In my study of African American history, the Civil War was always something of a sideshow. Just off center stage, it could be heard dimly behind the stories of Booker T. Washington, Ida B. Wells, and Martin Luther King Jr., a shadow on the fringe. But three years ago, I picked up James McPherson’s Battle Cry of Freedom and found not a shadow, but the Big Bang that brought the ideas of the modern West to fruition. Our lofty notions of democracy, egalitarianism, and individual freedom were articulated by the Founders, but they were consecrated by the thousands of slaves fleeing to Union lines, some of them later returning to the land of their birth as nurses and soldiers. The first generation of the South’s postbellum black political leadership was largely supplied by this class.
Transfixed by the war’s central role in making democracy real, I have now morphed into a Civil War buff, that peculiar specimen who pores over the books chronicling the battles, then walks the parks where the battles were fought by soldiers, then haunts the small towns from which the soldiers hailed, many never to return.
This journey—to Paris, Tennessee; to Petersburg, Virginia; to Fort Donelson; to the Wilderness—has been one of the most meaningful of my life, though at every stop I have felt myself ill-dressed in another man’s clothes. What echoes from nearly all the sites chronicling the war is a deep sense of tragedy. At Petersburg, the film in the visitor center mourns the city’s fall and the impending doom of Richmond. At the Wilderness, the park ranger instructs you on the details of the men’s grisly deaths. The celebrated Civil War historian Bruce Catton best sums up this sense when he refers to the war as “a consuming tragedy so costly that generations would pass before people could begin to say whether what it had bought was worth the price.”
All of those “people” are white.
For African Americans, war commenced not in 1861, but in 1661, when the Virginia Colony began passing America’s first black codes, the charter documents of a slave society that rendered blacks a permanent servile class and whites a mass aristocracy. They were also a declaration of war.
Over the next two centuries, the vast majority of the country’s blacks were robbed of their labor and subjected to constant and capricious violence. They were raped and whipped at the pleasure of their owners. Their families lived under the threat of existential violence—in just the four decades before the Civil War, more than 2 million African American slaves were bought and sold. Slavery did not mean merely coerced labor, sexual assault, and torture, but the constant threat of having a portion, or the whole, of your family consigned to oblivion. In all regards, slavery was war on the black family.
African Americans understood they were at war, and reacted accordingly: running away, rebelling violently, fleeing to the British, murdering slave-catchers, and—less spectacularly, though more significantly—refusing to work, breaking tools, bending a Christian God to their own interpretation, stealing back the fruits of their labor, and, in covert corners of their world, committing themselves to the illegal act of learning to read. Southern whites also understood they were in a state of war, and subsequently turned the antebellum South into a police state. In 1860, the majority of people living in South Carolina and Mississippi, and a significant minority of those living in the entire South, needed passes to travel the roads, and regularly endured the hounding of slave patrols.
It is thus predictable that when you delve into the thoughts of black people of that time, the Civil War appears in a different light. In her memoir of the war, the abolitionist Mary Livermore recalls her pre-war time with an Aunt Aggy, a house slave. Livermore saw Aggy’s mixed-race daughter brutally attacked by the patriarch of the home. In a private moment, the woman warned Livermore that she could “hear the rumbling of the chariots” and that a day was coming when “white folks’ blood is running on the ground like a river.”
After the war had started, Livermore again met Aunt Aggy, who well recalled her prophecy and saw in the Civil War, not tragedy, but divine justice. “I always knowed it was coming,” the woman told Livermore.
“I always heard the rumbling of the wheels. I always expected to see white folks heaped up dead. And the Lord, He’s kept His promise and avenged His people, just as I knowed He would.”
For blacks, it was not merely the idea of the war that had meaning, but the tangible violence, the actions of black people themselves as the killers and the killed, that mattered. Corporal Thomas Long, of the 33rd United States Colored Troops, told his fellow black soldiers,
“If we hadn’t become soldiers, all might have gone back as it was before … But now things can never go back, because we have shown our energy and our courage and our natural manhood.”
Reflecting on the days leading to the Civil War, Frederick Douglass wrote:
I confess to a feeling allied to satisfaction at the prospect of a conflict between the North and the South. Standing outside the pale of American humanity, denied citizenship, unable to call the land of my birth my country, and adjudged by the supreme court of the United States to have no rights which white men were bound to respect, and longing for the end of the bondage of my people, I was ready for any political upheaval which should bring about a change in the existing condition of things.
He went on to assert that the Civil War was an achievement that outstripped the American Revolution:
It was a great thing to achieve American independence when we numbered three millions. But it was a greater thing to save this country from dismemberment and ruin when it numbered thirty millions.
The 20th century, with its struggles for equal rights, with the triumph of democracy as the ideal in Western thought, proved Douglass right. The Civil War marks the first great defense of democracy and the modern West. Its legacy lies in everything from women’s suffrage to the revolutions now sweeping the Middle East. It was during the Civil War that the heady principles of the Enlightenment were first, and most spectacularly, called fully to account.