This Is a Man's War

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Baby Face.jpg

The Civil War, whether we knew it then or not, was, to my mind, a war for egalitarianism and against status based on birth-right, climate or biology. Obviously the most striking instances are the Colored troops. Take Robert Smalls. At the beginning of the war he's a slave. By the end he's a war hero, and maybe the most famous black soldier in the Union's armed forces. He goes on to serve in the House, before white supremacists basically destroyed black voting rights in South Carolina. There are a lot of other stories, like Smalls, that feature African-American men rising up from slavery and not simply becoming free, but elevating their stock (class-wise) several times over. It's wrong to ignore them, or to regard their efforts as failures, because the broader country failed to uphold the Constitution.

It's also wrong to focus strictly on race. I've got a great book on "the cult of Southern invincibility" that I will get to sooner or later that examines the deeply-held notion that Southern whiteness, in and of itself, made you a better warrior. Whatever the Southerness of America's generalship, the idea that courage under fire was a geographical trait was pretty much left on the field at Shiloh. And then there is class. Southerners were defending an aristocratic way of life. The myth of Robert E. Lee is garnished by his blood-ties to American nobility in the form George Washington. But Grant, a tanner's son, defeats Lee and Lincoln--mocked as "the Original Gorilla"--becomes one of the greatest presidents ever. (He is quickly assuming that number one slot, in my mind.)

I think the Civil War ultimately--ultimately--helped women, much as the Declaration of Independence ultimately helped the slaves.  It was a boon for egalitarianism, even if the full effects were slow in coming on. But that said, it's really amazing when you look at the possibilities for societal advancement open to men, and see all of those avenues essentially shut to women. My sense is that military service has long been a path to citizenship and status for men born on the wrong side of the tracks, but that has only recently started to become true for women.


This isn't supposed to be a deep thought--likely, fully half of you already knew this and have been turning it over for some time. Still, it's amazing when you think about it. If you were a women, you better damn hope your father was somebody and men found you "comely" and virtuous. The options seemed to be--highborn and "pretty" or nothing.  I suspect this is why, from Sister Carrie to Baby Face, female social climber is a staple fixture in our literature. She assaults class, under limited terms, no doubt. But it's still an assault.

I keep thinking about how all of these struggles are tied to each other, and I don't mean that in a "Kumbaya" kind of way--but in a complicated, historical way. I'm  thinking back on Phillip Dray (as I've thought before) connecting the dots between the lynchings at the turn of the century and the increasing numbers of women in the workforce.

I really need to re-read Ragtime.

*Pictured above is Theresa Harris (Chico) and Barbara Stanwyck (Lily Powers) in "Baby Face." There's a great scene where Powers is entertaining some dude who she's seduced. "Why don't you get rid of that fantastic colored girl?" the dude says. "No," Powers replies. "Chico stays."

"Chico" is basically the maid. But it's been awhile since I saw the film, and I remember thinking that they were doing something more subversive. Harris wasn't shuffling or anything.

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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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