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An Alien and Inferior Race: A Brief Examination of Reconstructions Antebellum Doom

Wednesday, 10 September, 2008

1 Emancipation did not bring justice or equality for freedmen as antebellum AfricanAmericans expected. The form of liberation African-American slaves hoped to see was doomed to failure before the Civil War began. While many Northerners may have been anti-slavery, they were not necessarily pro-African-American. Neither before nor after Reconstruction was the freedman seen as an equal of the white man. Reconstruction failed freedmen because Northern commitment to African-Americans had never been deep and wide. This was in part because while abolitionist sentiments were common, racism was more common. The cause of the Civil War was not originally abolition; the cause evolved from the preservation of the Union to a dual cause including Emancipation. As shown in Boyer, et al, Enduring Vision, because the Civil War did not begin as an endeavor to free the slaves and because racism was strong and nearly ubiquitous in America, when Northerners began to find their own problems difficult to bear, they had little stomach for continuing to tend to the southern problem.1 While the wars original cause was not emancipation, slaves assumed the arrival of Union troops meant freedom. But as Deborah White Gray illustrates in her work Arnt I a Woman?, freedom was not what Union troops initially brought, Northern soldiers actually returned fleeing blacks to their masters, and when Union generals issued orders freeing all slaves in territories under their command, Lincoln overrode them.2 As the majority of Union soldiers did not enlist for the cause of slavery, this new cause was hard for many to swallow. Northern racism ran deep, and fighting for freedom for African-Americans was Paul S. Boyer, Clifford E. Clark, Jr., Joseph F. Kett, Neal Salisbury, Harvard Sitkoff, and Nancy Woloch, eds., Enduring Vision, Volume II: Since 1865, 6th ed. (Boston: Houghton Mifflin Company, 2000), 487. Deborah Gray White, Arnt I a Woman?: Female Slaves in the Plantation South (New York: W.W. Norton & Company,1999), 165.2 1

2 not an appealing prospect to all. In their essay Unwelcome Allies: Billy Yank and the Black Soldier, Randall Miller and Jon Zophy record, A New York volunteer wrote to his parents that the best way to settle the question of what to do with them darkies was to shoot them.3 This illustrates the contempt in which many Union troops held AfricanAmericans, and such sentiments would not be easy to overcome. Union soldiers were often a threat to the very people they were now to free. This was in part because as White shows, many Union troops resented fighting for black Americans, Said one Ohioan before enlisting: I dont think enough of the Nigger to go and fight for them. I would rather fight them. 4 While this Ohioan may have confined himself to words, some Union soldiers expressed their resentment in action as White reports, At Camp Nelson, Kentucky, in late 1864, while black men of the camp were on the battlefield fighting Confederates, white soldiers leveled the makeshift shantytown erected by black women to house their children and left four hundred people homeless in bitterly cold weather.5 These troops who were expected to protect or at least not to harm the families of their black brothers in arms sent a message that they wanted no part with these former slaves. Such messages were neither universal nor rare. Rape of African-American women by Union soldiers was common. So common was it that black women were known to make themselves appear sick, old, and disabled. 6 This is not to imply that Union soldiers were in some way behaving out of the Randall M. Miller and Jon W. Zophy, Unwelcome Allies: Billy Yank and the Black Soldier, Phylon, 39, no. 3 (3rd Qtr., 1978): 234. (accessed 2 September, 2008).4 4 5 5 3

Ibid. White, Arnt I a Woman?, 164-167. Ibid., 164.


3 ordinary, or that they were evil men. This was normal behavior by soldiers around the world in this era, and while the rape of newly emancipated slaves by their emancipators is difficult to fathom in light of our modern notions of Emancipation as a primary and original cause of the Civil War, it is more easily pictured in light of common among Union soldiers as in the following story from Whites work: Sam Words mother met her first Yankee soldier as he was in the process of stealing her quilts, walking out of the yard with them. Why you nasty, stinking rascal, she shouted, you say you come down here to fight for the niggers, and now youre stealing from em. His response no doubt reflected the feelings of most white Union soldiers, especially those who were drafted. Youre a goddamm liar, he retorted, Im fighting for $14 a month and the Union.7 Such was the disconnect between Union troops ideas about their own function and the ideas slaves held about the motivation of Union troops. This soldier had nothing but contempt for the woman who believed he was there to free her, and he was not alone among Northerners, many of whom enjoyed the saying: To the flag we are pledged, all its foes we abhor And we aint for the nigger, but we are for the war.8 This sentiment was not unusual. Most Union soldiers were not fighting for abolition. Mistrust of and dislike for African-Americans were the norm. In Unwelcome Allies, Miller and Zophy recount how strong racist sentiment in even sympathetic whites could be: Even a man like James T. Ayers, an army recruiter who often expressed sympathetic feelings toward blacks, could write of blacks: If they are set free7 8


Vincent Harding, Soldiers of Gods Wrath, in Major Problems in African American History: Volume 1: From Slavery to Freedom, 1619-1877, ed. Thomas C. Holt and Elsa Barkley Brown (Boston: Houghton Mifflin Company, 2000), 346.


4 they will Push into the Northern States and soon will be in every whole and corner, and the Bucks would soon enough be wanting to galant our Daughters around. In a fury he concluded: Dam the niggers I would Rather Blow there brains out then they should do this and so would I.9 How could Reconstruction possibly have succeeded in a climate like this, a climate where even those who sympathized with the plight of slaves could flow with mistrust and racism? In fact, it could not. Racism was part of the fabric of America. It shocks the modern reader to find racism even at the highest levels of Union government. Perhaps because of the glorification of Lincoln, a just glorification which links him with Emancipation, it is not common knowledge that Lincoln was not always an abolitionist, and he believed, that blacks and whites could not live peaceably as equal citizens in the United States....10 These words express the cautious attitude toward abolition held by many Northerners. Lincoln also respected states rights to the degree that as White explains, For a year and a half after the start of the war Lincoln held fast to this position that the war was necessary to preserve the Union. He had no lawful right to interfere with slavery where it existed, he declared during his first inaugural address, and no inclination to do so.11 Lincolns actions in sending slaves back to their masters at the beginning of the war were consistent with this early statement of his. These actions were also consistent with the views of most Republicans not of the Radical camp.129 1 10 1 11 1 12

Miller and Zophy, Unwelcome Allies, 235-236. Harding, Soldiers of Gods Wrath, 346. White, Arnt I a Woman?, 163. Boyer, et al, Enduring Vision, 493.

5 Somehow many in America have come to believe that the Civil War was always about slavery and that Union soldiers by and large fought for freedom as much as for the Union. This could not have been farther from the truth, and one could not have expected men who despised the black man suddenly to embrace him. This was the case even among Union soldiers who fought with black soldiers. Some did renounce their prejudice after spending time among black troops, but others did not as Miller and Zophy describe: The surprising fact revealed in a review of Union soldiers' diaries and letters is not that so many held anti-Negro beliefs; rather, it is that these ideas persisted for so long, that anti-Negro sentiments proved so resilient to a fair measurement of the capacities of blacks, despite abundant evidence of their fortitude and loyalty.13 When one considers the world of the North in the era of Reconstruction, one imagines a culture with patchy contact with AfricanAmericans. Returning troops would have had first-hand experience among freedmen. They would have had more opportunity to observe freedmen than most Northern civilians. This first-hand experience and their status as veterans must have lent credibility and weight to their negative impressions. In 1867, Johnsons public attitude about giving freedmen the vote was, ...it must be acknowledged that in the progress of nations negroes have shown less capacity for government than any other race of people. No independent government of any form has ever been successful in their hands.14 Johnson was no Reconstructionist; for him, revenge13

Miller and Zophy, Unwelcome Allies, 240. Andrew Johnson, 1867, in Enduring Voices, Volume II: From 1865 From 1865,


6 against the aristocracy of the South was sufficient.15 While Johnson did not represent the views of his party and was a thorn in the side of those who thought he might stand up for Reconstruction, the fact that he could publicly say what he did indicates the racist climate of the era. When reading how a prominent Alabaman referred to freedmen as an alien and inferior race in a petition to Congress, the modern reader may be shocked by the easy use of racial language in this era.16 Granted the man was not a Northerner, nor a Republican, and his constituency comprised former s