A Quick Word on Gettysburg

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At this point, I've toured quite a few battlefields -- the Wilderness, Petersburg, Shiloh, Fort Donelson. I have, for several reasons, been dreading a trip to Gettysburg. I should say a return to Gettysburg, because I came here in middle school on a field trip. I remember liking it a great deal, but having no deliberate sense of the Civil War in relationship to slavery, or Gettysburg in relationship to slavery. I certainly didn't know that Confederate Armies had kidnapped free blacks during the campaign. Of course, once you understand that the South seceded to preserve an economy built on enslaved black people, the act doesn't seem that shocking.


I was raised in a race-conscious home, but the role of black people during the Civil War presents a problem for black historical memory. From the broadest perspective, I think there's some shame in black history, and a particular shame in slavery. I've said this before, but black history, as it was taught to my generation, was a kind of torture porn that could roughly expressed as follows:

(White Folks)[Kidnapped+Whip+Rape(Lynch+March+Beatings)]=You

Somewhere there would be a mention of Abe Lincoln, Booker T, the Peanut dude, and a Dream. The upshot would be that a lecture on your solemn duty to never embarrass your parents in front of "these white folks." But there really wasn't much that would lead you to think blacks had actual lives under slavery, or that that they actually did things, beyond the occasional Tubman raid, during the Civil War.

On a more specific level, the Civil War presents something of an ideological challenge. Old school nationalists may well identify with black men literally fighting for their freedom--but the fact that those soldiers were doing so under the American flag, and are an exceptional chapter in the American martial tradition presents a problem. Old school integrationists, can except that latter portion, but the fact that 180,000 black people took up guns presents a deep challenge to the notion that black freedom was achieved nonviolently. On the contrary freedom was most literally achieved through the reception and infliction of horrific violence, and completed through the utter rejection of that violence. Perhaps that's the point. 

But from the perspective of Malcolmites and Martinites , the 54th, Harriet Tubman, and Fredrick Douglass present us with a discomfiting portrait--a generation of black people who embraced violent means for integrationist ends. These guys really believed in the promise of America, and they believed in using, not just guns, but American military power to bring that promise into being. 

I don't want to push this too far--I'm trying to explain why this era would not have really attracted my attention, and why it didn't attract the attention of some of my fellow travelers in my younger days. But more than that, I'm trying to explain why the Civil War, and why Gettysburg, hasn't attracted the attention of black people at large. 

Beyond my own ignorance of the Civil War, there's also the way Gettysburg exists in the American narrative. I think the frequent invocation of this Faulkner quote, though perhaps not the quote itself, sum up the problem:

For every Southern boy fourteen years old, not once but whenever he wants it, there is the instant when it's still not yet two o'clock on that July afternoon in 1863, the brigades are in position behind the rail fence, the guns are laid and ready in the woods and the furled flags are already loosened to break out and Pickett himself with his long oiled ringlets and his hat in one hand probably and his sword in the other looking up the hill waiting for Longstreet to give the word and it's all in the balance, it hasn't happened yet, it hasn't even begun yet, it not only hasn't begun yet but there is still time for it not to begin against that position and those circumstances which made more men than Garnett and Kemper and Armistead and Wilcox look grave yet it's going to begin, we all know that, we have come too far with too much at stake and that moment doesn't need even a fourteen-year-old boy to think This time. Maybe this time with all this much to lose than all this much to gain: Pennsylvania, Maryland, the world, the golden dome of Washington itself to crown with desperate and unbelievable victory the desperate gamble, the cast made two years ago.

No one, in Shelby Foote fashion, should ever earnestly offer up this quote. People who do sound foolish. It's fawning invocation of this quote is almost always racist, and perhaps even sexist. (I can't do it today, sorry. See Chandra Manning's early chapters in What This Cruel War Was Over or Drew Gilpin Faust's Mothers of Invention. Racism, in this country, is inevitably tied to sexual violence notions of family and gender. It's inescapable.)

Those Southern boys are all boys, and they are all white. And having tackled Pennsylvania, Maryland, and the world they would have plunged the whole of it into a regime built on black slavery. Their dream is the continued prosecution of a two and half century old war against black people. The dream of the Confederate cause, is the dream of the Ku Klux Klan. There is not a whit of daylight in between. To think otherwise is to think that the battle-flag re-emerged in the South in 1962, the year George Wallace won in Alabama, by mere coincidence. 

I can't go much further, because I risk giving up my article. But the point I'm driving at it's very tough to consider Gettysburg, as its commonly rendered in the American imagination, when you're black. And yet in point of fact, perhaps more than any other battlefield in the country, the folks at Gettysburg have done a really good job in making clear that the war was about slavery. What struck me more than anything was the film in the visitor center. It was narrated by Morgan Freeman. There were quotes from Frederick Douglass. You really couldn't watch it and think the Civil War was about anything else.

And yet still, I had that weird feeling. I never feel more "outside" than when I'm visiting battlefields. I have one more day here, and a lot more to think about.
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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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