taken from their mothers, husbands were taken from wives, wives from husbands, brothers were taken from sisters, and sisters from brothers. A great cruelty, yes. And yet, separation of families, however regrettable, was unavoidable.
Frederick Law Olmsted tells of visiting a slave auction at which he received the impression that the slaves who were about to be sold exhibited little of the distress that he had expected to witness. Instead of gloom, he found what may be described as resignation and indifference. There were even some signs of carefree levity, he said.
Could it be that an observer as astute, as meticulous, and painstakingly thorough as Olmstead misread what he saw? Could it be that those slaves, now that the long anticipated, the long dreaded moment had arrived, had steeled themselves to put out of their minds as quickly as possible, all that they had left behind and face the uncertain future with hope, wearing the brightest possible facial expressions to mask their inner misgivings? Did they affect a carefree attitude with the hope of making themselves attractive to potential buyers?
Mary Boykin Chesnut saw the slave auction with very different eyes, for she warned a visitor, as they passed a building in which slave auctions were held: "If you can stand what you will see in there, no other Southern thing will upset you."
Yet, not all slaves feared separation. There were some owners whose wealth was so vast and so secure that they could weather even the most severe economic depression with their holdings undiminished. Fortunate indeed were those slaves who were owned by such masters for there was little chance that necessity would require that they be sold away from the plantation.
The slaves who found themselves in such circumstances were proud of their good fortune. They boasted of their master's wealth and power. They were quite haughty in their dealings with other slaves not so fortunate. They flaunted their "superiority" in a way that was both ridiculous and yet somehow touching.
Then there were other slave-owners not nearly so wealthy, but because they followed sound economic policies, were able to maintain themselves and their slave "families" intact over several owners. I have vivid recollections of conversations with my father about his parents, in addition to what he wrote about them. It seems that the specter of separation was not a greatly important concern to my grandparents, although it is likely that even they from time to time must have thought of the possibility. I have the impression that my grandparents felt secure, non-threatened by sale or separation.
Some slave holders were kind, humane and tolerant. In some cases, perhaps even indulgent in their relationships with their slaves. Some owners resorted to the lash only as a last resort, only after other punishments had failed to correct an intolerable condition.
Some owners hated corporal punishment. They avoided physical punishment as much as possible. They substituted other devices when it became necessary to establish order in the quarters. One owner, with a Puckish sense of humor, employed a unique form of chastisement. He would line up the entire staff of slaves on a hot day, where they would be required to stand in the hot sun and listen, while he, seated under a shade tree, read to the assemblage two or three lengthy essays in Greek or Latin! This was his favorite means of punishment!
I don't know how effective such "punishment" was. It is hard to imagine what the slaves thought as they listened to so much (to them) gibberish. They must have thought their master has lost all his marbles!
It is a mistake to think that all slave owners were cruel, tyrannical monsters. And it is also a misconception that all slaves longed to be free. No, there were those who had accepted their lot and were quite comfortable in their situations. Particularly was this true in those situations in which the master recognized the humanity of the slaves and treated them no worse than he was absolutely compelled to.
This explains in part why so many slaves were reluctant to leave the plantations when freedom came. Not only did freedom represent a step into the terrifying unknown, it also required that they break what was in many cases a strong emotional bond between themselves and their former owners.
But there were other owners who were cruel, inhumane, brutal tyrants. These men were interested only in profit, no matter the human cost. Some of this type practiced their belief that it was better to work the slaves to death and replace them with newly purchased slaves. In this manner, they were able to avoid the cost of maintaining superannuated slaves, that is those slaves who had grown too old and infirm to contribute to the profits of the operation.
A group of slaves belonging to one such master stole away from their cabins one night to meet in the woods for the purpose of discussing their plight. Their discussion led to no solution. They were unable to find any practical method by which they could alleviate the intolerable conditions of their lives. Finally, one slave suggested mass suicide as the only certain and practical means by which they could punish the master who had been so liberal in meting out drastic punishment to his charges. A mass suicide, the slave argued, would not only remove the slaves from the control of their savage master, it would deprive him of his labor force at harvest time, the time when the need for labor was most intense. The loss of his slaves would ruin the master financially, as well.
The slaves, after some discussion, concurred in the decision to commit mass suicide and they began to consider the means by which each would take his own life. The matter was settled finally when each slave swore to kill himself at the agreed-upon time.
But, as the slaves were preparing to leave their meeting place, an old slave threw a bombshell into their plans. He asked a question that upset the whole plan. He asked the simple question: "But, what about the children?" That question reminded the slaves that they were the only protection their youngsters had. And although what protection they could offer was slender, almost non-existent, the old slave's question brought them face to face with the realization that they had an obligation to live for the sake of their children.
For me, that tragically beautiful little saga is a very moving testament to the devotion of slave parents to the lives and well-being of their children. Ignorant though they were, downtrodden, deprived, and despised as they were, they still retained enough of whatever it is among humans that elevates humanity above all other creatures to continue their cruel lives in the hope that by so doing they might shield their children as much as possible from the cruel excesses of their monstrous owner. They valued their children's lives more than they valued their own.
GIVE ME LIBERTY, ETC.!
"Give me liberty, or give me death!"
These passionate words were uttered, as every school child knows, by Patrick Henry in the period just before the Revolutionary War. These are splendid words; noble, patriotic, inspiring words; words calculated to inflame and enhance the revolutionary spirit among those colonists who longed to be free of the yoke imposed by Mother England.
Yet, I have searched in vain for any evidence that the author of these inflammatory sentiments ever suited his actions to his words. The little research I have done seems to indicate that Patrick Henry sat out the war at his home at Red House, Virginia. He never spent a day in the ragged, poorly equipped colonial army. He never shouldered a musket in defense of his country. He never fired a shot at the enemy English armies that sought to bring the colonies back into submission to English authority.
Although he gave substantial assistance to the American army, he never became an active participant in the struggle to free the colonies from the yoke of colonialism imposed by England. We can conclude then that "Give me liberty, etc." was intended to inspire others to fight and suffer and die. The author of these sentiments had other things to do.
The history of black people in America affords us many examples of people who, unlike Patrick Henry, made a personal commitment to liberate themselves or die trying. I'm referring to the runaways. These brave men and women, by the act of running away, were in effect placing themselves between the two narrow alternatives, freedom or death; death was often the punishment for "stealing themselves" as running away was called in those times. Harsh slaveholders, wishing to make an example of the captured runaway, sometimes resorted to killing him.
But not always. Sometimes punishment was brutal maiming of the runaway. One favorite method to curb the freedom disease was to cut the thick tendon in the leg, just above the heel, thus making running impossible.
Sometimes punishment was to sell the unrepentant runaway somewhere in the Deep South where there were many slaveholders who operated on the theory that it was more economical to work slaves to death than to take care of them when they had become too old to work. Life for slaves in such conditions could only have been a living Hell.
There are some estimates that place the figure for successful runaways at about ten thousand a year. This is an impressive figure, but, it leaves much unexplained. How many others tried but were recaptured? What horrors caused them to make the radical, almost foolhardy decision to run away?
The following is an excerpt form one of my favorite books on the Slave South, The Cotton Kingdom, by Frederick Law Olmstead. This account tells of a slave whose actions said in the most emphatic language: "Give me liberty or give me death!"
From the Southern newspaper known as the "West Felician Whig" came the following story: "On Saturday last, a runaway Negro was killed in the parish of East Baton Rouge, just below the line of this parish, under the following circumstances. Two citizens of Port Hudson, learning that a Negro was at work on a flat boat, loading with sand just below that place, who was suspected of being a runaway, went down in a skiff for the purpose of arresting him.
"Having seized him and put him into the skiff, they started back, but had not proceeded far when the Negro, who had been at the oars, seized a hatchet and assaulted one of them, wounding him very seriously. A scuffle ensued, in which both parties fell overboard. They were both rescued by the citizen pulling to them with the skiff. Finding him so unmanageable, the Negro was put ashore, and the parties returned to Port Hudson for arms and a pack of Negro dogs and started again with the intention to capture him. They soon got on his trail, and when found again he was standing at bay upon the outer edge of a large raft of drift wood, armed with a club and pistol. In this position, he bade defiance to men and dogs, knocking the latter in the water with his club, and resolutely threatening death to any man who approached him. Finding him obstinately determined not to surrender, one of his pursuers shot him. He fell at the third fire, and so determined was he not to be captured, that when an effort was made to rescue him from drowning, he made battle with his club and sunk waving his weapon in angry defiance at his pursuers. He refused to give the name of his owner."
Patrick Henry merely expressed the sentiment. This unnamed slave lived it.
My father, writing about his parents, former slaves, makes an assertion that I find intriguing. He wrote, "I have heard my mother say often that she never had a pair of shoes until after her twelfth birthday. My father informed us that his bare feet were often so cold from exposure, that to warm them when sent to feed the stock at daybreak, he often drove the cows up from where they had lain and stood on the ground they had warmed by their body heat during the night."
There were other, even greater privations that were part and parcel of the lives of slaves: meager diet; insufficient clothing; mind-numbing labor; ramshackle, inadequate housing; and unquestioning immediate obedience to the master's dictates, no matter how capricious or arbitrary.
How extraordinary that these ex-slaves came through the experience bearing no malice towards their former owners! My father writes ". . . to me, one of the most astonishing things is the fact that I have never heard either my father or my mother speak disrespectfully or spitefully of their owners and their families. I bear testimony to the fact that neither my own people or other ex-slaves whom I knew were filled with bitterness and hatred towards the white people because of their former experiences."
My father attributed this remarkable absence of malice to the fact that his people and the other ex-slaves he knew were Christians, for he wrote: "Their brand of religion just would not allow them to be vindictive and spiteful." I, however, am not sure how important a role religion played in the thinking and attitudes of the former slaves. Bruce Catton, eminent Civil War historian, writes: "As a general thing, the Negro soldiers seemed to hold very little personal animus against their former masters. A white officer discovered rather to his surprise that these had neither hatred nor affection for the men who used to own them." It seems likely then, that many, perhaps most, former slaves were not vengeful and it may even be true, as my father suggested, that ex-slaves forgave their former owners.
I suppose that some modern thinkers would dismiss such former slaves as accomodationists, "Uncle Toms," whose self-respect, manhood, and confidence had eroded to the point that they were incapable of normal responses even to the awful provocations of slavery. My own belief is that these men and women, necessarily preoccupied with their new status and new responsibilities, and the multitude of almost insuperable problems that attended freedom, saw little advantage in futile recriminations about past injustices, numerous and injurious though they may have been. They looked ahead, did these stalwarts, and only rarely reflected on the past. They were hard-headed realists and their attention was riveted on the grim difficulties of the present and their cherished dreams of the future.
Bruce Catton confirms this when, writing about the black soldiers of the Union Army, he says: "Most of the men were straight from the plantation. On many matters their ignorance was absolute. Yet, they were men without doubts, and always their faith reached out to the future." I believe, moreover, that these men and women possessed insights and understanding and a greater degree of perception than is generally accorded to them. Their instincts told them "let the dead past bury its dead" and to get on with their lives. As a result of their slave experiences, there were many other former slaves who were filled with bitterness and hatred that could not be appeased.
Life was hard when freedom came. Life was hard for everyone in the South, black or white, in the years following the Civil War. The South at that time was a place of despair, a cheerless somber land. With its proud institutions smashed, its economy in ruins, the cream of its young men interred in lonely grave sites wherever the Southern armies had marched. The Southern people were shattered and demoralized by the savagery of the war that left vast tracts of the Southland in hopeless desolation.
As harsh and difficult as conditions were for whites, they were indescribably worse for blacks. Can one imagine four million of our people thrust out of what security they had known as slaves, totally unprepared to fend for themselves, landless, dispossessed, and homeless, many of them wandering derelicts, ignorant, possessing no skills except as tillers of the soil, illiterate, despised by the whites North and South, denied the protection of the law, so that any white man could and would, with perfect impunity, do anything he chose to any black man. Easy prey for those who would take advantage of them, they were robbed and cheated and swindled by landowners who were determined to keep them in a condition as nearly resembling slavery as possible. Is it any wonder that some of the freedmen, having tasted "freedom," longed for the protection and security of the plantation?
My grandparents were fortunate in that they were able to buy from a relative land and the house in which they lived. (The land is owned by members of the family today, more than a hundred years after its original sale to my great-grandfather.)
I never knew either of my paternal grandparents, they both died before I was born. But, from what I have heard about them, they must have been unusually strong, determined Christian people. My father writes: "My mother and father had a powerful unshakeable faith in God. They were sober, self-respecting people, endowed with a great sense of community pride. They had pity for the fallen, sympathy for the unfortunate, the sick, the troubled, and the poor." (That they were themselves poor is indicated by the fact that my father remembers his parents debating over several months the wisdom of borrowing $25 dollars from the bank. If for any reason, they were not able to repay the loan, they stood to lose everything that they owned.)
My father wrote: "They always had time to ask after, go and see about, and to contribute from their limited stores to those in special need about them. They strove to own a home, to live above want, to be involved in and to take advantage of whatever cultural outlets their rustic environment afforded. My mother gave each of her children the rudiments of a basic education in spite of her own limitations."
They worked hard did my grandparents. My grandfather was a farmer. To supplement his farm income, he fished the waters of Chesapeake Bay and in season, harvested and sold oysters from his oyster beds in the Bay. He built an ice house in the bank of the river (Piankitank, which emptied into the Bay) which ran next to his home, and in the winter, he cut ice from its frozen waters and stored it in the ice house. Thus, he was able to sell ice in the summer time as well as to provide a crude refrigerator in which neighbors could store perishables in warm weather.
My grandparents raised twelve children and provided them with whatever educational opportunities were available. Significantly, neither my grandparents (after freedom) nor any of their children, ever worked for white people, even though it would have been much to their advantage to have the extra income such labor would have provided.
My grandparents were in no sense of the word unique. Their story could be duplicated almost verbatim, by thousands of ex-slaves, for there was among our people in those times a driving, urgent hunger to improve, a feverish anxiety to better themselves, to assume the dignity and the sense of self-worth denied them in their former condition.
My study and research into the lives of our people in those times, incomplete and fragmentary though it is, leads me to some conclusions that may have great, perhaps momentous, implications for our people today. Ever since 1865, we black people have owed, and continue to owe, an immense debt of gratitude to our slave ancestors. Of gold and silver, they had none to bequeath to us, their offspring, but they left us something infinitely more precious, for they gave us our citizenship in this great land. They paid a terrible price in the currency of pain and suffering, blood and sweat, for our right to call ourselves Americans. Because of their gifts to us, we enjoy the freedoms that they dreamed of, longed for, and despaired of. We have before us opportunities that far exceed their wildest imaginings.
In the final stages of its existence, the Confederacy was hopelessly divided over the question of enlisting the slaves as soldiers to strengthen and reinforce the badly depleted armies of the South. Some Southerners bitterly denounced this proposal as a monstrous heresy that threatened the very foundations of their culture. More moderate Southerners gave cautious approval to the idea, but even they were divided over whether freedom was to be the reward for faithful military service.
Since the beginnings of the war, large numbers of slaves had been used by the Confederacy as teamsters, cooks, servants and in the construction of roads, forts, and in numerous other capacities. However, no organized use of slaves as soldiers had been contemplated. Nevertheless, there were individual slaves who shouldered a musket and fought alongside their masters. At first Manassas and at Williamsburg, accounts exist of slaves who picked up muskets and stood by their masters firing at Union troops. Indeed, free Negroes formed companies and volunteered for service in Tennessee, Virginia, and at New Orleans. All such were rejected, however.
Eugene D. Genovese's book Roll, Jordan, Roll: The World that the Slaves Made tells us "At Lynchburg, Virginia, a newspaper comment on the enlistment of seventy Negroes read: Three cheers for the patriotic Negroes of Lynchburg.'" Unfortunately, that is the article in its entirety. No further details, not even the date, are given.
In the early stages of the war, when it looked as if Southern victory was a distinct possibility, the efforts of free Negroes to enlist were dismissed out of hand. The prevailing thinking seemed to be that the interests of the Confederacy would best be served if Negroes were assigned to provide the labor needs of the Confederate armies, leaving the fighting to white men.
In the North, the Emancipation Proclamation, issued in January 1863, opened the way for black soldiers -- both impressed and volunteer. These men were a mixture of free Northern blacks and Contrabands (a terms used to describe the former slaves who had escaped the South or had been freed when Union Armies invaded Southern territory).
The double blow of the Emancipation Proclamation and the use of black troops sparked an angry response from the South. President Davis, when he learned of the Proclamation, issued a scathing denunciation. (The Emancipation Proclamation) "is the most execrable measure recorded in the history of guilty men." It was a program he said, "by which several millions of human beings of an inferior race, peaceful and contented laborers in their sphere, are doomed to extermination."
The impact of the proclamation compelled the South to begin to consider that which had been unthinkable -- the military use of slaves. Surprisingly, the first calls for the military use of slaves tied to the reward of emancipation came from the Deep South -- Louisiana, Mississippi, and Alabama.
As the war ground on, the editorial pages of Southern newspapers became the forum for discussion of the pros and cons of the perplexing question of arming the slaves. Southerners who favored the idea of arming the slaves found themselves enmeshed in a sticky problem for which there seemed to be no easy answers. Should freedom be the reward for those slaves who went to battle for the Confederacy? What about their families? Would they likewise be freed? And most importantly, how can freedom now be considered a reward when for decades Southern writers and politicians, indeed the best minds in the South, had claimed that the slave was happy only when he served a master, that the slave was incapable of making decisions without the guidance of an owner. And finally, would the slave fight or would he desert?
In January of 1864, General Patrick Cleburne CSA submitted a brilliant, though gloomy analysis of the condition of the Southern armies to his commander, General Joseph E. Johnston. General Cleburne's opinion was that the Confederacy was doomed without an immediate infusion of manpower for the armies. His report contained a revolutionary proposal: free all the slaves and arm them to fight in Confederate service.
General Johnston's view was that Cleburne's proposal was political rather than military and declined to pass it on to President Davis. However, Davis heard of the proposal and ordered it suppressed. So thorough was this suppression that the Cleburne proposal lay hidden away until 1905 when it was discovered and made public.
Nevertheless, the question of using slaves as soldiers continued to be debated in the Southern press. On November 7, 1864 President Davis proposed to Congress that a gradual emancipation of slaves with compensation to the owners would provide manpower for the shrinking armies of the Confederacy. This plan, Davis felt, would appeal to European powers, but would also allow slave owners compensation for their property. Davis's plan added fuel to the editorial fires as the bitter debate continued.
General Robert E. Lee touched on the issue in a letter to a state senator in January, 1865. He wrote: "I think, therefore, that we must decide whether slavery shall be extinguished by our enemies and the slaves used against us, or use them ourselves at the risk of the effects which may be produced upon our social institutions."
There is some confusion here about the sequence of Lee's and Davis's statements. Mary Boykin Chesnut, in her Diary from Dixie, wrote in a chapter dated 1862-1863: "General Lee and Mr. Davis and our soldiers everywhere want the Negroes to be put in the army." But how did Mrs. Chesnut know the thinking of General Lee and President Davis fully two years before Lee's letter and Davis's proposal to Congress?
As General Lee and President Davis and indeed all Southerners who were realistic in their thinking could see, the Confederacy was in dire straits by January, 1865. The Confederate Congress, that bastion of inactivity and rhetoric finally having to face painful reality, conceded the need for action and in March, 1865 passed a law authorizing the president to call for as many as 300,000 slaves to serve as soldiers.
Companies were formed and drilling took place in the city of Richmond that month. It was too late. April 9th and Appomattox loomed just over the horizon. The Confederate blacks never saw active service in the Civil War.
What Might have Been
While it is usually futile to speculate on what might have been, we beg the reader's indulgence in this instance because of the tantalizing, unanswered and unanswerable questions that such a discussion gives rise to. Suppose the South had used the slaves as soldiers early in the war. Would the outcome have been different? If the Confederacy had activated 100,000 blacks as soldiers, there were staggering logistical problems to face. Could the Quartermaster Department have clothed, armed, fed, and transported such an army? Who would have drilled and trained the soldiers? Would white officers and enlisted men serve with men who had formerly been property?
Such an addition to the army might have been possible and perhaps could have provided a breathing space and much needed reinforcements, allowing Southern armies to hold on indefinitely and wear out the northern will to wage war.
If freedom had been given the slaves in toto, or as a reward for military service, the north's atomic bomb, the Emancipation Proclamation, might have been defused. England and France, generally friendly to the South, but kept at bay by moral repugnance to slavery, might have intervened on behalf of the Confederacy.
Would slaves fight? Or would they have deserted to the enemy? I think it likely that a substantial number would have deserted. The lure of immediate freedom would have been a powerful incentive to desert. But I believe that a substantial number would have served honorably and well, being reluctant to leave families and friends and all that was familiar to them. The question of whether black soldiers would fight was answered emphatically by the black soldiers who fought for the Union. Black troops fought at the Battle of Olustee, the Crater, Fort Pillow, and with great gallantry at Fort Wagner.
Poorly trained and equipped, some of the black troops who fought for the Union at Milliken's Bend had been in the army less than two weeks, were often poorly led, and frequently despised by their white officers and counterparts. Bell Irwin Wiley tells us in his book, Billy Yank, that white Union soldiers turned their guns, not at the enemy, but at black Union soldiers nearby. The black soldier, nevertheless, served with distinction in many campaigns of the war. Ironically, the question of blacks and Southerners fighting together would be answered some thirty years after the war ended. During the Spanish American War of 1898, several former Confederate generals entered active military service in Cuba -- "Fighting Joe" Wheeler, Fitzhugh Lee, and Tom Rosser. Wheeler commanded the First Cavalry Division, which included two black regiments, the 9th and 10th Cavalry. After the war, describing the black soldiers, General Wheeler wrote of "their brave and good conduct, their obedience, efficiency and coolness under a galling fire . . . they went home covered with glory."
The question of whether the South, if it had used the slaves as soldiers, could have prolonged the war until the war weary North would have compromised is unanswerable. The Confederates refused to consider the matter when it might have changed the outcome of the war, implementing the inclusion of slaves only at a point so near the end as to be of no consequence.
Yet the idea of Confederate emancipation and of slaves fighting alongside the white men of the South, provides fertile ground for the imagination. The military, cultural, political, and social history of the South and of the nation might have been markedly different.
April 9th and Appomattox rendered the entire matter academic.
I remember reading in the daily paper, ten or twelve years ago, an article, which announced that a group of American Jews proposed to build a Holocaust Memorial in this country, honoring the Jews who perished in Germany and eastern Europe during the Hitler years.
The article also stated that the proponents of this project had set a goal of seventy-five million dollars with which to bring to fruition their project. In response to this appeal, so generously and enthusiastically did Jews (and possibly others) contribute that in an incredibly short time the goal was exceeded by $25 million dollars, and the project began to move closer to realization.
The Holocaust Memorial in Washington D.C., on a site donated by the federal government, is a dream realized, now open and in operation.
I watched on television the opening dedicatory ceremonies at the Memorial. I found myself particularly touched at the sight of hundreds of Jews weeping unashamedly in the somber poignancy of that occasion -- their anguish somehow struck a responsive chord in me.
As I watched, my mind increasingly became burdened and tormented by a terrible mixture of conflicting emotions so distracting and unsettling that I finally turned the television off and engaged myself in other activities, so as to bring some relief from the intolerable emotional stress characterized by anger, jealousy, frustration, and great sadness.
Over and over, again and again, the terrible questions intruded themselves on my conscience: "But who weeps for the slaves? Who sheds a tear for the millions of our people who bore the yoke and the degradation of slavery? Are our people, slaves though they were, somehow less worthy of commemoration? Is their memory less worthy of being cherished than are the memories of the Jews? Why have we not built great monuments to their memory, as have the Jews?"
Here in Lynchburg where I live, some of the public schools have made field-trip excursions to the Holocaust Memorial. I'm sure that other localities within driving distance of the nation's capitol have taken similar trips.
Inevitably, some black school-children have participated in these trips. I have no problem with that participation. Indeed, I believe such exposure to have positive benefits --- that is, if those black children come away from the experience with a clear understanding of the unspeakable depths to which racism can lead a people.
But, I do have an immense problem with the cruelly bitter irony in the probability that of the hundreds of black children who by this time have visited the Holocaust Memorial, not a single one of them understands that he is a representative of a race that has endured and survived a far greater holocaust. I'm referring, of course, to slavery.
A far greater holocaust? Yes, by any yardstick one wishes to employ. In terms of longevity, the Hitlerian Holocaust lasted not more than ten years. Slavery lasted for 246 years, followed by about 25 years of "Reconstruction" that in some ways was worse for blacks than was slavery. Worse in that now that we were free, Southern whites, smarting over the loss of the war on which they had staked their future and determined to keep the free Negro in a condition as nearly resembling slavery as possible, launched a program of terror that by some estimates claimed the lives of 150,000 innocent black people.
In terms of numbers, again our holocaust far exceeds that of the Jewish victims of the Nazi extermination camps. The generally accepted numbers of Jews who perished in the concentration camps and prisons of the Third Reich is about six million. Stanley M. Elkins in his book, Slavery, estimates that 15 million Africans were stolen away from their homes to satisfy the needs of the slave trade. Elkins also quotes another student of the same subject, Frank Tannenbaum, who sets an even higher estimate of twenty million. I guess we can assume that the true figure is somewhere between those two estimates.
Elkins writes, "One traveler tells of seeing hundreds of bleaching skeletons strewn along one of the slave caravan routes . . . . The mortality had been very high. One third of the numbers first taken out of a total of perhaps fifteen million had died on the march and at the trading stations; another third died during the Middle Passage, and the seasoning."
Thus, two-thirds of those captured died before they ever reached the slave auction. Only one out of three survived to become slaves. Unfortunately, it seems that our youngsters are, with perhaps a few exceptions, totally ignorant about their history. But they are not to blame for this lamentable lapse, for they have never been taught. After all, who is there to teach them? Their parents more than likely have scant knowledge of the history of the struggles of black people in this country.
As a youngster, I was no better informed about black history than today's youngsters, for like them no one taught me. What meager knowledge I can lay claim to is the result of my own initiative, my own desire to know and understand.
What remarkable differences appear when we contrast the manner in which the Jews preserve and cherish their history to the apathy, indifference, and denial we black people demonstrate in regards to our own history The Jews have made it clear that neither they nor the world will be allowed to forget the terrible events of the Holocaust. And that determination guarantees that few Jewish youngsters of middle school age are not thoroughly familiar with every aspect of the Holocaust trauma.
We blacks, on the other hand, are out of touch with our history. It's almost as if we have drawn a curtain over the past -- we seem to be engaged in a sort of denial that it ever happened.
If I had the ear of our people, I would urge, as a small step towards bringing our people back in touch with their history and with the heroic men and women who lived through it, the establishment of an annual "Day of Remembrance." I would suggest that this day be observed in April, on the Sunday nearest April 9, because of the significance of that date. (April 9, 1865 when the Confederate forces surrendered, marks the beginning of our freedom. I think of that date as Black Independence Day, because July 4 was independence for whites only.)
I would hope that every church, every gathering of our people, every black man, woman and child on that day observe a moment of prayer, either silent or spoken aloud. In that moment, let our prayers be offered for the souls of the millions of our ancestors who died on the jungle trails of their native land and in the cruel barracoons in which they were imprisoned awaiting shipment. Let us pray for the souls of the countless thousands who perished in the stinking holds of the slave ships from which they could escape only through death. And then let us remember in our prayers the millions who bore the yoke and degradation of slavery. Let our prayers demonstrate that we have not forgotten them, that their memories are precious and cherished by their offspring.
If I could get such a movement started, it might prove to be the catalyst that encourages our people to take a new interest in our history.
Editorial - Reprinted from the Richmond Free Press
The proposed marker slated to be placed at the birthplace of Carter G. Woodson in Buckingham County is both timely and appropriate. Those of us who value black history applaud the marker and the Harriet Tubman Society of Wilmington, Delaware for its decision to erect this memorial to "The Father of Black History."
The proposed marker takes on a new and deeper significance when we consider that the school formerly named for Dr. Woodson is now called Buckingham Elementary School. The marker then may be the only tangible reminder that this remarkable black American once lived in that county.
The name change coincided with integration of the county's schools. I do not believe that black people were involved in the decision to change the name of the school. I believe that the plot was quietly engineered and clandestinely implemented by the white people of the county.
Prince Edward, Cumberland, and Appomattox counties likewise changed the names of their schools which memorialized black people who made significant contributions to their counties.
I consider these changes to be indicative of a racist atmosphere, and I believe the name changes are a cold, calculated strategy to obscure and minimize the value of the contributions of black people and to prevent white children from attending a school named for a black person.
As far as I have been able to determine, there was only the feeblest reaction from the black community to this monstrous insult. In each county, there were a few who resisted, thank God. But they were unable to obtain the mass support needed and their efforts failed.
More distressing than the name changes is the apathy and indifference of the masses of black people who meekly accepted, with scarcely a whimper of protest, this monstrous affront. To them I can only say: To the extent that we didn't resist, we are just as guilty as are those who carried out this racist scheme.
Has there ever been a time when black children stood in greater need of positive role models such as those outstanding black Virginians for whom our schools were named? Has there ever been a time when white children stood in greater need of the knowledge that black people have made heroic contributions?
One final thought. Conceivably the same indifference and apathy that permitted this offense to go unchallenged, may one day permit the proposed marker to be uprooted to make way for a McDonald's or, perhaps, a service station.
Return to Main Page Table of Contents
Return to Home Page