Honoring CHM: One War. Three Sides.

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This post really stood out for me in the thread on Heroic Memory:

Thinking on this I want to be sensitive and all, but something has nagged at me so I'm going to risk throwing it out there. Many white Southerners consider that the North had to end slavery and segregation to be embarrassing. So imagining Lee or whoever as someone who would have been for it dying out is seen as giving them more control over their own fate. 

Many Southerners I think really want to believe that they would have become enlightened on their own in time. Being reminded by Lee's embrace of slavery or the Confederacy being about slavery may seem to say "no you wouldn't have, you are unenlightened racists who have to be forced to change by Northerners." White Southerners therefore become the whipping boy of American history, unless they identify with the North. 

Much of this is white Southerners own fault of course. Many of the ones who wanted to end slavery or racial segregation were pushed into moving North or were castigated as being "scalawag" agents of the North whether they were or not. Still this sense of being "under siege", of being constantly criticized, is very much in the Southern white psyche. I'm not sure how to deal with that or if this is even going to make sense to anyone. Possibly it's been dealt with before. I do think you make good efforts at trying to get at Southerners who did good and were truly Southern though.

Lotta good stuff here. What I am seeing is that a faction of Southerners are attracted to this stuff because they don't want to bow to the North. In their minds, the Lost Cause is about not conceding to Northern snobbery. I think it's also worth remembering that there was also, at the time, a cult of Southern invincibility. Southerners believed they were hardier then Northerners, and thus destined to win. It is true that the South had a military tradition that wasn't as dominant in the North.

But I think, it also helps to think of the Civil War as having three factions with three different aims: 

1) The South which secedes explicitly to protect the institution of slavery and a system of white supremacy, but also feels that its "way of life" is fundamentally different from the North's. It's true that slavery and systemic white supremacy are essential cogs in that "way of life," but they aren't the entirety of it.

2) The North which is interested, primarily, in preserving the Union. If destroying slavery will help in that end, then all the better--but destroying slavery is not the primary goal. This is crucial and I want to clear, because it's easy to conflate this--That the North is primarily motivated by unionism, not emancipation, does not negate the fact the South seceded--primarily and explicitly--to preserve systemic white supremacy. Their own documents tell the tale well. Additionally, the North almost certainly, brings its own cultural baggage and biased judgement on the South's "way of life."

3) African-Americans who explicitly sought the destruction of slavery and the end of systemic white supremacy. The African-American war against slavery began as soon as we got of the boat. In relevance to the Civil War, you can likely trace it back to Denmark Vessey, Gabriel Prosser, Nat Turner, and John Brown. But that only counts militant action, and ignores the small everyday acts of resistance (loafing around, breaking equipment, running off for weeks at a time) and individual acts of violence (poisonings, for instance).

At the onset of the War between the North and South, African-Americans immediately attempt to sign up and fight--for both sides. Their basic notion is that they'll fight for whoever will set them free. In the main, they are refused. But they force the issue by running to Union lines and making it very clear to the North that the only way to preserve the Union is to end slavery. The Union initially returns runaway slaves. But by the South's racist logic, this is folly--slaves are property, and part of the economic engine that allows the South to resist. Returning slaves to the rebels is essentially like returning captured horses back to a defeated calvary. 

The point I'm trying to make here is that there was, and perhaps always has been, two wars. One was between the North and the South, and it was one based on preserving the Union. The other was between blacks and white supremacy, in the form of the Confederacy. What you see, as the war goes on, is a gradual, and rather amazing, process by which blacks, free and enslaved, force the North to accept the cause of emancipation as their own. The logic of the war makes it unavoidable.

One of the ways in which you see the difference is by looking at the fights between the USCT and Southerners. The casualty rates for the USCT are always astronomical when compared to other regiments. From what I can tell, this reflects a few things. 1) The sheer anger that Southerners felt when confronted with their "property" so armed. To them, they might as well have been fighting a slave rebellion 2) The massacres which sometimes happened after black units surrendered. 3) The sheer ferocity with which some black units fought. If you think about it, more than any other group of soldiers, the USCT had the least to lose.

On that last point, I think of this account of the death of one USCT member, Big Jack Johnson, in Louisiana, fighting at Milliken's Bend. It's worth noting that Milliken's Bend is part of the Vicksburg campaign, a campaign that Pat Buchanan claims was fought entirely "100 percent" by white men. Milliken's Bend is distinctive for two other reasons. First, it's only the second time black troops fight as regiments, after the Emancipation Proclomation. Second, unlike the vast majority of Civil War battles, Milliken's Bend descended into hand to hand combat with bayonets something very rarely happened during the Civil War. 

Anyway, Big Jack Jackson was a field hand in either Mississippi or Louisiana, I can't remember which. But he's one of the first to be signed up by white recruiters looking to form black regiments. The white recruiters complain that there having difficulty filling the ranks, in large measure because black women are distrustful of them and won't let the men fight. Here's a terrific account, by one white recruiter, about the trouble they were having:

The first plantation house we came to, there were six or eight eligibles loafing around and we dismounted and proceeded to business. We found them much interested in the subject but could get no decision from them. They would not say they would not go, nor would they say they would.

Frustrated, the recruiter sends Big Jack Jackson to do the job and Jackson simply reaches into the slave quarters and proceeds to line the men up in ranks:

They did not pay much attention to me, but riveted their eyes on Jack, whom they must have thought a brigadier at least...Jack dismounted and proceeded to set these coons up in line with about as much ceremony as he would use if he was setting up so many ten-pins...When the wenches discovered the men were being marched away, they set up a terrible howl. But it did not faze Jack. He kept them going and they were soon out of sight and hearing.

Within weeks, green as hell, they were in combat at Miliken's Bend. You can read a contemporary account of the fight here. On the words of his commanding officer, here's how Big Jack met his fate:

Big Jack Jackson passed me like a rocket. With the fury of a tiger he sprang into that gang and crushed everything before him. There was nothing left of Jack's gun except the barrel and he was smashing everything he could reach. On the other side of the levee, they were yelling "Shoot that big nigger! Shoot that nigger!" while Jack was daring the whole gang to come up and fight him. Then a bullet reached his head and he fell full on the levee.

Jack was fighting for something more than "the Union."
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Ta-Nehisi Coates is a national correspondent at The Atlantic, where he writes about culture, politics, and social issues. He is the author of the memoir The Beautiful Struggle.

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