The African-American Role in the Union Victory
In this edited collection of five well-argued articles by several renown Historians, we discover that the outcome of the war was never a foregone conclusion. The author, of course does not take sides but allows his contributors to have their say.
In the first article, the Pulitzer Prize winning historian, James McPherson, makes the same argument that many Rebel soldiers made, that the Union Army had something to say about why the South lost, and in particular, the Union Generals, who persevered even when the going got tough and the outcome remained in serious doubt. Archer Jones, in the second article, believed the battle ended as a strategic draw, owing primarily to the fact that politics kept intervening to drive strategy on both sides.
Gary Gallagher, in the third article believed that the role of the generals on both sides were decisive and that in this battle of the generals, Sherman and Grant edged out Lee. Reid Miller, in the fifth article, argued that the Union's decisive advantage in numbers and industrial might, in the end proved decisive. However, the most convincing argument in my view was 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: On the eve of Lincoln's preparation to run for a second term, for the Union at least, and as late as January 1863, at best the status of the battlefield situation was 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 apparently 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 the Union cause. The only pregnant question left for a strategically sensible Union General to ask President Lincoln, even a racist general, was this: For God's sakes, considering how valuable blacks are to the cause of the war on both sides, why have black men not already been "impressed" as soldiers to fight for the Union cause? It was the same question Frederick Douglass also had asked Lincoln on many occasions.
Glatthaar claims that there is a single incontrovertible answer to that pregnant question: America was saturated with racism, both North and South. Neither side wanted to see the slaves be allowed to rise from their lowly caste status to that of Civil War war heroes. Both sides preferred to maintain the fiction of black inferiority rather than use the only trump card either side had remaining.
In the South, rather suicidally, the whole Southern cause revolved around maintaining completely intact, all the comforts of their idyllic genteel social conditions that slavery underwrote, 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 and defend in the first place: keeping blacks forever under their boots, as at best third-class non-citizens, was the Southerner's most important reason d'etre. Indeed, how could any right-thinking Southerner justify elevating black slaves, not just to full equality, but to full-fledged hero status by allowing them to acquit themselves as heroes on a Southern battlefield?
The very thought was heretical to southern sensibilities. It would be better to lose to the Union than to allow this to happen. So, the best hope for the South was that blacks would simply remain loyal to their brutal Southern plantation masters. And by simply "taking up the slack" left by white farm boys who had to leave the farm and go off to the war front, the best the Rebels could hope for was that blacks would "stay put," and continue to help the Southern cause from behind the lines.
But this "Southern military wet dream," lasted only for the first two years of the war, when this scenario more or less played itself out precisely. 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 only been 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 there was "a cliff out there:" that 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 were paranoid about possible slave defections; and worse, possible slave insurrections. Always their worse "wet nightmare" was that the slaves would not only defect, but also would then revolt, and then be turned against them as Union soldiers -- literally heroes of the Northern cause and become the primary reason for Southern defeat.
However, fortunately for the South, on the Northern side, it was the same white racism (Lincoln's own, his racist generals, as well as the Northern white population's more generally) that prevented Lincoln from seeing and then exploiting these very pregnant Southern fears and military weaknesses.
In fact, rather understandably, it was not until "the run up to the election" for his second term, that Lincoln sensed that the North might indeed be losing the war. And with this perception becoming more and more widespread, went his chances of winning a second term. This pessimistic assessment occurred at the same time that Lincoln was unhappy with his generals, and at a time when there was general disgruntlement about the war across the Northern landscape. This general unease about the likely failure of the war, was accompanied by a precipitous drop in Union recruitment. In fact, there had been recruitment riots in Northern streets against the continued and even increased "impressment" of young Northern boys into the war.
Incredibly, up until this point Lincoln had been obeying the "Fugitive Slave Act." Sending runaway slaves back across the Southern lines where they undoubtedly would continue to be used to further the Rebel war efforts. Only after Brigadier General Benjamin Butler unilaterally refused to hand over three runaway Virginia slaves, did Lincoln begin to take the hint. General Butler had argued that since Virginia had seceded from the Union, the "Fugitive Slave Act" no longer applied to it. Plus, since the slaves were being used for strictly military reasons, they must be considered "contraband of war" and therefore subject to confiscation.
But even this was not enough for Mr. Lincoln's racist sensibilities. Only after Major General George B. McClelland, (a died-in-the-wool racist like Lincoln himself), argued that it made no sense for Lincoln to defend slavery (by sending slave defectors back, when it was the very defeat of slavery that was the reason for the war in the first place), did Lincoln finally realize that the demands of the war must outweigh traditional Northern racist values and beliefs. Only after his own racist generals chastised him on this very point did Lincoln relent and decide on a slow path towards emancipation. But even here he wanted to maintain the option to send blacks back to Africa.
Once convinced, Lincoln had planned to announce the Proclamation in January 1863, but the Union Army's military situation was so dire at that time that it would have been embarrassingly obvious that "impressing" black soldiers at that time was surely the desperate act on Lincoln's part to try to save the North from certain defeat -- and at the same time save his re-election chances.
So, it was not until September that the situation on the ground improved well enough for Lincoln to announce his proclamation without appearing desperate for black intervention to save both Lincoln's military and Lincoln's own political bacon. As a result, nearly two hundred thousand black soldiers did eventually "saddled-up" in the last two years of the war to help the Union forces "rout" the Rebel's poisonous pro-slavery, and slightly more racist cause.
However, unfortunately, as we now know the rest of the story, those black solders were not to be deemed heroes of the war, or even of their own self-emancipation, or, for that matter, heroes of the Northern cause, as the South had expected them to become -- and as they had every right to be regarded. This part of Civil war history, black military heroism, was quietly buried with the dead soldiers on both sides -- never to be mentioned again. And to add insult to injury, guess who buried the 600,000 dead: You got it, black Union soldiers!
And although slavery as a legally sanctioned institution did end with the South's surrender, and the eventual adoption of the 13th Amendment -- not with Lincoln's Emancipation Proclamation as many Americans, including blacks, still think was the case -- the poisonous, slightly more racist Southern way of life did not end with the South's military defeat or with the Emancipation Proclamation.
As I like to say, and as contemporary history seems to have confirmed, the North may have won the shooting war, but history since, proves that the South won (and is still winning) the cultural war. We now have "southern style racism" and "vulgar racist Southern conservative politics" from sea-to-shinning-sea.
As "the rest of the story confirms:" Lincoln was assassinated, and as part of a deal that resulted in Rutherford B. Hayes' election to the presidency in 1876, the North betrayed the cause of racial equality by turning its back on the freed black men of the south who had helped them win the war.
Without a single shot being fired, and in a precedent unheard of in world history, the North simply handed over its military bounties back to the rabid racist Southerners who had started the Civil War in the first place. What they got in return was a compromised resolution of Hayes' "contested election," the Dred Scott Decision, which essentially legalized retaining slavery by other means, and thus in perpetuity, Woodrow Wilson and the revival of the KKK, and for the first time, as DW Griffith's vulgar film, "The Birth of a Nation," still reminds us, America became "One Racist White Nation United under a jealous and racist white God. And it has remained that way ever since. Five stars