The Civil War Isn't Tragic

Some words from Private Thomas Strother of the USCT, writing in the Christian Recorder, the 19th century paper published by the African Methodist Episcopal Church:

To suppose that slavery, the accursed thing, could be abolished peacefully and laid aside innocently, after having plundered cradles, separated husbands and wives, parents and children; and after having starved to death, worked to death, whipped to death, run to death, burned to death, lied to death, kicked and cuffed to death, and grieved to death; and, worst of all, after having made prostitutes of a majority of the best women of a whole nation of people...would be the greatest ignorance under the sun.

This follows on a long series posts I've been doing (they are collected here) and an essay I pulled together last year.

I came across this quote watching the rather amazing Death and the Civil War, which is chock-filled with the sense of the war as tragic. But what delineates this film, is its willingness to consider that everyone won't see the war the same. (The film is based on Drew Gilpin Faust's magnificent This Republic of Suffering, a book that does the same.) The film-makers argue that African Americans had a particular view of the "good death" during the Civil War, that was divergent from whites. The "good death" was to die in pursuit of freedom. A "bad death" was to die under the oppression of slavery.

Now, this speaking symbolically. If you are a slave in, say, Texas "good death" doesn't have much reality for you. But the same is true of the white version of the "good death." This is war. You probably will not die on the battlefield surrounded by your comrades, after a gallant charge. It's more likely you'll die after an agonizing amputation and an infection sets in. Or maybe you'll just drink from the wrong well and die of dysentery or diarrhea. (Yes, diarrhea killed Americans back then.) So we're not so much talking how war and death actually happened but about symbols and imagination.

And from the moment the first shots were fired, the black imagination conceived of the Civil War differently than the rest of the country. That difference continues up to the present day. Were I not the descendant of slaves, if I did not owe the invention of my modern self to a bloody war, perhaps I'd write differently.
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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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