Thursday, September 22, 2011

The Slaves and the Civil War, Continued

I recently finished reading Andrew Ward's The Slaves' War: The Civil War in the Words of Former Slaves, which I found absolutely fascinating, although almost every account of a wartime incident left me with several questions. For example, when a slave girl stood up to her master and mistress and told them the approach of Union troops was "Judgment Day" for the way white Southerners had treated black people, what happened to her? When a black woman recounted how as a girl she put herself between her mistress and a Union soldier's cocked pistol, did she really love her mistress that much? Or was she telling a white interviewer what they wanted to hear?

Much of the information in this book comes from Works Progress Administration interviews done from 1936-38 in an effort to record the memories of the last living African-Americans who had experienced slavery. There's ample evidence that the former slaves were much more candid with black interviewers (such as those from Fisk University) than with whites. Maddeningly, Ward doesn't footnote anything. To trace his source material the reader has to note down slaves' names, look them up in the "Directory of Witnesses," note the abbreviated version of the source title, and look it up in the bibliography, which even then tells you little about the reliability of the source material. This book does have some very moving stories of slaves' loyalty to their masters, such as that of Andrew Bradley, who went off to war as the manservant of Confederate Private William Bradley. When the private was killed in battle, Andrew smuggled his master's body back to his [the private's] parents rather than let him be buried in a mass grave. I am sure many such stories in this book are true. Human relations are complicated. Some slaves were well-treated by their masters. And if people are at all decent to each other, it's very difficult for them to live in close proximity with each other and not care about each other at least a little. And then there's Stockholm Syndrome to take into account.

As for the issue of slaves fighting for the Confederacy, yes, some of them did. Apparently many a slave who followed his master to war picked up a weapon at some point and fought Union soldiers. That's pretty easy to explain: even if a slave knew that a Union victory would bring him freedom, bullets and artillery shells are colorblind. Whatever a slaves hopes in the long term, in the short term he just wanted to stay alive. And some slaves found the arrival of Union troops at their masters' farms to be a mixed blessing. One slave recounted how Sherman's men stripped his master's trees of fruit, took all the bread and wheat, and removed all the meat from the smokehouse. It was all part of Sherman's goal of depriving the Confederacy of anything that make it would possible for Southerners to continue to fight—and that included food. But as the former slave said, "That was our food too."

None of these anecdotes negate the reality that many slaves ran off to Union lines as soon as they could. Some of them worked for the Union Army as laborers, others enlisted (although General Sherman was appalled at how little training black recruits received; he considered black enlistment the equivalent of suicide). While I find stories of slaves' loyalty to their masters, moving in a strange, complicated way, I take actual satisfaction in stories like that of George Knox, a slave who found himself in Union lines and worked for the Army as a teamster. The colonel of an Indiana regiment invited Knox and some other blacks to accompany his men on their Indiana furlough. In spite of some initial difficulties crossing the Ohio River (many Union soldiers didn't want to share a boat with black men, and threatened to kill any who boarded) Knox made it across and rented a room from a doctor in the town of Boxley. He was astounded that the doctor allowed him to sit at the table and eat with the family. Knox settled in Indiana, and in spite of having to contend with virulent racism (he was threatened with death more than once) he prospered. He became a prominent businessman, published a newspaper for Indianapolis' black community, and was a public advocate of black migration to the North. He died in 1927.

As for the ridiculous question as to whether the complexity of master-slave relations or the fact of black service in the Confederate Army in any way sanitizes the Confederate cause, The Daily Show's Larry Wilmore says it better than I ever could:

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