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The African American Role in the Union victory in the Civil War

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An Essay review of Gabor S. Boritt 's book "Why the Confederacy Lost (the Civil War)"

The African-American Role in the Union Victory in the Civil War

As this author argues, in a collection of five, fine, well-argued articles in which several renown Historians take opposing sides on the reasons they think the South lost the Civil War, the most convincing arguments in my view are those made in the final article by Joseph T. Glatthaar, entitled, "Black Glory: The African-American Role in Union Victory."

A summary of Glatthaar's story makes up the body of this review. To wit:

In January 1863, on the eve of Lincoln's preparation to run for a second term, the status of the battlefield situation was at best a stalemate. And thus, taking into consideration all of the North's strategic advantages going into the war, Lincoln feared that many voters would interpret the stalemate as exactly what it was: a very likely emerging defeat for the Union Army.

Even as brilliant a thinker and Lawyer as Lincoln was, he was still late in seeing the situation clearly for what it was. The North needed to use its only remaining hole-card: enlisting the more than half a million black men to join the Union cause.

The only question remaining for a strategically sensible Union General to ask his Commander in Chief, President Lincoln, was this: For God's sakes, considering how valuable blacks are to the cause of the war on both sides, why have they not already been "impressed" as soldiers for the Union cause?

It was the same question Frederick Douglass also had asked Lincoln privately on many occasions. There is a single incontrovertible answer to that very pregnant question: America was saturated with white racism, both North and South.

In the South, rather suicidally, the whole Southern cause revolved around maintaining the fiction of black inferiority, a social condition that slavery dramatically reinforced and objectified.

To the southerner, it was better to die losing to the North than to destroy the very way of life they had gone to war to fight for in the first place. They wanted to keep blacks forever under their boots, and, as at best, third-class non-citizens.

Indeed, how could any right-thinking Southerner justify elevating black slaves, not just to full equality, but also to full-fledged hero status by allowing them to acquit themselves as heroes on a Southern battlefield?

It would be better to lose to the Union than to allow this to happen. The very thought was heretical to southern sensibilities. So, the best hope for the South, was walking on eggshells, hoping against hope, that blacks would stay put behind Southern lines, remaining loyal to their brutal plantation masters.

This is more or less precisely what happened the first two years of the war, where it was generally agreed that the South was winning. At least that is what happened until Union troops began breaking through the Rebel lines to take over major Southern plantations.

Until then, slave defections to the Union side had been only a trickle. Slaves had been maintaining the home front while the Southern white boys were "taking it to the Yanks."

The slaves dug trenches, erected fortifications, maintained railroads, mined essential minerals, manufactured war materials, including guns and ammunitions; maintained the plantations, harvested cotton and food crops, killed and dressed hogs and cattle, and prepared foods that fed the Rebel Army.

Despite all this, the rebels always knew they were whistling past their own graveyards waiting for the next black shoe to fall in the stark contradiction that their increasing dependence on slave support for the successful prosecution of the war, implied. As well they should have been, they also were paranoid about possible slave defections; and worse, possible slave insurrections.

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Retired Foreign Service Officer and past Manager of Political and Military Affairs at the US Department of State. For a brief time an Assistant Professor of International Relations at the University of Denver and the University of Washington at (more...)
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